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

 

 

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.

The Day After

On Sunday we woke up to – well pretty much the same flavour of government we had the day before, thanks to voter apathy and one or two quirks of fate. Although Prime Minister Key has predictably adopted the position of “business as usual”, the next three years look anything but usual.

Saturday’s election outcome was fairly consistent with what the polls had been predicting in the week prior. But the returning National government will need to tread warily and not drift too far right. With 48% backing from two thirds of the enrolled electorate meaning only 32% of the adult population has their support. If parties on the Left can better galvanise voters in 2014, the outcome may be very different.

There was some good news in that potentially disruptive, extremist political parties ACT and Mana had their support base obliterated. The one exception was Epsom where greed and stupidity seems to have prevailed. Even the Labour voters in that electorate wasted the opportunity to excise their controversial and divisive former mayor. It may be a moot point, with the ACT party imploding on election night and Banks set to become a National minister in all but name.

The other piece of good news was that the Greens achieved their goal of topping 10% in party votes. An astounding effort after intelligently repositioning themselves over the previous 18 months since the departure of some of their looney fringe elements. The Greens deserved these gains and I hope Key will continue the relationship which has already seen the adoption of some of their more sensible policies. The Greens were also the party that proposed a clean technology fund for New Zealand companies in their manifesto and who have made a commitment to clean up our cow shit infected waterways.

It’s clear that Europe isn’t out of the economic woods yet and China may be on the verge of deflating. A steady hand will be needed on the tiller in the medium term. National would do well to form an inclusive government that sets a cooperative tone for the challenges that lie ahead.

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.

 

 

 

100% Puree

The recent media clamour criticising Tourism New Zealand’s new campaign threw up some intriguing responses from a seemingly random selection of  “marketing experts” who had been canvassed for their views, but who completely missed the real problem with the new approach.

With New Zealand already ranking as third strongest “country brand” for tourism last year, you would think that Tourism New Zealand might think twice about giving up on their successful twelve year old promotional style that focuses on New Zealand’s natural attributes such as landscapes, flora and fauna. 100% Pure New Zealand has evolved into 100% Pure You. I’m not sure if that is a reflection on our increasingly tenuous environmental credentials or the fact that the next generation of global travellers are more self-absorbed. Perhaps both.

The new campaign is obviously a response to the Aussie battle cry “where the bloody hell are you?”. All of the actors in the video clips are youthful, white, middle class, which not only belies the multicultural nature of Australian society to which it is targeted, but also politely ignores the fact that the fastest growing inbound tourist sources are in fact other places like China and India. The new campaign strengthens the message that New Zealand is all about hedonism and short term gratification – a message that resonates with young backpackers.

Unfortunately backpackers have the lowest per diem spend of any segment in the market. Shouldn’t we be focussing on attracting more of the upper end of the market? Don’t get me wrong. I’ve backpacked all over the world myself and it was character building and great fun at the time. I’m not for one minute suggesting we limit access on the basis of disposable income. I’m simply suggesting we revisit where our tax dollars might best be spent for greatest return.

Tourism is a huge part of the New Zealand economy, but it has a considerable environmental footprint and creates little ongoing value. It’s all about extracting short term gains from renting as many seats as possible. Jobs in the tourism service sector are generally amongst the least well paid. Perhaps we need fewer “freedom campers” pooping on our roadsides and more doctors and their families from Bangalore enjoying our sparsely populated geographic beauty. Dare I suggest it, but maybe we could also get them thinking about investing in New Zealand, whilst we have their undivided attention.

Local VC Laments Science Funding Deficit

I enjoyed Fiona Rotherham’s recent article in Unlimited magazine featuring the scientist who is inventing red-fleshed apples. But local venture capital investor Stuart McKenzie’s comments in the same article about the lack of science investment are a chilling reminder that New Zealand continues to underperform in terms of raising capital for technology commercialisation.

Hitching our economic success to agriculture is a sensible strategy in some respects, given our natural assets; but it should not be the only strategy. Agriculture alone cannot improve our economic fortunes; especially since the added value component remains tiny. Considering the deleterious effects of pastoral greenhouses gases and waterway pollution from farm run-off; if we are to enrichen New Zealand with more knowledge intensive businesses there simply must be a diversity of approaches.

Even more troubling is that there is a perfect storm brewing. As local VC funds begin to mature it is not entirely clear where the new funds will emerge from. Existing venture capital funded projects are looking for their next funding rounds to take those businesses to the next level. So, in the current economic climate, investors are naturally more inclined to look after the projects already on their books. It is harder than ever to get a true “start-up” company funded.

The government has set an aspirational goal of catching up to Australia by improving economic productivity, but it has confused business productivity with GDP per capita. Productivity is not the problem. The problem is we need to be exporting knowledge not farm commodities. Securing sufficient capital to commercialise and scale up our portfolio of intellectual property is the only way to achieve this.

Innovate at the Point of Pain

I get a lot of ideas across my desk and I’ve learnt the hard way that you need to question everything before offering to back someone else’s idea with your own reputation. One of the first questions I ask aspiring technology entrepreneurs is – what is the problem you are trying to solve?

This may seem like an obvious question but you would be surprised how many projects are launched on the basis of a good idea rather than upon a soundly researched market. It pays to question the market data as well because, after spending hundreds of hours on development, an enthusiastic technologist will do just about anything to justify their emotional investment in a product.

Many great ventures began as a personal point of pain for the founder. But the ones that survived were those that actually identified a mass market and then went on to execute well. A good idea on its own is not enough and the fact that there is “no competition” is not a selling point either. You need competitors for benchmarking and to validate that a market really exists.

For example at ideegeo we made a conscious decision to build a domain registrar site that rejected traditional norms of presentation because we observed that a lot of people really disliked having to grapple with poor navigation and invasive advertising found on other sites. Although the product caters for a design-centric niche user base, it turned out to be a winner because other companies approached us to help them improve their own offering.

Before you write a line of code or partition off your first protein molecule, ask yourself – where is the point of pain? What is the problem that you are trying to solve and are there a million other consumers out there who are suffering the same pain? If you can answer that question objectively and in the affirmative, you might just have a successful product on your hands.

Seismic Survey Data Decision Rocks

In what amounts to the first substantial new investment by the government in economic development since last year’s election Minister Gerry Brownlee has announced a spend up of $20 million on the acquisition of geophysical data in New Zealand’s offshore petroleum bearing ocean basins.

With a government services spending drought firmly in place one has to admire whatever MED mandarin it was that managed to make the business case for the project. National are claiming it as an election promise delivered, but the reality is that it needed to happen no matter which government was in power and here’s why. In 2006 Crown Minerals went to Court to force petro-giant Exxon Mobil to hand over data that had been generated by the company and its partners but not exploited. About the same time the government began undertaking its own surveys. In 2007 there was another tender round for fresh exploration blocks but the response from major players was muted.

Notwithstanding that legal action by the Crown raises questions about ownership rights and foreign investment; by owning the survey data, the Crown has far greater influence over how it is used. It also mitigates the risk of any further expensive and wasteful Court actions by multi-nationals keen to defend their patch. Exploration companies build survey estimates into their financial reporting data, but will quite happily sit on this information until it suits them to act on it, possibly for decades. The Great South Basin is by far the most promising of New Zealand’s licence areas, but is also the most treacherous. At $55 per barrel small players could not possibly justify the several hundred million dollar invest required to bring a deep water well into production.

Offshore oil exploration is a dirty business and Exxon-Mobil in particular have an appalling environmental track record for which they make few apologies. So the government needs to be careful about how it spreads the financial and environmental risk associated with this game. On the upside, making the survey data available could potentially lead to a multi billion dollar exploration and production investment once the oil price rises again (which it no doubt will). Unfortunately because of the development timeframes involved, it is unlikely to contribute to the economic recovery in the short term.