It’s Life Jim…

Bernard Hickey’s curious opinion piece in the Herald this week reminded me of a famous quip from Star Trek. “It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.” Normally I enjoy Hickey’s rants, because he frequently questions the boring, unimaginative style of economic management and fiscal policy that we currently have to endure in New Zealand. The new Reserve Bank governor shows little sign of demonstrating any more initiative than the previous incumbent, so it’s important that the media stand up and heckle occasionally. But I’m going to call out Hickey on his stance regarding Auckland’s housing crisis, which sits a world apart from the situation across rest of New Zealand.

Advocating for high rise, in-fill housing in central Auckland is a bit like shooting the goose that laid the golden egg. The lack of housing in the region is because large numbers of  economic migrants have been increasingly attracted to Auckland due to it’s unique lifestyle and are arriving at a faster rate than can be accomodated at a time of low investment in housing. However, if the Auckland CBD is transformed into downtown Kowloon, with row upon row of identical, tasteless concrete apartments, the city will presumably become somewhat less attractive to migrants intent on escaping the very same kind of environment. There is a more obvious solution.

Even us Wellingtonians understand that Auckland is (currently) the economic centre of gravity for New Zealand and we certainly endorse the assistance provided as Christchurch struggles to rebuild. Furthermore, with most of the present government senior cabinet members originating from either Auckland or Christchurch regions, it’s been clear for some time where the chief investment focus lies. In the meantime Wellington is languishing with one of the lowest economic growth rates of any region, despite its diverse economic base.

Business activity here in our region powerfully leverages a creative workforce and increasingly invigorates high value, knowledge based export businesses. Provincial areas such as Northland, Gisborne and Wanganui have mild climates and vast tracts of land available, yet are also struggling. Other areas such as Manawatu and Taranaki have held their own, thanks to the dairy boom. But the economic benefits of those returns are no longer shared throughout the community, because of the increasing trend towards corporate farming and centralised processing. What can be done to redress this imbalance?

Surely, if Auckland is bursting at the seams and Christchurch is still awaiting re-building, would it not make sense to actively redirect economic investment and migration to less favoured provincial areas, where it could do most good? Or is that too obvious to contemplate?

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Old Industries Are The Pits

Railways, coal mining and industrial scale manufacturing were all economic activities that had their origins in the 19th Century. This week has not been a good one for anyone employed in those businesses in New Zealand, with widespread redundancies having been announced. The reasons for the collapse of these industries differ, but they share the historical hallmarks of “creative destruction” as expounded by Austrian economist Schumpeter.

Schumpeter was remarkably prescient for a man of his time. Drawing upon the political organisational theories of both Marx and Weber he concluded that innovation was the primary driver of economic change and that every industry was subject to a cycle of emergence, ascendance and decay. He controversially proposed that democracy could never truly empower the ordinary citizen because the electorate were largely ill-informed or ignorant. His predictions that social democratic governments would emerge in the West (rather than socialist revolution) have largely come true.

None of this will be of any consolation to our miners, factory workers and railway engineers. But it does underline precisely why we need to be moving up the value chain through exporting our knowledge rather than relying upon filthy, dangerous and extractive commodity based industries. After more than a decade talking about it, the penny has finally dropped and the government is now attempting to reorganise commercialisation of publicly funded research and has been increasing the investment in research, science and technology. Bullish talk by government ministers about opening up more public land for mineral exploitation also seems to have faded for the time being. That’s why I spend a lot of my time promoting and supporting knowledge based entrepreneurship and emerging technologies and industries.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Aussie Rules?

My annual escape to the West Island always provides plenty of food for thought and this visit has been no exception. Australia is a nation of rule makers, a trait complicated by the fact that there are both federal laws and those laid down by state governments – and they sometimes do not align comfortably.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is under seige at present after ushering in new taxation regimes aimed at redressing both climate change and mineral exploitation rights. The Minerals Resource Rent Tax takes a small percentage of the billions of dollars of profits generated from mineral extraction and redirects it towards infrastructure projects and social needs. It’s a brave effort in wealth redistribution by a government with a wafer thin parliamentary majority. The new Carbon Tax creates an impost on the 500 largest polluters in the “Lucky Country” and will largely be passed on to consumers, although it will be rebalanced to a large degree by tax reductions for small business and low income earners.

In a bizarre move, the Queensland State government is in the process of taking the federal government to court, to oppose the resource tax. Queensland has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the infrastructure spend up that has helped keep the Australian economy bouyant throughout the GFC. The Sunshine State is brimming over with new roads, bridges and public amenities such as the $2 billion regional hospital construction about to get underway north of Brisbane.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is reveling in the negative media attention, with an election looming next year however. It’s payback time after being narrowly defeated at the polls last time around and therein lies the worry. Abbott is a conservative, former Catholic seminary student turned political hack, famous for rolling his predecessor in protest against his own party supporting a carbon emissions trading scheme. Abbott has a short fuse and a penchant for firing up the red-neck right. He recently called foreign asylum seeking boat people “un-Christian” for immigrant queue jumping and wants the Navy to turn back boats on the high seas by force ( a position that reportedly horrifies senior military analysts). His latest gaffe was to elevate the New Zealand government as a shining example of economic management, when all our performance indicators in fact remain below that of Australia’s.

It remains to be seen who will be making Aussie’s rules after the election in 2013. Whatever the outcome, we should take note of Gillard’s formula for addressing social and environmental concerns in the context of Australia’s windfall from the minerals boom. Our own government has recently backed away from acting likewise in terms of our wealth-creating but polluting commodity based primary industries. Perhaps we should review that stance in light of Australia’s approach.

Shifting The Economic Goalposts

Economist Brian Gaynor’s recent article on why we will never “catch up” to Australia was another sobering reminder of the hard road that New Zealand has ahead. Invoking a sporting analogy by beating Australia may be a popular rally to arms, but it focuses public attention on completely the wrong set of goalposts.

Another sobering occasion was when we sadly learned of the passing of Sir Paul Callaghan, one of New Zealand’s most passionate science communicators and technology entrepreneurs. Sir Paul lived every moment and notably even turned his cancer treatment regime into an experiment. More importantly he was one of the most ardent promoters of science and technology commercialisation as a means of growing New Zealand’s economy.

“Sir Paul was a true public intellectual who earned the respect of everyone, including those who disagreed with him”, stated the government’s sternly worded Ministerial press release reporting news of Sir Paul’s death. Curiously, outside of Cabinet, I can’t name a single (intelligent) person who actually disagreed with his thesis that New Zealand urgently needs to ramp up economic growth through more investment in research, science and technology commercialisation, rather than continuing with an over-reliance on flogging unprocessed, environmentally unsustainable dairy commodities to the world.

To its credit, the government has finally moved to increase research funding and there are more frequent mutterings along the lines of “doing something” about uncovering intellectual property locked up within our many publicly funded institutions. But those of us who looked on frustrated over the last decade as the “Knowledge Wave” withered on the vine, are becoming more and more concerned that the opportunity to fully promote science and technology as an economic driver is disappearing.

Beyond pumping more cash into research, we need a huge cultural shift involving both governmental agencies and the public mindset. As clean-tech entrepreneur Nick Gerritsen stated at a recent seminar, “we need more millionaire scientists and fewer millionaire sportsmen”. With the loss of Professor Callaghan, I’m left wondering who will be brave enough to pick up the mantle.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

Attacks On Economic Agency Unfair

Grow Wellington may have failed to trumpet its successes loudly enough, but it doesn’t deserve the criticism that is currently being heaped upon it as the seriously flawed Wellington regional economic strategy (WRS) has undergone review. The economic development agency has done a relatively good job of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear within a recessionary environment in which the central government focus has been on other parts of the country.

It beggars belief that plans are afoot to abscond with $600K of the agency’s annual budget to fund the WRS office to “administer” the strategy. It’s not clear how creating another layer of bureaucracy will enhance the region’s economic performance however. Past complaints by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce demonstrate a deep ignorance of the outstanding network building and facilitation work that Grow Wellington has undertaken and the cheap attacks look like nothing more than a desperate attempt by the Chamber to remain relevant.

Last year’s Rugby World Cup was a pleasant distraction for some, but an economic fizzer for the region overall, as predicted by every study looking at the long term value of such large scale events. But sound academic research and global best practice has never been the basis for the regional economic strategy, a document that was prepared by local management consultants. At no time did the strategy charge Grow Wellington with researching and advocating on regional infrastructure and accordingly the organisation does not employ researchers or economists. One would have thought this was in fact the Chamber’s role, hence their criticism should be directed inwards.

Wellington needs better public transport, an infusion of entrepreneurial culture plus more and ongoing investment into productive and high value parts of the economy, including facilitating foreign capital. On the other side of the ledger, we also need to preserve the quality of life that we currently enjoy because this is the basis for skilled migrant attraction. Look around – at least half of the technology start-ups in the region have been created by recent arrivals. That is an economic success story that should be told far more often.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

Building Our Innovation Ecosystem

Innovation, incubation and competitiveness are firmly back on the political agenda. 2011 has been a busy year, with the government setting about reforming publicly funded scientific research and reconfiguring IRL in an effort to drive more commercialisation activity in the technology sector. The government funded trade agency has also been talking up successes from its incubator programme. In the meantime, the recently formed Productivity Commission has quietly begun developing an academic framework to address infrastructural inefficiencies in the New Zealand economy.

In this context, it was unsurprising to see some recent commentary that was highly critical of the manner in which government gets involved in innovation and business. More specifically, Rowan’s comments alluded to some deficiencies in the methodologies being employed by business incubators when advising software start-ups. Notwithstanding the fact that incubators are generalists and lack the huge depth of experience and background of success that Rowan brings to his own web and software ventures, there were some fair criticisms which pleasingly generated a lot of intelligent follow-up discussion.

Where I parted company with this debate however was when the tone shifted towards questioning the necessity for providing events to engage the start-up community. Most readers will be aware that I’m deeply involved in organising such activities in addition to my role as a co-founder of a couple of tech companies. One of these companies is pre-revenue start-up, the other is growth phase and profitable. Being involved in the community is a deliberate strategy which is partly altruistic (because it’s fun), but also good for business. We are only as strong as the people around us.

The government’s moves to redefine how we approach identifying and commercialising high value science and technology based ventures are oxygen for our economic flame; so too are the various contributions made by formal incubators, informal “innovation hubs”, university commercialisation offices and the various business related events and competitions. The Ministry of Science & Innovation’s report on Powering Innovation even talks about “…the creative connection of talented minds across discipline boundaries“. We do not need to emulate Silicon Valley, but we should learn from that ecosystem model.

Around the world, entrepreneurship is increasingly seen as both a legitimate career option for young people and a growth spark in an otherwise dull economy. At a time when youth unemployment stands at around 30% in New Zealand, we cannot afford to ignore the opportunity of infusing young people with an entrepreneurial spirit. I recently attended the 30th anniversary celebration of the Young Enterprise Trust. This organisation provides entrepreneurship programmes for high schools and counts such luminaries as Rod Drury and Seeby Woodhouse amongst its alumni, demonstrating the importance of a community approach to entrepreneurship education.

Building an entrepreneurial and export focused culture has never been so important as now, with traditional models breaking down faster than ever. Knowledge sharing and relationship building within and amongst our specialist communities is foundational to strengthening our innovation ecosystem. We can no longer afford to operate in silos or to make the assumption that there is only a single approach to building cool businesses that solve real problems and generate economic returns.

A Day In The Life

I’ve been doing a lot of writing for other blogs lately to help promote the Wellington start-up and innovation scene. So I thought it was about time I posted something on GeniusNet for a change. It has been a crazy but exciting time.

We are about to have our first Wellington Startup Weekend, the Bright Ideas Challenge has just drawn to a close and it has been a busy year at Unlimited Potential. We are also working with a couple of young entrepreneurs through our pre-incubation initiative at ideegeo and of course there is the day-to-day operational side of iWantMyName to take care of.

Fortunately we take our community role very seriously at iWantMyName and are pleased that we are now in a position to contribute some time and resources to various tech and innovation events around town. It’s part of our business DNA, so to speak.  I’m also involved with another initiative called 100Plus that aims to deliver an exciting regional technology innovation event in 2012. Early days, but we already have some good partners on board. Watch this space.

Part of the reason the start-up scene has so much energy at present is that our local economic development agency Grow Wellington have put in a huge effort over the last couple of years. There’s a growing understanding that community building and knowledge sharing are pivotal to developing (and maintaining) an entrepreneurial culture. As a society we also need to be prepared to take some risks and make investments in research, science and technology related businesses, full in the knowledge that only some will succeed.

Governmental agencies are sometimes criticised for spending public money on “picking winners”. That’s a little unfair. The alternative approach is not to celebrate our successes. All of us in business need a little inspiration and encouragement periodically, especially in these challenging economic times.

100+ Rewiring The Productive Economy

We live in interesting times. Last month I attended a seminar looking at productivity in the New Zealand economy and how we can improve. The most overwhelming aspect of the event however was that most of the attendees were white, male and aged 50 or older. Furthermore, much of the focus was on making changes to macroeconomic settings, rather than making an attitudinal shift. If we are to address this issue in a meaningful way we need to engage with a far broader church, including politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and investors from across the spectrum who are committed to change – not just economists.

With our over-dependence on high volume, low value food commodities to generate income and an over-investment in non productive assets such as property, we have seen per capita income dropping rapidly over the last decade. The flow-on effect has been a return to net outwards migration at levels unseen in the last thirty years. New Zealand is close to entering a death spiral, in terms of an inability to pay for social services in the future, if we don’t fix this right now! Within the next thirty years we will reach a tipping point at which a minority of the population is working to support the dependent majority.

Each speaker at the seminar was tasked with presenting a simple, yet radical idea that could move the goalposts on productivity, in an effort to stem the flow of emigrants and ensure we can fund our future. Some of the ideas were downright batty, but at least people were thinking and talking – which is more than successive governments have achieved so far. In fact, perhaps the single biggest issue is leadership inaction in the face of political expediency. It will take more than speeches and a cup of tea to solve these problems. So here’s my ten cents worth.

It seems we can easily find $10 million to build a temporary booze hall for rugby patrons on Auckland’s waterfront, yet we continue to struggle to provide a coordinated approach to identifying and commercialising world class science in New Zealand. If the government lacks the gumption to look beyond a three year electoral cycle, then the private sector must take a stronger leadership position on the matter.

There’s plenty of cash sloshing around in superannuation funds, but if it means accessing foreign capital and connections to get on with the job, so be it. Endeavour capital see the opportunity, why not others? We should aim for 100+ Lanzatech or Endace type companies. That requires making project opportunities transparent and going big, whilst retaining a NZ Inc. stake in the intellectual property. It means identifying top talent to lead commercialisation. It will also require a complete change of mindset in some of the more conservative knowledge silos around the country.

 

 

 

CGT A Setback For Innovation

The Global Innovation Index judges nations’ progress against a basket of parameters including infrastructure, research output plus market stability and institutional strength. In 2010 New Zealand surged ahead to 9th place out of 125 countries after languishing at 27 the previous year. But in 2011 we dropped back a little to 15th place, or more correctly, we were slightly overtaken by our close competitors U.S., U.K., Ireland and Canada. Whilst there’s no need for alarm, we must remain vigilant that government keeps the right settings in place and that businesses continue to take advantage of global opportunities by leveraging our creativity and growing new knowledge. I remain optimistic.

Last week I attended the outstanding Ice Ideas conference presented by the much lauded Icehouse business incubator which has a close relationship with the University of Auckland and has been involved in raising $50 million in funding for high-tech companies in the ten years since its inception. The incubator has now set itself the goal of achieving 3000 new business launches over the next decade. It’s an unashamed grab for more deal flow and a call to action for the community to support the initiative financially, for the betterment of NZ Inc.

Incubation is certainly a valuable aspect of the overall innovation ecosystem and I applaud these efforts. But we must also ensure that other structural features are strengthened, not undermined. Not the least of these is ensuring that the spectre of a capital gains tax (CGT) on business asset sales never sees the light of day. On the other hand, some kind of modest taxation of gains on speculative property transactions certainly has merit, in order to encourage more productive forms of investment. Unfortunately the two issues, although related, tend to become intertwined in the minds of the public as politicians desperately seek to gain a foothold.

A capital gains tax on business sales would discourage investment and accelerate the loss of talent offshore by taking away one of the key competitive advantages that we have over other developed economies. It may also have a negative impact on New Zealand’s standing as an innovative and business investment friendly destination.

Speaker presentations from the Ice Ideas conference are available here.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

Parting Of The Waters

Matt McCarten’s piece in the Herald last weekend once again laments the passing of waterfront unionism and 1950s style welfare. But it teaches us nothing at all about the real reasons why the exodus to Australia continues unabated, nor about the real challenge that lies ahead.

Our kids aren’t leaving because welfare got dismantled, nor even because silly old men say dumb things in public sometimes. They are leaving because successive governments of all hues have consistently failed to create and pursue an overriding grand vision that diversifies the NZ economy away from relatively low value agricultural commodities and tourism towards applied science, technology and value added services. They are also leaving because we live in a much more open and global society than the one he longs for.

I agree with McCarten that concerted attempts to lower wages for youth are misguided. We actually need to increase per capita income – across the board. That means creating more opportunities to generate wealth and it means cultivating a highly educated workforce that thrives on such opportunity and has a sense of purpose. We can’t compete on size, so we must compete with our brains and our wit instead.

I believe New Zealand is already at a cross roads. Whilst on the one hand we have recently suffered the worst recession and most devastating natural disaster of our lifetimes, we also exist at a time in history when two huge global economic powerhouses are emerging on our doorstep. Instead of lamenting the loss of skills to Australia, we should be working in close partnership with our western cousins to build global companies that are capable of taking our talent into these developing markets. Parting the waters of the Tasman Sea need not be a negative.

Our children have become the first generation of global citizens that have been digitally connected since birth. It may not matter that they reside in Sydney but commute to an office in Auckland or Shanghai. What matters is that we instill a deep desire to build something that creates value for New Zealand. Kiwis should not be discouraged from going global, they should be emboldened. Next week I’m heading to the Ice Ideas conference. I’m looking forward to being inspired by fellow entrepreneurs who have done exactly that.