Growing Outwards: Why NZ Needs A More Mature Global Outlook

After three weeks holiday travel, incorporating some of the leading historical and business centres of Europe, it has been quite an adjustment settling back into daily life in the sleepy province of Wairarapa where gumboots and track pants are regarded as the height of fashion in some circles and the main export is unprocessed timber. New Zealand offers many lifestyle benefits, but it is very evident that our cultural isolation threatens to obscure opportunities, unless we learn to take a wider view.

Whilst I will not miss the ever present throngs of humanity and the choking European smog, it was a blessed relief to have a short break from the incessant background noise of sports “news” and the tedious drone of the increasingly dull and introspective media at home in New Zealand. Regularly escaping our little islands and receiving a taste of the real world should be mandatory for anyone in business, education or media or those holding political office. Only by gaining a proper perspective do we truly get a sense of our own irrelevance. Then we can be more effective and realistic in how we engage with the world and with each other.

So much of our cultural focus in New Zealand continues to be fixated on the lower end of the value chain. This is the greatest constraint on raising our aspirations as a nation. By way of example I include, the mind numbing obsession with contact sports, our continuing over-dependence on filthy primary industries as a source of income and a growing preoccupation with political correctness driven by a vocal minority and fueled by a misplaced sense of post-colonial guilt. We must all look outwards together once again and take a bigger picture view.

Only by creating a higher value economy (through trade) and a more informed view of the world can we deliver social equity in the form of better employment and educational opportunities for young people and a welfare safety net for an ageing population. Recent research by the Productivity Commission points to better international connectivity as part of the solution for improving productivity because globally connected firms tend to adopt new technologies earlier and generate better returns. So where do we look for future growth markets?

There’s a free trade agreement on offer with the EU soon, that could be a ray of sunshine. But with the “European project” potentially faltering under the weight of unmanageable levels of migration, ballooning debt and resurgent nationalism, we would be wise to cultivate multiple options. One area of interest is South Asia and in particular India. The sub-continent is currently enjoying the highest economic growth of any region and boasts an emergent and large middle class. We may need to reassess how best to approach this market however. Data shows that NZ exports to India declined in the period 2011-17 and consisted primarily of unprocessed wood products.

The UAE also looks promising as oil prices rebound and their government pump primes with increased infrastructure spending. The Emirates are served by outstanding air links to and from New Zealand and its government has always understood that they must leverage technology to diversify away from reliance on neighbouring oil revenue economies. That’s an opportunity. Perhaps the most interesting challenge then for our technology entrepreneurs is how to create high value, weightless (digital) exports that appeal to customers in regions that are less familiar to us. It takes 25 years for a single pine tree to mature and provide income. With a more global view we can do better than that.

Photo credit: Renea Mackie – Creative Forest

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest 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.

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