A panel session on “catalysing innovation” at the NZCS 50 Years of ICT conference yesterday was markedly split in its views. The majority inclined towards stimulus from the bottom up, providing a fertile ground for people with ideas and then pointing out existing routes for further development.
Others, led by MP Clare Curran and, from the audience, long-standing ICT identity Perce Harpham, argued for a significant role for government.
The industry “suffers from an image problem” and needs to define itself more tightly, said Curran. We don’t even have a clear idea of how big the industry is, where it ranks in the economy or what it includes, she added. “We should probably include digital communications, but should ICT include broadcasting?”, Curran asked.
She spoke of small “social entrepreneurship” efforts, which achieve initial exposure for a new development by giving some of it away free and using social media as a means of collaboration and publicity.
But government has a role to play in practical assistance, she said. Partly financing a raw broadband infrastructure is not enough; government should be developing a vision and strategy for how that capacity can productively be used and stimulating innovators to assist in those aims.
Xero CEO Rod Drury is in favour of innovators “just getting on and showing people.” Xero has deliberately chosen a high public profile, openly “sharing our stories” and accepting criticism, he said.
The skills exist to push this country’s ICT into innovative areas, said Drury, but in many cases they are being applied in non-innovative ways. “Right now we [Xero] want .Net developers. They’re out there — but they’re locked up building SharePoint intranets.”
Harpham expressed concern about a lack of government work for local firms, citing the Customs-run Joint Border Management System tender. This, he says, asks for a track record no New Zealand company can provide, and the work seems destined to go overseas.
Craig Nevill-Manning of Google was surprised at the emphasis on government work; “For me,” he said, “’innovation’ and ‘government contracts’ don’t fit in the same sentence.”
Several speakers alluded to a lack of channels for turning an idea into a practical commercial proposition, but Drury was having none of such hand-wringing. The channels exist, he said. There are plenty of resources from government and quasi-government organisations on how to start a business; incubators are waiting for people with good ideas. “There is a process”, he said. “Understand that; then get a pitch together in two or three pages.” Summarising your idea gives the potential funder a quick way of appreciating it and also acts as self-discipline; it forces you to get the essentials of your idea into good order and, through prior thought or subsequent discussion with the other party, fill any gaps. Writing or reading such a document “acts as a quick filter” for inventor and backer and shows the prospect that you’ve thought the idea through, he said.
See it from the backer’s point of view, he advised. “Talk about how they [emphasis] will make money; outline ‘this is the business plan; these are your exit points,’ and so on.”
“I’m an old-fashioned guy,” said Orion Health CEO Ian McCrae; “I think you should just get out there and sell it. The customers will tell you what’s wrong with it; and they might also take you and your idea to some interesting places you’d never have thought of.”
Hand-held device vendors such as Apple with the iPhone and iPad and Google with the Android now run app farms, a great vehicle for exposing a bright idea to a critical audience, said Drury. “That’s something that didn’t even exist until a few years ago.”
However, McCrae also thinks the ICT sector lacks a unified pressure-group to talk to government: “we need a Federated Farmers,” he told the conference. In discussion afterwards, delegates suggested the abandoned plan for such a vehicle in the Digital Development Council was not the right direction; it would have been too much a creature of government and just another talking shop, some suggested. The present government, they said, has delivered the message that the industry has to sort out a coherent lobby for itself.