Wrong Thinking From Right

This week it was reported that our Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister gave a speech to a select group of Australian and New Zealand business and governmental leaders. The tone of his presentation made me realise he’s finally thrown in the towel. The government’s astounding vision for New Zealand now apparently involves us becoming the Mexico of the South Pacific, by which our undervalued labour force and weak currency are to be re-branded as “competitive advantages”.

Mind you, I have to credit John English for using the current round of budget cuts as an excuse to quietly terminate Don Brash’s ridiculous 2025 Taskforce on “closing the gap” with Australia. The gap is already wide enough to comfortably sail a small fleet of supertankers through it, so the only sensible thing to do now is work closely with Australia to jointly develop high added value products and services for burgeoning Asian markets. Attempting to compete with or catch up to Australia is so completely the opposite of the approach we should be taking that I barely know where to begin.

Grappling with what is quite possibly the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes; standing amidst the quicksand of quake wreckage and floundering financial institutions, one could perhaps be forgiven for acts of desperation. But within the same spirit of collegiality shown by our cousins from the West Island, who mucked in and helped in Christchurch, now is precisely the time to talk more about regional associations and tighter cooperation and not how we can under-value ourselves in order to steal a few crumbs off our neighbours’ table.

Shaken and Stirred

Politicians and dignitaries emerged in a sombre mood from the meeting house at Waitangi earlier this month, after a local kaumatua stood up and pronounced that a major city would soon be destroyed by an earthquake. This week New Zealand experienced its worst natural disaster of modern times when Christchurch, our second largest city, was badly damaged by a devastating quake. After a tough year in 2010, this event is likely to have severe repercussions for the entire nation both in economic terms and for morale in general.

It was bad enough that Christchurch took a hit in September, but this event is much worse. Officials are already talking about the possibility of a final death toll in the hundreds and over $6 billion in repairs being needed for the stricken city. Residents must be shocked at how their lives have been turned upside down. For the rest of us, the situation seems surreal and we feel powerless to assist. But this is the scenario we’ve been taught to prepare for all our lives. We just never expected it to happen in the garden city.

Seismic and volcanic upheavals are a fact of life in a country like ours; we sit astride two very active tectonic plates. The forces that built this land can also destroy it. In the short term, the remainder of the nation will need to step up to support our southern cousins. That could mean some form of additional taxation. It will almost certainly mean a dent in our fragile economic recovery. Apart from the pure financial cost, it is hard to focus on productive work when friends and family are suffering and horrifying images of destruction are being broadcast into our homes. If we are to help Christchurch rebuild, we must ensure economic growth continues throughout New Zealand.

* We’ve compiled a list of web-based resources on the iWantMyName NZ blog, for anyone who is worried about missing persons or is keen to help in some way.

Bank You Very Much!

Over the last year or two I’ve learnt a lot about banks and especially the ways in which they don’t serve their customers. When are we going to build a technology that solves this pain?

Managing an online e-commerce platform means you simply cannot avoid the bureaucracy that is the global banking system. You have to fill out endless forms, pay extortionate fees and generally play their silly game or get cut off. After two years of trading we took the step of opening a foreign currency account for iWantMyName. Six weeks down the track we are finally in a position to accept our first U.S. dollar transfer from our payment gateway. That’s not all. It turns out that I have to actually go into a branch each week to physically transfer money. There is no online banking facility (at least not for small businesses or individuals). It shouldn’t be that hard!

Economists and business commentators have been urging us to participate in the “weightless economy” and go global. Banks on the other hand have no interest in uploading risk by dealing with more small companies. Banks and financial institutions have a vested interest in the status quo and are reluctant to allow a frictionless flow of capital across international borders. Of course if you are a large enterprise, the banks will bend over backwards for you. I’m sure the financial controller at Fonterra doesn’t have to pop down to his local branch to sign a form to transfer a few million Euros in proceeds from the latest global milk auction.

Amazon, PayPal and even TradeMe gave us a taste of what a universal payment system might look like; but these services remain heavily dependent upon the existing banking system because your credit card or bank account is involved at some point. But it’s a starting point at least. Notably, there are increasingly vocal calls for a completely new value system involving the Internet that enables easier payments and that excludes banks altogether. For example, with some services you can perform virtual tasks to earn bartering credits. But that won’t pay my rent or buy me dinner – at least not yet.

Money is a deeply ingrained social institution around which economic commerce has conveniently been constructed. It has no inherent value in itself yet leads to huge inequity in society. Creating a safe, universal online payment system that not only circumvents the banks, but also engenders trust is possibly the greatest challenge facing developers and entrepreneurs today. Let’s do it!

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.

2010 Rocked Us, Roll On 2011

To say that 2010 was a year full challenges and opportunities is somewhat of an understatement. For many people in business it was a case of  hanging in there as a recessionary economy misfired and struggled to get up off its knees. But much worse than this, New Zealand (and in particular the south) was stricken by the triple tragedies of a huge investment business failure, a destructive earthquake and a terrible mine disaster. Whilst these events provided a much-needed distraction for the government, they were devastating for the people directly affected and shocked all of us.

When national morale takes a hit, I’ve noticed the economy tends to suffer as well. Good spirits lead to more spending which in turn leads to more optimism. It’s a virtuous circle. On the plus side, we have been sheltered a little from the storm by high global dairy prices and the fact that our banks are stable and government debt not completely out of control like elsewhere. But there’s still lots more work to be done on diversifying the economy and I don’t think we should rely entirely on the Thugby World Cup to reignite our passions in 2011. We can’t afford to sleepwalk through another year.

The government needs to be looking at providing a more aspirational science and innovation framework that goes well beyond moving the deck chairs around with yet another departmental restructuring. In the lead up to the election, we also need to start thinking about reforming our entire legal system. When a senior judge thinks it’s ok to preside over a court case involving a business partner and peeping toms get longer prison sentences than drunk drivers who kill and maim, we know we’ve got a serious problem.

On a personal level I had the immense satisfaction of working with two great teams. The first was the crew at ideegeo from whom I learn something new every day. We headed into our third year of domain renewals this month at iWantMyName and grew revenue at over 200% during the year. We also addressed some growing pains by improving our platform technology as well as our management systems as we position for the next chapter. The most exciting aspect of going global with the technology was that we secured a core following of early adopters amongst the developer community worldwide that may open some interesting doors for us in 2011. Watch this space.

My other team are the good folks at the Unlimited Potential committee who help bring the coolest events to the ICT community here in Wellington. We had a very busy year with a strong focus on promoting technology entrepreneurship through a number of well supported events. We also completed our wonderful new website. All of this was achieved in a very tough funding environment. Because of UP activities, teams got built, tech businesses were started and people found jobs. Real life social networking is important. Thanks to the supporters who made it happen and let us know if you’d like to get involved as an event partner or committee member in 2011.

Best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season and a prosperous 2011.

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.

Does Shakedown Have Silver Lining?

Christchurch based politician Jim Anderton will no doubt be regretting his comment last week that it would take a “seismic shift” for incumbent Christchurch mayor Bob Parker not to lose the local body election fight that they are both engaged in. At 4.35am last Saturday morning, New Zealand’s second largest city was struck by an earthquake of similar strength to that which destroyed Haiti. In fact Parker, ever the gentleman showman, has risen to the occasion and must be privately elated that he has a new public platform on which to perform. The timing is also perfect for other politicians who are ever mindful of the lessons from 9/11 and New Orleans.

When old Mr Hubbard went to the cupboard and found it bare recently, the subsequent receivership of poorly managed South Canterbury Finance (SCF) and its labyrinthine and multitudinous related entities also hit the Canterbury region like a shock wave. It was a painful reminder of why we cannot continue to prime our economic machine purely on the basis of milk exports and highly leveraged property assets. Investors in the failed firm received an immediate payment under a government guarantee scheme totalling $1.7 billion. Whilst some of this cash will no doubt be recovered, it’s appalling that SCF went unchecked for so long. Ordinary taxpayers and legitimate businesses have had to shoulder this burden.

Most of the SCF payout will likely disappear into holiday trips to Surfer’s Paradise and safe but low interest earning bank accounts of the grey brigade.Very little will actually be reinvested into the productive part of the New Zealand economy. Consequently, the earthquake is a “god-send” for central government too. Apart from the immediate distraction from existing economic problems, it will validate investing hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure repairs. Road builders, plasterers and brick layers from all over the country will be fully engaged for months, possibly years. That may be quite a good thing.

I don’t wish to minimise the effects on Christchurch residents as they were thrown from their beds on Saturday morning. It must have been a terrifying ordeal and the ongoing psychological trauma of aftershocks will continue to play on minds. But I partially agree with some commentators who suggest that New Zealand has a high level of preparedness and that we will come through this. Now that the dust has settled, we might even see some benefits arise from this event. If nothing else, there will be a lot of learnings that can be passed on to those of us that live in other parts of the country with a history of high seismicity.

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?

Fraud Cases Reveal a Rotten Core

There were two fraud cases before the Courts in New Zealand last month, both involving high flying women executives. The different ways in which each offender was dealt with says a lot about our civic institutions and soundly illustrates the suffocating effects of an engrained regimen of political correctness that ensures style succeeds over substance.

Lynn Fiebig was a socialite and failed restauranteur who was appointed fundraising manager at IHC, an organisation that advocates for and provides care to people with intellectual disabilities. During her tenure she stole $500,000 to fund her own lifestyle. She was sentenced to three years imprisonment for this crime. Mary Anne Thompson was a senior civil servant who fooled her peers into believing she had a PhD when she did not. Thompson’s only defence was that she thought the qualification had been awarded. She must have had a memory lapse because walking up on stage to collect your scroll is not something you forget in a hurry, I can assure you.

Thompson’s offence may seem trivial in the context of her 15 years of sterling service in our fine public sector, especially in light of the glowing epithets from figures such as the State Services head. But her offending resurfaced after another investigation into how she improperly handled an immigration application from a Kiribati based family member, whilst employed as head of the Immigration Service. Why did nobody smell the stench?

Thompson must have seemed like a god-send to the middle class, white, male elite that make up Wellington’s most senior mandarins and who were eager to promote diversity within the public service. They desperately wanted to believe, but unfortunately she led them on a merry dance, despite warnings from a human resources consultant who had twigged to the fraud early on. During the course of her employment under false pretences as a senior public servant, I estimate Thompson must have collected well over $2 million in salary. Last week she received a trivial fine of $10,000 after pleading guilty. Neither of the two women are likely to be in a position to repay what they owe to society; in fact there is every chance that Thompson will manage to resurrect her career eventually.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of these two cases is that it will make it just that much harder for genuinely qualified, intelligent and commited women to ascend to positions of responsibility in the public sector. It also reminds us how entirely subjective the justice system is when it comes to addressing white collar and non-violent crime.

More CRI Babies Needed

The government’s recent report examining funding and strategic governance of New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes (CRI) echoes what has been known for years by most participants in the nation’s technology innovation system. The existing funding model is broken and there are too many stakeholders, resulting in inefficiencies. But restructuring the bureaucracy alone will not be sufficient to ensure better returns from State investment in science.

The CRIs are tasked with a variety of social and economic objectives that range from enhancing and protecting the value of our primary sector through to identifying and managing environmental risks. A profit based model and traditional business metrics clearly does not work. The convoluted bidding process for funding of limited duration also does not ensure good science gets done; in some cases it actually impedes the process.

 There is certainly no shortage of excellent scientific research being done within these institutions right now and there remains potential to spin off more baby companies in the future. Here’s a few examples.

  • There are two existing spin-offs involved in high temperature semi-conductors and cable technology, an area that has huge economic returns and is largely untapped.
  • Last year’s New Zealand young scientist of the year (and W2W event  speaker) John Watt is working with CRI staff to look at the commercial applications of nano-particles in reducing motor vehicle emissions.
  • Government owned companies are sitting on huge amounts of seismic data that has the potential to attract oil and mineral prospecting, with comcomitant economic benefits.

But the CRIs encountered problems in the past through attempting to self fund the commercialisation of new science. Attracting smart money and building linkages offshore  must surely be the key to growing our knowledge based companies faster. The CRIs will have to find a new business model that reaches out globally, whilst balancing the need to retain some control of intellectual property and return value to NZ. They also need to make this process happen a lot quicker than in the past.

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