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Aristotle in Dunedin

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 8 June 2012

“A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one.” That’s not a new research finding but a quote by Aristotle (384-322 BC). It opened an event on Dunedin’s Economic Development Strategy on Tuesday, which I attended as a guest speaker.

How ironic to bring in an ancient Greek philosopher to present-day Otago, not least because classical Athens had almost exactly the same number of inhabitants as modern Dunedin. But unlike Athens back then, Dunedin today cannot quite claim to be a ‘great’ city.

For too long, Dunedin has lagged behind New Zealand’s economic growth; it suffers higher unemployment than the national average, and it lost jobs when big manufacturers quit their local operations.

Dunedin’s draft ‘Economic Development Strategy’ aims to change all that. The document, put together by a group that includes the City Council, the University, and the Chamber of Commerce, leaves no doubt about its ambitions. It wants to see Dunedin as “one of the world’s great small cities”.

The strategy aims to create 10,000 new jobs and lift per capita incomes by $10,000 over a decade by creating a welcoming business environment, attracting and retaining skilled migrants, and connecting the city internationally, both through better transport links and an exchange of ideas.

I have read many similar strategy documents over the years but found Dunedin’s outstanding. The language was clear and the analysis stringent. This was indeed a well thought through approach.

However, my initial enthusiasm waned upon attending Tuesday’s meeting. Far from applauding their leaders’ ambitions and enthusiasm, the locals vied to outdo each other in pessimism, mockery and outright cynicism.

The list of objections was endless: Why extend the airport’s runway when rising sea levels are going to inundate it anyway? Why consider oil and gas exploration when natural resources have failed to lift Nigeria out of poverty? Why build new and better homes when nobody wants to live in them? Why help manufacturing when it will always be cheaper to mass-produce in China?

Aristotle was right. A great city does not need a big population. It can even be as small as Dunedin’s. But every great city needs a population that is passionate about itself, ambitious for its future, and optimistic about its outlook.

Perhaps Dunedin does not need a new strategy but a new mentality. Or, to quote Aristotle once again, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

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