Global First

Can We Transform Auckland From A Gateway City to A Global One?

Listener: 8 April, 2006.

Keywords: Globalisation & Trade; Growth & Innovation;

Many cities are gateways, connecting a country or region to the rest of the world. Some are “government” cities, capitals of region or country. But some are global cities, where key global industries boost their size and vibrancy far above their dependence on gateway or government activities.

Most obviously, they are headquarters cities, with the central offices of businesses that sprawl all over the country and world. Headquarters require finance, law, accountancy and other business services that cluster around them. Their workers’ need for leisure means a global city is typically a cultural centre – art, fashion, publishing, restaurants and theatre. Typically, too, it is a centre of specialised medicine and education, made possible by the size and the economic activity that a global city generates. Its size and specialist services may even generate other industries, which could not survive anywhere else in the country.

So will Auckland be a gateway city or a global city? Will it just be the port and service centre for a resource-based economy? Or will it take on the vigour of a global city contributing to a richer, more dynamic, more diversified New Zealand?

The answer is not obvious. As global cities go, Auckland’s population is on the low side, although if the rest of the country works with it, it is probably above the critical threshold. Auckland has governance problems, with far too much conflict between its various local authorities – although recently they have become more co-operative. And it has serious infrastructural problems with water, waste water, energy security, and – most of all – transport congestion. Because the central government is their primary funder, that requires a national commitment.

But should the rest of the country worry? After all, Auckland is an adequate gateway city, with our two biggest international ports, Ports of Auckland and Auckland International Airport, while Warkworth is the primary telecommunications link. If Auckland fails, we can use the Port of Tauranga, Christ-church International Airport and so on.

But do we want New Zealand to be just a resource-based economy? Are we not more ambitious?

A global-city Auckland will make advanced economic activity possible elsewhere in New Zealand. It should be our biotechnology centre – it is near the critical mass already – enabling other biotech businesses to thrive elsewhere in New Zealand. They could not if the nearest centre was in Australia. That may also be true for other industries like fashion and publishing. Workers based in other urban centres or even quiet rural locations will be able to connect electronically to Auckland-based businesses, with only the occasional visit to the Big Kiwifruit to see them.

Business is not the only activity that those outside Auckland will benefit from. Size means that Auckland can provide specialist medical services that would otherwise be available only overseas. It is not accidental that our highest internationally ranked university is based in Auckland. It offers opportunities not available elsewhere in New Zealand and pressures our other universities to perform up there, too. Nor is it an accident that big international conferences like CHOGM and APEC were hosted in Auckland.

So do we want the headquarters of our businesses to be based overseas? Oh, I know many are subsidiaries, but they tell their head offices that things are different here, for they are more responsive to the New Zealand way of life than those offshore can be. Do we really want – as once happened to me – an Auckland answerphone responding by advising its Sydney telephone number?

Some friends recently announced that their son was coming back home. Well, not to his home town. There are no high-finance jobs there. But Auckland is much closer than London. The choice may be regularly visiting one’s children and grandchildren in Auckland, or the occasional overseas trip.

If Auckland is New Zealand’s first global city, will there be a second? Which will it be? I can’t tell, because we do not know enough about the interaction between urban centres and globalisation. What is certain, though, is that if Auckland is not our first global city, there won’t be a second.