Many are eager for New Zealand’s tech sector to surpass agriculture and tourism to lead us into a prosperous future, but do we have the confidence to promote our creative talents to the world? Colleen Ryan, head of strategy at TRA, takes a look at the cultural codes that are shaping our success, as well as the search for a new chief technology officer in New Zealand.
‘World famous in New Zealand’ took on an interesting twist in a recent article in The Guardian, which referred to a worldwide search for a government post of chief technology officer, with responsibility for ‘emerging and disruptive technologies’. The twist was that the job listing specified someone with international mana. Now bearing in mind that most overseas candidates won’t understand the concept of mana, it was further qualified as ‘international power’.
The word that raised a few New Zealand readers’ eyebrows, however, was ‘international’. Don’t we have someone in New Zealand who could fill the role? Yes, undoubtedly we do, but equally true is that as a small nation, we have always welcomed ideas from around the world as it fuels our creative and collaborative nature. But, there is more to it than that. This government has set an agenda that is highly ambitious and aims to elevate the information and technology industry to the top of the podium ahead of the current incumbents: tourism and agriculture.
Economically, it’s a no-brainer of a policy. If AI is going to take away traditional jobs, we need a new and growing industry to occupy otherwise idle hands and maintain a thriving economy. Culturally, too, we see Kiwis’ enthusiasm for tourism peaking as our infrastructure strains under the load and talk turns to controlling numbers, increasing yield and adopting strategies that create priority access for domestic tourism. Of course, home-grown emerging technologies can themselves become tourist attractions – try getting a booking to visit Weta Studios in high summer months.
Agriculture is also having a bumpy ride with Kiwis, with a focus on the environmental effects and not much conversation about how agriculture is employing leading-edge technology: drones, remotely controlled field vehicles, high-tech milking sheds and all of the innovative work done at Fonterra’s innovation labs around quality monitoring and how to use milk solids in medicine and many more applications.
New Zealand was never in the global race to be a manufacturing country, but as people have moved from wanting more things to wanting more experiences and meaning in their life, our time has come. Just as we shifted from growing sheep to creating high value merino designer clothing, and from the bucolic image of a country intent on growing cows to a high-tech dairy industry delivering high-value, exportable milk solids, we are poised to be the country that punches above its weight in emerging technologies.
Can we still do it in our way?
Probably, yes, but only if we understand what our way is and stay true to it. And, do we need outside investment? Yes, but we need investors who get us, who recognise that we have our own brand and a uniquely Kiwi way of doing things.
Plus, we also need education, mentoring, role models, networks and global connections. We can’t be isolationist, nor do we want to be. Our work with True on the Kiwi Cultural Codes showed us that Kiwis see themselves as global citizens. We no longer feel stuck in the corner of the world, 10 years behind everyone else. We’ve proven that we’re a global player, even if we do still use ‘per capita’ to our advantage every now and then.
As one of the people we talked with so succinctly put it: “Our measure of success is different to the rest of the world, but it's changing – we used to live in a community, now we live in an economy.”
So what is our way?
It’s a mash-up of what used to be invention by necessity and today’s more planned and goal-oriented approach to finding creative solutions using leading-edge technology. Historically, No. 8 wire was a metaphor for a bit of creative cobbling together, but today’s version of Kiwi ingenuity is much smarter, though no less ambitious.
Looking at what is unique about Kiwi ingenuity is a good guide to what international talent and investors will need to understand and leverage. And that’s not about falling into line or curtailing their contribution. Instead, it’s about making magic happen by leveraging global assets to supercharge our already creative approach to emerging technologies.
Just as we shifted from growing sheep to creating high value merino designer clothing, and from the bucolic image of a country intent on growing cows to a high-tech dairy industry delivering high-value, exportable milk solids, we are poised to be the country that punches above its weight in emerging technologies.
So what do we do well?
1. We do sport.
We love sport, so it’s no surprise that a lot of our innovation, including innovation around emerging technologies, is sports based. With a smaller population to draw on and lower budgets than global teams, we’ve had to work harder to win and technology has often been the solution. In the elite and rarefied air of America’s Cup racing we had a smaller budget but a bigger vision and risked it all on a bit of Kiwi ingenuity – cyclists to power the boat’s hydraulic system – and we all know where that got us.
Meanwhile, Kiwi company Virtual Eye is the developer of the graphics that mean everyone knows which boat is in the lead and where the finish line is. Virtual Eye also creates 3D graphics for cricket and golf. Another Kiwi company has developed a product called YachtBot which tracks vessels and facilitated the building of a virtual stadium on the water while the boats raced, and a virtual seating plan for 1000+ super yachts and their VIPs. Our presence at the America’s Cup regatta was far greater than just the Kiwi boat.
2. We do counter culture.
For example, our wines are distributed around the world and are loved and respected even in wine growing countries. Yet when we competed on the world stage, we played by our own rules. We adopted screw caps wholesale while other wine growers went from natural cork to plastic cork because they thought that buyers would downgrade their quality expectations of screw cap wines, whereas in fact the opposite happened. No more oxidised wine, no more hunting for the corkscrew, and screwcaps became cool.
A more recent example is Allbirds. While trainer brands were getting more complicated with spring-loaded, gel, battery-driven features, Allbirds went back to wool as comfortable, durable and don’t make your feet smell!
Kiwis don’t do me too, and emerging technologies will make so much possible that will give us the ability to create new technology-based counter culture solutions.
3. We do keep it simple.
It doesn’t have to be rocket science. With hindsight, how obvious was it that people had just a few dirty dishes most days but used every dish and pot in the house at the weekend or when the in-laws turned up? The Fisher & Paykel two drawer dishwasher wasn’t rocket science, it was Kiwi ingenuity at its simplest and best.
4. We do like a challenge.
Sometimes it is rocket science. No commentary on New Zealand and emerging technologies can avoid a nod to Peter Beck and his amazing Rocket Lab. We are all so in awe of the rocket that it’s easy to miss the myriad examples of leading-edge technology that comprise the infrastructure that supports the rocket design, launch and control.
Earlier I mentioned Weta as a tourism attraction, but let’s not forget what Weta and Peter Jackson achieved with their work on Lord of the Rings. It was a hugely ambitious project that would require technological magic that was pioneering and that has transformed movies ever since.
5. We do smart.
But we are good at making it human. One of our favourite companies, Air New Zealand, is a great example of developing and using smart technology. They are using VR to enable people to experience new destinations and of course there is their award-winning app to facilitate check in, alerts, AirPoints rewards, gate numbers and many other practical functional benefits. And then they added the extra human touch, the ability to order a coffee, to your taste and without even going to the counter. Of all the things people value in the app, no prizes for what they talk about most.
Soul Machines is another example of a fantastic Kiwi tech innovation which puts a human face to customer experience that is automated and seamless. And these smart ideas are not closely guarded secrets, they are forging a global path with overseas companies among their clients.
New Zealand is already world famous – and not just in New Zealand. We have many hero innovators on the world stage and what they all have in common, as the song goes, is ‘we did it our way’. As our star continues to rise in the era of technological creativity, we should welcome those who can add to our skill base and our pool of knowledge and so too those who can bring investment dollars that will accelerate our trajectory – in the surefire knowledge that we know who we are, what we stand for and what constitutes our unique Kiwi ingenuity.
We won’t lose what we’ve got, we’ll just have more fuel to feed the fire of our ambition and become what the government aspires to: “Leading change at the edge of the world, a place where pioneers push boundaries to create models for the rest of the world to follow”.
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