Why Would Welly?

I’ve never been particularly fond of the “Welly” moniker. But to have it plastered all over a local hillside on the approach to Wellington Airport smacks of a complete lack of imagination.

I generally try to avoid getting too deeply mired in political debate and I don’t want to start a rant about why we don’t need to be aping American culture; but there remains something rather disturbing about the prospect of a Hollywood style sign being plonked on my front doorstep. I have friends and family over in Hataitai and there is certainly no great enthusiasm for the idea amongst local residents.

For me personally, the overriding image attached to the original Hollywood sign is one of tacky fakery and gross self-indulgence. Yes, Wellington has benefitted economically through partnerships that reach deep into the L.A. film industry. But that doesn’t mean we need to emulate it entirely. In fact our strength is that we differ from it.

I would also question whether a creative city, such as Wellington, needs to brand itself by ripping off someone else’s intellectual property. This seems entirely counter-intuitive when we have a vast richness of other iconology available from amongst our collective Maori, Pacifica, Asian and European peoples. I hope the airport company will sniff the wind and quietly retire the concept. As one commentator suggested, they would gain a lot more respect by simply replanting the hillside in native trees.

Ready, Fire, Aim – How Kiwi Culture Impacts Value Creation

Despite exceptional rates of entrepreneurialism and a highly innovative culture, New Zealand continues to lag in terms of economic performance. But a new study commissioned by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise points to some of our self limiting cultural attributes.

Being a nation built upon successive waves of largely working class migrants, it comes as no surprise that practical self reliance and a tendency to under-value intellectual assets and capabilities, feature strongly in our national psyche. Sometimes the very attributes that make us strong, can also be our undoing.

Perhaps that it is why I have found it refreshing to work with some recently arrived skilled migrants. It has forced me to confront some of my own self-limiting behaviours and to adjust my success horizon. In fact it has challenged me to redefine exactly what success looks like.

The NZT&E report suggests that it’s not just about working smarter to create more economic value, it’s also about capturing that value. It is not sufficient simply to be innovative (which we are already). I think what they are trying to say is that we undervalue the intangible assets like intellectual property and customer relationships.

The report author proposes adding value by not only addressing the cultural peculiarities that sometimes afflict us but also by ensuring that we create value through other channels such as licensing and transfer of intellectual assets. For example at ideegeo we not only provide domain management through iWantMyName, but we also license out the software to other registrars.

It is also suggested in the study that we have deeply embedded cultures within our organisations and a “commodity trading psyche” that sometimes impedes us from getting to know our offshore customers. We need to get better at relationship building. Perhaps the producers of goods, targetted by this report, could learn from how web based businesses create value through open communication environments, knowledge-sharing and the construction of social capital as a means to building intangible value within business.

Animation Digerati Illuminate Capital

As an already highly respected world centre for games, animation and visual effects, it is only fitting that our capital city plays host to AnimFX ’09, an event that has emerged as an increasingly noteworthy gathering amongst the global digital animation and movie effects community. 

The main conference programme kicks off on Friday November 6th and includes talks by none other than Weta Workshop founder Richard Taylor. His colleague Matt Aitken, who was visual effects supervisor for District 9, will also be speaking. If that weren’t enough, the impressive international line-up includes Sander Schwartz, formerly president of Warner Brothers Animation, and Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences stalwart Jeff Okun who masterminded the terrifying “nano-bots” in the most recent rendition of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Having such luminaries under one roof represents a huge opportunity for the New Zealand industry to form valuable network linkages into what is arguably the entertainment production capital of the world. Now in its fourth year, success stories from previous AnimFX event remind us how important it is for local technology firms to reach out globally and incidentally how we can leverage our natural attributes to lure highly acclaimed individuals to our shores.

W2W’09 is another event that aims to build capability and connect technology entrepreneurs globally. Focussing on web-based and ICT enabled ventures, W2W runs on the afternoon of 17th November. More about this next week…

Le B’astard!

French rugby representative Mathieu Bastareaud brought shame and embarrassment to my city and my country last week with his serious assault allegation. Although the truth has now emerged about his drunken idiocy there seems little likelihood of proper redress.

Of course if any ordinary member of the public made a false complaint to Police they would immediately be up on a charge. But the local Police and NZ Rugby Union, who “diligently” investigated the claim, made sure the touring French team were well beyond our shores before they released their findings – and its not like it is an offence worthy of extradition. So it is very unlikely there will be any legal recourse in the case.

Mercifully, rugby receives relatively little media bandwidth outside of Australia and New Zealand (contrary to popular belief here), so I’m unsure how much international coverage this incident actually received. Perhaps then it is a moot point. But the fact that a number of highly placed individuals colluded to protect the errant player and the arrogance shown by some involved has led to a few analogies being drawn with another infamous insult involving a certain rainbow coloured vessel.

Perhaps that analogy is a little harsh. After all we have plenty of examples of our own immature, drunken sportsmen getting into trouble whilst on tour. Nothing new there. What continues to rile me is that our society tolerates this kind of behaviour even at the expense of national reputation. It is the kind of slur a small, geographically distant nation can ill afford.

Rural Towns Left to Wither

I had occasion to head home to the provinces for a family visit last weekend. What always strikes me is the character of the little towns along the way. Some of them have been dying off for years, only kept alive of late by the fact that the surrounding rural economy has been booming. But with commodity prices plunging, the underlying support from dairy (and oil) is falling away.

If city dwellers are feeling the pinch now, spare a thought for the rural towns. For some, almost nothing has changed since the 1950s. Their central business districts generally comprise a petrol station, convenience store and a public bar. Now with falling trade even some of the pubs and petrol stations have passed on. Weeds creep insidiously through gaping holes in ramshackle corrugated iron fences that surround overflowing car wrecking yards and the odd farm machinery repair workshop. It’s not rustic or charming, it’s decay; and it’s a testament to how decades of questionable government economic policy has left such towns unimproved.

The one beacon of hope amongst this desolation is the local school. Tidy, manicured grounds surround the elderly buildings, replete in yet another coat of standard issue Ministry paint. The school is the last remaining focus point for the community. But even the school is at risk as roll numbers dwindle and the same Ministry casts its bureaucratic ruler over the books. Not even community pride in the school can prevent the young people from leaving town as soon as they are able – there is nothing to hold them.

Some of the troubles faced by rural towns are simply geographical. No amount of government intervention can compensate for poor soil, challenging climate or remoteness. For those towns that do not have viticulture or glaciers or fishing quota, the future looks rather bleak. On a broader front, the withering of our small towns is related to the fact that New Zealand in general continues to lag behind in GDP per capita. There is simply not enough cash to go around, largely because we have underinvested in innovation as a nation. Our small provincial towns are a metaphor for the wider economy.

I mentioned that education is a beacon of hope, there was also another glimmer of light on the horizon last week. McKinsey run an annual exercise involving mapping global innovation. Auckland was the only New Zealand city that was polled, but it showed up in the top left corner of the data as a “hot spring” of innovation. In other words we are registering more technology patents each year, but only in a small number of areas. Now, it turns out that bubbling hot springs generally host a thriving microcosm of life. On that basis investing in science and technology innovation as a means to generate economic wealth seems like a good idea. So why is the government heading in the opposite direction?

Jobs Summit Lacked Innovation

Predictably the sketchy proposals emerging from last week’s “Jobs Summit” ranged from mildly interesting to the completely ridiculous and I’m left wondering how many will actually come to pass. But the ideas fest, hosted at Manukau City, was not actually about generating sensible approaches to the economic crisis, it was about putting on a display of unity and generating some positive buzz. Ironically, the business leaders at the conference will likely preside over hundreds of layoffs themselves in the coming months.

I like that John Key is an ideas man and is prepared to entertain novel concepts. But his sidekick Bill English made it very clear going into the summit that the state of the nation’s finances would not allow for a great deal of additional expenditure. By lowering expectations ahead of the summit he allowed the government to wiggle out of addressing any meaningful economic reform. His comments may even foreshadow some backpeddling on big ticket sacred cows like tax cuts, broadband and superannuation.

I guess my real concern is that the Jobs Summit hoopla has eclipsed the fact that economic realities have shifted so much that we really need to make a quantum leap in how we approach investing in our future as a nation. I’m not convinced that the summit properly addressed these issues. Borrowing cash to dig cable trenches and build a cycleway will simply not cut the mustard in my opinion.

Since it was elected, the government has astutely avoided making any comments about the need to invest in research, science and technology innovation. In fact the only promise they have made in this area is to kill off the R&D tax credit. They still don’t get it. The only businesses that are growing right now are precisely those that have invested in technology research and development. For example colostrum manufacturer New Image have exploded onto the Asian market. Even the horrendous balls-up in China by dairy commodity behemoth Fonterra has failed to suppress the demand for this high end, added value product.

Saving jobs in the breakfast cereal factories and assembly lines of South Auckland is important. But even more important is creating more high tech companies and developing our largely under-educated workforce. The lack of aspiration we currently demonstrate as a nation is reflected more and more in the ugly twin cultures of ethnic gangs and idiot boyracers that are furtively permeating our society and populating our streets with a generation of social rejects. What we really needed was an all encompassing social, economic and technological Innovation Summit.

Power to the Tweeple

Last week’s “blackout” protest was a lesson in how readily Internet technology can be used to disintermediate traditional sources of information and motivate a community to action. It also showed how quickly informed debate can be subsumed by a vocal minority making clever use of the very same technology.

Recently I suggested that Twitter might one day seed a political revolution. Now Twitter users in New Zealand have put that theory to test by calling for others to black out all their online profiles (and blogs) in order to raise awareness of a protest against amendments to the Copyright Act. The section 92A amendment was originally proposed to counter illegal downloads of copyrighted material and supposedly places the onus on ISPs to disconnect offenders upon accusation.

I say “supposedly” because I have yet to locate a complete rendition of the new legislation. In fact an examination of numerous “prominent” blog sites that are supporting the protest fails to reveal any links to the complete text of the amended Act. So we are taking it completely on trust regarding their interpretation of the wording of the amendment. But there was an even more disturbing aspect to the manner in which this protest was conducted.

Spreading the word about the protest through viral means such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook has turned out to be hugely successful, with global media and some prominent individuals picking up on the event. But my heart sank when I read a tweet from an over enthusiastic supporter who suggested that Twitter users should “unfollow” anyone who didn’t conform to the blackout mandate. I wonder if anyone noticed the irony?

S92A is certainly an unjust and poorly drafted piece of legislation that both impacts on personal freedoms and has facist bully-boy overtones. Yet calls for the black-listing of non-protestors shows the same level of crass indifference as demonstrated by the politicians who drafted the amendment in the first place. Join our cause or suffer the consequences? So it was with some sense of relief that I discovered that at least one popular blog site has set up a forum to allow both sides in this argument to express some viewpoints. Some informed debate, including a discussion about the experience of other countries in such matters, would be refreshing at this point. Isn’t that how intellectual communities find consensus and move forward together in an open society?

Boozy Sportsmen – “It’s Not OK”

In the last week or so at least three prominent New Zealand sportsmen have hit the headlines with their out of control drunken antics. So why do our sports administrators continue to tolerate boorish behaviour, wife beating and ongoing alcohol abuse amongst their players?

Perhaps part of the answer to this question is that most of those administrators have emerged from the same ranks as the players and have themselves witnessed or been involved in the odd indiscretion in the past. Punishments handed out to players for drunken escapades seem to be light and sports managers frequently appear to be apologists on the basis that these incidents are just “young men letting off a bit of steam”. Judges are complicit in that they hand out meaningless sentences such as “diversion” whereas ordinary mortals would be dealt with more sternly.

The embedded booze culture and bad behaviour of our sportsmen (and their sports presenter cronies) is a blight on our society which continues to be swept under the carpet because of their hero status. But it is their status that makes it all the worse. Sports players are role models for others. Players who pull on a jersey with a silver fern and accept lucrative contracts carry their nation’s pride upon their shoulders and are public property 24/7, whether they like it or not. Publicly tolerating anti-social behaviour sends a strong message to society that the implications of drunkeness and violence are minimal for the perpetrators.

It seems bizarre that after a continual stream of embarrassing incidents over many years, only now is the Rugby Union considering behaviour clauses in player contracts. Clearly, sports administrators do not take this problem seriously. Perhaps they should accept some advice from the television media. Wayward TV personalities get dropped like hot potatoes after Court appearances because the industry understands that perception is everything and damaged reputations cost ratings points. Broadcasters also receive large sums of advertising money from politically correct government agencies determined to stamp out domestic violence by waging a guilt campaign on ordinary citizens. Perhaps those agencies are focussing in the wrong place.

Now the Unions are Quashing Political Freedoms

1984_apple1.jpgStanding as a list MP candidate for the ACT Party seems rather like an exercise in futility, but does anyone else find it hugely ironic that New Zealand’s most powerful union has reportedly suspended an employee for political activity?

OK, the gentleman in question may have been a bit naive in how he went about it. Records show that he did raise the possibility of his parliamentary candidacy with the union, but there seems to be some confusion over whether or not he had received their permission. But irrespective of this, since when can employers dictate what political beliefs their employees may hold? The union objected to the behaviour simply because it did not align with their own ideology. If the guy had been standing for the Labour Party or Greens, you can guarantee nobody in the union management would have been the least bit concerned.

I have a huge amount of respect for Andrew Little and what he has achieved with EPMU by dragging it out of the dark ages and making it relevant again. I went to school with him way back when. He’s a very smart guy, so I’m surprised he dropped the ball on this one by playing into the hands of his critics. Unions have an important role in civil society but it is not their role to restrict political freedoms.

Anyhoo…at least the EPMU story is a welcome diversion from the tedium surrounding the Winston show. The scary part about Slick Winnie is that his geriatric fanbase demographic grows bigger every year. Despite his many indiscretions, he is likely to remain a thorn in the side of future governments for some time yet. The guy gets way too much airtime and yet contributes very little of real value. Consequently, in this election year, the rabid media are neglecting to challenge politicians on the REAL issues such as crime, education, health and economic growth.

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Entrepreneurs Epilogue

ideegeo continues to make progress as we build developer capacity and deal with all the administrative issues that go with a brand new business. It’s my role to look after the admin stuff so that the developers can get on with what they are good at doing. At present we need to find a balance between consulting and product development, but we always expected this would be the case to begin with.

Consequently, we currently have some developer bandwidth available to help out with web-based enterprise application development and implementation. The skill set includes experience in Perl, PHP, Python and Ruby plus we are exploring Erlang which we think is the next big thing in web-based application development.

We specialise in transactional environments requiring high volume and low latency. Experience operating in MySQL and other commonly deployed databases is a given of course. Our lead tech guy has held CTO roles in large technology organisations offshore and already has an impressive CV of New Zealand projects under his belt, including trouble-shooting legacy software.

If we can help out on a project, drop me a message: paul (at] ideegeo {dot] com

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

birdsnest.jpgDissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, employed by a Western firm to design the iconic “Birdsnest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, exclaims that he now hates the stadium because it symbolises China’s relentless march toward modernism. He says that the carnival atmosphere of the games masks what is really going on in the world’s most populated nation and has called upon others to boycott the games in protest.

There’s no doubt that the 2008 Olympiad will be the biggest and most impressive live stage show in history and China quite rightly wants to put on a good performance for its coming out parade. But lingering concerns remain that the games hoop-la is simply a facade beyond which there lies an overbearing state machine that has made little real progress on human rights and environmental issues since it secured rights to hold the the games. I have already read several media reports of foreign journalists being shadowed by plain clothes police who then used standover tactics to dissuade ordinary citizens from being interviewed.

Games officials are ecstatic that by removing a million vehicles from Beijing’s roads and shutting down dozens of factories, they have reduced the airborne particulate matter concentration to a mere three times that of recommended World Health Organisation  standards. They also proudly advise foreign journalists that there will be no blocking of Internet websites from within the Games media centre. But the irony of such concessions is probably lost on the more affluent members of the local populace who can afford to attend and are completely absorbed in nationalistic fervour.

And who are we to criticise anyway? Where else on the planet could such an economic transformation have taken place so rapidly? When the Chinese take on a project, they really commit! Our plodding Reserve Bank gnomes would send interest rates through the roof if New Zealand enjoyed even a miserable 4% GDP growth. But growth rates twice that are ensuring that China is rapidly making up for the previous half century of disengagement.

I could also name a few Western nations that haven’t exactly been shining examples of democratic freedom themselves lately. Bush’s swansong swipe at China’s human rights record was enormously hypocritical when you consider America’s appalling disregard for its poor and homeless, its record on air bombings of civilians and the suspension of civil rights for terror detainees.

The dragon is awakening and there is no question that China will rise to become the most powerful economic and military force we’ve ever seen. The recently signed free trade agreement between China and New Zealand may well be largely symbolic, but symbolism and relationship both mean a great deal to the Chinese. Furthermore, it is only through trade and dialogue that small nations can hope to influence change.