Q’town’s diversification needs more than lip service

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Almost a decade ago, our community came together to chart our way forward into our, then, economic future.

In 2011, Shaping Our Future brought together our community – through a series of forums and workshops – to explore our aspirations and options.

The fundamental idea was if we took our challenges directly to our people, rather than through a filter of established interests and external consultants, we could draw upon the combined knowledge and intelligence of our entire community in identifying and overcoming those challenges.

That combined knowledge and intelligence is extraordinary, and drawing from it we recommended nothing less than an economic renaissance.

The terrible vulnerability of a ‘tourism-only’ economy was painfully apparent.

We recognised ‘pandemic’ amongst the list of threats to which we were critically vulnerable.

It wasn’t our intention to challenge the universe to prove us right (though, tragically, it now has).

Rather than a mono-focused ‘tourism economy’, we recommended an urgent transition to a broader, better-paid, higher-productivity, and more resilient, destination economy.

Tourism would remain, but it would be joined equally by other economic sectors advantaged by our destination.

In particular, we recognised film and media, education and training, and research and technology sectors as having huge potential.

The proposal was presented to the community, where it was unanimously endorsed.

Sadly, the actions to overcome our ‘tourism-only’ inertia have not been nearly as comprehensive.

In the decade since, we have instead continued over-concentration in tourism, subsidised every year with millions of dollars levied directly from our community.

Meanwhile, a tiny fraction of that’s been invested to support the film and education sectors; and a little over a year ago StartUp Queenstown Lakes launched, with similarly fractional funding, to support the starting up of new businesses.

There remains no investment dedicated exclusively to developing our research and technology sector.

Right now we’re in pain, and reflexively we yearn to jump back to that place where it was less painful.

But by climbing back to the top of the same wall from which we just fell, we only set ourselves up to fall again when the next something comes along and gives us a push.

SARS-2025 anyone?

Bird flu 2028?

And of course the inexorable disruption of climate change – with resulting shut-down of mass long-haul cheap air travel – is only a matter of time.

If we unthinkingly climb back to our position of vulnerability, there’s a long list of threats ready and waiting to send us plummeting again to the ground.

Our recovery cannot be an unthinking reflex.

Instead, it must be the beginning of our overdue renaissance.

We need to finally follow through with our community’s urgings from Shaping Our Future, to pay more than lip service to our economic diversification.

As painful as our economic situation may be, it is equally painful to think about how much better off we’d be now if we’d earnestly embarked upon this path a decade ago.

As seen in recent headlines, film has been one of the first sectors to reactivate amidst the covid pandemic, and Netflix’s growth figures – among others – show skyrocketing demand.

Domestic education continues unabated, while international education represents students willing and able to spend the first two weeks of their courses in isolation – so long as they have decent WiFi.

This will be viable long before weekenders from Sydney or vacation visitors from LA.

And demand for tech has never been stronger – don’t we all wish we had shares in Zoom?

Which is not to say it will be easy, we will need to invest to recover from our fallen economy.

Fortunately we’re not alone.

The government has indicated it’s willing to send in at least a few of the king’s horses and men to help rescue us.

In large part, they’ll send those troops where we tell them we think it’s most important.

We must not ask them to just Sellotape us back together and prop us back up on our precarious perch atop the same old wall.

We must instead focus ourselves, using government assistance, to reset our economic landscape an economy stronger than an egg.

AJ Mason is a resident sci/tech geek, who holds City Hall’s record as its shortest-lived councillor