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.

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.

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

Why The Rugby Sevens Must Go

73099373MM017_SevensRecently the “colourful” Rugby Sevens tournament brought many visitors to our fair city and teams from all over the world to compete. It would all be very uplifting, except that the event has become less about sport and more about partying and getting trashed. Is that the kind of reputation we are trying to build for Wellington?

The party culture around this event reflects the worst elements of our selfish, reckless, binge drinking Kiwi culture, so it seems entirely out of tune with a city in which we are attempting to cultivate higher values such as innovation, creativity and the advancement of knowledge. Supporters of the “Sevens” frequently quote the estimated $16 million in economic returns to the city. Rarely mentioned is the cost of extra policing and the additional burden on emergency medical facilities from an endless tide of drunks and  costumed misfits. In the same way that the Rugby World Cup failed to deliver, the chief beneficiaries of this economic “windfall” only seem to be pub owners and concessionaires selling booze at the stadium venue.

For a growing number of us who are not sports loving extroverts, the Sevens has become an embarrassment and something best avoided. Certainly one does not venture into the central city in the evening unaccompanied, when the event is underway. Even during the daytime, wearing a costume seems to be a licence for intoxicated young men and women to behave in an obnoxious manner that would be unacceptable on any other weekend.

No doubt I will be accused of being petty minded and intolerant. After all, I should be gracious on the occasions I have been verbally abused, had drunks pissing in my driveway and when awoken at 3am by the tuneful refrain of those meandering home. But not standing up against anti-social behaviour is at the foundation of why social problems such as family violence, alcoholism and drink driving persist. I make no apologies for expressing an unpopular viewpoint on this.

 

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

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.

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

Mega Takedown

The Coatesville police raid and subsequent removal of the MegaUpload site should serve as a reminder to us all about how powerful governments and corporations now intend to exercise increasing control of the wild west known as the Internet, through both new legislation and legal prosecutions. It would also be foolish to continue assuming that tiny, remote New Zealand is immune from the growing American political appetite for punishing the alleged purveyors (and consumers) of pirated material.

Irrespective of what you think about Mr Dotcom and the legitimacy of his business, it’s important that the matter be given due process through the Courts and that we do not prejudge the outcome or bow unthinkingly to the will of foreign governments. There are powerful forces at work as witnessed recently with the U.S. senate coming under heavy lobbying pressure from the entertainment industry.

It’s clear that our government want to be cooperative, especially with increasingly frequent connections being made between favourable trade outcomes and the protection of intellectual property rights for American companies. What better place to exercise a show of force than in a small, compliant island state in the south-west Pacific. Why else would such an over-the-top para-military style operation be permitted in the Prime Minister’s own electorate on an individual who had recently received approval for New Zealand residency? It’s astounding.

The SOPA debate and the moral panic around piracy in the United States has largely arisen because of the ongoing failure of the media and entertainment industry to innovate its distribution channels rapidly enough. The rise of file sharing and related sites is simply a symptom of that failure in the marketplace. Without question, creative individuals deserve to be fairly remunerated for their efforts and creative industries should be allowed to make a profit, but not at the expense of Internet freedom.

Police raids and draconian legislation are ultimately more likely to inflame than to discourage. An intolerant approach towards content sharing enterprises in general may also have unintended consequences for “law abiding” users caught up in crackdowns. Perhaps the hackers and hosters should be invited to provide a technological solution to the digital creative sector that everyone can live with?