Can We Stop The Rot?

P1080304New Zealand faces a polycrisis due to decades of under-investment in public infrastructure. Indicative of this malaise are multiple failing infrastructures, over-stretched health services, decaying school buildings and unsafe civic spaces throughout the country. Stopping the rot will require raising our ambition as a nation and improving productivity through a higher value economy.

For too long our economic performance has been linked to an over-dependence on relatively low value commodities and tourism. As part of its quickfire raffle of “first 100 days” opportunities, the government is looking to “deliberately disrupt the system” by fast tracking gold mines, open-cast coal mining, property developments and bigger dairy farms, to name a few. Unfortunately these kinds of projects mostly lock us into even greater dependence on low value commodity based industries that do not generate the returns required to substantially lift productivity. But doesn’t this help us improve our gross domestic product (GDP)? Yes it does, but the benefits are not shared equitably, with returns often heading directly offshore.

Multi-factor productivity (MFP), on the other hand, represents residual economic growth due to factors (other than labour or capital) such as technological advancements, improved management practices, and a better-skilled workforce. MFP illustrates how successful a nation is at innovating and transforming resources into high value outputs. Over the last two decades or so New Zealand performed terribly compared to other OECD nations on this measure. Arguably, MFP is also the slice of the economic pie that allows governments to steadily improve the quality of public services and investment, as real wealth increases and tax receipts grow. Clearly we are heading in the opposite direction at present.

Quidnet Ventures managing director Mark Bregman illustrated the situation in a recent article discussing the innovation gap. We need to move to an “abundance mindset” and get over our hangups such as misplaced nationalism and the current reluctance of research institutions to back science that has commercial potential, he asserts. Important because one of the keys to creating high value economic returns lies in homegrown research that has future commercial potential. But getting these projects off the ground has always been problematic for a number of reasons, including funding constraints, institutional bureaucracy and lack of entrepreneurial mindset. How we approach science commercialisation must change.

With the nebulus “Te Paerangi – Future Pathways” report now mercifully euthanised by the Science Minister a new plan for research, science and technology now needs to be found. This time a sensible discussion about commercialisation must be included. To this end, the freshly minted Science System Advisory Group and University Advisory Group have been tasked with delivering a new strategic plan for transforming the science and university sectors. This will include (yet another) review of the performance based research fund (PBRF), the contentious pot of public funding that tends to favour larger universities with greater output, rather than promoting innovation or supporting the most important areas of research for society.

But none of this will matter unless we eliminate the institutional and financial roadblocks that are preventing research getting out of the lab and into the commercial sphere. The current model is simply not working at sufficient scale or speed.

Like all good researchers, we are testing some hypotheses around disrupting the status quo and creating more value for entrepreneurial science researchers. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about GeniusReFi – please join us here.

Paul Spence is a commentator, researcher and a part-time university commerce and management lecturer. A previous co-founder of a successful New Zealand based global technology venture, co-founder and director of Creative Forest, principal at GeniusNet Research & GeniusReFi and a startup advisor. You can follow Paul on Twitter/X @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events co-curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Image credit: Renea Mackie

Data source: Figure NZ under Creative Commons Licence 4.0

Ghost In The Machine

Polanyio Pitch

The author pitching at Lightning Lab Electric 2017

I first clapped my ears on Ghost In The Machine, the fourth album in the illustrious career of British rock band The Police, as a spotty faced teenager. The cover art for that album features images of three musicians depicted as a glitchy digital display, alluding to the concept of the human mind taking on a digital persona. Rather prescient when you consider that digital music required a stage full of computing power and miles of spaghetti wiring at the time and that this was almost 15 years before public internet arose. Artificial intelligence existed only in the fertile imaginations of authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and their readers. So what does the future hold for digital ghosts and how do we get our timing right in what is today a rapidly evolving field?

Fast forward to 2017 and I was about to experience a brief rock star moment of my own as I spent the most terrifying five minutes of my life presenting to an audience of corporate bigwigs and various supporters. The kernel of that pitch was that machine based technologies would become integral to utilities services management. Nobody got the point and thanks to the conservative nature of the energy industry incumbents, who were sponsoring our accelerator, the project sank without a trace. We had many”learnings” along the way as a team however and I’m glad I participated.

Only six years later, AI is rapidly embedding in almost every sector and obscene sums are being invested in companies providing a vast array of offerings. For starters the venture capital industry itself is being disrupted by artificial intelligence. Deployment of capital into AI is growing faster than almost every other technology sector right now, according to industry monitor Carta. Notwithstanding some concerns over governance, AI looks set to play an increasing role in our lives.

Timing is a big part of building a successful venture. Sometimes timing is even the most significant factor, regardless of the quality of the team or the idea. I’ve got the timing wrong on more than a few occasions in my life. Ideas alone are worthless without good execution and a bit of good luck as well. In most cases, failing fast is the best possible outcome. If AI really is the ghost in the machine and the timing is right now, I wonder if it will help us be more effective entrepreneurs, govern more wisely and be better guardians of the planet?

Paul Spence is a commentator, researcher and serial entrepreneur, a previous co-founder of a successful New Zealand based global technology venture, co-founder and director of Creative Forest, principal at GeniusNet Research & SondXF and an advisor at ThincLab. You can follow Paul on Twitter/X @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events co-curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Burning Down the House

 

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The 2023 election was supposed to be a climate election. Our last chance to set in place a paradigmatic shift in policies governing the way we treat our planet and thereby setting an example to other nations. Instead, the topic of environment has been almost entirely absent from debate. That says as much about voters as it does about the candidates vying for our attention of course. But we need to lift our heads and focus on the real opportunities, generating better outcomes for everyone, whilst avoiding setting fire to our own home.

Scrolling back through social media activity from the various political parties in the lead up to the election, it is clear that climate change and the environment are not at the forefront of political discourse. That is unsurprising given that polling has “cost of living” as the number one concern for voters. The difficulty is that inflationary cost pressures on households are largely outside of the control of any government whereas parliamentarians can influence how we treat the environment. Moreover, arguably less progressive nations are now surging ahead of us. It is not sufficient simply to state there is a “climate emergency”. Action is also required.

Most disappointing this election is that the New Zealand “Green” Party have ironically chosen to focus on almost everything EXCEPT the environment. Envy taxes, rent controls, income support. So having achieved very little for the environment alongside Labour, the current strategy now seems squarely aimed at eating Labour’s base. At the same time, Green policy is underwritten by divisive identity politics and other failed ideologies from the 20th Century aimed at producing dull, classless societies where thought and discourse is dictated by the State and elites in government control and distribute wealth, rather than individuals. They are completely missing the point.

In fact, what politicians across the spectrum all seem to be missing is our profound failure to meaningfully participate in the emerging global transition economy, a project worth more than US $100 Trilion over the next 25 years. It’s very simple. If we want to address social equity and care for an ageing population, we must generate greater economic wealth. Carbon transition alongside biodiversity regeneration will be one of the largest economic opportunities of our lifetime and good for the planet. Peering at our navels and invoking a victim mentality is not the kind of leadership needed right now.

A supporter of The Opportunities Party this election, Paul Spence is a commentator, researcher and serial entrepreneur, a previous co-founder of a successful New Zealand based global technology venture, co-founder and director of Creative Forest, principal at GeniusNet Research & SondXF and an advisor at ThincLab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events co-curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Bringing Change To The Top Table

Lyttleton Harbour, Christchurch

Lyttleton Harbour, Christchurch

Recently I attended a public discussion delving into “Otautahi Christchurch as an Innovation Hub”. It’s no secret that the city has confronted numerous challenges over the last decade or so. From devastating earthquakes to wildfires and a mass shooting. One could be forgiven for thinking that the place was on its knees. But it’s not. As the central city was being rebuilt, a core group of activators played a pivotal role through charting a course with innovation and collaboration at its core. Now the city is thriving. What if we germinated that approach into central government?

A number of the aforementioned group were present at the recent discussion event. Not the least of these was Raj Manji, who convened the session. As a former Christchurch City Councillor and tireless advocate for the city, Manji is no stranger to the challenges of navigating government processes in difficult times. He’s also a global thinker who takes action and attracts smart people with fresh ideas into his sphere of influence.

These are attributes that seem sadly lacking in many of our current politicians, including those who are likely to be in charge once the face of government changes in October. As The Opportunities Party (TOP) leader, Manji has a real shot at securing the Ilam seat at the general election. This would be a game changer because, under MMP, successful electorate winners get to “tag and drag” along some of their party list candidates. Potentially this means TOP could play a huge part in shaping the next government.

Why is this significant? It’s pretty clear that our current government has run its course and the wheels are falling off the proverbial wagon. Not a week passes where there isn’t either a dramatic exit or a revelation of bad behaviour by Ministers or coalition partner MPs. The present incumbents performed admirably during the pandemic, but the world has now moved on. History has also shown that governing parties very rarely secure three consecutive terms in New Zealand. For its part, the Opposition, whilst more disciplined than before, seem unable to generate intelligent policy or outline a coherent plan. Political change of some form is undoubtedly on the way. The question is – how do we optimise that change?

By standing up and supporting TOP I’m putting a stake in the ground in an effort to facilitate an optimal outcome. We desperately need fresh thinking and evidence based policy driven by responsible adults. If TOP fails to win a place at the table, we face the possibility of an unstable coalition underwritten by dogma and driven by the smug, sneering faces of the more extremist minor parties. Parties that do not necessarily have the interests of ALL New Zealanders at heart. This would be disastrous at this pivotal moment in history when society must act collectively to confront significant global issues.

Paul Spence is a commentator, researcher and serial entrepreneur, a previous co-founder of a successful New Zealand based global technology venture, co-founder and director of Creative Forest, principal at GeniusNet Research & SondXF and an advisor at ThincLab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events co-curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Bite Me!

bite me I was in a community call today contributing to the good work of the NZ Startup Council. It wasn’t long before somebody popped the “diversity question” into the conversation, complaining that women, migrants and people of colour can’t get help with their startups and do not get a fair hearing from investors in New Zealand. If that is true, I want to do something about it!

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been active in the NZ tech community for around 20 years and I’ve seen a lot of bullshitters come and go. I’ve started three companies. One was a great success that we bootstrapped and exited in 2019, another tanked during acceleration and another one ticks along and generates a bit of cash here and there. So I’ve been around the block a few times – as they say.

BITE ME! – Building In The Ecosystem for Migrant Entrepreneurs!

At present I’m a part-time advisor at University of Canterbury incubator ThincLab. I’ve worked with a huge diversity of founders. Young students, women founders, Maori. Founders from all over the world. Germany, Iran, Pakistan, India, Japan, Ukraine, China, United States, France… the list goes on. I’ve especially enjoyed working with founders who identify as neuro-diverse. We certainly have an amazingly diverse group of founders here in Canterbury. Perhaps it is not the case elsewhere?

In startup land it’s important to look beyond our tiny isolated little islands from the outset. A lot of Kiwi founders don’t get this. So diverse founders and especially skilled migrant entrepreneurs bring huge value to our ecosystem. I’ve even started companies with a few of them. So it grinds my gears when I hear people complaining about the “lack of diversity” in our startup ecosystem.

Supporting our skilled migrant entrepreneurs is the fastest way to grow an even more diverse ecosystem, whilst building high value, scalable startups that contribute tangible economic value.

Take a look at We Love Local for example, a corporate gift box provider founded by my friends from Mauritius and Germany. They’ve been growing fast and have received multi-award recognition for their business which was started from scratch only a few years ago. How about Swallowing Technologies. Migrant female founder from academia commercialising her research globally. Caterway, my friends from Japan and Ukraine serving the corporate catering market.

So I’m putting my money where my mouth is by offering a free advisory session.

If you are a New Zealand based e-commerce, cleantech, foodtech, edtech or fintech (especially fintech) migrant founder struggling to make connections, recently arrived or just need some objective feedback on your project. Pitch me! I don’t care if you have lizard skin and shoot pur