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Why New Zealand's strength lies in 'the weird stuff'

Almost 10 years ago, Sir Paul Callaghan challenged New Zealanders to think of their economy as more than just a farm. Progress has been made, but there's still more work to be done. Here, director of Te Pūnaha Matatini professor Shaun Hendy shares why laser scientists should be talking to dairy farmers and the fintech sector should be talking to mathematicians.

It’s almost a decade since Sir Paul Callaghan challenged New Zealanders to think of their economy as more than just a farm and theme park. And it’s been four years since Callaghan Innovation was set up to help New Zealand businesses get us there. We’ve had Powering Innovation (the report that led to the creation of Callaghan Innovation) and innovations that PowerbyProxi; Lanzatech may have left us for the United States but RocketLab has launched us into space; we learned we are a Nation of Curious Minds, while Qrious mined our data for insight.

We can certainly point to a more vibrant tech sector and growing level of R&D activity, no matter whether you measure it by research and development, export dollars or high-tech employment. But the challenges Sir Paul foresaw 10 years ago still loom large. Even as we watch the birth of a nascent artificial food sector overseas that will eventually disrupt our industrial approach to agriculture, we have struggled to find ways to add value to our primary sector. Our farmers remain at the mercy of commodity markets.

At Te Pūnaha Matatini — a Tertiary Education Commission-funded Centre of Research Excellence, which focuses on data and decision-making — we were recently challenged to find ways to help today’s farmers use big data on the farm. The reality is that farming tomorrow will require very different skills to what it does today. 

If we are to capitalise on our potential to sell premium clean, green produce, farmers will have to master the science needed to drastically slash their environmental footprint, starting with, but not restricted to, their carbon emissions. Or, if we choose to continue to pursue industrial-scale farming, farmers will need degrees in microbiology and chemical engineering. 

But there are other possible futures for our agriculture sector. When Professor Cather Simpson founded the photon factory — an advanced laser fabrication facility at the University of Auckland — she had no idea that in just a few years’ time she would pioneer the use of lasers to sort bovine sperm by sex. 

This technology, poised to revolutionise artificial insemination in the dairy industry, is just what Sir Paul foresaw when he said, “Our strength lies in the weird stuff.” If we’re prepared to develop deep technological niches where we find them, and if we can remain alert to commercial opportunities that leverage these technologies, then we can excel at the unexpected. 

These opportunities may well come from our agriculture sector, where we have a depth of commercial expertise, but they could also arise in completely new sectors. Who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have a space industry?

Either way, the key to creating the unexpected is connectivity — to our markets, and between our scientists and businesses. In fact, we need better connectivity across our entire economy. It is through connections that unusual technologies collide to create opportunities. 

Laser scientists should be out talking to dairy farmers. The Fintech sector should be camped outside the offices of our mathematicians. Callaghan Innovation should be out talking to everyone. Above all, we need science and technology brokers who can translate between science and technology, market opportunity and expertise.  

Sir Paul was unflinchingly optimistic about our prospects and regularly reminded us that to match Australia in GDP per capita, we just needed another one hundred $100 million technology companies. In the five years since he passed away, we’ve added a few more of those, but still have a way to go. 

We are not weird enough yet. Not by half.

This was republished from Callaghan Innovation