Everywhere you look there’s a reminder of the quake. An old cathedral in the center of town that used to stand proud, as a symbol of the past. On one side it’s just as it should be. Continue driving around to the rear, and you’ll see it’s half rubble. You can see where the pigeons have made their homes high in the rafters. You can see almost clear through to the pulpit, and the whole thing seems to be balancing on a few makeshift wooden beams leveraged against the wreckage. Wreckage is the only way to describe the cathedral and the other casualties of the earthquake. It’s like it happened yesterday. Only it happened three years ago, and the city has yet to fully recover.
It was almost one in the afternoon on a Tuesday in February, 2011, and while most people were just getting back from their lunch break, the earth was preparing to shake things up in New Zealand’s second largest city. The quake was a massive 6.3 on the Richter scale, breaking glass and sending so many buildings into ruin. The trouble with this earthquake, beyond its sheer power, was its shallow epicenter. Foundations crumbled, liquefaction destroyed entire suburban neighborhoods and parts of city buildings literally toppled to the ground, unable to withstand the violent movement. That day was a fateful one for the city, in which 185 people were killed and thousands were injured. Businesses were forced to close up shop right then and there.
Today, downtown is still very much in ruins. Skyrocketing earthquake insurance, now mandatory, has forced many businesses to stay shut and storefronts to remain empty. And though the long-abandoned streets are something out of a zombie movie, there is a thriving undercurrent that is changing the direction of the city. That undercurrent relies on two very 21st century concepts: innovation and creativity. Here, in order to make a business work (let alone allow a building to stand up straight without reinvesting your life savings), you have to get a little creative and use the tools available to you.
The most impressive symbol of that creativity is the shipping container. Christchurch, an old port town designed for imports lugged over by massive freighters, had the perfect tool to begin the work of reconstruction. The most famous representation of this is downtown’s Re:START shopping center, which went up within a year of the quake. An outdoor mall with stores housed in shipping containers, Re:START and other shipping container projects helped to usher in a new wave of creative recycling.
Today, they’re used to prop up facades. They’re used to keep rocks from tumbling into roadways. They’ve become pop-up college bars. And they’ve even become the brick and mortar of city center’s latest shopping mall. The shipping containers throughout town are a clear sign of resiliency. They’ve help keep up the spirit of the city after a devastating natural disaster. Not only does the shipping container represent how resilient Christchurch can be, it’s also a symbol of a creative, intelligent and resourceful attitude that is putting ChCh back on the map as an up-and-coming hot spot for innovators and entrepreneurs.
Thanks to the government stepping in and encouraging innovation in a part of the city that is being renovated and rebuilt as Christchurch’s new government-funded Innovation Precinct. “There’s no where else we can go. There’s nowhere to rent,” said Wil McLellan about he and others facing displacement after the earthquake. So they came up with an idea that fit perfectly with the city’s newfound dedication to innovation: “Why don’t we build somewhere?” That “where” is the Precinct, which spans three city blocks in the southeast corner of downtown, this area of town is dedicated to Internet-based innovation and is expected to help propel the tech boom.
McLellan is the Director of EPIC (Enterprise Precinct Innovation Centre). EPIC Innovation is a space where budding entrepreneurs and innovators can start to grow their roots as businesses. With a fluctuating number of tenants (currently there are 17), EPIC proves to be the cerebral heart of the post-quake digital sector in Christchurch. Some big-name funders are joining the government on the project—Google, Bank of New Zealand and Cisco to name a few—so it seems there is plenty of corporate buy-in keeping it a thriving spot for entrepreneurs.
Another project within the Innovation Precinct, GreenHouse, is seriously dedicated to helping digital and ICT start-ups get out of the development stage and on their way to sustainable success in the marketplace. GreenHouse opened its doors in June 2015 with a strict max tenancy policy of 18 months, so startups don’t settle in too much. Lightning Lab, a New Zealand company that nurtures and coaches startups in the country, now has programs running in Christchurch and has sent startups to work within the GreenHouse incubator.
It’s programs like these, and the government’s dedication to the cause, that have helped rebuild Christchurch as a blossoming city for entrepreneurship. In some ways, the new Christchurch is a physical and psychological melding of the past and present. There is still a very active port, and there are symbols of that historical economic strength throughout the city. But today, alongside those historical reminders of Christchurch’s roots, there are innovative businesses freshly blossoming out of the post-quake wreckage. And it’s inspiring.