Be bold or fail

If there's one man in New Zealand who simply has to believe in the idea of a knowledge revolution, it's Paul Swain. Paul Brislen explains why.

If there's one man in New Zealand who simply has to believe in the idea of a knowledge revolution, it's Paul Swain. Paul Brislen explains why.

Try ringing any minister's office in government today and ask them a technology question. See how quickly you are told to call Swain's office. Government rarely moves this fast. Swain is the country's chief information officer - he's the minister for IT, for telecommunications and for statistics. He's the minister of commerce (with special interest in e-commerce) and for land information as well as associate minister of justice (guess which bits he looks after?). He's the associate minister of energy. All in all, when it comes to technology, he's your man. A cynic might suggest having all those portfolios owned and operated by the same man means the government is keen to push IT and the knowledge revolution under the rug and ignore it. Swain says that's not the case and there isn't a minister or department in the government today that doesn't recognise the importance of technology.

He says the most important issue facing government is the transformation from the old economy to the new. "Essentially we have to move from our over-dependence on commodities to an economy which has much more emphasis on knowledge. That doesn't mean we move away from our commodity base; far from it. We grow things a hell of a lot better than anybody else." Swain points to the kiwifruit industry as a prime example.

"Take the kiwifruit industry - it's nothing more than a pile of knowledge." That might be a little hard to take when you think that kiwifruit are really small furry brown fruit, but Swain is adamant; it's not the fruit that sells so readily, it's the knowledge behind the fruit - it's the branding that sells, and that's an important distinction. "The wine industry is very similar; it's the idea of the wine that sells the wine. That's what we've got to look after and encourage and we can build on that."

He believes a large portion of our future growth as a knowledge economy will come out of the primary sector. "That is our competitive advantage and we should make use of that."

But this is a little difficult when our rural fellow citizens are denied even the most basic dial-up access to the internet, let alone a big fat pipe running into their homes. Swain hopes the recent telecommunications inquiry will help resolve some of the issues associated with the "digital divide".

"It is a challenge for government and industry to respond to. That doesn't necessarily mean we need the same size pipe running around Ruatoria as around Wellington, but we do need to have access in those communities." Swain says rural communities should have the same access to information as the rest of us, and emphasises collaboration tools as something the rural sector really needs. "We're having the summit which should be a turning point for government involvement at that level."

Swain says government involvement is the key to kick-starting our knowledge economy, and he is happy to talk at length about his plans for our e-governance. "We have to look at where New Zealand sits in the scheme of things. We're competing with the rest of the world for skills, for investment and for attracting innovators. But we have some advantages." These include our educated skill base, our lifestyle, the fact that we speak English and, strangely, the time zone we're in.

"We're up and at work when they're all asleep; that's a huge advantage at times." Swain says companies are already taking advantages of this twist in geography and he wants to see New Zealand "talk these companies up; too often we talk our businesses down and we shouldn't". He says an enormous amount of innovation is going on in New Zealand and believes one of government's roles is to act as cheerleader for these companies. "We tend to be a bit shy about our success but we shouldn't be."

So what exactly is government going to do to get us going? "First, we have to make New Zealand an attractive place for people to set up and do R&D and we're reviewing that decision [not to offer tax breaks]." But what's the use of R&D breaks if we don't have the people to do the work in the first place? "Well, immigration is one issue we will address. There's a general view that high-skill immigrants are the ones we should be going after. We need to target some resources at the high quality end of the market - IT, commerce and business as well as science and 'applied technology'." Swain says this is the point Bill Gates made when the two spoke last month in Melbourne.

"When he looks around the world there aren't too many that are offering excellence at that high end area and that's an opportunity for us." He's talking about nurturing talent through education rather than buying it in. "There will be a lot more opportunity for so-called cyber-education as well as for traditional bricks and mortar institutes. I think that's an area where we're going to have to move. We're already talking about shoring up those areas in our education system where there are shortages."

In terms of the physical infrastructure, the introduction of the Southern Cross cable should mean speed won't be a problem for some time, he says. "That will provide opportunity for us like we've never had before."

As for government itself, Swain is a proponent of the e-government approach; after all, government spends a large chunk of GDP each year. "We are enthusiastic about the level of support we've had for our e-commerce summit and that will be a watershed for New Zealand in the sense that we will apply technology to government at the same level as business has applied it."

He sees the summit as a chance for businesses to discuss with each other and with government how they want to interact with each other at all levels. It will also give them a chance to look at the legislation on electronic transactions and crimes.

By far the largest area of government involvement, however, is Swain's vision of e-procurement, both as a better tool for government and as a driver for business to get online. "It's an attempt to get a more orderly, logical, timely and cost-effective procurement regime going. At the same time that should be a magnet for our small and medium-sized businesses because they will need to be involved in those supply chains."

Swain sees New Zealand as being well placed to launch into a new economy. "It's the ability for us to use the new technology in a way that gives business access to markets and customers that they've never had before." Swain doesn't want to see New Zealand trying to compete with countries like Malaysia for large manufacturing facilities; rather he'd see us looking at software development and R&D facilities.

"We can't compete on wage rates and I wouldn't want us to. There is opportunity at that high end for us instead." Swain says there are a number of government initiatives underway to try to boost our participation at that level. "There's the Science and Innovation Council; we've got Industry New Zealand helping SMEs [small to medium enterprises] into e-commerce, among other things." Swain says New Zealanders have to start believing in themselves again and that if Ireland can change from being an agriculture-dependent "potato farm" we can certainly move away from a dependence on sheep and dairy products.

He isn't too worried about the current round of panic surrounding the brain drain. "Young people have always gone overseas, they always will. But it is up to us to bring them back, to give them a reason to return. There has to be an enthusiasm, an excitement that there is something going on here worth coming home to." We also have to encourage foreign companies to set up in New Zealand and promote the positive aspects of New Zealand. He points to the Motorola plan to build an R&D facility here. "We weren't directly successful, but that was the first time any government had tried to do anything like that for years."

Swain is sure about one aspect of the government's role in the knowledge revolution. "We're going to have to be bold on some of these issues - be bold or fail."

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