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Wellington, The Little City That Could, And Did

The city's transformation was fuelled by innovation (and coffee).

If you didn't know anything about Wellington NZ, you might think it was a little like Canberra -- national capital, public service town, small in size and a reputation for being a bit dull. But this city has undergone a remarkable transformation, emerging as a creative, cultural and economic success story.

New Zealand's capital was once a town which relied heavily on government employment, and suffered greatly when there were widespread redundancies in the early 1980s. Reduced tariffs meant nearby car factories, who were major employers, shut down. Swathes of the city was being bulldozed to rebuild in an earthquake-compliant manner. The nightclub scene on Courtenay Place was fledgling, and even these entertainments were wedged amid greasy takeaway joints and people sleeping in alcoves.

Local businessman Joseph Slater, who designs soft drink syrups for Six Barrel Soda, summed it up like this --

"Wellington in the 80s and 90s was a pretty dire place. We had a little bit of a Canberra reputation, a seat of government and not much else. But consecutive councils have pushed that creativity, arts scene, music scene, trying to use some of that creativity and showcase what we have," Slater said.

In the years since, it has undergone an economic, and cultural, miracle. This year, it beat the largest city, Auckland, and the nation as a whole, in terms of economic growth. And this year, New Zealand has beaten Australia in the Global Innovation Index, coming in at 17th in the world.

It has more bars, restaurants and cafes per capita than New York City. In 2011, it was named by Lonely Planet as the coolest little capital in the world.

And with a population of 204,000 -- about the size of Hobart -- it has around 800 start-up businesses.

So what turned a struggling city into one of the most innovative and creative in the world?

The harbour city, population 204,000, is ringed by steep hills.
The harbour city, population 204,000, is ringed by steep hills.

Innovation is kind of a nebulous term. At once scientific, "translating a good or desire into a good or service which creates value", but also "replicable at an economical cost", "satisfying a specific need" and "creating something of usefulness", according to

But there's also an element of creativity, of risk; the bare-faced audacity of the pioneer; the 1000-yard stare of a frontiersman.

Lance Lones stands in his office on a blustery peninsula just outside New Zealand's capital city. It is part of an old military base -- downstairs is the officers' former mess, and the building has fallen into disrepair. Outside are some parked police cars, which Lones assures me are replicas left there after a recent film shoot. It's from this location that he is taking a leap into the unknown, with his virtual reality cameras and software.

It was once the set for Skull Island on Peter Jackson's 2005 film, King Kong, and is now home to tech startups, film production suites and one of Wellington's most popular cafes is housed in the old submarine depot.

"This is what Silicon Valley felt like in the 1970s," he says, of the time when companies started to create the tech scene in an area home to transistor and component factories.

"It's small. In L.A. you can go weeks without seeing someone you know. Here, you walk from one building to the next and you run into three people you know, and they say, 'You should talk to so and so about your idea'," he says.

Lones is a former rocket scientist. He worked at the Centre for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, before taking a jaunt to New Zealand and into the world of filmmaking.

He did visual effects for the blockbuster films Avatar, X-Men and one of the Lord of The Rings trilogy with Weta Workshop (more on them later).

He decided to take a six-month career break, which is when the entrepreneurial bug bit, spurning three businesses. One of these, L2VR supplies cameras and software to companies on the cutting edge of virtual reality production, which is a burgeoning industry in these parts.

While there are others also working in this field, Lones said Wellington's size works for it.

"And it's not big enough to stomp on each others' area. That Machiavellian idea doesn't exist here.

"It's like some strange big, extended family."

Rocket scientist turned entrepreneur Lance Lones in his Wellington office.
Rocket scientist turned entrepreneur Lance Lones in his Wellington office.

If you were to pinpoint a person and a moment in time for Wellington's transformation, it would probably be Peter Jackson and the late 1990s.

Everyone says so. And while this isn't quantifiable or measurable or attributed to three, rock-solid sources, it seems to make sense.

Jackson, a proud Wellington native, had just bought an old film studio in the suburb of Miramar, about 20 minutes' drive from Wellington proper.

After years making 'splatstick' horror films, his career took off. Around the same time, other prominent NZ directors Jane Campion and Lee Tamahori also achieved renown, but departed for Hollywood. Jackson stayed at home and with his success improved the fortunes of those on the peninsula.

Director Peter Jackson, right, with Martin Freeman on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Director Peter Jackson, right, with Martin Freeman on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Within several years, he and colleague Richard Taylor had expanded to take in what feels like most of the suburb, and were working on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, District 9, The Hobbit, King Kong and others.

And what that required was talented local workers, willing to take a punt on a director's vision, and respond nimbly to the requirements of a fast growing business.

It is clear by looking back with some perspective and distance from the expansive success of (The Lord Of The Rings) trilogy, a much wider range of creative industries developments have been supported and enhanced through the increased tourism.Tara Brabazon, City Imaging: Regeneration, Renewal and Decay

Erik Hay is head of media and communications at Weta Workshop, the centre of the special effects/post production/animatronics empire on the Miramar peninsula describes it thus -- "Ideas get a lot of air here".

"Lord of the Rings ramped up so quickly that people were drawn locally, and they were people with passion, tenacity and talent," he said.

"The people who were putting the hairs on the prosthetic feet are now growing with the company.

"It's very much that ideas can come from anywhere in the organisation."

Weta Workshop this year collaborated with the Te Papa Museum on the exhibition 'Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War'.
Weta Workshop this year collaborated with the Te Papa Museum on the exhibition 'Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War'.

That start-up attitude has been profitable as the successful run of The Lord of the Rings features has come to a close. Weta and associated companies continue to work in film, but ideas from within the organisation have spurned new ventures.

The Weta Cave Workshop tours are one such innovation. Boasting 110,000 visitors to date, the tours are sold out 85 percent of the time. Visitors can see where four tonnes of silicon was crafted to make the fat suits for the Hobbits, hold a gun from the film District 9 and can learn how dog hair is electrified and shot onto hair suits created for film. And the invention is not limited to the studios -- a womens' knitting club in Wellington crafted some of the vast quantity of chainmail required for Lord of the Rings.

And in a bid to diversify, there is the range of collectibles crafted by workers at the studio, a remake of The Thunderbirds, and the invention by a staff member of steampunk hero Dr Grordbort.

Hay says the organisation is based on an "agile" approach; "A group of guys come together, and say, 'Let's give it a go'."

The Hobbit's Smaug made small.
The Hobbit's Smaug made small.

Dave Gouge is head of marketing at the nearby Weta Digital, part of the compound that deals with, among other things, making the Tolkien universe's Gollum come to life.

He said the studios had attracted a large number of very talented people with international experience and expertise -- and that vibrant attitude spilled over into the rest of the community.

"This is not an isolated business. Its tentacles reach out into the wider community.

"And there's an interesting spillover effect of having so many people with international expertise."

What Gouge says is true, there is an underlying energy about this place.

It is 8.30am on a Sunday, the day after a rugby match between the Queensland Reds and the Wellington-based Hurricanes. (The Reds lost. They had paraded, dejected and glum, into my hotel the night before).

You would expect the capital city of a rugby-mad nation to have the dull throb of a hangover -- the air feeling slightly close, the streets quiet, strewn with litter.

It's not like that. From my position perched -- coffee in hand -- at the Intercontinental's breakfast buffet, there's a palpable buzz.

A hipster, bearded American and a tattooed Frenchman sit at the next table, surrounded by empty coffee cups, newspapers and toast crumbs. They've been there for some time. They talk IPOs and product launches, but at the same time, how to best "nurture ideas".

The Brit next to me eats a full hot breakfast, while simultaneously issuing directives to manage actors on a local film set.

I glance over and his full plate has been almost fully consumed while he was on the phone. Even on a Sunday morning, the pace is frenetic, and time waits for no scrambled eggs.

So how does a city transform from a number of creative people working in ideas-run businesses to a broader culture of innovation that permeates every corner?

I have my theories. One is the weather. It's not known as Windy Wellington for nothing; this city is one of the windiest in the world. And for a population forged in the face of the wind, it must be strengthened and made hardy.

I've lived here 20 years and got used to it – it's a source of pride, I guess. When you go to other places people say 'oh, it's windy today' and we [Wellingtonians] say 'no way'. It toughens people up as well.Atmospheric research meteoreologist Richard Turner told

The second is Wellington's geographic layout. The city is compact, marked on three sides by water and the fourth by the Hutt valley.

While the capital city's population is less than Auckland's, it is more dense than other New Zealand cities, hemmed in by this geography. It feels like it forces a population to look in upon itself.

The third is, quite simply, goodly and abundant coffee.

New Zealand claims to have invented the flat white. And while we're not going to start a match of Trans Tasman pebble throwing over this one, it's safe to say that the nation's coffee culture has come into its own.

The flat white is definitely an Australasian beverage but the debate about who invented it is "right up there with the pavlova and lamington debate".Jay Chapman of coffee specialists Mojo

Nowhere is this clearer than Wellington. At one point, standing on a busy street corner in the CBD, your correspondent could see three coffee outlets -- all of the same chain.

Barista John Cole manages The Beanery, one of Mojo Coffee's outlets in Wellington CBD. The density of this chain is astonishing -- in a CBD measuring two square kilometres, there are 20 outlets.

"Kiwis love the culture that has developed with coffee," he said.

"It's a special place here, with the density and exposure to good coffee, and the competition is really strong which leads people to pushing the boundaries."

The Beanery sells coffee, but also syrups and flavours, cold pressed coffee and even coffee on tap -- all developments he puts down to competition in the sector and the company's innovative spirit.

"With the Nitro coffee on tap, the effect is a bit like Guinness," Cole said.

"By the time summer comes around, on a hot summer day, it's quite refreshing."

The coffee effect is one that innovation hub manager Jessica Manins believes in firmly.

Manins is the former regional manager of shared workplace BizDojo, which offers not just work spaces for entrepreneurs, but the ability to collaborate on projects.

And she says the in-house cafe allows for people to socialise and bounce ideas off each other.

"We go through 10kg of coffee a week, which is bigger than some cafes," she said.

"It allows people to have a conversation, and to 'collide' with each other in social ideas, and that's how ideas happen."

Stefan Korn heads another local-area incubator, Creative HQ. He says the collision of ideas among early-stage entrepreneurs, their mentors and funders can lead to successful enterprises.

"That's really what creates the successful start-up, the cross-pollination of ideas," he said.

"In Wellington, the sheer density of how close we are together. You can have a meeting with a government official, an entrepreneur and a designer all within three hours here. People are willing to take meetings and get things done."

He estimates there are 7-800 start-ups currently operating in Wellington, and he says networking is the key to success.

"Networking is about bringing people together -- it's how connections are made.

"But it's also subversive in a way. Wellington has the 'old boys' network', but what we're seeing coming through old networks is an old fashioned way of doing business. So this is being disrupted also.

"Wellington is a really cool place with creative collisions, and a melting pot of inclusiveness."

The city is home to a number of successful and well-known start-ups, from cloud-based accounting service Xero, Trade Me (which out-eBays eBay in NZ) and the aforementioned Weta film empire.

If you could stand in one place in the city, however, and get a real feel for the start-up spirit, it is not in a high-rise near the waterfront, rather a back alleyway informally named Hannah's Laneway.

This is the home of Joseph Slater and Mike Stewart, who started Six Barrels Soda after working together in a bar, when they noticed the non-alcoholic line was limited to "Coke, Sprite and Bundaberg ginger beer, if you were lucky".

"It was easy to find beer -- the craft beer thing was happening in 2010 -- and there were lots of great breweries, great distillers, winemakers making wine, but not much in the way of soft drink," Slater said.

"Traditionally soft drinks have been an afterthought. If you're out and you want a nice drink with dinner, getting a Coke with your dinner felt like a bit of a teenage move.

"We wanted to give soft drinks a bit of love, non-drinker, if you were driving, wanted to try something that was interesting and more adult."

The company is based upstairs in a building in Hannah's Laneway, a tiny spot in the dining precinct between Cuba Street and Dixon Street.

Slater said the close proximity of businesses there, and willingness to collaborate on their products, had been to everyone's benefit.

"Hannah's Laneway is pretty new, when we moved in there wasn't really much going on here."

The area is home to chocolate at Wellington Chocolate Factory, Fix and Fog which sells peanut butter from a window, salted caramel specialists Leeds St Bakery and coffee roasters Red Rabbit. And you'll find collaborations on products, including chocolate and caramel treats.

"We're all neighbours; if you're thinking of new flavours, it's kind of natural to say, 'What's available, what's close, what's good'. Though it's a little harder for us because peanut butter and soda don't work.

"It's been really cool. At the moment we're all kind of in the same boat, small companies trying to get out there a bit more. It's nice to know that the good times or the hard times are together.

"Wellington is amazing. It's a tiny city but I think the people here are really keen to have things a bit out of the ordinary, it's a pretty progressive city, and there's a really strong desire for interesting products.

"It's a pretty creative city, with lots of people doing weird things."

The writer travelled to New Zealand as a guest of Wellington Tourism and the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency.

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