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Paul Brislen on why design and innovation are crucial to New Zealand’s future success

Paul Brislen is a technology commentator, communicator, journalist and past Chief Executive of the Telecommunications Users Association of NZ. He joins New Zealand judging panel of this year’s James Dyson Award, a competition that celebrates and inspires the next generation of designers and engineersHere he muses on why we need to innovate and our strengths and weaknesses in this area.

Top image: Jake Evill's Cortex, the James Dyson Award-winning design from New Zealand in 2013.

What is the importance of innovation and design for New Zealand? (financial, economic, punching above our weight etc.)

New Zealand is a small, trading country that has traditionally existed far away from our markets. That we’ve done so well is typically despite our size and location and as a result we’ve had to improvise, build things we didn’t have, create possibility from what was on hand.

Whether we’re talking about the primary sector, with its freezer ships, milking machines, and (yes) number eight fencing wire, or the software sector with its digital capability, we’ve had to do things our way because the alternative was too costly or took too long to get here.

All of which has created an attitude of getting on and building things that more well-off countries haven’t had to develop and New Zealand is better off for it.

Now, as we move away from reliance on the primary sector, these kinds of skills become real assets and now that we don’t have to worry about the cost of freight to get our digital goods to the far side of the world, we have a huge potential to deliver on the promise of a world-class economy.

Moray by Nicole Austin, the James Dyson Award-winning design from New Zealand in 2017.

How is NZ doing, in terms of innovation and design, on the global stage?

We do punch above our weight but we also lag terribly behind in some respects. New Zealanders are often seen as being willing to get things done, to muck in and to build the thing that needs building, whether we have the skills or the experience to do so. Just look at Peter Beck and Rocket Lab. Who would have thought you could do that in New Zealand? Nobody told Peter he couldn’t, so he did.

That’s a great mindset to take into innovation and inventing solutions.

But on the flip side, we have a woeful track record in spending on research and development. We aren’t up there with the best in the world, we aren’t even up there in the middle of the pack – we languish, spending less than half the OECD average on R&D.  Given who we are and what we’re capable of, that’s a disgrace and needs to be addressed.

What’s our reputation for innovation and design internationally?

New Zealanders are well regarded for getting stuck in and that goes doubly for innovation and design. We are generalists and we will try just about anything. It’s how we built the models for Lord of the Rings, but also the software that created millions of orcs. It’s how John Britten built his motorbike and how countless other Kiwis just got stuck in. The more we can do to encourage that the better.

Tree mount by Jason Khoo, the James Dyson Award-winning design from New Zealand in 2015.

Is there anything we’re doing really well here? (e.g. research, training, supporting and developing young talent, funding, marketing products globally, particular sectors etc.)

We struggle in a lot of areas at an institutional level. That worries me because we have to support our start-ups and our innovators, and not just give them a slap on the back and tell them to get on with it. We’ve done very well despite not having great support networks – imagine how well we could do if we did!

We need to get more people out of studying law and management and accounting and into engineering and design and the arts (yes, the arts). We need to encourage more tinkering (a shed for every New Zealander!) and we need to build a funding model that helps companies grow at every level. I’d like to see more companies believe they can grow onto the world stage rather than reaching a certain size and then selling to a big international investor.

Recyclable sport shoe by Nick Couch, the James Dyson Award-winning design from New Zealand in 2011.

How can NZ designers and companies leverage this?

We need to allow our start-ups and innovators to fail. We need to encourage them to try again and enable them to pick themselves up and go for it another time. We need to take away all those bureaucratic barriers that stand between innovators and the world’s stage. We need to do more to support the growth of companies in their early stages – we have great angel investor networks and great high-level government support but in between there’s a real lack of help for our fledgling companies. And we need to do a better job of looking after the mental health of our innovators. It might sound great that you’re living in the office, sleeping on the couch and coding 80 hours a week but that’s not terribly healthy. We can do more for our inventors than drive them all mad.

Cordless IV drip by Matt Backler, the James Dyson Award-winning design from New Zealand in 2016.

How does the James Dyson Award support innovation and design in New Zealand?

It’s great to see the James Dyson Awards operating in New Zealand because it gives us exposure on the world stage and gives Kiwi inventors the confidence to go out there and try it on. That level of exposure to an environment full of thinkers and problem solvers is second to none and I encourage all our inventors to come out of their sheds (digital and real world) and show off their wares. Even if you don’t win through to the end it’s a great experience and a wonderful opportunity for us all to see what problems you’re solving.

Paul Brislen has been a technology commentator and observer for more than 20 years, starting with the Millennium bug and the Knowledge Wave conference of the late 1990s. Since then he’s worked as a journalist and editor, a public relations manager and as a user advocate helping telecommunications companies better understand what it is their customers want and encouraging them to do the right thing.
An avid science fiction fan, Paul started reporting on the tech sector as the closest thing to living the cyber-punk dream and says reporting on the near future is almost as much fun as living in the distant future, although he would really like a flying car.

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