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How we can transform towards a technology-based exporting sector

Professor Shaun Hendy (9 August) commented on the slow progress New Zealand has made toward the development of a technology-based exporting sector. As he reflected, the occasional successful start-up is not nearly enough.

In my recent book Innovate! , I present a detailed analysis of the state of our fifteen export-focused sectors, their prospects for growth, current thinking on being innovative and how our government supports exporters.   

I find that amongst our advanced manufacturing sector we have a number of sophisticated exporters like Buckley Systems and Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, and that there is an emerging group of exciting businesses.  However, the new paradigm amongst wealthy nations is to be preeminent in advanced manufacturing – as manufacturing especially has extensive spillovers to the wider economy.  As a consequence, new manufacturing technologies and processes are appearing, markets are becoming more competitive, and large multinational companies are adapting their businesses to tackle the very niche markets that our companies supply. 

We also have exciting but unrealised opportunities in medical technologies, ICT, textiles, and in minerals developments, but our manufactured food, agritechnology and biotechnology sectors are fragmented and underperform.  Thus our emerging technology-based economy has the feel of still being in start – up mode, and this seems to be reflected in recent data that shows exports as a percentage of GDP slowly falling, why the government’s often stated goal of doubling exports has been quietly dropped, and why our productivity remains so low.  

So how do we address this challenge? The wealthy countries of the OECD are proactive in developing innovative, competitive and growing technology-based economies. They create environments where businesses grow through easy access to science and technology, where businesses work together and collaborate as opportunities emerge, and where resources are focused on science and technology development and transfer that’s good for business development. 

In contrast, and since the 1980’s deregulation of our economy, our governments have adopted a passive approach to developing an innovative economy and to the development of business. This is why we have very poor interactions between business and researchers, and very few business facing centres of technology.   This dysfunctionality, which I call the technology vacuum, was first revealed in the authoritative report Powering Innovation way back in 2011, as Shaun noted, and there has been no attempts to remedy the situation.  Compounding the situation has been the collapse of the manufacturing – focused CRI Industrial Research Limited from low sales.   

Paradoxically, we have a superb science system, led by the universities and the Centres of Research Excellence (the CoREs), and we have numerous world class scientists. However, nearly all the science research vote continues to be allocated to university scientists on the basis of best science and not to research needs informed by business. 

Government, having stripped itself of all its technology capability, needs to form a new Innovation Council comprising the universities, business and NZTE, to look into the situation in each of our fifteen important export sectors and to work out how government could assist them better.  Each has its own issues and opportunities.  These initiatives will give businesses better access to the science and technology capability in our universities, they will create environments that encourage more coordination, collaboration and innovation between export businesses, and they will deliver OECD type energised innovative environments.

My preference, set out in detail in Innovate!, is to create a network of university-based technology hubs, effectively a technology – focused business facing version of the CoRE network.  They would be wholly funded by government and established for example in robotics and sensing, IT for manufacturing, cyber technologies, technical textiles, agritechnology, and advanced food, to name only a few areas to illustrate.  These are the technologies that underpin the development of a competitive exporting sector. I would scrap the R&D grant system as it does not create innovative firms or innovative collaborative sectors, and I would put these funds into the network. The hubs would also become the place where businesses within sectors meet, collaborate, agree sector strategies and inform research needs as occurs at the Auckland University – hosted Product Accelerator. And I would collapse the economically focussed CRIs and Callaghan Innovation into this network. 

Governments create innovative economies not markets.  A step change in effort by our government is required to bring Sir Paul Callaghan’s dream of a sophisticated significant technology-based export sector to a reality and to reduce our dependence on commodity agriculture exports and tourism. 

Richard Bentley (CNZM) has worked in New Zealand industry and in the science and innovation system for nearly four decades – see his website. Innovate! Transforming New Zealand’s technology-based economy was published in August 2017 by Steele Roberts, Wellington.

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