Reality Check: David Downs

Reality Check: David Downs

As part of Idealog's Technology Month, we've picked the brains of some of the movers and shakers in the industry to find out their favourite tech-related things, their biggest fears for the future and what other companies and individuals inspire their work. Here's No.8 Recharged author David Downs.

What’s your favourite…

Technology you can’t live without?

Infrared remote controls. It’s amazing to me that we used to actually get off the couch to change the channel.

Underrated or old technology?

Duct tape. It’s a critical part of any prototyping process and sometimes, of the finished product…

New Zealand tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things?

There are so many! My upcoming book ‘No. 8 Recharged’ has over 200 examples of New Zealanders and kiwi companies competing on the world stage – it’s hard to pick just one, but one to look out for would be Soul Machines, the Auckland company that is seriously at the front of the pack with human-centred AI.

Global tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things?

Anyone that is making learning tech easier and cheaper – currently I am anxiously waiting for my ‘Meet Edison’ robot from Australia – a fun, programmable, feature-packed little device for about $80. Very cool way to teach kids (and me!) more about tech.

Tech project or product you’ve had a hand in?

Alas, I was ahead of my time – I started developing tech for handheld computers in the early 1990s but the hardware technology was just not advanced enough, so I hung up my development tools and instead got to helping others with theirs.

Tech is the sleeping giant future for New Zealand, as long as we can follow some of the great examples we now have of being globally oriented, design-led, and exploit niches

Tech project or product that isn’t yours, but you’re envious of?

Anyone who comes up with a business model that starts with the phrase ‘The Uber of…’ There are so many great examples now of people matching global opportunity and supply using smart technology. Local examples include Mighway and Parkable – two to look out for.

What first drew you to this industry?

The magic of programming – I started as a kid and got hooked on the power of BASIC (don’t laugh).

What do you enjoy the most about working in tech?

The speed of innovation: Bored? Wait 20 mins, someone will have created something amazing.

How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?

A short question with a long answer – having written ‘No. 8 Recharged’ recently, I’ll summarise by saying it is the sleeping giant future for New Zealand, as long as we can follow some of the great examples we now have of being globally oriented, design-led, and exploit niches. To find out more, read the book!

Where does inspiration come from for you?

From the stories of others who have gone before. There is no template for success, but there are exemplars and patterns that emerge when you learn about what they have done well (and badly).

A rocking horse is always moving, it doesn’t mean it’s going far – we have to avoid being like that.

Reality check

How has tech impacted on your work? How will it impact on it in the future?

Work is faster and more frenetic, with people able to communicate in real time, essentially for free, with anyone at any time. Ubiquity doesn’t equal quality though; often I think we are less productive now than we were before mobile phones, the internet etc, due to how much churn and wastage there is. A rocking horse is always moving, it doesn’t mean it’s going far – we have to avoid being like that.

What’s been the most concerning change that technology has made to human behaviour, in your experience?

The small screens we all immerse ourselves in for so many hours a day, particularly in public. Our kids know everything, instantly, thanks to Instagram and Reddit – but do they know how to have great relationships and connections with others? And are we great roles models for them?

How would you describe your relationship with technology? Do you think you’re addicted to any form of it?

Like most, I am annoyingly addicted to having a mobile phone in my hand, even when I try to stop using it for a period. I’ve taken to leaving it in other rooms, only checking text and emails irregularly – but frankly I struggle to ignore the siren call.

Do you think social media is a blessing or a curse?

The genie is out of the bottle now, there will always be some form of social media so the question is somewhat moot. On balance though, I’d say the advantages slightly outweigh the disadvantages.

Do you think technology needs more laws surrounding it, or a form of resource consent regulation?

Guardrails are useful for society to function, but like all laws, they need to be humane, minimal, and changeable when required. In general, I favour fewer laws.

What needs to be done to tackle the diversity issue in tech?

Serious investment in mainstream education at the K-12 level. Time to stop prevaricating and to put proper funding into educating the future diverse workforce about the choices and options ahead of them.

What worries you the most about technology?

That it masks our humanity and cuts us off socially from each other. So much of what makes the world great is the human ability to communicate and create collaboratively – technology risks isolating that creativity.

What’s your scariest prediction for the future? Will the robots kill us all?

If we look at the lessons of the past and present, I’d predict we have a lot of ‘new technology’ to assist in the future – AI, Robots, all that stuff – and yet the average Kiwi will still work a 40-hour week and the benefits will only just outweigh the negatives. In other words, I predict mediocrity, and we should aspire to better than that.

What will New Zealand look like as a country in 2037?

We will have a large and thriving tech sector – like every country frankly. So we have to look at what is uniquely us. My hope is that we have used technology to sort our shit out when it comes to the environment, and we have world leading technology in the agriculture space, allowing us to leverage our comparative advantage there while protecting the assets we have until 2137 and well beyond.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).