Progress is a process: How evaluating the New Zealand Innovation Awards gave me a 'bad case of optimism'

The economist John Maynard Keynes got plenty right. But one thing he got very wrong was his belief that we would probably all be working 15 hour weeks by now because our material needs would largely be met. Many believe he completely underestimated the competitive nature of humanity and our drive for progress, and over the past month or so, I got to see that first hand as an evaluator for the New Zealand Innovation Awards, which received a record number of entries this year. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity these days. A quick look at the news would lead many to believe the world is rapidly going to hell in a handcart. Terrorist attacks. Refugee crises. Sociopathic, openly racist US presidential nominees. Kim Kardashian’s enduring popularity. Pokemon Go addiction. The current feeling of ensuing chaos is powerful. But if you look at the data, the world is not so chaotic. In fact, it's objectively better. There have been significant reductions in global poverty, murder rates, wars, child mortality, infectious diseases, road deaths, and the list goes on and on and on. Yes, there are many major and seemingly intractable problems left to solve, there are many new problems that have eventuated from our previous creations, it could be argued that some of our innovations are aimed in the wrong direction and, in some cases, the drive for progress is confused with the drive for 'more', but the closer I look, the more optimistic I get. 

In a recent interview with Freakonomics, Kevin Kelly, the internet pioneer, founder of Wired magazine and one of my favourite humans, talked about his book Inevitable, “a guide through the 12 technological imperatives that will shape the next 30 years and transform our lives”. Like me —and also Al Gore, who recently gave an energetic update on his seminal climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth – Kelly has a 'bad case of optimism' and he’s extremely confident that the gradual progressions we have made as a species will continue. 

As he said: “I think that this is the best time in the world ever to make something and make something happen. All the necessary resources that you wanted to make something have never been easier to get to than right now. So from the view of the past, this is the best time ever.”

Being part of the 42-strong New Zealand Innovation Awards evaluation panel reaffirmed that belief and it was such a good reminder of the huge number of amazing New Zealand businesses and organisations – and the many amazing people within those businesses and organisations – trying hard to solve specific problems. 

With a 35 percent increase in the number of entries this year, there was plenty of work to get through to do the initial evaluations. But, for me at least, it didn’t really seem like work. Even though we’re always hunting for the most interesting ideas and innovations to cover at Idealog, there were plenty of entries that I wasn’t aware of. And that’s one of the beautiful things about these awards: they're like a magnet that draws out the country's best stories and shines a light on the pockets of innovation that are occurring all around the country. 

Of course, innovation is a very broad term. It can apply to the tinkerer who spends their nights in the garage, to the top of town corporations spending their millions in the lab; it can apply to very well-established companies who continue to advance into new markets, to those that have created a product but are yet to find their market. And the evaluators saw everything along that continuum in each of their allocated categories. Given these disparities, evaluating the entries can be a difficult process, but as is always the case with awards, deciding on the finalists and winners was a democratic process and there were plenty of robust discussions between the evaluators at the KPMG offices last week as we all debated their merits. 

As someone who regularly dreams up ridiculous business ideas and then never does anything about them, seeing people with the cojones to actually take the leap and try to bring their idea to life is hugely inspiring. Many of the ideas I saw were attempting to make New Zealand – and, in many cases, the world – a better place. And it is evidence, if any were needed, that no matter how bad (or good) things get, the powerful drive for progress and the desire of innovators here and around the world to find solutions to problems big or small means things will always get better. 

Ben Fahy is publisher and editorial director of Idealog
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