March For Science Matters

Last weekend’s March For Science may have been largely symbolic, but it was important. When a government appoints a rabid climate change denier to perform a hatchet job on its own environmental agency, you know that somebody has seriously lost the plot and voices need to be heard.

Interestingly even China is now becoming increasingly concerned around problems created by climate change and has committed to refactoring the economy towards green energy. It’s a bit like trying to turn around a super-tanker, but I suppose you have to start somewhere. But it is very difficult to reconcile that technologically adept nations such as the United States are going in the opposite direction to almost everyone else on the globe.

The role of science in economic growth and development has long been established. Science driven technological innovation has been a key contributor to our advancement as a species over the last few hundred years. From health to computing to space exploration, science has been at the base of almost every step forward. We live longer and more fulfilling lives, largely due to scientific discoveries.

Conversely, science has arguably also been responsible for some of our backward steps. Industrialisation, internal combustion engines and nuclear weapons are also products of the science lab. Science therefore is no panacea. The philosophical and morale context around science is ever-changing and what seemed like a good idea 50 years ago might be framed very differently by future generations. Scientific theories also evolve over time as new ideas emerge and get tested and old ideas are discarded.

What we do know is that the scientific method provides a solid basis for exploring and understanding our world. Discarding rational thought in favour of rumour and outright lies may be a successful political strategy, but it will certainly not help us to address the pressing social, health and environmental issues in the world.

Paul Spence originally completed a B.Sc. degree in Applied Geophysics and was previously employed as a support meteorologist in the aviation industry. He is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Polanyio and a mentor with Startup Weekends and Lightning Lab. GeniusNet is working to support global environmental projects through its portfolio companies.

You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Ashes To Ashes 2016. Now Welcome To 2017

Let’s face it, last year was a pretty shit year for fans of popular music and culture. I don’t care what the statisticians say, the catalogue of highly talented stars that made premature exits in 2016 was exceptional and shocking. However the media were (mostly) too polite to mention that the collective drug consumption of the dearly departed probably supported a number of small South American nations’ economies throughout the 1970’s and 80s. All tragic losses, but perhaps not entirely unexpected.

Less predictable was the outcome of the U.S. election, a result so unpalatable that we can only hope that the American political establishment will find a way to put matters right, before there is a very nasty accident involving long range armaments or fiscal collapse. One way or another, I very much doubt Trump will see out his four year term. The Brexit debacle was equally disturbing and was also another example of a poorly informed, inward looking minority being allowed far too much influence. But of course it would not be democracy if we excluded people with double-digit IQ and questionable heredity from voting.

At a time when irrational fear, regional isolationism and misguided notions of nationalism seem to be taking root globally once again – it is important that thinkers give voice to their concerns loudly and often. Important because intellectualism usually becomes an early victim of the mob, when rational thought gives way to populism and slogans. History repeatedly shows us that this never ends well.

So I was at first encouraged when I read this opinion piece on how we all need to work together to create a sustainable economic future for New Zealand. Whilst I certainly agree with the sentiments, I disagree that this approach is predicated on Auckland as the “centre of innovation” for New Zealand. In fact the problems of Auckland are analogous to arterial thrombosis. If the heart fails, the entire body will die – and that’s a big issue for all of us in New Zealand. Regional relationships and complex networks are the better approach, as I have discussed previously, with regional linkages and multiple innovation hubs.

For my part this year, I intend to continue to connect entrepreneurs and innovators from across New Zealand and abroad and to contribute economically by working on growing the businesses we have under the GeniusNet portfolio and (hopefully) add one or two more during the year. I will also continue to speak out on issues, especially those that relate to economic development. It is about time the citizenry had greater influence over decisions than those self-serving politicians whose main aim is building grandiose edifices to themselves. Here’s something good from 2016 that gives the world hope in this regard. Thanks Audrey.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Polanyio and a mentor with Startup Weekends and Lightning Lab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Mrs Clinton Misses

clownObserving the U.S. election result unfold was very much like watching a slow motion train wreck – ugly but also fascinating. That an arrogant, racist, misogynist with no experience of political office could even make a party nomination (let alone win the presidency) speaks volumes about a badly broken America and a failed political system.

No doubt there will be endless soul-searching and detailed media analysis of the result. But the media are themselves thoroughly complicit in this disaster. Ironically the Washington Post best summed up the situation with an introspective opinion piece on how the liberal media’s self-satisfying world view completely ignored the real story of growing pain and dissatisfaction in heartland America. The Republican president-elect appears to have successfully tapped the disenfranchised, angry (and largely uneducated) under-belly of American society in the same way that Brexiteers and Far Right have damaged Europe.

The presidential candidates collectively spent an estimated $3 billion on their campaigns. Imagine how many small businesses could have been created, roads repaired or schools upgraded with that money. The new president may have a majority Republican senate to lean upon, but he will not be able to deliver on the economic pump priming and rejuvenation of the sunset economy that he implied during his campaign. Grassroots supporters and swing voters will have four years to contemplate their error of judgement.

The political elite woke up this morning smelling the rotten corpse of the “American Dream”. It remains to be seen whether or not the nation can be reunified with a changing of the guard. The traditional approach to doing so is to find a diversion in a common enemy. That is also a disturbingly real possibility with the next administration and a chilling prospect for all of us.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Is Lean Thinking Killing Creative Thinking?

As a frequent Startup Weekend mentor (and co-founder of a successful boot-strapped tech company), I have had plenty of real life exposure to the doctrines of lean startup. But a recent experience has started me questioning whether we are doing ourselves a disservice through slavish adherence to lean methodology and an overly prescriptive approach to starting up.

Let me be clear. The Lean Startup framework provides a solid foundation for anyone who has not previously been in business and for whom resources are scarce. Starting a business is hard and developing a new business model is especially difficult. Coming from a science background, I’m very interested in how Lean Startup takes an experimental approach to testing hypotheses. This makes a lot of good sense. What makes less sense is when being Lean constrains our imaginations.

But I think there’s a way to resolve these tensions. There are two fundamental issues faced by a new startup and (to put it bluntly) not much else really matters outside of these two.

  1. Are you addressing a real problem that people will pay you money to solve?
  2. Can you position your solution in front of those people?

If you can answer these two essential questions, you have a shot at building a business. If not, fail fast and start over. At the forefront of your mind should be that customers are your chief source of capital, not investors. Engaging with customers early and identifying their problems is essential. Gaining venture funding is not a business model. Most businesses in the real world are NOT funded by venture capitalists.

By all means deploy Lean Thinking in your startup to discover customers, create value and extend your runway without becoming reliant on external funding. Indeed, a successful first product iteration that earns an income stream can provide a pathway to explore bigger ideas in the future. But please don’t let Lean Thinking kill your dreams. Many of the greatest tech companies started small and created their own markets. Be an entrepreneur scientist. Keep experimenting. Entrepreneurship is a creative endeavour, which is why many of us are drawn to it.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Has Britain Gone Mad?

cowThe United Kingdom seems to have become infected with another case of “mad cow” disease, if the events of the past few weeks are any indication. Prime Minister-elect Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson to the post of Foreign Secretary seems designed to maximise offense to Britain’s neighbours, already reeling from the extraordinary Brexit campaign, of which Johnson was himself a prominent supporter.

May’s appointment of Johnson should be no surprise however. Three days into the job, she has already been accused of pandering and being inconsistent in her position on foreign investment, amongst other issues. The Boris appointment is either an awkward misjudgement or a clever ploy to undermine the entire Brexit process – which she quietly opposed during her time as a senior cabinet minister.

The new Prime Minister also seems in no hurry to start the exit negotiations and who can blame her. The Brexit debacle has plunged the UK into it’s biggest political and economic crisis since World War Two, say some commentators. Furthermore the exit vote was not exactly a landslide. There might yet be more water to flow under the Euro bridge as Britain stares down the barrel of an estimated 5-10 year recession as the full implications of Brexit take hold.

In a world of uncertainty, now is not the time for isolationism and petty parochialism. Britain has benefited enormously from its previously close relationship with the Continent, but the stayer camp failed to make this case sufficiently strongly. May was complicit in this, in her efforts to appease all sides and pave the way for her own career development. That in itself is a clear illustration of why the British government is failing its people at present. The vested self-interest of a minority of over-puffed political personalities has overcome common sense.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Twitter Tweaks

twit2There’s no doubting that, in terms of social impact, Twitter has been a shining beacon of light in a world of largely vacuous and self-absorbed social media content. Therein lies its strength. But considering that the company has received over $1 billion in venture funding since 2007, you would think they might have settled upon a viable business model by now.

Legions of internet commentators have already weighed in on whether or not Twitter can ever salvage a real business from its existing offering. I hope they can. Twitter is my preferred outlet for social media content, for a number of good reasons. It allows me to receive, share and comment on high value content whilst retaining a degree of privacy that is not offered by other services.

But a recent article in Inc illustrates that Twitter has a problem of perception. At present it is not clear to potential new users whether or not Twitter will evolve into anything other than a “stream of consciousness”. So there might be a finite limit to how far Twitter can grow. That’s not a problem for me in the least, but it will be a problem for Twitter’s investors. There is a certain irony however in suggesting that in order to innovate, grow and survive, Twitter must become like the other big platforms. Arguably Twitter already has many platform features. It connects content creators with consumers and allows a certain amount of freedom in terms of user curation. So the next step might involve further reducing the friction for users to find the best content.

Twitter may be smaller than other social media services, but it packs a lot more more punch. Twitter users tend to be better educated, more affluent and (importantly for advertisers) three times more likely to follow their favourite brands online. Pundits complain that the current round of Twitter tweaks will not be enough. But I tend to disagree. You don’t turn around over 300 million users in a single day. Transformative change for the Twitter’s business model is necessary, but will take time. Experimentation and testing are part of that process.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and a mentor with Startup Weekends. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

No Public Funding For Runway White Elephant Please

777lotrThe debate over whether or not public money should be invested in the extension of Wellington International Airport’s (WIAL) runway is starting to heat up. Despite project studies only being released to the public this week, city councils across the region have already indicated they will provide financial support towards the $330 million cost. At present central government has said it will not support and some local body councillors are already starting to feel uneasy about the overall proposal.

The Wellington City Council (minority shareholder in the airport), Wellington Chamber of Commerce and WIAL have been enthusiastically promoting the supposed “economic benefits” of the project. But the real reason the extension is needed is because the current length is sub-standard even for short-haul jet operations. WIAL is essentially asking taxpayers and ratepayers to co-fund capital works. Given that WIAL parent company Infratil earned a staggering $453 million last year and reportedly has a $1 billion war chest, why are public funds needed at all? Surely WIAL can make it’s own business case and access funding itself?

Adding 300 metres to the runway will not make it safe for wide-body aircraft.  “Long haul” flights are not coming to Wellington any time soon and here’s why. Firstly, medium haul, mid sized airliners are actually being phased out across the Asia-Pacific region as we speak. My understanding is that the last Qantas 767 has already gone and Air NZ has a small number remaining with limited lifespans. Asian airlines no longer operate these types. Air Asia and Jetstar withdrew A330s from Christchurch and Auckland, because they could not make a profit. In any event, an A330 would not be able to operate fully laden, even from an extended runway. Truly “long haul” aircraft such as A380, A340 and B777 are unlikely to be operated because of weight and size limitations.

The 787 Dreamliner is often touted as the saviour of long thin air routes. Again, it will not be possible to economically operate this aircraft out of WLG, even with a longer runway. Extending the runway will not remove the nearby hills. Aircraft take-off restrictions are governed by the climb performance under instrument flight conditions with a failed engine at the takeoff point. Long haul operations (10-16 hours) require huge fuel loads and substantial take-off weights. Take-off performance is a function of aircraft weight, engine power and ambient conditions, NOT runway length. Aircraft will be payload limited even with the runway extension in place. This is a really important point that most commentators and the media have missed.

There are many other reasons why investing in a runway extension is a bad idea. Not the least of these is that the airlines refuse to commit. You can be sure that Air New Zealand is not going to undermine it’s cosy hub and spoke operation that is based in Auckland and it’s not clear that any Asia or U.S. based airlines are at all interested. Some passengers complain that travel via Auckland or Sydney is onerous. But can you name any city under 500,000 population in North America that has direct air links with London or Hong Kong? Hub and spoke operations are the norm elsewhere in the world. There are many other investments that Wellington can make as a city and a region in order to promote economic development.

Unsurprisingly, there is zero information on the WCC or WIAL websites about the public consultation process. But the media are reporting the following information. There will be three public open days where people can meet one-on-one with the experts who prepared the reports. The open days will be held at Chaffers Dock Function Centre on December 2 from 12pm to 3pm, at SPCA Fever Hospital in Mt Victoria on December 3 from 5pm to 8pm, and at the Brentwood Hotel Conference Centre in Kilbirnie on December 5 from 12pm to 3pm.

Postscript: There is now a dedicated website providing links to information from the consultants who were paid by the project supporters to provide reports. The site also contains information about public presentations and how to make a submission.

Paul Spence is an ardent supporter of regional economic development, a commercial pilot licence holder and a technology sector company director based in Wellington.

Dysfunctional Regional Council Must Go

In case you hadn’t noticed, the public consultation around the proposal to amalgamate local bodies in the Greater Wellington region closes on March 2nd. You could be excused for not knowing, because (much to their shame) the parties concerned have done little to encourage public debate on the topic. The proposal is highly contentious, has huge implications and yet has been so poorly publicised. But the one thing everyone seems to agree upon however is that the highly dysfunctional Wellington Regional Council must be dissolved, whatever happens.

An information guide dated December 2014 finally turned up in my letterbox in mid-February. The pamphlet explains the “draft” proposal put forward by the Local Government Commission for local government amalgamation in the Wellington region and invites public submissions. Drilling down into the commission website, it became apparent that there was not an online form for submission anywhere, but simply an email or postal address. I guess they weren’t expecting many responses. There was no obvious mention of the proposal or submission process on the Wellington City Council website at all. The Wellington Regional Council website does have one page devoted to the topic, including some useful background material, but zero information on how to actually make a submission. In an age of nearly universal access to internet, this is unacceptable and makes me suspicious about transparency around the entire process.

Notwithstanding the obfuscation, there has been a flurry of media activity in recent weeks as it emerged that almost half the Wellington Regional Council elected councillors are having second thoughts as public disquiet has been growing. Even the pro-amalgamation “Chamber of Horrors” have toned down their rhetoric lately, as it became clear that the real bill for amalgamation could be well north of $200 million, if harmonisation of I.T. services were included. In a recent joint statement the business Chambers agree there is a “need for change”, but do not go as far as endorsing the current proposal.

The original suggestion for amalgamation came from Wellington Regional Council itself and is being driven largely by an individual with one eye firmly fixed on the future super-mayor job. This person has a sterling previous track record of successfully promoting unpalatable political agendas and knows the right levers to push to get the job done. But releasing the amalgamation proposal at Christmas, then fronting up to a couple of small debates a week before the doors close simply doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of public engagement.

Ironically, it is the lack of goodwill between the existing regional council and the other councils in the region that has led to this problem in the first place. There are important regional projects such as economic development, roading and water that must be addressed in a co-ordinated way, but the regional council has failed to galvanise and unify the other players in the region. Making a clumsy grab for power must have seemed like the only option. What is really needed is a functional regional council that has the confidence of all the city and district councils and that can play nicely and work collegially on the really important issues that face our region. What we do not need is another Auckland-style unitary authoritary. Why reinvent the wheel at a huge cost to ratepayers?

So it is very clear that the existing Wellington Regional Council members must now step down and that the Local Government Commission must go back to the drawing board and respond with a structure that empowers the regional council, whilst retaining local legitimacy and addressing community needs. With luck, we should see a public referendum on the issue in the future. A prominent WRC councillor once expressed her disdain for democratic processes in the past, when she said “let us hold our noses and vote”. Perhaps ratepayers (and voters) of the Wellington region should follow suit.

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

Catton Furore Points To Painful Reality

The last time I saw Eleanor Catton, she was travelling in a pushchair under the care of her doting father Phillip. Judging by her Dad’s response this week to Sean Plunket’s ill-judged comments, she’s still the apple of his eye. But the acclaimed author has come a long way since then.

Eleanor Catton reportedly made some disparaging comments about the parlous state of intellectualism in New Zealand and alluding to how arts and creative endeavours have suffered at the hands of neo-liberal politicians and their supporters. Plunket’s outburst therefore seems somewhat ironic given that he himself built a career out of freely criticising others, including dissecting the political establishement. Should not Catton be afforded the same privilege?

The most amusing aspect of this affair is that Plunket’s rant simply underlines the point Catton was trying to make. New Zealand has become an intellectual desert where the media’s (and public’s) chief obsessions are cleverly branded sports teams and little else. Furthermore, intellectual debate is reviled and the political discourse revolves largely around economic progress. Unsurprisingly, Catton has consequently shown little interest in being lauded as a daughter of New Zealand as her star ascended on the global stage.

We New Zealanders are an insecure race and are constantly needing to claim celebrities as our own, as if to fulfill our ambitions vicariously in some way. Perhaps that is a function of being a tiny island nation on the edge of the real world. Given the state of the rest of the world, we actually have much to be thankful for, in reality. But in the same way that film maker Peter Jackson succeeded in spite of being based in New Zealand, Catton achieved fame through her own efforts and by the quality of her scholarship and determination, not because she had a New Zealand upbringing or any obligation to our country.

Numerous pundits, including Eleanor Catton herself, have taken to social media to express a variety of viewpoints about this sorry episode. “New Zealand doesn’t invest enough in growing strong and stable institutions to nurture and develop its next generation of leaders, thinkers and creators”, exclaims Mark Rickerby in a brilliant but somewhat pessimistic article in support of Catton. Whilst I agree with many of his points, I’m still hopeful and here’s why.

My teenage son is growing up in a New Zealand where at least half his friends are immigrants or children of immigrants, where fewer and fewer kids are taking up team or contact sports and where traditional media is regarded as largely irrelevant by his peers. It’s simple demographics. Plunket and his conservative, flabby, white, football-loving, bogan mates are right to be worried, their days are numbered.

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

Tunnel Collapses. Good Call Minister!

hollyfordAs you may be aware, Minister of Conservation Nick Smith this week delivered his decision on whether or not to grant a concession to Milford Dart Limited for construction of an eleven kilometre, one-way bus tunnel between the Dart Valley and Milford Sound. One has to sympathise with the Minister who frequently has to make such rulings and whose decisions are not always popular.

However, it beggars belief how such a ridiculous proposition even got as far as the Minister’s desk in the first place. Proponents of the tunnel who energetically cite how it will reduce travel times to and from Milford Sound seem to have missed the point. Tourists come to enjoy New Zealand’s scenery, not to sit in a dark tunnel. Others have championed how the plan will bring new economic life to the region – when in fact it is likely to kill small towns like Te Anau that rely on passing traffic. Milford Sound itself is physically constrained and simply cannot grow any more, so that argument also falls flat.

Smith used some sound reasoning as to why he declined the project. Uppermost in his mind seems to have been concerns about exactly where millions of tonnes of earth would be deposited after it was dug from the tunnel and that it was not consistent with the park management plan. Even ignoring the fact that the economics of the venture don’t actually stack up; there are much more important, but less tangible, reasons for filing the plan in the waste paper bin.

Despoiling our greatest national park (and world heritage area) for highly questionable commercial gain, would simply be a crime against all New Zealanders. We should keep our special places intact. Good call Mr Smith and deep shame on Tipene O’Regan and his fellow directors of Milford Dart who, given their connections, you’d think might have had more respect for the intrinsic value of a relatively untouched region.

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