Back in 1989 the movie Field of Dream came out. It wasn’t a particularly good movie, so, if you haven’t seen it, I’ll spare you the effort and give you a synopsis: An Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come. Oh, and everyone lives happily after. Of course.
Despite not being a particularly good movie, there is one line that has become common parlance in business circles: “build it and they will come.” The line is intended to be a rallying cry for anyone trying to do something visionary or on the edge and it does a good job of instilling esprit de corps when there is some doubt about a plan or project.
I’ve been thinking about that line of late, and the balance between just doing something sexy versus, you know, doing the actually impactful things. In particular, the theme sprung to mind recently when it was announced that the old IRD building in Christchurch, a building that has been empty since the Canterbury earthquakes, will not be used for a long-advocated private sector project.
To give you a bit of context about this project, a property developer decided that he was going to convert the empty office block into an innovation hub that would have, according to the literature, “been a ‘jobs machine’, with capacity for 2000 workers and a stated long-term goal of 10,000 new jobs over 10 years.”
Of course, while said developer was quick to gloss this plan up in a magnanimous “doing things for the future of the city” cloak, it’s fair to say that his plan saw his organization reap some impressive rewards from the project.
The only slight niggle to this plan was that the developer was also trying to convince the public sector in Christchurch to actually fund the project – in particular, he was trying to strongarm the Christchurch City Council, via its economic development agency, ChisitchurchNZ, to invest $30m on the plan by way of 10 years committed rental. So, less “build it and they will come” and more “moan and whine and try and guilt them into coming. Oh, and lock them in when they do come.” Indeed.
It seems that the developer had unlocked a piece of information known only to himself: that the only thing stopping people from being innovative or entrepreneurial is a flash office to do it in. Hey presto, just like that he had removed constraints around ideas, capital, skilled people, routes to market and good advice, and come up with a very simple notion: that if he (with the Council’s chequebook) were to build it, they would come.
Bear in mind that for well over a decade, a number of different public sector organizations (Callaghan Innovation, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, plus every single local council’s economic development team), has been trying to unlock exactly how to make New Zealand more entrepreneurial. This despite the fact that as the recent New Zealand HiTech Awards showed, the entrepreneurial sector is doing quite well, thank you. Every day new initiatives spring up and it seems that, while we may not be a southern Silicon Valley, we’re actually doing pretty well, cheers all the same.
I’m eternally grateful that the council saw sense and wasn’t swayed by the Auckland-based developer’s fancy talk and lovingly created concept drawings – it took them months to decide, but the developer was sent packing with a firm “thanks, but no thanks.”
Now you may well ask why I care so much, or if I have some kind of vendetta against this developer or developers generally. Maybe it’s my sense of social justice and the idea of public money being thrown at stupid projects like this just rankles me. But, actually, it’s simpler than that. Innovation is about one thing: people. It’s not about fancy offices, catered lunches or in-house massage services.
Hewlett Packard, the once-great technology company that is often held up as one of the founding parents of Silicon Valley, was famously founded in a garage. Why a garage? Because David Packard’s parents had a spare garage out the back that he and Bill Hewlett could use. No fancy desks, coffee machines or foosball tables to be seen.
Build it and they will come is a mantra that has its place, but if it’s innovation you’re talking about, just forget it. It’s about the people, not the place. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.