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10 examples of why New Zealand innovation is so unique, as observed by an American

Savannah Peterson is the founder of US-based Savvy Millennial and made the 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Consumer Technology. She recently took a trip down to Gisborne to experience  national Maori hackathon, Hack Tairāwhiti, and shares 10 reasons why she thinks the way we go about innovation in this corner of the globe is so unique. 

The lights gradually illuminate as the smell of sausage and eggs fills the cabin. We’re exactly 2:45 minutes from landing, according to my calculation, and about 9 hours into our trans-pacific journey to the Southern Hemisphere. My seat mates slowly uncoil from their sleep, padding their way down the aisle to the bathrooms, many still in semi-conscious limbo. I re-stow my meticulously packed in-flight bag with all my precious ingredients that make plane dreams possible. I continue to hydrate like a fiend. Despite my comfort in the air, my heart rate subtly accelerates. We’re about to land in my favorite place on earth. And I couldn’t be more excited. New Zealand’s innovation and creativity keeps me coming back, eight times in the last 30 months.

Below you’ll find 10 examples of what makes New Zealand innovation notable and unique, as illustrated through a recent experience I had there. However, I wouldn’t be doing this storytelling culture justice if I didn’t set the stage a bit. If you’re particularly antsy you can watch the video recap I made first. Otherwise, here we go.

Sunset in Gisborne, where the sun sees the Earth for the first time each day.

The Air New Zealand night bird arrives into Auckland just before dawn, regardless of my North American origin. We politely fumble our way through their remarkably efficient customs process and emerge into the North Island air. The light inside and outside the terminal is more forgiving at this hour, a noted gift after a long haul. Opting to take the short walk outside between terminals, the smell of jet fuel in morning wakes me up faster than the espresso. I always pause, halfway between international and domestic at AKL, in the center of a parking lot, to listen for the bird songs. They’re different here. More cheerful. Even at the airport.

I’ve lost a day thanks to the International Dateline, so I neurotically cross reference my ticket and the departure screens. There’s limited domestic security in New Zealand, often my ID isn’t checked before boarding, let alone the contents of my bag. It’s a glorious luxury as an American regularly violated by TSA. They do ironically need to check your paper/digital ticket more times than they do in the US, like when you physically board the plane, but I think that has more to do with a genuine interest in making sure you get to your proper destination than terrorism.

Team members from Datacom (+1 lucky international guest) at the hackathon

This particular trip (one of the eight I’ve taken in the last 2 1/2 years,) brings me to Gisborne, New Zealand. The coastline is the first to the see the sun each day, literally, and is the site of the first ever national Māori hackathon, Hack Tairāwhiti. Māori are New Zealand natives, Pacific Islanders, with heritage tied to modern day Hawaii, Tahiti and the Cook Islands. The hackathon is sponsored by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (yes, the government) and is lead by the number one technology company in New Zealand, Datacom. The goal of our time together? Empower Māori founders and help scale their businesses. Dozens of national leaders (plus one very lucky international guest) have gathered from across the country to support this event. Everyone is donating a weekend of their time. Most of us are sleeping in beach cabins (think motel + hot plate in the US) as close to the venue as possible. People of all ages and professional levels are participating.

Before I go on, does this sound like anything you ever been to in America? A celebration of culture and a deliberate weekend dedicated to empowering native businesses? If so, please invite me to your next event. I’ve never seen anything quite like this in North America, or anywhere else for that matter.

New Zealand is stunning. Photo of the hackathon site in Gisborne by Ky Hacker.

I get to Gisborne around 9:30 am. It feels like I’ve accomplished a lot considering how early it is in the day and how far I’ve traveled. I realize this temporary euphoria will be rapidly replaced by crippling, sleep-inducing jet lag if I don’t mind my proper care and feeding rules. Coffee first, always, before shower, otherwise the shower is great, you feel clean, sit down on the bed for “a minute” and promptly pass out for four hours completely throwing your day- and circadian rhythm- off. Coffee -> Shower -> Food -> Activity -> More coffee or booze depending on time of day -> dinner -> survive until dark -> PTFO is my personal recommendation. You can see what I chose to do here in the video.

Speaking of, this video is a recap of the Hackathon experience. It has been interesting to get feedback from friends and participants alike. Those there, feel it really captures the essence, the vibe, the ethos of our time together. Those who weren’t, had questions about what we tactically did, but were genuinely curious overall as it looked different and fun. Here’s a quick list of things highlighted in this video that illustrate what I love so deeply about Aotearoa.

1.Culture is respected and honored in every gathering (or at least those I have been a part of.) Not every event includes such a profound welcome and range of artistic expression as this one did, but I see multi-cultural expression everywhere I go in NZew Zealand.

2. There is less ego in the hierarchy. New Zealand only has 4.7 million people (roughly the same size as Ireland) and the joke is they’re all two degrees from each other. They also seem keen to help their community. Yes, there is income disparity, but generally speaking, everyone is open to being friends with everyone else. They depend on each other to thrive, given their relative geographic isolation.

New Zealand leaders double as jam bands

3. Singing and dancing are a part of life. Both are proven to have positive impacts on mental health and well-being. It’s no wonder New Zealand consistently ranks on the top 10 happiest countries on Earth.

4. Companies care about purpose. A key theme of our hackathon was celebrating local tradition through food, language and storytelling. Projects ranged from workplace safety to sustainable seafood. All put people before profit.

Teresa Pollard of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise welcoming us to the Hackathon

5. The government gives a damn and they invest in their people. Anyone could apply to participate in this event, and big corporations were excited to send their best and brightest to support it. A real collaboration between institutions and individuals. It’s essentially the opposite of what’s going on in America right now. On a related note, the Prime Minister of New Zealand is currently out on maternity leave. She is the first world leader ever to do so while in office.

6. There is a balance between structure and improv. Lean canvas layouts and team rankings every few hours guide us through the tested process. Focused, quiet periods of doing, followed by late evenings of jam sessions and drinking; with room and respect for both.

7. Pride stems from culture and community rather than from the self, for Kiwis. Tall poppy syndrome is real here, and it has taken me a long time to figure out how to effectively deliver the antidote. Māori especially don’t brag, and this humility is infectious. It’s also a challenge when trying to export their creativity and innovation.

8. The country is insanely beautiful. I try to share a few magic moments in the video, but it is truly a place you need to experience to fully understand. Bryan, a friend of mine, visited New Zealand last year. He sent me a message while on his trip “I see why you love New Zealand so much. It is truly heaven on Earth.” He’s right.

The last message my friend Bryan ever sent to me

9. Emotion is celebrated in New Zealand. Feelings have value. Bryan, the same friend mentioned above, passed away a few hours before I was slated to speak at the hack. Bryan was someone who always made me smile. He made me feel like I could handle anything during our 3D Printing days in New York City. Though, in a haze of grief, miles away from our mourning group of friends, I wasn’t sure I could handle the stage after receiving this news. Then, I realized that our last exchange had been about the beauty of New Zealand. He understood why I love it so much, and called it “Heaven on Earth.” I chose to go on with the speech as scheduled, and I closed with his final message to me. There weren’t very many dry eyes in the house.

10. Grief is communal. I spent the first few hours wallowing in a silo of sadness, afraid if I shared with anyone there that the floodgates of my eyes may open inappropriately. Once I shared Bryan’s story on stage, I felt the blanket of this community wrap around me. The next presenter sang a traditional song of mourning in Bryan’s honor. It was emotional and empathetic improv- something we don’t see enough of. We opened our hearts to each other. They felt the loss with me, and for the rest of the weekend, we healed together.

In my happy place before the start of the hackathon

I’m back in my aisle seat, nibbling a final savoury pie before returning to everything Americana. I feel the weight sink into my chest, the heaviness of returning to the tech-bro saturated Silicon Valley. The transition back is always bittersweet. New Zealand may be on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, but it is very close to my heart.

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