National Standards: The Great March To Mediocrity

The principal at my twelve year old son’s school wrote to parents this week illuminating her media reported comments in relation to the recently published “league tables” of school performance under the government’s misguided “National Standards” programme. Whilst generally supporting the inclusion of a standards based system within the school, the nationwide implementation of the programme has not been uniform, she explained. Consequently output data should not be regarded as reliable, because of differences in methodology across the country. That’s a diplomatic position to adopt, when you have a gun to your head.

Publishing “league tables” is a self-defeating exercise, I’m sure you will agree. But the media never lets facts get in the way of a good headline. There’s something about the way this whole issue has unfolded that makes me wonder what the real agenda is here. Even the title “national standards” is laced with threatening overtones, suggesting a march towards conformity and mindless mediocrity. But there is seemingly very little us concerned parents can do about it now. Typically, the media have chosen not to focus on the more important sociological questions around this issue. I guess teachers and principals just have to suck it up as well, even though many must find the foundational political ideology abhorrent.

The principal’s comments confirm what most intelligent observers already knew. National “standards” (or whatever variant is being used) are entirely subjective and can only possibly give a very approximate indication of where a child sits in relation to his peers. Who dreams this stuff up? Furthermore, because the focus seems to be on “meeting the standard”, rather than excelling, the entire exercise can only ever lead to academic mediocrity. This seems entirely contrary to fulfilling aspirations for better outcomes in key areas such as mathematics and sciences, which will underpin New Zealand’s economic development in the future.

I’m confident my child will succeed in spite of the vast amount of resources being wasted on this folly, so I’m not particularly concerned by what position the school takes. To be quite honest, I think we should instead be paying more attention to nurturing our childrens’ broader social, physical and intellectual development at this age, rather than trying to create a socially divisive and wholly artificial benchmark.

Yes, we parents are sitting up in class and paying attention. Will it make any difference now? Probably not. Even if there is a change of government next year, I doubt that National Standards will be entirely rolled back. Mandarins within the Ministry will see to that. Perhaps we should instead focus our energies on the really big battle looming, as foreshadowed by the merger plans outlined for schools in Christchurch. My child is the third generation in our family to proudly attend an intermediate school. I hope he won’t be the last.

Entrepreneur Bedtime Stories

“It was a dark and stormy night”. That’s how my Grandad used to begin his bedtime stories when I was a little lad. He was both a technology innovator and an entrepreneur, so hopefully some of it rubbed off on me. There’s certainly a lot to be said in favour of story-telling and narrative as a means of passing on knowledge.

Tuesday this week the Bright Ideas Challenge team from Grow Wellington are putting on Entrepreneur Storytime, an evening of anecdotes and stories from a diverse and successful group of local entrepreneurs. Speakers include Mark Clare – investment banker and web entrepreneur, Rachel Taulelei – founder of City Market and chairperson Wellington On A Plate, also Geoff Todd – CEO of both Trinity Bioactives and Viclink and CreativeHQ chairperson. Other speakers include Trent Mankelow who is a highly successful graduate of the CreativeHQ business incubator and Derelee Potroz-Smith, a finalist from last year’s Bright Ideas Challenge.

I’m particularly interested to hear Geoff’s story since he is a man with a foot in the camps of both academia and business, a rare and important breed of individual that New Zealand urgently needs at present. But it looks like an inspirational lineup overall and everybody is welcome to attend this free event. Registration essential.

 

 

W2W Strengthens Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Recently Unlimited Potential ran Wellington to the World (W2W), New Zealand’s leading showcase event for early stage web and software ventures. W2W is about building bridges, so we invite technology innovators, entrepreneurs and tech investors to network over beer and pizza and encourage young companies to share what they are working on through either talks or at the demo zone. This was the third year that we have run the event and  I’m personally very proud of what has been achieved so far.

Much of the progress that is being made in promoting technology entrepreneurship in New Zealand is underpinned by communities of interest that are flourishing right now. I shared some remarks about this at the opening of W2W in my capacity as Chairperson at Unlimited Potential. We think it’s important to support developer communities and start-up groups because they nurture the seeds of future ventures and provide a deep pool of knowledge for new entrepreneurs.

If you didn’t make it to the event this year, check out the W2W entrepreneur videos. There is also some images and an event review available.

Thank-you once again Wellington City Council, Grow Wellington, Viclink and Summer of Tech for helping make this event possible.

Research Week Brings Science Leaders Together

A winter retreat for scientists interested in medical research and biotechnology is bringing some of the world’s finest science researchers together for a week long convocation.

Queenstown has for many years played host to a number of research meetings across a diverse range of topics from molecular biology to neuroscience. Now these meetings are being clustered into a knowledge fest being labelled as Queenstown Research Week. It’s an opportunity for local researchers to mingle with and learn from some of the world’s leading minds from within the medical and biotech arenas.

It is also an opportunity for investors to hear about opportunities within biotech and to promote science commercialisation in general. No doubt there will also be some quiet analysis during the coffee breaks on whether or not there is any substance to Craig Venter’s recent pronouncement that life had been created in a test-tube.

Irrespective of one’s position on that particular topic, one thing is certain. Medical and biotechnological science is advancing at a rapid rate and such fields create wonderful opportunities to improve human quality of life, address environmental problems and deliver economic gains – provided these technologies are viewed with a robust ethical overlay.

More CRI Babies Needed

The government’s recent report examining funding and strategic governance of New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes (CRI) echoes what has been known for years by most participants in the nation’s technology innovation system. The existing funding model is broken and there are too many stakeholders, resulting in inefficiencies. But restructuring the bureaucracy alone will not be sufficient to ensure better returns from State investment in science.

The CRIs are tasked with a variety of social and economic objectives that range from enhancing and protecting the value of our primary sector through to identifying and managing environmental risks. A profit based model and traditional business metrics clearly does not work. The convoluted bidding process for funding of limited duration also does not ensure good science gets done; in some cases it actually impedes the process.

 There is certainly no shortage of excellent scientific research being done within these institutions right now and there remains potential to spin off more baby companies in the future. Here’s a few examples.

  • There are two existing spin-offs involved in high temperature semi-conductors and cable technology, an area that has huge economic returns and is largely untapped.
  • Last year’s New Zealand young scientist of the year (and W2W event  speaker) John Watt is working with CRI staff to look at the commercial applications of nano-particles in reducing motor vehicle emissions.
  • Government owned companies are sitting on huge amounts of seismic data that has the potential to attract oil and mineral prospecting, with comcomitant economic benefits.

But the CRIs encountered problems in the past through attempting to self fund the commercialisation of new science. Attracting smart money and building linkages offshore  must surely be the key to growing our knowledge based companies faster. The CRIs will have to find a new business model that reaches out globally, whilst balancing the need to retain some control of intellectual property and return value to NZ. They also need to make this process happen a lot quicker than in the past.

You can follow us on Twitter @GeniusNet

Science Funding Fix Obscures ICT Opportunity

It has taken almost a year, but the government is finally addressing the mechanisms and priorities around the funding of research, science and technology in New Zealand.

The government’s policy approach to funding science research hinges on maximising the economic and social benefits, building international linkages whilst protecting the natural environment. Better utilising the “scientific value chain” seems to be the chief driver behind the funding shake-up. Science leaders have long complained that they spend too much time doing paperwork and competing for funding, when their time is better spent doing actual science.

The draft policy document indicates that sectorial funding priorities will largely be governed by the interests of existing Crown Research Institutes (CRIs). That is not a bad thing, but it underlines what we have suspected for quite some time – ICT is no longer seen as a primary driver of value-added economic growth, despite its obvious importance as an enabler.

ICT is now bundled within “high technology industries”, although it is not clear what proportion of this funding will be dedicated to information technology. In fact “transformational manufacturing” seems rather to be the focus for this area. It seems odd that the government would allocate $1.5 billion to a broadband rollout without a simultaneous commitment to strengthening ICT research and commercialisation in order to capitalise on the opportunity.

You can read about and make submissions on the proposed policy here.

Cow-shit and Candyfloss Overcomes High Tech

In an interview for Unlimited Magazine, physicist and technology entrepreneur Paul Callaghan recounts meeting Prime Minister John Key at a business function. The PM had just stepped off the speaker’s podium where he had been talking up agriculture and tourism and expressing scepticism about the value of New Zealand’s technology sector to the economy. If that is the kind of leadership we are faced with, then I fear that the devaluation of our economic potential will continue unabated.

And before I’m accused over being overly harsh, let’s just look at this government’s track record since taking office well over six months ago:

  • Research & development tax credit reduced then cut altogether.
  • Fast Forward programme wiped and replaced with identical project with less funding.
  • I.T. worker redundancies from government agencies.
  • Negligible budget increase to RS&T vote.
  • Major cuts to tertiary education funding.
  • NZ Innovation Centre loses $15M in funding.
  • Reported $100M net loss to market development assistance programmes for exporters.

To be fair, we all knew that the Budget needed to be tough – even if Key and English can’t agree exactly why. Certainly borrowing to fund superannuation and tax cuts doesn’t make good fiscal sense; but neither does knee-capping your research, science and technology capability. To its credit, the government did provide additional resources to the Marsden Fund and a one-off operational grant to REANNZ the high speed research network. In the latter case, they obviously could not be seen to allow the research network to fail, whilst at the same time pouring billions into digging trenches for a brand new domestic network for which a proper economic business case has yet to be made.

Investing in and commercialising research will never be cheaper than today and you can be sure that our competitors in America and Europe are continuing to do it. I’ve said it before – when I look around town, it is the businesses that have invested in developing new technology that are still growing. It seems like the government is signalling it wishes to play less of a role in this arena. Dairy commodity prices are dropping again, so too are visitor numbers. The PM’s support for agriculture and tourism is no doubt uplifting for the cow-shit and candyfloss brigades, but it does little to bolster our GDP per capita output in the long term.

Wool to Weta by Paul Callaghan is available at all good bookstores and explains why research, science and technology is important to the New Zealand economy and why a unified vision is needed.

Merry Twitt-Mass

I’ve been resisting this for some time, but finally succumbed and opened an account at Twitter. And since Twitter now appear to have identified how they will make money, it’s clear that the increasingly popular micro-blogging service is here to stay.

Described alternately as “narcissistic and self indulgent” or (predictably) “the next killer app”, Twitter is like most things in life, there are pros and cons. If used judiciously it can be beneficial. It delivers me links to useful news and articles and it opens up another channel for me to share ideas. According to this explanatory webcast by O’Reilly Media, it’s also a “mood meter” for whatever is going in your sphere of interest. On the other hand, I don’t have any control over what I receive, once I subscribe to another user. So there are the vexing questions of truth and relevance. Do I really need all that additional information about somebody elses lifestream and how much of it is real anyway?!

But the really interesting part about Twitter is that it has the power to aggregate a huge global community. At present Twitterdom is largely confined to geeks, technophiles and early adopters. But that’s exactly what you’d expect at this point in its evolution. I think that will change. What will make the difference is when other communities realise that Twitter can work for them too. For example, there are lots of third world countries where Internet access is poor but mobile phone access is ubiquitous. So what better way to keep in touch with friends and family, when back-packing, than by micro-blogging via your mobile. Maybe even criminal dictators like Mugabe will be unseated by Twitter campaigns in the future?

But what really sold me on joining up was two things. Firstly a friend introduced me to TwitterEarth where you can spot tweets from all over the globe. OK so it’s a wee bit gimmicky, but it demonstrates how interesting new opportunities will spring up from the paradigm shift towards micro-blogging. Secondly I read a great article about how to use Twitter as a marketing tool. Suddenly I could see some value in it for me. It also occurred to me that Twitter is a great case study for the kind of mental transition our business will need to think about engendering as we push our own technology projects out into the global marketplace, such as our recently released site iWantMyName.

Looking forward to some “tasty Tweets” from you all over the Festive Season. And by the way, I promise not to squawk more than once or twice a day.

http://twitter.com/GeniusNet

Digital IP Strategy Needs More User Input Less Govt.

Last week I spent a day at the inaugural Digital Development Forum meeting, along with about 150 plus other well-meaning representatives of stakeholder organisations from the New Zealand ICT sector. One of the messages to emerge out of this meeting was that a lot of people are concerned about where the new copyright legislation is heading.

Almost everyone agrees that we urgently need to address the existing law, because it is woefully inadequate given the rapid changes in technology that are occurring. In fact the whole issue of intellectual property protection is receiving attention globally for this very reason. The current system doesn’t really work that well anymore, given the rapid rate of ICT innovation.

But the chief complaint with the New Zealand legislative changes seems to be that there is an imposition upon ISPs to police Internet use and to deactivate recalcitrant abusers and that the government has not listened to industry concerns. That is ironic because Digital Development NZ projects itself as being the industry mouthpiece in the ear of a government that is committed to listening to the industry.

So in a (rare) demonstration of unity the industry has asked that implementation of the legislation be delayed pending further input. But since the amendment to the Copyright Act Bill was actually passed months ago, one has to wonder whether or not these concerns were raised when the legislation was at Select Committee stage over a year ago. Or was the ISP policing clause inserted discretely afterwards?

In any event, the copyright legislation (and the DDNZ Forum) are unlikely to have any affect at all on teenagers and other so called “digital natives” whose lifestyles revolve around ripping off and re-mashing creative content from a variety of sources. Last week’s forum meeting was an invitation only event dominated by middle-aged public servants and well paid industry lobbyists in nice suits and comfortable shoes.

—————————————————-

e-Day Approaching

Perhaps the most useful outcome of my day at the forum was that I met Lawrence Zwimpfer, who is organising the nationwide e-Day event to be held on Saturday the 4th of October. e-Day is a great initiative that provides a free disposal and recycling service for owners of old or unused computer and cell phone gear. So there is no excuse for biffing all that obsolescent junk in the landfill.

They could really use some more volunteers to help out on the day in over 30 venues around New Zealand too! You can sign up here.

Maori Lexicon Spins Off Pod of Projects

orcaEnglish has prevailed as both the accepted language of commerce and as a dominant language on the Internet.  But vast numbers of non-English speaking web users are demanding that the Internet become truly internationalised. That presents an opportunity for innovators able to span cultural divides with enabling technologies.

 My mate Dave Moskowitz always has a few interesting web based projects on the boil whenever we chat. So I was pleased to hear that the online Maori dictionary  for speakers of Te Reo has finally come to fruition after much hard work. The project also complements the excellent English-Maori online dictionary and language resource kete provided by Te Whanake.

Significantly, the collaborative open source tool set used to develop the lexicography is now to be deployed in other settings globally. Apart from projects involving translation of Hawaiian and Burmese Karen into English there is an intriguing local project involving research and preservation of Maori legal documents dating from the 19th Century. No doubt there will be a steady stream of enquiries once word circulates about this unique platform. The timing could not have been better, with the recent launch of the Maori version of Google.

As the Internet becomes more and more pervasive, there is a risk of imposing a dull monoculture on its users, particularly on indigenous peoples. And with the increasing affluence of non-English speaking regions such as the Middle East and Asia, the demand for translation tools and non-English web content must surely grow exponentially. Platforms developed in multicultural New Zealand are well positioned to take advantage of this growth and to encourage diversity on the Web.

—————————————————-

Entrepreneur’s Epilogue

It was a defining moment last week when ideegeo took up residency and became a foundation member at Altspace in downtown Wellington. Not a moment too soon. There has been a surge of progress, with our European partner company suddenly in a position to provide a steady stream of consultancy work. More importantly my CTO and his long-suffering (but very understanding) lady were getting heartily sick of us running the business out of their spare bedroom.

Altspace is a shared workspace for start-up companies and independent contractors, providing a communal office site complete with power, Internet and furnishings plus access to a kitchenette and toilets. Being centrally located it is handy for both casual day trippers and long term users who need a base for business. Altspace director Steven Heath will be on hand at the Geeks, Games and Gadgets ’08 expo to talk about the venue which he also hopes to make available to local I.T. user groups.

I will miss the view out the bedroom window however. On our first day of working together there was a pod of Orca playing in the shallows of the South Coast right below us. I took that as a good omen.