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Three headlines grabbed my attention this past Saturday morning: 

  1. Basin plans remain vague

  2. The road to mass transit

  3. What now for rundown Hutt City CBD?

All three are significantly important to the Wellington region and all three speak to the need for a cohesive, region-wide vision towards 2050. The recent decision not to proceed with the Melling interchange, the Grenada-Petone link and the need to address the Wairarapa’s longstanding rail requirements, amongst others, could readily be added in.

City and regional transformation is a ‘long game’, typically taking 25-30 years.  Long-term, strategic thinking (i.e. foresight) is sorely needed and seemingly in short supply. Point-in-time, fragmented responses to choke points and challenges do not lead to improved wellbeing or sustainable prosperity. 

Let’s start by asking: What makes a city or region ‘great’, what enables it and its people to thrive and to prosper?  Research by CEOs for Cities suggests at least four critical factors, including attracting highly talent people, being connected locally and globally – physically, virtually and socially - focussing on innovation (i.e. new value creation) and being distinctive.  There may be no ‘silver bullets’ or magical panaceas, but focussing on the fundamentals over the long-term can enable the diverse, culturally and environmentally rich Wellington region to be a true turangawaewae for all.

Wellington already lays aspirational claim to being New Zealand’s creative, technology and education capital.  As one of the world’s top 15 Quality of Living cities (Mercer, 2019) there is significant momentum behind us.  Together with Auckland (ranked 4th – kudos to them!) and the re-built Christchurch, a ‘one country, three cities’ approach holds great promise for the long-term positioning of Aotearoa New Zealand in a globalised world.

However, challenges await.  What if, as current trends suggest, the region’s population grows from around 500,000 to 560,000 by 2025?  Where will the 60-odd thousand new Wellingtonians be housed, find work and enjoy recreation?  How will we ensure that together we integrate well and build on our collective whakapapa to enable intergenerational prosperity?

The flipside of challenges typically present solutions.  Finding those must be grounded in sound planning, cohesion across the region’s leaders and a steadfast commitment to placing others before ourselves.  So, what would it take to make this happen?

One, political courage and ‘EQ’. Having competing administrations 15 minutes apart is hindering effective governance and long-term planning.  Strong partnerships, spanning electoral cycles, are essential to sustain momentum and impetus. 

Two, a willingness to look globally to understand what has worked well.  Examples – from Curitiba to Cape Town, Barcelona to Manchester and the US city of Portland, amongst many – abound.  They cannot be ‘lifted and shifted’, but they can inform us as we consider our own co-creation of our future. 

Three, our vision for Wellington (Wellington 2050?) should be owned by the residents of the region.  A combined top-down and bottom-up approach to ideation, facilitated by independent and experienced city differentiation experts, will take time.  It might be a little ‘messy’ and make some people uncomfortable, but the rewards of listening to – and really hearing – the diverse voices of the region cannot be overstated and should never be undervalued.

A compelling regional narrative, supported by business, government and civil society, can become our North Star and transcend the vagaries of political cycles.

It is time to start.  Together, lets apply design thinking and foresight to the challenges and opportunities we face.  Lets now do less ‘getting ready’ and more ‘getting started’, to paraphrase IDEO founder David Kelley.  Let’s envision, articulate and co-create the future we want to see.

About Chris Whelan

Whelan is an organisational transformation and change practitioner and former inaugural CE of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency.  His work includes engaging in city and regional growth and differentiation and helping leaders in the private- and public-sector to understand and navigate complex change.  Whelan calls Wellington home and can regularly be found hiking in its hills and valleys!

Wellington's future, our future

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