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.

Farvel 2017!

I was at a community event recently chatting to a friend and he commented, “you’ve had quite a busy year”. He was not wrong. But it was the first time it really struck me. Here’s a short recap.

We had a solid year at iwantmyname and have grown the iwantmyname team to fourteen, about half of whom are based outside of New Zealand, supporting the 93% of our customers that come to us from offshore. Mid year we convened everyone for a week in Vancouver to co-design a “social contract” for the company, plan some projects and eat all the salmon burgers and maple syrup pancakes we could lay our hands on. Hard to believe that next year iwantmyname will be ten years young. I’m sure we will be planning something special for the community that has supported us. Watch this space! In the meantime we’ve continued backing tech meetups and Startup Weekends around New Zealand (and abroad).

In 2017 I was part of the team that took Polanyio through the Lightning Lab Electric accelerator. There were tears, there was laughter plus loads of hard work forging a position in a very tough and intransigent sector.  We are currently working with an industry partner to continue development of a unified procurement platform that engages energy brokers, their customers and energy retailers. Amidst all the startup hype around consumer apps, we elected to focus on a non-sexy B2B project that will actually drive some long term efficiencies in the evolving energy market landscape. As a result of this experience, I remain open minded about what incubators and accelerators bring to the economy, but I continue to maintain that the government does have a role in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

There was also some big changes in my domestic life this year. The lovely Renea Mackie graciously accepted my marriage proposal and we decided to make the move to set up a semi-rural family home in delightful Wairarapa. After more than three decades stoically enduring Wellington weather, I’m certainly loving the Mediterranean climate as well as reveling in the joy of having world class vineyards only a few minutes down the road. We’ve been fortunate to be able to work from home mostly, but we venture across the Rimutakas once or twice a week for meetings and to keep in touch with family. Best of both worlds.

Renea and I have also been busy establishing Creative Forest together with the aim of continuing and extending the wonderful work that Renea became so well known for in Canterbury. Creative Forest offers an innovation framework for young people to explore entrepreneurship with the support of mentors and technical advisors from the community. The company is part of a growing portfolio of interests for GeniusNet and has begun to attract attention from educators, government and iwi representatives.

There were some disappointments in 2017 as well and it also felt like we reached peak political correctness in terms of the vocal minority who find it increasingly necessary to impugn others who hold different views than themselves. In my opinion this is largely in response to the ugliness and idiocy of the current American administration which has unfortunately permeated our collective consciousness during the last twelve months. The consequent steady erosion of the legitimacy of Western democratic social values is very concerning. Notwithstanding this, I’m choosing to focus on the positive aspects of 2017. As my Norwegian ancestors would say – Farvel 2017! Happy 2018 everyone.

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

Big Ideas Poor Execution

In early 2014 the Wellington City Council announced a series of “big ideas” to boost economic growth in the city. Predictably, in the two years since, there has been little progress.

For starters, it was always clear that the airport runway extension was not a good idea because of technical reasons that I have outlined on numerous occasions. What was less clear, was the business case to justify a ratepayer funding subsidy based on these illusory benefits. It subsequently emerged that the real reason for the extension was to make it safe for existing aircraft. Something that the airport should have taken care of years ago.

The Miramar film precinct and creative enterprise zone idea sounded promising at first, but once again there seems to have been little progress. Additionally, Shelly Bay (see photo above) on the Miramar Peninsular is ripe for development but has been an embarrassing eyesore for many years because the ownership can’t seem to work collaboratively and constructively. A number of attempts have been made to move forward on developing the area but once again nothing has happened yet. The film museum now looks set to rise on a site opposite Te Papa, co-funded by the city. At least we have that to look forward to.

Finally, and most disappointingly, there was the concept of a tech district based around the Cuba Street precinct, where many of our most exciting startups and technology sector companies reside. Our office is located in this area and I’m not aware of any initiatives yet. In fact council staff have been putting up more yellow stickers and telling building owners to get concrete masonry sorted or suffer the consequences. So the future of the area is sketchy, especially in light of recent seismic activity.

What did happen in the previous two years was that the council invested a huge sum of ratepayer funds into a vanity project aimed at helping a private company set up a large co-working space on the edge of the CBD. It’s a good venue, but initially bold community-building objectives seem to have fallen a little by the wayside this year. I’ve also heard one or two newly elected councillors privately express their reservations over this and the lack of innovation support generally. Now that the Grow Wellington model has been homogenised and had the life crushed out of it, the incoming council are trying to figure out how to fill the vacuum.

Overall I’m worried about Wellington’s crumbling economic competitiveness, a scenario which is likely to be compounded by the hidden effects of a slow-moving earthquake impact, including incapacitation of the container shipping terminal. There are many old and damaged buildings in the city now and (unlike Christchurch) there does not seem to be a unified vision about renewal of the inner city. The old town is looking dated and shabby, whilst our neighbours in Australia and Asia surge ahead. This situation has crept up on us, but it’s time to cut through the political window dressing and admit we have a problem.

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.

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.

 

Where Are We Going?

I’ve been trying to make sense lately of an avalanche of economic news and social data that has overtaken us and in particular has implications for the young and disenfranchised worldwide.

On the one hand bankers, politicians and media magnates in suits have got away with crimes that seem only to empower the apparatus of what is looking like an increasingly discredited and ailing economic system. On the other hand looters are venting their anger by targeting the very consumer goods produced by that system. It’s hard to separate the looming economic collapse from the steady erosion of morality across society in general, yet the traditional media at first seem reluctant to make that connection. Perhaps because they are entirely complicit.

Phone tapping and gross invasion of personal privacy were the hallmark of Murdoch’s now discredited tabloids. Perhaps the tattle tale gossip was a tonic aimed squarely at deflecting attention by the masses from the really big issues facing the world? At first glance there may seem to be no connection between double-dipping politicians, eavesdropping media and riots. But England is clearly a nation in crisis on many levels at present and where England goes others in the Eurozone are sure to follow. That has implications for global sentiment, which impacts on small trading nations such as ours.

Now Prime Minister John Key is promoting a poor card for young beneficiaries in an effort to curb welfare dependency and the misappropriation of state funds. Isn’t this precisely the kind of misdirected, pandering politics that brought England to its knees? More importantly, where is the leadership vision that will drive meaningful economic growth, promote education and create jobs for young people instead? There was one good news story however. According to a recent report on the economic cost of failing to invest in early childhood, it turns out we beat Turkey and Mexico in an OECD ranking of social spending in this area. That is simply embarrassing.

Where are we going?

Parting Of The Waters

Matt McCarten’s piece in the Herald last weekend once again laments the passing of waterfront unionism and 1950s style welfare. But it teaches us nothing at all about the real reasons why the exodus to Australia continues unabated, nor about the real challenge that lies ahead.

Our kids aren’t leaving because welfare got dismantled, nor even because silly old men say dumb things in public sometimes. They are leaving because successive governments of all hues have consistently failed to create and pursue an overriding grand vision that diversifies the NZ economy away from relatively low value agricultural commodities and tourism towards applied science, technology and value added services. They are also leaving because we live in a much more open and global society than the one he longs for.

I agree with McCarten that concerted attempts to lower wages for youth are misguided. We actually need to increase per capita income – across the board. That means creating more opportunities to generate wealth and it means cultivating a highly educated workforce that thrives on such opportunity and has a sense of purpose. We can’t compete on size, so we must compete with our brains and our wit instead.

I believe New Zealand is already at a cross roads. Whilst on the one hand we have recently suffered the worst recession and most devastating natural disaster of our lifetimes, we also exist at a time in history when two huge global economic powerhouses are emerging on our doorstep. Instead of lamenting the loss of skills to Australia, we should be working in close partnership with our western cousins to build global companies that are capable of taking our talent into these developing markets. Parting the waters of the Tasman Sea need not be a negative.

Our children have become the first generation of global citizens that have been digitally connected since birth. It may not matter that they reside in Sydney but commute to an office in Auckland or Shanghai. What matters is that we instill a deep desire to build something that creates value for New Zealand. Kiwis should not be discouraged from going global, they should be emboldened. Next week I’m heading to the Ice Ideas conference. I’m looking forward to being inspired by fellow entrepreneurs who have done exactly that.


Smart Capital

Amidst the hand-wringing over Christchurch’s loss of Rugby World Cup games I was once again left wondering why we struggle as a nation to focus on the really important issues that underly our efforts to rekindle economic growth.

In the global scheme of things the fact that a handful of rugby games won’t be played somewhere is hardly world breaking news, especially in comparison to the extraordinary drama unfolding on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Yet the media spent a good portion of last week hounding politicians on the topic of World Cup venues. It was obvious that McCully and others were stonewalling and already knew the outcome, but there were much meatier issues left untouched. For example, where was the government going to find the $10 billion or more needed for the reconstruction of Christchurch and how will we round up sufficient numbers of skilled trades people to do the work?

Later in the week I attended a closed forum for leaders in the ICT community discussing how we could boost the economic return to the capital city from our industry. It was notable that at least half of the attendees were skilled migrants who, at some time or other, had deliberately chosen Wellington. It really brought home the significance of the contribution made by migrants to our creative industries. Naturally much of the forum conversation was taken up with suggestions around making our city a more engaging place for creative types and telling our story widely and more often.

Disconcertingly however, the topics of identifying external sources of capital and strengthening our entrepreneurial ecosystem were treated superficially. Recently I was reading an article by YCombinator’s Paul Graham talking about what start-ups need to help them stay in a given location. Provide them with financial capital, he says. Accessing creative talent and facilitating cross-pollination of ideas are really important too, but ex-pats don’t have a franchise on these things. Access to smart capital and developing a vibrant entrepreneurial community culture are major growth drivers. These are themes I will continue to be advocating for strongly.

Paul Henry Comments Out Of Step

Paul Henry’s ill advised on air comments suggesting that New Zealand’s Governor General was not fit for office because he neither looked nor sounded like a New Zealander demonstrated how disconnected the “state broadcaster” and its talking heads are from the real world. Worse than that, I found highly offensive the implication that an idiot like Henry speaks for all of us.

Television New Zealand spokesperson Andi Brotherston leapt to Henry’s defence suggesting that he merely reflects what society is “quietly” thinking. Perhaps that is true on some issues, but it certainly was not in this case. The record number of complaints from the public on this matter suggest that Henry grossly misjudged the public appetite for such commentary. The public backlash was as much about disapproving of Henry’s racist tone as it was about defending the good name and dignity of the office of Governor General. Republicanism aside, the GG performs a valuable role as a representative of New Zealand and as an apolitical interlocutor essential to the functioning of a civil society. Henry’s gaffe threatens our nationhood and questions our self perception.

Even more embarrassing was that Prime Minister, John Key was engaged in a conversation with Henry at the time of the incident. However, I’m prepared to give Key the benefit of the doubt. His guard was down during (what he thought was) a moment of light-hearted banter. But one has to question the wisdom of even appearing next to Henry, given his track record. Popular technology commentator Ben Gracewood obviously asked himself that very question, because he resigned from the Breakfast show immediately the comments came to light.

TVNZ mouth-piece Andi Brotherston might be looking back fondly to less controversial days when she shared a provincial radio turntable with DJ turned Cabinet Minister Steven Joyce. Perhaps he could find a parliamentary spokesperson role for her; she might be needing it. Way back then, Joyce established a private radio station to challenge the entrenched state monopoly. Perhaps the accepted moral authority of another state broadcaster needs to be challenged once again.

If you want to lodge a complaint with Television New Zealand about Paul Henry’s racist and denigrating comments, you can do so using the online form at the Broadcasting Standards Authority website.

Two Dimensional Culture Devalues Society

A couple of issues currently being debated in the New Zealand media suggest why as a nation we struggle to think outside the box. It also illustrates how we are failing miserably to deal with a selfish and deeply ingrained culture of alcohol misuse that continues to plague our society.

Proponents of street racing in Christchurch have suggested that the best way to keep intoxicated young drivers off the street is by providing a burn-out pad adjacent to a residential suburb away from the city centre. The disadvantages of this idea will be immediately apparent to local residents who will be required to endure hours of engine revving, tyre squealing and the stomach churning stench of burnt rubber associated with this mindless “sport”. Construction of a burn-out pad therefore simply legitimises what is already a highly anti-social form of behaviour.

At the other end of the country there is much public hand-wringing and a media feeding frenzy over the lack of progress to develop the Auckland waterfront into “party central” in time for the predicted influx of visitors to the Rugby World Cup (RWC). But nobody has yet questioned whether there exists a real need. A quick survey of Princes Wharf and surrounds reveals dozens of existing bars and restaurants, many of which seem to be struggling to attract any custom at all outside of the traditional boozy weekend nights. Surely the basis for “Party Central” already exists. On the other hand, given the rugby playing community’s poor track record in treating alcohol responsibly, perhaps the Police would prefer all of the RWC drinkers to be corralled into a large centralised holding pen, as is being suggested.

The most disturbing aspect of these two debates is that the focus seems to be on providing a solution that caters for and indeed promotes boorish behaviour as a cultural norm rather than addressing the prevailing values in wider society. In a nation that seems overly self-obsessed with a two dimensional culture of sport and binge drinking, will we ever truly be able to nourish and grow an environment of creativity and innovation?