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Frances Valintine on why New Zealand businesses aren’t innovative - and what they need to do about it

The MindLab by Unitec and Tech Futures Lab founder Frances Valintine recently spoke at TRA's Mindframe Breakfast. A big takeaway: Kiwi companies simply aren't being innovative enough to compete on the world stage. But there's hope.

“Culture matters for reasons good and bad.  First, it is the place to discover advantage, opportunity, and innovation. … Second, culture is the breeding ground of cataclysmic change….  Without a working knowledge of culture, the corporation lives in a perpetual state of surprise, waiting for the next big storm to hit.” – Grant McCracken, cultural anthropologist

With McCracken’s words in mind, we were privileged to invite education futurist Frances Valintine to speak at TRA’s recent Mindframe Breakfast on the theme of culture. Frances is the founder of The MindLab by Unitec and Tech Futures Lab and has been recognised as one of the Top 50 EdTech Educators in the world.

Check out this podscast with Frances Valintine and Idealog publisher-at-large Vincent Heeringa:

Kiwis have long relied on their ‘number 8 wire’ mentality when it comes to ingenuity and innovation. And with global success stories like Xero, Rocket Lab and the All Blacks, we may be lulled into thinking that this approach is working. However, according to Frances these successes bathe New Zealand entrepreneurship in a light that perhaps gives it more credit than it deserves.

In reality, New Zealand is lagging behind other countries when it comes to innovation. New Zealand ranks 28th (out of 34) in the OECD when it comes to R&D spend by businesses, and last in the rankings when compared to other countries with comparable small populations and similarly advanced GDP levels (Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, and Singapore).

Frances suggests that one reason for this is that New Zealand’s legacy businesses, such as dairy and construction, have long relied on government contracts and subsidies. Within this safety net, their drive for innovation has suffered.  In contrast, ground-breaking New Zealand companies operate in the free market – they thrive by innovating and are often boosted by foreign investment. Xero’s biggest investors, for example, come from Silicon Valley.

On the whole, local businesses are avoiding taking taking a long term view of what’s happening outside of New Zealand. They are failing to consider major global demographic, environmental and economic shifts that will undoubtedly affect New Zealanders in the future – adversely, if we aren’t prepared for them.

Water shortages and population growth threaten the sustainability of our top exports and industries in their current form. Agriculture, dairy, forestry and wine will soon be replaceable by plant and synthetically grown alternatives that are more sustainable and can be scaled to cope with global population growth and environmental demands.  Wine, for example, can now be replicated in a lab at the cost of ten dollars.

Not only this, but New Zealand’s population is getting older while the rest of the world is getting younger. In 2011, 19% of the world was middle class; by 2030 that proportion is forecast to be 75%, and it will change the geopolitical power balance and global trade environment unrecognisably.

Though New Zealand currently has a good track record in education, this advantage will suffer if the country falls behind in education for technology and innovation, allowing the future educated middle class overseas to easily outperform and outcompete us.

When asked what New Zealand companies should do as a first practical step to transform themselves into future-focused innovators, Frances urged encouraging and nurturing risk-taking. For instance, paying people by salary and basing 30-50% of it on how much risk they take.

Frances’s talk demonstrated the importance of monitoring changes in technological, social, environmental, political and economic realms as they are the forces that shape how and where culture morphs. At TRA, we call these shifts Cultural Currents. Understanding Cultural Currents and the drivers behind them gives us a more complete, holistic picture of the context of people’s lives in multi-layered ways. We use them to provide more depth and breadth into how and why people are thinking, deciding and behaving the way they do, and to anticipate behaviours and opportunities of tomorrow – what is probable and what is possible.

Frances Valintine first presented this content at TRA’s Mindframe Breakfast on the topic of culture. For more information on Frances’ work and how to innovate today while preparing for the future, check out Tech Futures Lab