Hawaii, too, stakes knowledge economy claim

Politicians, sector group leaders, self-styled entrepreneurs and cheerleaders of various other stripes have been advocating turning New Zealand into a knowledge economy for the past few years. No one should imagine, though, that the rest of the world isn't thinking along similar lines.

Politicians, sector group leaders, self-styled entrepreneurs and cheerleaders of various other stripes have been advocating turning New Zealand into a knowledge economy for the past few years.

Computerworld’s even been known to voice support for the idea, vague though it is. In a week or two, all the talk should finally bear some fruit, with the commissioning of the first of a series of data centres, dreamt up at last year’s Knowledge Wave conference in Auckland.

No one should imagine, though, that the rest of the world isn’t thinking along similar lines. Unfortunately for us, while we might have some good ideas, when it comes to transforming the economy with them we’re comparatively underendowed with resources.

Take Hawaii, for instance. While there for a couple of days in January, I was surprised to hear representatives of the state government speaking from a script that sounded just like the one we’ve had endless recitals from here.

“Hawaii must break its dependence on tourism. We should be exploiting our remoteness by becoming a safe haven for data processing. We should be using the time zone advantage that allows us to communicate with the northern and southern hemispheres in the same working day.”

My surprise was as much at the suggestion that Hawaii’s economy needed any help as it was at the familiarity of the message. The place appears to thrive. The Waikiki beachfront is lined with expensive hotels, the freeways are clogged with new four-wheel drives which make those on our roads look like toys and 30-degree winter temperatures ensure the airport is forever thronged with new tourist arrivals.

They have a national economy of about $US40 billion (that’s two-thirds the size of ours with a population a third of ours), annual federal grants of $US10 billion and a massive American defence industry pouring hundreds of millions more into local businesses.

What more could Hawaiians be wanting?

They want a bigger technology sector, that’s what, and they’re eyeing precisely the sorts of industries New Zealand looks to. Hawaii depends on tourism for 25% of its income and since September 11’s attacks on the US mainland, fewer people are travelling. Its technology sector is worth 2% to 3% of GDP and it is intent on doubling that percentage. So it is looking at IT, high tech and biotech as sectors of its economy to expand. And it is looking outside, in just the same way as New Zealand does, for investors willing to put money into new ventures.

Hawaiian state officials were telling me — and journalists from elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region — all this in the fond belief that we’d take the message home with us. Made aware of the opportunities beckoning in Hawaii, New Zealand (and Korean and Australian and Singaporean) entrepreneurs would be winging there way there, chequebooks in hand.

I didn’t let on that our need was even greater than theirs, and that I’d be returning to New Zealand with the news that we have to try even harder in the race to become a knowledge economy.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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