Why New Zealand Needs To Move Faster In Embracing Technology

Rachel Kelly on a technology documentary, TVNZ

I was recently interviewed before a TV appearance to discuss my thoughts regarding New Zealand’s slow progress to embrace technology.

Below you will find the interview notes between me and Kip Brook, Editor-in-Chief of Make Lemonade. Enjoy, share, and comment if you’d like to encourage this future.

Kip Brook: How is NZ shaping in terms of technology compared with the rest of the world?

Rachel Kelly: I’ve been disappointed. As a Kiwi living and working in California for 9 years, you get this sense that companies are in a constant battle — working almost tirelessly to stay 5 steps ahead of the competitor. Implementing new systems, new concepts, new ways of managing through technology e.g. business intelligence. When I returned to NZ nearly 3 years ago, the concept of technology and business intelligence was barely discussed and I thought,

“New Zealand — you’re so much better than that”.

I remember telling someone I was in sales, marketing, and business strategy within the technology sector and them having a perplexed expression saying ‘what technology sector?’ I was stunned. Only in the last 12–16 months have I been hearing NZ companies talk about BI, open data sharing, and analytics. We are behind. Period. Yes, we are slowly ramping up. Yes, we are starting to hear about more successes, but I’m talking every day businesses that simply aren’t staying with the times, let alone ahead of the curve. I know we have so much potential, but we are our own worst enemy.

KB: What are our biggest hurdles?

RK: Our biggest problem is our culture. We have a culture of apathy and risk aversion. A culture that says “she’ll be right”. On one hand, I get it. We live in New Zealand. It is beautiful, we get ridiculous amounts of holiday, we go to the beach, we chill out. On the other hand, that apathy and risk aversion is not serving us. As parents, we need to instill a fire in our kids that they have just has much birth right to build solutions as much as consume them.

Changing a culture is a slow process, but it has to start somewhere.

KB: What are our strengths — what are we really good at?

RK: As New Zealanders, we are born with innovation in our DNA and running through our veins. Why can’t more ‘innovation grants’ be directed into re-writing our secondary and tertiary technology education systems — almost in an open source model. Why can’t ‘innovative’ be a term used to describe our curriculum?

For example, what if secondary and tertiary school students were guided by their teachers to design their own online learning programmes based on key knowledge requirements for a technology subject? This would shift the students into active learning (e.g. LdL) which has shown to increase knowledge gain to 50% compared to 12% by students in traditional, lecture-based classes.

The teachers can, in-turn, learn from the very digital natives they are trying to teach.

The online learning programmes the students create could be presented to the open NZ education market through a forum like Pond, initially for comparison alongside the traditional curriculum. As rated feedback is received and positive outcomes are verified through higher test scores, the government could take the most successful programmes, reward the winning groups with innovation grants and approve those programmes as the baseline educational tool for that technology subject.

As the tech industry needs change, the key knowledge requirements change and are again submitted to the open NZ market. The previously-designed online programmes are cross-examined against the new requirements and adapted by the students again, if needed. The cycle then continues with the winning programmes receiving innovation grants and a new curriculum baseline being adopted.

A second iteration of this would be co-creation funds being made available for the tech industry AND schools to apply for as partners, to design better technology education programmes together.

Not only does this concept teach the younger generation coding and design thinking, but it solves the problem of the industry:curriculum disconnect for the whole country.

The fact that students also gain valuable entrepreneurial skills would help create a better start-up ecosystem in New Zealand.

For us to support this with kids, parents need to be empowered to nurture and support their own journey and support their children’s interests.

Regarding the government: there are arms of the government where they are trying to innovate. They are trying to be the leader we want them to be. However, government wasn’t built for speed — even in a place like New Zealand. It was built for scale. So you have this inherently slow, behemoth being asked to be the leader we think we should have, but they are set up to fail. And then they do fail, the media are on them like wildfire and they’re punished for it. So, the solution and the point of leadership power comes back to the people and businesses. Businesses and people, through communities, are more adept for speed and scale.

If we, New Zealand, became early adopters as well as empowered our young people to work at crafting technology to solve every-day problems, we could see our tech sector grow from being our 3rd biggest export to our number one export. See comment above, about innovation being in our DNA.

KB: Why are we under performing in tech?

RK: National accountability and focused leadership from the government, businesses, every day people, and the media.

Historically, the Minister of Science and Innovation has been a shared portfolio. Not only does that dilute the focus of any initiatives, but it means the perception of its importance is diluted. One of the best things to happen over the last 3 years is the Technology Manifesto. The vision of a Ministry of the Future and what that could mean to a unified vision, voice, and effort towards integrating technology into the entire ministry portfolio. I’ve talked about a similar, focused group a year ago. Such a group would:

  1. ensure public sector organizations are successfully implementing world-class technology solutions created by the private sector (and vice versa),
  2. keep the government informed and actively involved with the changing technology landscape so regulation can more quickly support the rate of technology change, and
  3. find, lead, and help cultivate opportunities where single-piece jigsaw puzzle technology outputs from NZ can be successfully incorporated and sold to international groups (see financial generation below)

The Technology Activation Group (TAG, as I called it), would essentially form a cross-sector technology business group within government to carve a channel of communication, execution, revenue generation, and feedback mechanisms between public and private sectors — locally and globally. In part, they would help stimulate the economy and create jobs within sectors of greater technological promise.

This would harness the government strengths of scale, and business strength of speed to execute a unified vision would make a profound impact.

From a professional and personal standpoint, we need to cultivate the idea that professional collaboration and the use of smarter tools enhances the Kiwi lifestyle that we all know and love. If New Zealand fails to realize this, there is no way we can compete with markets that work much longer hours than we do with subsequent sacrifices to the family unit.

Then there is the media — as a collective, they need to be on-board with the vision too. We need more data and leadership journalism, rather than reactive journalism to help tell a positive story of where New Zealand is going, and what we can achieve if we work together.

We can’t grow an amazing oak tree, if someone keeps cutting down the new branches.

KB: You’re on a TV show tonight — what is the TV show called — and on what channel?

RK: The TV show is a documentary called “What Next” being shown over the course of 5 nights on TV1. I’ll have short sound bites being used to debate upon on Sunday night, starting at 8:30pm.

New Zealand has so much potential. We can be beautiful, clean, and pure — all these things and more. We are holding ourselves back.

The official press release can be viewed here.

Learn more about Rachel’s vision for TAG here.