How do we get more of the innovative businesses New Zealand so desperately needs? Perhaps the answer lies in science.
The big challenge for New Zealand is to ensure that there are exciting jobs for bright people. There is good evidence that by getting young people, starting in primary school, turned on to science we will help them get into higher education (an early science background helps students get into a range of higher education subject areas), and so set up to take on the challenges of working in the new world of work. The risk is that they leave New Zealand for interesting jobs that have a future. The other part of the challenge then is to ensure that more entrepreneurs are setting up businesses that will provide these interesting jobs.
There is a link between the people development and the job development side of this challenge. The link is the encouragement of the ‘open-mindedness’ that seems critical both to success in complex jobs and in enhancing innovation.
Thinking beyond the economic approaches to developing an innovation ecosystem in New Zealand requires consideration of the Kiwi psyche. A scientific education encourages an analytical, reality-testing approach to working in the world.
Research into what makes New Zealand engineers effective indicates that openness (in the personality sense, this includes inquisitiveness, curiosity and lateral thinking ability) is a critical part of their capability.
But many of New Zealand’s business decision makers have come from a trades or accounting background. Investment in disruptive technologies does not fit with these people's business models because it doesn’t fit with their mental models of making do with existing approaches.
Creating complex jobs
Sir Paul Callaghan in his book Wool to Weta described a future New Zealand where grandparents read their grandchildren story books – by Skype. Not because they can, but because they have to – since their children have followed careers offering interesting work offshore, because New Zealand doesn’t have such opportunities.
Sir Paul was a consistent champion of developing more high-tech businesses. To achieve parity with Australia’s per capital GDP, as well as to ensure highly skilled and highly paid jobs, he estimated we need a further 1,000 businesses of the size of Fisher and Paykel Healthcare. While many Kiwis and some politicians are keen on the idea of more high-tech companies, not many such businesses are actually getting started.
The model for the development of innovative businesses has to be bringing science-trained people who are used to arguing the toss and challenging the way things are done into the business development zone. Dr Andrew Wilson, professor of physics at Otago University, has described doing that with his scientists (talking to Sir Paul Callaghan): "We got together with business people and started a discussion process to see what might emerge...those discussions led to the ideas for products, and from that came a start-up company" (Wool to Weta, p83).
We need to encourage our young people, ideally from primary years, to value the evidence-based and abstract reasoning requirements of a science focus. We need to bring science students and grads into close proximity with business, especially role models in product and business development.
We need to design work environments as campuses that bring people from universities, CRIs and businesses together to work on common problems and opportunities. Some of this is happening.
But what we as voters need to realise is that this is more important than who owns the farm or the power business. This is where our future could be, as we ensure that talented people see that their future could be in New Zealand.
Stewart Forsyth is an industrial psychologist working with knowledge-based businesses to help them get the best from their people. He blogs on work and personal development issues at persona-plus.com/blog
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