No 8. Re-wired: 30 years later the innovation story is still the same old, same old

New Zealand was once an innovative nation - not anymore. In fact, in the last 30 years, Kiwis have been resting on their laurels while other countries are have cranked up their race up the innovation ladder, according to authors Jon Bridges and David Downs, who recently released their sequel No. 8 Re-wired, following on from their first book No. 8 Wired.

Yep, New Zealand led the world in introducing daylight savings while Dunedin tin-smith John Eustace in 1884 invented the airtight lid used on coffee, paint and golden syrup tins, but as a country, the innovation narrative ended way back then.

New Zealanders were once mighty innovators, lending us a kind of a MacGyver nation image. While the No. 8 wire mentality is still very much embedded in the national psyche, the global landscape has shifted and Kiwis are trailing by major indicators of innovation.

Authors and comedians Bridges and Downs, who recently released their sequel No. 8 Re-wired, are pretty certain little has changed in New Zealand innovation in the time between the their first and current books.

New Zealand has rested on its laurels for far too long and the ingenuity that once made our country great is now losing value and losing steam against our international counterparts, Bridges says.

“The problem has really come in the last 30 years where New Zealand’s GDP keeps going down while other countries’ go up.

“We don’t spend as much money on research and development, either through the government or through companies and as a result, we don’t keep on the crest of technological advances.”

In the most recent Research and Development Survey, carried out by Statistics NZ in 2012, New Zealand had spent 1.27% of its GDP on research and development towards innovation across the sectors. However, this has left the country trailing behind the likes of Israel, Finland and Denmark.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation’s (WIPO) Global Innovation Index 2014 has rated New Zealand 18th in the world, with Switzerland, the UK and Sweden sitting comfortably on top of the ladder.

What Bridges and Downs have found is that the perception of Kiwi innovation has changed internationally, but New Zealanders still believe we’re at the front at the pack.

“If you go up to the average New Zealander and ask whether New Zealand is up there in terms of innovation, most of them would say ‘yes of course we are - we’re a No. 8 wire country’. If you asked them if we file as many patents as other countries they would say we would probably file more,” Bridges says.

However the reality is – we don’t.

Low patent nation
New Zealand’s number of triadic patents (a family of patents filed in different countries) filed is also quite low compared to other OECD countries of our size, with Denmark issuing 25 patents per million people, per year, and New Zealand only issuing 3 patents, per million people per year, Bridges says.

“We haven’t done so for a long time and we are now well behind in standard of living and productivity than we should be,” he says.

Bridges and Downs believe that some of New Zealand’s most interesting successes are often overlooked, with your average Kiwi unlikely to believe that one of their own has created it.

“We want to raise awareness that we also need to think about how much we are spending on research and development, as well as how much we value scientists. There are none on TV at the moment, like no real science rock stars,” Bridges says.

Butterflies and daylight saving

The creation of daylight savings has been one of most-loved discoveries of this latest book, Downs says. George Hudson, living in Christchurch in the late 1800s was a keen entomologist and pitched the idea of daylight savings so that he could have extra daylight hours to go and look for insects in the evenings.

“It’s pretty audacious for someone to keep putting pressure on people just so he can hunt butterflies. It’s that ‘not taking no for an answer’ thing.

“The first time he proposed it they said it was a stupid idea, but slowly he convinced everyone that it was a great idea.

“Just because he loved butterflies,” Downs says.

Attitude change

No. 8 Re-wired isn’t about criticizing the creativity and ingenuity of New Zealanders but rather raising a discussion about how our attitude to innovation needs to change, Bridges says.  

“We have a culture where we don’t just do things everyone else does. But in the modern times, as technology goes on and the world changes, that is not enough anymore.

“It can’t just be one guy in a shed anymore. There needs to be a lot more deep science, deeper research and collaboration to develop a brand new idea” he says.  

Downs agrees saying 10 or 15 years ago New Zealand did punch above its weight when it came to innovation, but things have stagnated and it has started a disturbing trend downward.

“That’s partly why we chose the title - No. 8 Re-wired - we believe that the things that made us successful in the past actually hold us back for the future.

“We lag massively far behind in the money given to research and development. And that correlates to our lagging GDP.

“We need learn the value of intellectual property and research and development, collaborating and learning from others’ mistakes,” Downs says.

Still, the No. 8 wire nation, some things Kiwis invented

  • The best-known New Zealand invention is the bungy jump, developed by A. J. Hackett. He made a famous bungy jump from the Eiffel tower in Paris in 1987.
  • Engineer Cecil Wood built his own car in 1897.
  • Plumber John Hart invented the Thermette, a device that encloses a fire for boiling water outside.
  • Housewife Norma McCulloch invented a hand pump to suck air out of freezer bags.
  • A flying machine patented in 1906 by farmer Richard Pearse.
  • The Superbike, John Britten’s racing motorbike, which literally used no. 8 fencing wire.
  • The Aquada, a car that can pull up its wheels and become a boat, invented by Terry Roycroft.
  • The jetpack, a tiny one-person aircraft, invented by Glenn Martin.

(Source: Te Ara)

Fancy riding in a jetpack?