It’s time we stopped playing the blame game

It has been well documented that the core issues New Zealand confronts are:

  1. Continuing environmental degradation
  2. Low productivity
  3. Poor urban planning

In fact, it is difficult to think of a problem in New Zealand including poverty, homelessness, inequality and sustainability that is not a symptom of the very poor management of these core issues. However, while you don’t have to look far to find the solution successfully applied by other small, advanced economies the parties currently in Parliament, for the most part, prefer to take the easy path. They distract us with scapegoating one group or the other; creating new and different tax proposals and/or handouts designed to appeal to our baser instincts of either greed or envy. Meanwhile, while we play the blame game, the same problems continue to plague us and grow worse.

In contrast, since the mid-1980s a group of small, advanced economies (including Israel, Singapore, Finland & Ireland) have gotten on with the job of addressing the problems we find so intractable. In the process they transformed their economies from middle-income countries to some of the richest, most egalitarian and sustainable in the world. Interestingly, the solutions adopted by them involved a remarkably similar process.

The key to their success boiled down to a process that promoted the successful fostering and commercialisation of innovation. In turn, the key to this was the development of an innovation ecosystem that would provide support to innovative businesses resulting from effective collaboration between the government, private sector, academia, innovative entrepreneurs and risk capital.

This ‘systems-based’ approach contrasts significantly with the ad hoc, reactive, short-term and sectoral interventions we see here in New Zealand. The common denominator of the approaches of the major parties is that they target symptoms of the core issues rather than the issues themselves. The systems-based approaches they used offered a more integrated perspective and a number of proven concepts, tools and methods to identify, understand and leverage critical linkages, synergies and trade-offs between issues usually treated separately with the added bonus of reducing unintended consequences.

The common factors that led to the rapid growth of the small, advanced economies in question (Israel, Singapore, Finland and Ireland) were:

  • Forging consensus on the long-term strategic economic direction with political opponents and key stakeholders: business associations, labour unions, the financial community and the education sector.
  • Creating a “learning economy” to develop the country’s human capital by providing high-quality education at all levels with innovation as a deliberate by-product;
  • Encouraging entrepreneurship by building a culture that rewards initiative and risk-taking and is relatively tolerant of failure;
  • Building a networked economy by concentrating entrepreneurship around urban centres; and,
  • Building competition and openness to trade.

Our economic plan is underpinned by these principles and the lessons learned from these very successful examples in the creation of a framework for the effective collaboration between the government, private sector, academia, innovative entrepreneurs and risk capital. A dynamic and fertile innovation ecosystem creating the conditions under which a prosperous, clean green economy and its people will flourish.

In terms of urban planning, Singapore demonstrates the folly of New Zealand’s current obsession with bureaucratic compliance standards and punitive or redistributive taxes; an approach, incidentally, that hasn’t addressed the issues of housing affordability or the liveability of a city anywhere. Despite multiple challenges and amongst the lowest tax rates in the world, Singapore has shown that, through effective design and planning, a city can rise above whatever confronts it to become one of the most sustainable and liveable cities in the world.

In the 1950’s, outside of the central business district, Singapore consisted of mudflats and swamps, and dirt-poor kampong villages. Most of the population lived in squalid, crowded tenements. There was no reliable water supply. In real terms, the average Singaporean in 1959 was as poor as the average American in 1860.

Today, the urban planning in Singapore has created a gleaming city of the future, a global financial centre. Framed by lush, leafy greenery at every turn, its skyline features a stunning collection of designs by the likes of IM Pei, Kenzo Tange, Paul Rudolf, Zaha Hadid, Ole Scheeren, Norman Foster, Richard Meier and Moshe Safdie. Its public infrastructure – comprising a comprehensive transportation network, education system and superb roads – serves a population of about 5.8 million in a landmass that clocks in at barely 720 square kilometres.

We know that the idea of this type of density will ring alarm bells for a lot of kiwis. Here we’re reminded of the adage of urbanist, Edward L. Glaeser: ‘We are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it. The best means of protecting the environment is to live in the heart of a city.’

We retain a self-image as settlers, each of us living on an expanse of monoculture grass with some disconnected patches of bush for scenery but this is not the nature that people have travelled from all over the world to admire and is a poor substitute for the unspoilt natural world that we all want to be connected to. Another international precedent more analogous to a city like Auckland, and closer to New Zealand sensibilities in style is Vancouver in Canada; there is a city with very high density living combined with a stunning natural setting, excellent transport and infrastructure and high standards of liveability.

Singapore got to where it is through long-term planning. Its small size and confinement as an island mean every square meter matters. The broad planning principles include building mostly high-rises to save space, carefully considering the balance of buildings’ functions, incorporating plenty of greenery, strategically developing towns outside the city centre, creating more land through reclamation and, critically, ensuring enough housing.

Over 90 percent of Singaporeans and permanent residents own their homes – a remarkable accomplishment that owes much to Lee’s conviction that the surest way to create a sense of identity and to accumulate wealth was to give Singaporeans homes of their own. Home ownership, he believed, grounded people, and made them stay and work and build families and links to the community.

‘By 1985, we had all the necessary infrastructure in place,’ according to Liu Thai Ker, chairman of the Centre for Livable Cities’ advisory board, who credits the successful urban planning in Singapore to political leadership and stability.

‘We had broken the backbone of the housing shortage with affordable, subsidized public housing. The first phase of the underground trains was underway. We were ahead of the times in worrying about global warming when we introduced building standards that minimised the amount of heat absorbed. We emphasised greenery in public spaces, especially along our roads. It was all planned, even our pavements and the covered walkways around public buildings.’

At the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, the Singapore Pavilion, 1000 Singapores: A Model of a Compact City, made waves for its astonishing conclusion that by using its urban planning model, a thousand Singapores – roughly 0.5 percent of the Earth’s landmass, or an area the size of Texas – could comfortably hold the world’s population.

For an urban space Singapore’s smooth traffic, comprehensive infrastructure and general ease of living are hard to argue against. With New Zealand’s relatively low population density we could create world-leading quality, affordable housing and not only could we stop our cities pushing out into nature, they could even contract and ‘re-wild’ their surrounds.