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The upstart nation, part 1: The inquisitive and bold

From drone technology to electric farm bikes and computer graphics, from space-age umbrellas to fitness trackers and the world's leading DJ software, New Zealand developers, entrepreneurs and companies are winning in areas where no one thought we could even compete. In this first extract from No. 8 Recharged, the follow-up to the successful No. 8 Rewired, David Downs & Dr. Michelle Dickinson show how the creative thinking that New Zealand has become renowned for is being expanded and improved.

New Zealand has always been the home of people who think differently. Those who challenge the prevailing way of thinking, who are happy to go against conventional wisdom and chart their own course. 

Conventional wisdom says New Zealand shouldn’t be a world leader in technology or science, but in some cases, we are. Conventional wisdom says that a small, agricultural nation should trade only milk, logs and wool, but technology is now the third-largest export sector, and the breadth of work going on in our science, ICT and technology industries is up there with the best in the world. Conventional wisdom says we are too small and too far away, to be relevant or have an impact, but increasingly we do.

The Māori people of New Zealand, the first settlers, call it the pōtiki spirit. Pōtiki is the name for the youngest child in a Māori family, the cheeky one, the smart one, the one who has no fear or inhibition. The famous demi-god, whose tales are so familiar to those who grew up in New Zealand (and now, thanks to the movie Moana, perhaps more broadly) was Māui Pōtiki. Māui pōtiki was the youngest brother who had the audacity to slow down the sun, and to bring fire into the world, and who hid on his brothers’ waka then fished up the North Island (‘Te Ika a Māui’).

"He was quick, intelligent, bold, resourceful, cunning and fearless, epitomising the basic personality structure idealised by Māori society. As a heroic figure, Māui served as a model to all teina (junior children) and in particular the last-born, that provided they had the determination and qualities displayed by Māui, they too could succeed in life."

- From the book "Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou — Struggle Without End" by Professor Ranginui Walker

This figure of Māui can be a metaphor for New Zealand itself. Young. Bold. Resourceful.

New Zealand was the last major land mass on the planet to be inhabited by humans, only around 1,000 years ago. The first people to come here were adventurers, pioneers, explorers. They had to innovate to survive, and come up with new ways of living that were better suited to their new environment. The Europeans (and other cultures) who followed later shared some of those characteristics. These adventurers were also typically second sons, the ones who couldn’t expect an inheritance and needed to forge their own path. They were on their own, a long way from help, and with only resourcefulness as their guide The spirit of all those pioneers still exists today – New Zealanders exemplify pōtiki when they take on the world with their technology and innovation from the bottom of the globe. New paradigms are developed from the edge, not the middle.

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This figure of Māui can be a metaphor for New Zealand itself. Young. Bold. Resourceful.

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THE INQUISITIVE AND BOLD

Ko ia kāhore neiirapu, tē kitea

He who does not seek will not find

In the native language of New Zealand, the name ‘Māui’ can be translated as Mā-te-ui, where ‘ui’ is ‘to question’. Māui, the great inquisitor. Māui never stopped asking questions, never stopped challenging. He was the son of two gods, but that didn’t stop him challenging them and the status quo. That challenger inquisitor nature still imbues the character of New Zealand today. Sociologists measure ‘power-distance ratio’, the idea that people will accept power as coming from hierarchy. No surprises that New Zealand has one of the lowest power-distance ratios in the world (along with Denmark and Israel, countries with whom we share several traits).

This low hierarchy model has served New Zealand well as we have developed, and results from the need to be self-sufficient early in our history. For each wave of settlers, we were on the edge of the world, where the old rules didn’t apply. They were unbounded and unfettered. New Zealanders are known for their healthy disrespect for hierarchy, and we haven’t let it develop in our short history.

There is an English word for this bucking of authority: upstart. If Israel is ‘The Startup Nation’, then New Zealand is surely ‘The Upstart Nation’. Upstarts like Burt Munro, who rode his home-tuned motorbike on the salt flats of Bonneville when everyone thought he would fail. Upstarts like Kate Sheppard, who decided that all women should be able to vote, and convinced other women (and men) to see that point of view and change the law – the first in the world to do so. Upstarts like the Māori warriors during early land wars with the British, who gave the Brits a lesson in how to fight trench warfare, which the British learned from and developed on in their own World War I campaigns. Upstarts like Samuel Parnell, who thought that 40 hours was plenty long enough for a working week, and mobilised a movement to change work conditions – ultimately for millions around the world.

The modern upstarts are the business entrepreneurs taking their ideas to the world, to disrupt and stake their place in the global economy. They are the ones climbing on planes, spending time in foreign markets, meeting with customers and suppliers, and showing that a ‘small’ country in the South Pacific can be the place where ideas come from.

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).