A good road map; now we need drivers: industry

'If we can pull it off, that'll be great,' says Chris Comber, chairman of Synergy, one of the companies singled out as successes and examples in the government's latest innovation strategy.

A good start

“If we can pull it off, that’ll be great,” says Chris Comber, chairman of Synergy, one of the companies singled out as successes and examples in the government’s latest innovation strategy.

“The words are great, we’ve been given a road map, now government and industry have got to make it happen.”

He is not saying, he emphasises, that the report is unexpectedly short on specifics.

“That’s not what it’s meant to be.”

Both the new committees and the incentives and apparatus put in place by government in the past are part of the “structure” that will help New Zealand industry to obtain the objectives outlined, he says.

Is it a question of repeating a lot of old messages? “Well, sure it’s been said before,” says Comber, “but never all in the same place.” Its coherent presentation in one set of documents sets out a course clearly in his view.

Incentives not clear

The strategy document puts forward a “very positive framework for the country”, says Jon Hartley, deputy chairman of multifaceted Wellington IT firm the Infinity Group. But the incentives to lead the country and businesses in the desired direction are not spelt out clearly enough, he says.

Moreover, some disincentives, such as “the dumbing down of tertiary education, to put the emphasis on quantity rather than quality [of graduates]”, have not been accorded the attention they deserve, Hartley says.

The strategy contains not much that is essentially new, he says, but “it is an attempt to prioritise the aspects of a vigorous debate, which has been going on for a number of years”. There will inevitably be views that have not been taken into account, and some that have been overemphasised.

The government has two alternative tools, the carrot or the stick, he says, and the question is what to emphasise more. “Whether we drive businesses in the desired direction, or whether we’re brave enough, having created the right conditions, to stand back and let it happen.” From the present document, he says, it would appear that government is “trying to have a bob each way, and that reflects coalition politics, I suppose”.

Hartley notes that the report is only a small part of the picture. “I think the substance behind it is a lot more complex than we are led to believe. I have not yet read the LEK [consultants] report or the Boston Consulting Group report”, that provided a lot of the basis for the conclusions. Detailed informed comment on the wisdom of the “map” laid out cannot be given until all that detail has been read and digested, he suggests.

A third way

We are already leading the OECD in vision for the future of our country, says Howard Frederick, director of the New Zealand Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NZCIE) at Auckland’s Unitec.

“This vision of New Zealand is stunning and leads the OECD at the present time,” said Frederick. “We must now find the leaders and the resources to implement this vision.”

He says Clark and her team have “identified and articulated a dream”.

“The hard bit is finding the resources to carry it out. Fortunately, [much of the effort] can come out of community resources, be they in the tertiaries, in the regions or in the private sector,” Frederick says.

New Zealand’s late entry to what Frederick calls “the Innovation Sweepstakes” means that we draw on best practice and theory from countries such as Ireland, Finland and Korea. “We are a nation at change. We cannot continue our over-reliance on commodity exports. To survive and prosper in the new economy, we must add value to our products and work to create a knowledge society and economy”.

We are seeing the rise of the “New Zealand Third Way”, he says. “Two great strands of progressive thought are coming together. The liberal commitment to individual freedom in a market economy, and the social democratic commitment to social justice through the action of government, are being combined in the government’s vision”, Frederick says.

Appreciating difference

One significant omission in the Clark targeting exercise was to bring the arts in with the other “creative industries” as deserving of encouragement, says Sir Gil Simpson of Jade (formerly Aoraki). By “creative industries”, he includes ICT and biotechnology, as well as design and film.

Art is an important factor in encouraging an innovative mindset, Simpson says. “It teaches us to appreciate and value difference.”

On the IT front, government has delivered the message that “it’s okay to be in IT”, he says. There are plenty of new recruits who are excited about being in the industry, but that’s not the same thing as knowing that the government supports the industry, and that therefore it qualifies as “a worthy cause. That endorsement is terribly important; not just feeling good, but knowing that you’re doing good for society.” Government endorsement is a powerful tool for creating that feeling.

The only negative aspect to the plan is that it’s taken too long to emerge, he says. “We should have been where we are today five or even 10 years ago”, but that was not likely under previous governments. “IT wasn’t [former Prime Minister Jim] Bolger’s space at all.”

We have to recognise that agriculture is still “the bedrock of the New Zealand economy”, Simpson says. ICT’s condition today “is like the early days of tourism, when it needed to be nurtured and encouraged by government, as farming was before. Now agriculture and tourism can run themselves, and we [the IT and communications industry] are getting our day in the sun.”

This does not mean, he emphasises, that he wants the same kind of subsidies that agriculture got in the Muldoon era. But the industry is at least getting more and more government attention. There may be nothing really new about the latest statements, “but they reflect a continuous warming of the climate between government and our industry.”

Nevertheless, “we’re five years out,” he repeats, “and we’ve got to run to catch up.”

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