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The upstart nation, part 2: Reframing our worldview

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 second 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.

Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu

Although it is small, it is precious

Sometimes the people who need convincing are as much their fellow compatriots as they are customers. New Zealand’s self-image, our internal narrative, doesn’t always exemplify the boldness or pōtiki spirit it could. Like any younger brother or sister, we have moments of comparing ourselves to our older siblings, or fearing our accomplishments might not be as impactful. We can come across as too tentative, a little unsure of our own potential.

Our international Trade Commissioners (the people asked to help New Zealand companies succeed internationally in foreign markets) see this all too often. A tentativeness or lack of self-belief can creep in. Kiwi companies can do all the hard work to get a great product into an international market, and then when asked to explain its virtues say, ‘Oh, it’s nothing much.’ Modesty and a lack of arrogance forms part of the reason we can be like this, but so too does a pervasive feeling of ‘Am I good enough? Who am I to say I am great when I come from a small country at the bottom of the world?’

This self-deprecation is disappearing, but not fast enough. The small can influence the large – in Māori, the concept is that iti (small, precious) can transform nui (large, important). The companies in our book are showing how to do exactly that, in the decisions they make daily.

Besides, if we really do have a chip on our shoulder about being small, we can choose to view this differently. We have a larger land area than the United Kingdom. The entire ‘Startup Nation’ of Israel could fit between Taupō and Wellington. We control three times the airspace of the United States. We have the ninth-longest coastline of any country in the world. We have one of the largest sea territories of any country. We have our own space agency and international treaties allowing us to launch rockets into outer space. By these metrics, we are not small, we are significant. But in today’s world, achievements speak louder than assets.

The legendary ‘tyranny of distance’, which made it so difficult to get our products and services to world markets, is disappearing. We can order Bluff oysters in a Seoul restaurant that were harvested only 24 hours ago. We can get Marlborough wine, Hawke’s Bay apples, or a Les Mills gym session virtually anywhere. In the technology sector in particular, this distance factor is much less of an issue, and we have teams of software developers in New Zealand delivering to customers globally, every day, working in their shorts and T-shirts with the cicadas chirping outside the window. It’s a blessed position to be in.

Population-wise, we have just under five million people; not the largest country in the world, but not the smallest. Many of the companies and people we talked to told stories of the ‘two degrees of separation’ we have in New Zealand – with a small population we are more interconnected, it’s easy to ‘know someone who knows someone’. A number of founders gave us stories of serendipitous meetings with great connections and ‘just the person I needed to meet’. Not all that lucky when you think about it; rather it’s a function of clever people in a small space.

Besides, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog, and for many years we Kiwis have established a reputation for ‘punching above our weight’. It’s a cliché, but it seems to be true, if you look at the achievements of expats from Kea (New Zealand’s expatriate network), or read the New Zealand Edge website. Look to the tall poppies for inspiration.

Read part 1 here.

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).