The Development of Learning Regions in New Zealand: An ICT Perspective
The term "Learning Region" is used to identify a region which is innovative, economically successful, and inhabited by citizens who are active members of their local community. Such regions are characterised by strong links between local businesses, community groups, and education providers. Within a regional area interaction and exchange of information is easier and cheaper than in a national or international context. The success of an individual organisation is directly related to the quality of information available locally. Information technology can be an important tool in improving the flow of knowledge between the stakeholders within a region. The study examines the role that information and communication technologies (ICTs) play in the development of learning regions in New Zealand, and how they can be used to improve the quality of information flows both within the region itself, and between the region and the outside world. In particular the research considers what contribution ICTs make to organisational learning and innovation. Historical methods are used to build up a picture of the significant changes that have taken place within two contrasting regions of New Zealand between 1985 and 2005. The two selected regions are Southland and Wellington. Data was collected by searching regional newspapers, and conducting interviews with key figures in each region. A "6-I" framework of the "ideal" features of a learning region was developed from the literature review and this was used to analyse the data. The findings show a clear linear progression in terms of the development of hard ICT based networks, but a less clear pattern in terms of soft social networks where the same issues were revisited a number of times over the years. Though there was evidence of a relationship between the soft networks that existed at the regional level and the utilisation of hard ICT networks within a region it was difficult to quantify. Hard and soft networks evolve differently over time and the relationship between the two is nuanced. Both regions were successful in setting up high quality ICT networks. However, with the exception of the education sector, both regions struggled to co-ordinate their soft networks. Though good social capital existed in each region, especially in Southland, it was located in different interest groups and was not easy to bring together. This lack of co-ordination meant that the possibilities opened up by ICT infrastructure in terms of increasing innovation were not fully realised. Both regions demonstrated many of the characteristics of learning regions but neither region was able to bring all aspects together to reach their full potential. The thesis demonstrates the important role that soft social networks play in the successful utilisation of ICT networks within a regional setting.