Why we need to get out there and flaunt our Kiwi innovation

photo courtesy of Brainlesstales.com
Successful companies lodge international patents. We Kiwis invent stuff and hide it under our raincoats

There is a paradox in the notion of Kiwi ingenuity that lies in a disparity between our ability to invent and to implement. There appears to be no shortage of ideas in this country of ours, but there is a significant paucity of those ideas being brought to scale on a global level. 

We New Zealanders are an inventive lot. This is reflected in our ranking in a number of different indexes. For example, in The Global Creativity Index 2011, we rank sixth and in the 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit Creative Productivity Index, that analyses creativity and innovation in Asia, we again rank sixth. 

However, in The Global Innovation Index 2014 report, while New Zealand ranks eighth for local patents, we only come in at number 19 for filing overseas applications. Business analyst Alan Main suggests this failure matters: New Zealand has a 22% conversion rate of local to international patents, compared to Singapore, where the number is 81%, Finland, 58%, and Denmark’s and Ireland’s 42%. 

The insight here is the irrationality of a small export-reliant nation seeming to place greater importance on protecting technology in a small home market, while largely ignoring international protection. Main has observed that this patenting profile is not found in any other small domestic market. The over-emphasis on protecting inventions in our immaterial home-market is echoed by our lowly ranking of 27th for patents filed in at least three countries.

However, in that same global innovation report, New Zealand ranks as the sixth most prolific nation in terms of authoring work in technical publications. This is an indication of our greater interest in adding to global knowledge (an egotistical driver) in contrast to exploiting commercial knowledge (an economic driver). 

It seems we are comparatively naïve in terms of harnessing the value potential of creative endeavours in STEM activities. (STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The term is typically used when addressing education policy and curriculum choices in schools. It forms part of a government policy initiative aimed at improving competitiveness in technology development.) 

We appear to be more intent on sharing knowledge than converting that knowledge to prosperity. This bias is evidenced by the fact that in that same report, New Zealand ranks 63rd (behind Senegal, Latvia and Bulgaria) for high-tech and medium-high-tech output as a percentage of total manufacturing output.

Arguably then, there is a disparity between what many of us recognise as good ideas and our ability to build them into scalable businesses capable of being taken further afield. The question one might ask is, why?

A number of writers have explored or commented on successful business innovations in New Zealand, often alluding to a seemingly innate cultural propensity for innovation. Such texts celebrate a certain belief in cultural ingenuity.

However, aside from business commentator Rod Oram’s observations warning us about being captured by cultural myths, and John Bridges & David Downs’ book No.8 Re-Wired, where they discuss the dangers of perpetuating number eight wire thinking and practice, most lack in-depth analysis of the business contexts in which innovation occurs. 

Bridges and Downs chronicle 202 New Zealand inventions “that have changed the world”, but are careful to note that we are being left behind in OECD rankings.

We need to re-examine the nature of creativity in business and find what is innately “Kiwi” about how we generate solutions and replicate them in relevant ways in today’s business world. 

We need to extend thinking around the topic, and design ways of spreading the gospel of entrepreneurialism in a manner that effectively targets business people and interested students. We’re not short of ideas in this country, but we’re desperately short of being able to take them to market on a global scale. 

We have to spend more time and effort on encouraging aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors to innovate and use creative techniques to succeed through carefully constructed, market-led strategies.

Management guru Peter Drucker’s words are worth repeating. 

“Business has two functions, innovation and marketing. Everything else is a cost.”

Mike Hutcheson is a former Saatchi & Saatchi grand fromage, and a director of Image Centre. He has just completed a thesis on Kiwi creativity. Here are his video findings.