What the world can learn from Māori thinking

Joe Iles
Joe Iles
May 28, 2019 · 5 min read

Combining the contemporary idea of a circular economy with the worldviews preserved by indigenous people through generations could offer a path to a more prosperous global economy.

Te Puia in Rotorua was the location for the first ever Ōhanga Āmiomio Pacific Summit, on the topic of the circular economy, hosted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and New Zealand Ministry for the Environment. Since 2010, the circular economy has moved beyond a niche topic, to an area of research and practice, and an undeniable trend around the world. Faced with the current stalling take-make-waste model, with its chronic pollution, diminishing returns, and unhealthy outcomes, people are looking for a new vision for an economy that works, now and in the future. In response, the core principles of a circular economy — to design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems — are seen as an opportunity, and a new narrative for innovation and progress.

New Zealand is a hotspot of activity. Startups, large businesses, governments, and universities are embracing the term as an inspiring vision and toolkit for innovation. However, it’s clear that the essence of the circular economy — understanding the interconnectedness of everything, and building cycles of continual regeneration — have long been found in the Māori and Pasifika peoples of Aotearoa and the Pacific Islands.

The Pacific Summit explored the connections between these indigenous worldviews and the circular economy, with a prominent theme on mātauranga Māori. The conversation was nuanced, unpredictable, and often challenging. Indeed it should be: this is the first event of its type. The history of colonialism, and the long-standing divergence in the worldviews of the Māori and European peoples, cannot be ignored or overcome easily.

However, the interaction revealed potential benefits of untold proportions for the global economy.

There is much western organisations can learn from Māori businesses and communities, such as how to support relationships with living systems, transmit knowledge through generations, and think in systems for the long-term. Businesses across Europe, North America, and China are seizing the opportunities in rethinking product design, materials, and business models, demonstrating that it is possible to reshape manufacturing and consumerism. However, the shift to a more prosperous economy will be more holistic, and the benefits more enduring, if they are underpinned by a deep understanding and appreciation of these Māori concepts.

Against the backdrop of our linear economy, with its mounting waste, stagnant growth, limited opportunity, and rising inequality, emerges an invitation to shape the global economy. But our current economy was not created by one people or by decree. The economic shift that comes next will also be the result of a co-creation process. The people of the Pacific have the cultural, political, and scientific capacity to be a crucial voice in this process.

Of course, this international, intercultural collaboration is not mandatory. At the event in Rotorua, we heard from successful Māori businesses that are built on a mindset and values that should make their leaders optimistic about the future. But the global context matters. Whether through trade, supply chains, or regulation, practically every organisation today interacts with the global economic system. What’s more, many economic and environmental challenges, such as ocean pollution and climate change, have little respect for international boundaries, nor whether you are Māori or Pākehā.

It is in all of our interests, therefore, to facilitate the sharing of this knowledge. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but offering inspiration and insight from mātauraga Māori and Pasifika success stories, alongside circular economy innovations that scale, could lead to change that is global in reach and local in character.

Milk company Miraka is an example of how mātauranga Māori makes good business sense. When making milk powder, organic waste created during the drying process is composted at the Tuaropaki Trust worm farm nearby. The worm castings in turn go to a local nursery for native plants, which are used for waterway planting. It’s an example of industrial symbiosis, in which waste from one process becomes a resource for the next.

Wakatū incorporation, a group of businesses producing wine, seafood, fruit and natural fruit bars, has also built success on the tenets of mātaguranga Māori. While the group understands the need for growth, and has a current value of over $300 million, Chief Executive Kerensa Johnston says that the notion of kaitiakitanga (guardianship or stewardship), as well as whakapapa (genealogy), embed long-term thinking. After all, if you’re passing knowledge, ideas, prestige, or resources from one generation to the next, you work to leave them in a better state than you received them.

L-R: Chris Kutarna, Teina Boasa-Dean, Leilani Unasa & Joe Iles

Speaking from the stage, Chris Kutarna, a fellow of the Oxford Martin School, gave his theory on how European and Māori worldviews became distant from one another. Today, Rotorua-based research company Scion have been bridging that gap. One example of Scion’s approach involved designers creating a woven basket in the traditional Māori way, before repeating the exercise using cutting-edge manufacturing techniques and materials, such as 3D printing and bioplastics. Hemi Rolleston, General Manager Māori Forest Futures at Scion, sees the opportunity within this knowledge exchange. “For too long mātauranga Māori sat as the poor cousin to modern science”, Hemi says. “But when they sit side by side, that’s where the magic happens.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation hosted the Pacific Summit 2019 in partnership with the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment and Scion. The Summit was supported by Principal Sponsor The Nature Conservancy, Tourism New Zealand, Sustainable Business Network, Augusto, The MacDiarmid Institute, Callaghan Innovation, Coca-Cola Oceania, and Fuji Xerox, and backed by Arup and Sanford.


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