When ĀPŌPŌ established their premises in Wellington eight months ago, they chose the place carefully: it is on the site of the old Te Aro Pa, opposite what is becoming Wellington’s big new event centre, across the road from Te Papa, and alongside Xero and Trademe. “We are beside New Zealand’s best,” says Miriame Barbarich (Tamahaki – Ngāti Hinekura, Ngā Puhi – Ngai-tū-te-auru), one of the co-founders, “And we have a maunga to raise our aspirations towards, the moana to draw on its kaha and mana to drive initiatives over the line.”

ĀPŌPŌ is an indigenous creativetech hub, and as their website says, “a place where Māori and Pacific people, passionate about creativetech, can collectively learn, work, collaborate and thrive… We are here to grow Māori and indigenous peoples’ participation, success, leadership and innovation in the creativetech industry and provide mentors, community, space and tools to solve tomorrow’s problems.”

The other two co-founders are Dr Johnson Witehira (Tamahaki – Ngāti Hinekura, Ngā Puhi – Ngai-tū-te-auru), and John Moore (Ngāti Pākehā).

It is a kaupapa Māori space, set up by IDIA (Indigenous Design & Innovation Aotearoa) with funding from Te Puni Kōkiri. There are 30 shared workspace desks available with hot desk and resident options. The whānau friendly place is relaxing and inclusive.

As with their location, the founders spent time thinking about their name. The one they chose embodies the idea of propelling Māori forward, and that includes both teaching te reo (they host beginner and intermediate courses every week and are currently heavily oversubscribed) and creating a pathway for young Māori interested in design to get mentoring and a chance to learn and develop their indigenous design skills and knowledge.

ĀPŌPŌ recruited their first intake of seven interns last year. Because at that time they had no easy way of linking into prospective learners, they contacted students through their colleagues at the university or through people they knew. Those interested were then contracted to complete a three-month paid internship, assigned a mentor, and given a non-commercial project to work on, such as a start-up or social enterprise.

Tori Kaihe became part of the first internship programme through a friend who knew Miriame. At 29 she had already done a coding course, had some reo Māori and was looking for full time work: “The whole process of working at ĀPŌPŌ was easily one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. When I first went in to talk with Miriame we had breakfast together and spent a lot of time on whakawhanaungatanga. It was the same when I met John. The internship at ĀPŌPŌ is not like other internship programmes. It is more like an apprenticeship. I had a lot of autonomy. On my first day there we spent a lot of time with whakawhanaungatanga, not in the way it is often done, where you can feel it is a bit disingenuous, that no one really cares about you as an employee, but building genuine relationships with everyone there. Then when it came to my project, they didn’t tell me, “this is how you do this”. I had the freedom to define my own role. It was learning by doing and they were there for guidance and support. The way we are taught in schools is not created for Māori and Pasifika students. They don’t teach the way we naturally learn.”

To educate future cohorts of rangatahi, ĀPŌPŌ has developed a short training programme designed to reach students early in their secondary schooling when career decisions are often made. The idea is to break the stereotype. “When you look at the statistics,” says Miriame, “only 2% of graphic designers are Māori. We know that Māori are often creative, so if they want a career using these talents they are usually channelled into the more traditional arts, not the commercial side of art where the money is. The other ‘default’ pathway for Māori is the trades, and we want to provide some alternatives.

“With the training programme, what we are telling rangatahi is – your indigeneity is your superpower – your world view has value! We are building cultural integrity, specifically in the design industry, so it can be applied appropriately.”

A pilot programme was offered to schools in Wellington last year. Tawa College picked up the opportunity. Toni Tippet, the school’s Head of Technology Faculty and Head of the Design & Materials Technology was already on a mission to do something about the fact that so few Māori and Pasifika students see design as a career pathway, so she jumped at the opportunity. “We took about 20 Māori and Pasifika students, from Years 9 to 11 to ĀPŌPŌ and spent the day there. They explored what ‘design’ was with students and the different types of design fields and things the students could ‘be’ if they wanted. They also spoke to the students about appropriateness and appropriation in design using Māori contexts, narratives and imagery, and set the students a short design task for them to solve.

“Our students responded very positively to the day and especially enjoyed being in an all Māori and Pasifika group, with Māori mentors. We have seen five of those students currently opt to study our Visual Design & Communication course this year, and three have decided to continue their studies in Product Design & Manufacturing.”

ĀPŌPŌ is reviewing the pilot training programme and they are still to decide where it might be offered in the future, and how that might be done. What they are already clear about is that their model is freely available for other communities to use.

Awatea Tuhura Mita (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakahemo, Ngai te Rangi) is the CreativeTech Hub Manager at ĀPŌPŌ. She thinks the time is right. “IDIA lead the implementation team for the global ENRICH programme (in partnership with New York University and Waikato University), enabling indigenous communities to connect and maintain sovereignty over both collected and future taonga. As a leader in innovation ĀPŌPŌ is capturing a fundamental shift in society towards kaupapa Māori approaches, in this instance in design and innovation, and part of the value of a kaupapa Māori approach is, as Miriame says, connecting young people to their indigenous superpower. When we look at the achievements of people like Taika Waititi we see we definitely have a place on the global stage. These are the pathways that we are wanting to develop for our rangatahi.”