The new Christchurch style: Old boys out, entrepreneurs in

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The earthquakes have changed the culture in genteel Christchurch. Now it’s more about how you can contribute than who you went to school with, writes Steven Moe.

I grew up in Christchurch, but not the one that exists today. I lived in the non-Ōtautahi version – the pre-earthquakes mini-England you wouldn’t recognise if you came to visit now. Today it is proudly Ōtautahi Christchurch, and the vibe has shifted. That’s a good thing and is one of several reasons I moved back to Canterbury at the start of 2016 after 14 years away.

Something deeper happened when the earth moved and tossed buildings to the ground. The way of thinking itself was shaken up and impacted as well. We need to move beyond the image of construction and recovery or the initial impressions of ruin you might still see if you only go on a short drive through or just listen to others who visited. What is it that has changed?

Firstly, you cannot go through an experience where human life has been lost and remain unaffected. Just about everyone in Christchurch knows someone who had a family member or friend who was injured or killed. While the collective impact of this will fade, the experience caused many to reprioritise what they value in life. That has led to an attitude of being willing to try new things and less fear of failure: Life is short.

Christchurch now has a thriving startup ecosystem. Co-working spaces are packed with entrepreneurs, as is the weekly “Coffee & Jam” session run each Tuesday by Ministry of Awesome where two people (often entrepreneurs) present what they are doing. Canterbury has the second largest tech sector in New Zealand with 15,000 employed. The annual Canterbury Tech summit attracts a crowd of 700 and is regularly oversubscribed.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people from outside Christchurch refer to “the earthquake” whereas people from Christchurch refer to the plural “earthquakes”. That use of language is significant because it underscores the length of the experience people have endured. This was not a one-off event, it went on for months and years, and those who were not here at the time struggle to understand this. I am one of those people who slips sometimes and says “earthquake” because I was living in Japan (experiencing another big earthquake there) back in 2010/2011. The hardship goes on for those who have outstanding EQC claims, and we see constant reminders as new buildings spring up on cleared lots.

People are also very accessible and willing to help others in Christchurch, and this is boosted by the networks being in closer proximity than in a larger city such as Auckland. Provided you look to add value to conversations and are willing to give to others you are welcomed in. This is in contrast to Sydney, Tokyo and London where I have also lived, and is counter to the outdated perception that Christchurch relies on ‘old boys networks’. Yes, they exist, but they are less important than before.

Another change is that there are now whole new communities rising up around Christchurch that didn’t exist in that way prior to the earthquakes. Many people choose to live just outside of the city in growing satellite communities, often commuting in. I live in Rolleston to the south and it is a good case study. Pre-earthquakes it was a sleepy settlement of around 1000 people; now the population is almost 18,000. It feels as if the pace of growth is ramping up even further, with a motorway opening to cut commuting time and new subdivisions announced constantly. When pretty much everyone has moved into a community like this there is a more open culture and willingness to engage with others.

Christchurch has a host of advantages over other cities and it makes me wonder when people in Auckland and Wellington are going to realise. It is uniquely positioned for those who love the outdoors, with skiing at Mt Hutt an hour away, beaches on the outskirts and great trails and mountain bike riding in the Port Hills. House prices are literally half that of Auckland. Throw in world-class facilities such as the new library Tūranga, and there are compelling reasons to look twice.

Large global technology companies seem to have caught on, with some having bought ventures here but not relocated them offshore, such as Verizon, which bought fleet tracking software firm Telogis, and Insight Venture Partners which purchased software-as-a-service company Diligent.

If you haven’t been to Ōtautahi Christchurch in a while you may not be aware of the new undercurrent. When visiting other parts of New Zealand and overseas people often ask me, ‘how are things going?’, with the slight head tilt and tone of voice they might use if asking about a sick relative. I usually nod and smile then give some of the examples in this article of what I’m seeing on the ground.

There is a chance now to proactively build up a new culture alongside the many new buildings opening across the city. If that continues we’ll see transformation at a level deeper than just infrastructure, and Ōtautahi Christchurch will rise to become even better than it was in the past.

Steven Moe is a Christchurch lawyer and hosts the weekly podcast seeds.