Frontier Firms Follow-On Funding Favoured

frontier-firms

The recently published New Zealand Productivity Commission Report on the economic contribution of “frontier firms” predictably rated only a passing mention in local media. However recommendations in the publication could have far reaching impacts if implemented. But is the government listening?

Frontier firms are described as the most productive, profitable and innovative in an economy and generally have scale and global reach. But the report says that New Zealand’s frontier firms lag behind their global peers in terms of productivity. The OECD defines productivity as the ratio of economic output compared to inputs. Nations with highly productive frontier firms have greater competitiveness because of more efficient use of resources such as labour and capital. These nations also benefit from secondary “innovation and knowledge diffusion” within their economies.

Chairperson of the Commission Ganesh Nana, in an interview with Radio New Zealand says New Zealand is already well behind other small developed economies in the OECD in terms of productivity and the gap is growing every year. He says part of the reason is because we do not have many so-called frontier firms to which smaller innovation based companies can anchor. One of the key findings of the report is that the government must invest in developing a deeper innovation ecosystem, including supporting more commercialisation of research, science and technology.

But will the government take on board this message? Many of us currently working within the New Zealand innovation ecosystem have lobbied in the past for vastly increased resourcing and for setting greater aspirations as a nation. But such pleas have largely fallen upon deaf ears over the years. There are sadly also actors within our ecosystem that are philosophically opposed to any kind of government investment on the basis that only wealthy and well-connected players should be allowed in the game. This is despite the fact that our neighbours (and competitors) in places like Australia, South Korea and Singapore identified the value many years ago and have literally invested hundreds of millions of dollars into building out their own innovation ecosystems.

Developing more frontiers firms is not about growing more “unicorns” as some have mistakenly claimed. But it is about building a more interconnected economy that has research, science and technology at the heart of the beast. That’s a big ask for a small nation for which there are many competing priorities and challenges to face such as health, housing and climate change. But the key to motivating the decision-makers involves grasping the reality that having a powerful innovation ecosystem is actually part of the solution to those challenges.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a recently exited co-founder of a New Zealand based technology venture, a co-founder and director of Creative Forest, advisor at ThincLab within the University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship and principal at GeniusNet Research. 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. Paul is a co-author of the Entrepreneurship Manifesto 2020.

The Commercialisation Imperative

Oxford

Blue Skies Thinking Needed

Competing and surviving in a highly technological, fast changing and globalised economy increasingly dictates that universities and institutes step up and generate economic returns on their research. But although there have been a few notable exceptions at New Zealand universities, we continue to underperform in the commercialisation of new scientific knowledge into value generating products and services that drive economic growth. So if disruptive innovation lies at the core of economic development, how can we better reconcile commercialisation with the core purpose of our institutions?

Firstly, there are some valid arguments in favour of the separation of commerce from academia. Normative, collectivist elements of academic science as a social system, along with the autonomous nature of university culture, seem to sit uncomfortably with the motivations of profit seeking firms that wish to take ownership of intellectual property. Claims of IP ownership can lead to fears of diminishing the scientific commons, which would be detrimental to the collegial and collaborative nature of science and therefore hinder the very process that will drive future discoveries.

Furthermore, commercialising technology research is risky and accommodating new and developing fields of commercially focused science takes up resources that might be used for other teaching and research, impacting the core mission of universities. We have already witnessed closures and staff reductions within arts and humanities faculties where commercial outcomes are less of a focus. There’s also a danger that high tech institutes established in emergent fields become impenetrable and elitist silos of specialist knowledge open to only a few, at a time when we should be striving for greater equity. Are there other societal factors at play that dampen success?

Patent filings data is sometimes quoted as an indicator of “innovativeness” in the context of economic development. New Zealand sits at the lower end of the table, but not because it is a small economy. Countries with relatively small populations such as Finland, Switzerland and Israel lead the pack. In New Zealand total expenditure on research and development as a proportion of GDP has been increasing in recent years, but continues to lag behind other developed countries. Investment rose to 1.37% in 2018. This compares to an average research intensity figure of 2.38% across all OECD countries, ranking New Zealand 21st out of 34 nations [Statistics NZ — 2018]. So whilst the size of an economy does not fully explain the innovativeness of a nation, the level of commitment to research and development investment certainly plays a part.

Approximately half of that R&D investment originates from publicly funded sources. With government investment comes an expectation that tax payer funded academic research will provide a “return on science” or economic and social benefits to society. The challenge then is to generate meaningful commercial outcomes, that do not undermine the core missions of teaching and research. There are a great many reasons to do so, not the least of which is our ability to fund future health, education and welfare needs. As a nation heavily reliant upon commodity based income we must gravitate towards higher added value goods and services to ensure the future economic wellbeing of our society. Developing an ecosystem approach to cultivating innovation is a key part of this journey.

For example, benefits in cultivating university-industry ties become amplified due to network effects and serendipitous conversations around the humble water cooler (or perhaps kombucha fridge these days). This “innovation ecosystem” approach has benefitted a number of scientific fields. For example the emergence of biotechnology as both a science and business from MIT and other institutions clustered within the Boston area. Commercialisation of new knowledge can also speed up solving complex social, health and environmental problems that might not otherwise be addressed, attracting both government and private sector funding into academia.

The global pandemic has also accelerated the need for scientific innovation. Previous hard won gains against poverty and improvements in social equity have been wiped out by pandemic related economic carnage. In addition, because of growing urgency in relation to addressing environmental challenges, there is forecast to be a vast migration of capital away from polluting industries over the next two or three decades. This green transition will create enormous opportunities for scientific organisations operating at the leading edge of cleantech, renewable energy, low carbon construction and regenerative agriculture, for example.

Embedded within entrepreneurship centres of research, university innovation labs such as ThincLab at the University of Canterbury are important intermediaries in the cycle of innovation and a key part of a vibrant ecosystem that engages with a wide array of supporting players to ensure the success of spin-off companies, whilst at the same time respecting the scholarship that underpins scientific discovery.

This article was first published on the ThincLab blog and formed the basis of my presentation to the Food, Fibre and Agritech Supernode Challenge 2021 cohort.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a recently exited co-founder of a New Zealand based technology venture, a co-founder and director of Creative Forest, advisor at ThincLab within the University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship and principal at GeniusNet Research. 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. Paul is a co-author of the Entrepreneurship Manifesto 2020.

When Will CellTech Disrupt Our Economy?

What do a vegan Middle Eastern prince and a Singaporean cheese maker have in common? Not a joke. In fact it’s a rather serious question for New Zealand. Earlier this year Saudi based KBW Ventures invested over US $3 million in a “seed” round backing a company that claims to have developed a proprietary technology for producing milk from bovine mammary cells, by hosting the live cells within a laboratory bioreactor. The long term implications of this technology for the New Zealand economy are obvious.

This was the second tranche of funding for Singapore based TurtleTree Labs within six months. It is probably no coincidence that the first round was achieved just prior to lock downs due to the global pandemic. The increasing interest in lab raised food comes at a time when food security is under the spotlight more than ever. It has now become clear how easily global supply chains can be impacted in a crisis. No doubt these emerging technology stories are also of great interest to the food obsessed and security conscious residents of Singapore who currently import the vast majority of their food resources, due to very limited space for agriculture on the island.

Consumer preference is also tipping towards food sources that are less impactful on the environment. TurtleTree founder Fengru Lin claims that their future product will achieve 98% less carbon emissions than regular cow milk (and that’s without even considering other bovine greenhouse gases). With waterway degradation and groundwater quality under threat from a bloated and insufficiently regulated dairy industry in New Zealand, there’s a pent up demand for greater product sustainability. This only goes one of two ways. Either agricultural nations clean up their act and get on board with new food tech or they suffer enormous losses when the basis of global protein production gets hugely disrupted.

Celltech may not yet be scalable or widespread yet – but it’s only a matter of time. There will no doubt be many more cellular technology companies to follow TurtleTree and eventually technologies for growing lab based food will be licensed widely and become ubiquitous and more acceptable to consumers. That poses an existential threat to nations such as Australia and New Zealand for whom a very large section of the economy rests on animal based protein production.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a recently exited co-founder of a New Zealand based technology venture, a co-founder and director of Creative Forest and principal at GeniusNet Research. 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. Paul is a co-author of the Entrepreneurship Manifesto 2020.

Photo Credit: Renea Mackie

Finnotec Triumphs Again

finnotec2019After missing the previous two events due to timetable clashes, the planets aligned and I finally made it to this year’s Finnotec event. With some important partnerships now sorted and a bunch of thought-provoking speakers in hand, Binu Paul from Savvy Kiwi, the driving force behind the event, has ensured Finnotec will remain New Zealand’s prime conference for all things FinTech related.

With payments technology being an important aspect of my previous venture, I thought that I possessed at least a rudimentary knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes in traditional financial processing systems. But the high quality speakers at Finnotec soon made me realise that I had a lot more to learn. The annual one day conference has become an important “clearing house” for accessing regulatory knowledge, business networking and a nice showcase for emerging talent in a category that barely existed a decade ago.

I was especially impressed by speaker Cathryn Lyall, who clearly has a huge depth of experience across the FinTech space. A board member at Deutsche Bank UK and with 30 years in a variety of roles across capital markets, including as a market floor trader, ex-pat Aussie Lyall is undoubtedly well placed to be an investor and advisor in Fintech. The big takeaway from her talk was about the urgent need for Fintechs to “create real value” for customers in a crowded marketplace where users already get a lot of their services for free from the incumbents.

So courtesy of Rewired the new Xero co-working space, we enjoyed a number of presentations from some hot new startups that have been making waves in our local FinTech scene. Here’s a quick run-down from the showcase:-

MyCap Markets – A blockchain based private share management offering complete with a secondary market platform. Solving the problem of liquidity for shareholders of smaller, unlisted companies.

Kernel – A data driven approach to index investing with a digital tool kit that helps customers make informed decisions.

Transactional AI – Using AI to analyse consumer spending behaviour and better inform lenders. One of the shining stars of this year’s Kiwibank FinTech accelerator at CreativeHQ and a favourite with the Finnotec crowd.

Planolitix – A financial cashflow diagnostic Saas offering initially aimed at financial advisers. Anything that banishes spreadsheets has got to be good, right?

First AML – Simplifying dealing with the obligatory and burdensome administration around anti-money laundering legislation. Solving a real pain point.

Relay.AI – Back in the day it was called “factoring”, but this startup digitally reduces waiting times for businesses to receive invoice payments.

Overall, a thoroughly informative and engaging day out with a diverse group of highly dedicated players and supporters in New Zealand Fintech. Harmoney, Westpac Ventures, Paymark, Xero and UK DIT deserve compliments for having the foresight to back this event. With a little more community curation and the continuing support of FinTechNZ, this event can only get bigger and better as the industry grows.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, formerly a co-founder of New Zealand based technology venture iwantmyname,  a co-founder and director of Creative Forest and principal at GeniusNet Research. 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.

Capital Punishment: Is It Time To Accept That Wellington Has A Crisis?

civicLet me begin by stating that I like Wellington Mayor Justin Lester as a person. He’s way more approachable than the previous two incumbents and I respect that he is doing his best to navigate the council through a very difficult patch in the city’s long history. He’s been a business owner in the Capital and will be acutely aware of the many challenges confronting the inner city right now. So when he announced his policy platform for re-election, I must admit to being a little disappointed.

Eliminating homelessness and assisting refugees are very worthy goals and not to be discounted of course. Good luck with all that. But Wellington has even more pressing problems. Because it is now finally beginning to dawn on city dwellers that there are very widespread structural problems which have gone unaddressed for many years. Removing vagrants from the street may become a moot point, if the central city declines into an unliveable wasteland.

Wellingtonians are political animals by nature and in recent years have been very effective at rallying support to challenge poorly planned developments around the city where there was often insufficient public consultation. Shelly Bay and the Queens Wharf hotel are classic examples, as was the Basin Flyover that was knocked for a six and the dog’s breakfast that now passes for the Island Bay cycle lane. The highly questionable airport runway extension proposal has also been defeated (for now). These lengthy battles have been a huge distraction for councillors and previous Mayors, who should have been focused on much more pressing needs, as it turns out. Public advocacy is a good thing of course, but, for their part, opponents to infrastructure projects must also come to the table with fresh solutions to offer, not just blanket opposition. Developers and investors will soon stop calling. Some already have.

Now Civic Square is dying with the much loved library and both the Town Hall and council buildings buggered due to quake damage. This is a heavy loss. The Square was once the lively centre piece of the city. If the wooden footbridge leading to the square has to close, as has been suggested recently, it will be the final nail in the coffin as the central city is cut off from the waterfront. Dozens of at risk commercial buildings in the CBD are already untenanted, unfixable and possibly uninsurable and thousands of older homes around the CBD perimeter are in need of major refurbishment – or demolition. And let’s not even mention the failing transport networks with buses and trains that don’t work, congested arterial roads and the hellish nightmare of simply trying to find a car park in the CBD.

This is Christchurch all over again, but in slow motion. It’s time to accept that the underlying framework of the city is in real crisis now. A crisis that has crept up on the current council, but which has been in the making for decades. A complete re-visioning is needed to future proof the city, also taking into account threats related to climate change. A Christchurch style solution might be the inevitable conclusion, but more likely spread over a longer period of time. Retain and strengthen a few key edifices, bulldoze and start over with the remainder?  Unfortunately I fear that it will take a much broader political will and a lot more time than one election cycle, to get things back on track.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of 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.

What Can We Learn From Our Day Of Barbarism And Shame?

PMWho would have imagined that New Zealanders would ever have to endure such a day of horror and pain? Whether we like it or not, life has changed forever for us. Terror has reached our shores and our hearts are breaking for everyone affected by this despicable act. But how did we ever allow technology to empower this vile behaviour?

I abhor bullies of all kinds. In 2017 my eyes were opened to the brutal reality of distorted social media when I was the victim of an orchestrated and one-sided gang-bang led by someone from the rabid “woke left” who (somewhat ironically) spoke flippantly about “truth in a post truth world”. That experience now seems insignificant compared to what happened in Christchurch, of course. But the lessons regarding the abuse of power and acceptance of a culture of intolerance empowered through online media are not dissimilar.

The same cadre of desparados have gleefully seized upon this grim episode and used it as a clarion call to politicise all manner of perceived ills relating to our social history. I find that highly offensive and insensitive at a time when people are trying to grieve together and build bridges. Yes, we have more work to do on race relations and social equity. But in relative terms we have historically made more progress than almost any other nation on Earth that one cares to name. One madman from outside our country cannot undo this reality; so we certainly should not allow incoherent, petty political activism to divide us.

But thanks to technology, we have allowed the bullies to grow and thrive. Extremists of all hues have invaded our psyche because of out-of-control, propaganda laden platforms that have little respect for statehood, decency or privacy and to whom we have foolishly handed over control of our lives. How is live streaming of a mass murder acceptable in a civil society? Why are extremists left unchecked to promote an online agenda of evil even after complaints have been laid? Powerful AI technology already exists that can quickly flag bad behaviour online and identify suspicious communications. How did authorities not know about this individual?

I have never operated a “FaceBorg” account and these events only strengthen my resolve in this regard. Resistance is NOT futile! We should not allow our political discourse to be controlled by fanatics from anywhere on the political spectrum, nor by faceless American corporations lacking ethics. Why do governments continually fail to act on this? If you think I am a lone voice on this topic – look around and do some reading. Calls for curbs on mega-platforms are growing daily.

We do not always need to agree on everything. But that does not prevent us from engaging in rational debate. Now more than ever we must protect freedom of speech, support an independent and balanced media and promote the lost art of intelligent public discourse. And we must no longer provide platforms for the divisive rhetoric of bullies and intolerant fanatics – irrespective of their political persuasion and views.

I’m pleased to say there is a better way. A few days ago, flanked by heavily armed police, I stood proudly with my teenage son and a few others outside our local mosque and participated in a moment of reflection with the entire nation. It was a small act of acknowledgement, but it gave me hope. Young people have the most to gain by drawing strength from one another and moving forward to build the future world that they want to live in. A world that values and respects both cultural diversity and diversity of thought.

* These are my personal opinions and not the views of my employer or any other organisation that I am affiliated with.

Photo credit: Christchurch City Council

Whatever Happened To Competitiveness?

Having spent a decade helping to build a technology business as well as giving back to the community along the way, I thought that I was making a valuable contribution to growing a more knowledge intensive economy here in New Zealand. I was able to measurably improve my own lifestyle and assumed that we were all heading in the right direction together. But with regional economic development becoming more politicised than ever and national indicators of labour productivity and GDP actually decreasing over the last two years – I now realise that we have a lot more hard thinking ahead of us as a nation if we are to deliver on the clean and competitive, high value economy that we all hoped for.

Lately, in an effort to determine how I can best contribute intellectually to this creative endeavour, I’ve been revisiting some of the traditional macro-economic theory around “competitiveness”. As well, I’ve been exploring some new approaches that are emerging in the development arena, with the goal of bringing together my business experience and the latest in economic development thought leadership. I’m a firm believer that policy and actions should be driven by a combination of practical skills and academic theory.

The World Economic Forum defines competitiveness as “the set of institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country”. Productivity is simply the ratio of outputs versus inputs in an economy. Traditionally a more productive economy generates more wealth and (theoretically) more income per capita and better standards of living for its citizens. In practice, it is more problematic and here’s why.

Firstly because this formula assumes wealth is the only measure of good. Happily, some governments and corporations are now beginning to rethink GDP and put more weight on less tangible measures of progress such as well-being for example. Secondly, social factors can skew apparent productivity. For example wealthy nations with large populations of guest workers who have a much lower standard of living compared to local residents. Also the rise of pan-national states (such as EU) and the drift away from globalism towards regional trade agreements, force us to revisit how we look at competitiveness from a global perspective.

Competitiveness is as relevant as ever, but it is being framed within a somewhat different context these days. Even Prof. Michael Porter, who famously drove much of the original thinking around competitiveness, agrees that the landscape has shifted. Today businesses (and national economies) are highly networked, social and collaborative – meaning that the forces of competition have changed. Furthermore Porter has evolved his own thinking and now dedicates much of his time to promoting social progress as a measuring stick independent of GDP.

The challenge for New Zealand remains the same. How do we drive our economy up the value chain and away from extractive and polluting commodity based export industries? After ten years on the job, I learned that building and scaling a knowledge based business is very hard work. Even for those who do succeed, the returns may not outweigh spending the same time and capital investing in property, dairy farming or planting pine trees. That’s a huge competitiveness problem that we need to solve if we are to maintain our enviable lifestyle into the future.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of 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.

Photo credit: Renea Mackie – Creative Forest

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.

Your Startup Weekend Toolbox

toolboxNovember 2015 was a bumper month for Startup Weekends here in New Zealand. With more events in the pipeline, it’s time to begin thinking about your game plan. Here’s a short primer on the fundamentals.

Team – At Startup Weekend we take you from an unformed idea, through to a working business model with a team that can capably execute on the project. Teams of one simply don’t fly and you cannot scale a business without a good team around you. But Startup Weekend helps you connect with people who bring a diverse range of skills. Be ready to share and engage. Choose your team mates wisely – you may be together a long time.

The Problem – Have you thought hard about the problem you are solving? It’s too easy for entrepreneurs to become infatuated with their own idea and overlook whether or not they are fundamentally solving a point of pain for customers. Get out of the building. You might be surprised what you can learn from potential customers and how this can be applied. Testing your hypothesis is the scientific part of being an entrepreneur.

The Solution – Are you creating a product or service that offers a compelling advantage over other similar offerings in the marketplace? Is the related intellectual property defensible or secure? Research the competition and don’t forget to check for trademark and domain name availability. If you can’t find any competing businesses, then ask yourself why.

Customer Acquisition – Forget about all the startup investment mythology. Your best source of funding is real, live customers, not investors. Ultimately someone has to be willing to pay, otherwise you will sink. Here’s a great article that explains customer acquisition versus lifetime value. Building a long term relationship with your hard won customers is key. Venture funding is not a business model.

Business Model – How does the business deliver customer value on the one hand, whilst generating growth revenues with an engaged audience? Look at where your venture sits in the global context and how it could scale up to something really big. Are you a pipe or a platform? Become familiar with using the business model canvas as a framework for your thinking.

Startup Weekend bundles these questions around a lean methodology and provides experienced entrepreneurs to mentor and challenge you along the entrepreneurial journey. Find a New Zealand Startup Weekend near you and sign up yourself (and a friend).

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of iwantmyname (a New Zealand based global Internet venture) and an organiser and mentor with Startup Weekends in New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup related events curated by him with New Zealand Startup Digest.

Image credit: Jason Rhode

Tunnel Collapses. Good Call Minister!

hollyfordAs you may be aware, Minister of Conservation Nick Smith this week delivered his decision on whether or not to grant a concession to Milford Dart Limited for construction of an eleven kilometre, one-way bus tunnel between the Dart Valley and Milford Sound. One has to sympathise with the Minister who frequently has to make such rulings and whose decisions are not always popular.

However, it beggars belief how such a ridiculous proposition even got as far as the Minister’s desk in the first place. Proponents of the tunnel who energetically cite how it will reduce travel times to and from Milford Sound seem to have missed the point. Tourists come to enjoy New Zealand’s scenery, not to sit in a dark tunnel. Others have championed how the plan will bring new economic life to the region – when in fact it is likely to kill small towns like Te Anau that rely on passing traffic. Milford Sound itself is physically constrained and simply cannot grow any more, so that argument also falls flat.

Smith used some sound reasoning as to why he declined the project. Uppermost in his mind seems to have been concerns about exactly where millions of tonnes of earth would be deposited after it was dug from the tunnel and that it was not consistent with the park management plan. Even ignoring the fact that the economics of the venture don’t actually stack up; there are much more important, but less tangible, reasons for filing the plan in the waste paper bin.

Despoiling our greatest national park (and world heritage area) for highly questionable commercial gain, would simply be a crime against all New Zealanders. We should keep our special places intact. Good call Mr Smith and deep shame on Tipene O’Regan and his fellow directors of Milford Dart who, given their connections, you’d think might have had more respect for the intrinsic value of a relatively untouched region.

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