Archive 2011

12 Trends post-Christmas (Part 1) Robert Hickson Dec 21

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Here’s (part 1 of) my seasonal selection of some trends to keep an eye on, not just in the New Year but over the longer term. In 2012 I’ll spend more time on exploring implications of such trends rather than the easier job of just describing them.

A stagnating economy

Whether the Euro and/or the European Union shatter or shrink is only part of current economic uncertainty. China won’t be the same economic prop that it was in 2008. Its growth is slowing as the easy growth opportunities disappear. There are concerns of inflation and a housing bubble in China.

The OECD has warned that the unpredictable ‘animal spirits’ of the market threaten the stability of many governments (finally, the shamanistic nature of economics is acknowledged?). Brian Easton has noted that many of the economists of his acquaintance expect a long global stagnation and aren’t sure how long it will last.

Most of the global discussion at the moment is about austerity. The stimulus packages put in place in 2008 are largely gone, so how will economies grow? Some liberal economists (Stiglitz, Krugman, and Roubini) point to the need for additional stimuli, but politicians don’t appear enthusiastic.

Longer term, the growing middle classes of Asia are likely to re-stimulate economic growth. But why should we sit and wait for that to happen?

2 degrees of warming

International opinion widely concurs that insufficient action has been taken so far to contain greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would prevent an assumed ‘safe’ global temperature rise of 2o Celsius. The International Energy Agency’s 2011 Outlook notes that ‘the door is closing’ on the chance of keeping C02 emission levels below 450 ppm to meet this target.

The New Zealand Climate Change Centre has a helpful briefing on the challenge of limiting warming to 2 degrees. The impacts of such a temperature rise (or even a lesser one) are uncertain, but analyses are getting better at attributing extreme weather events to changing climate. However, more evidence won’t necessarily change the minds of those who don’t accept humans can change the climate.

3-D printing

The ability to print three dimensional objects is developing rapidly. It is no longer the realm of garage-based hobbyists, but is being applied to aircraft parts (as well as the whole plane), electronics, and medicine (bone and soft tissues).

It is too early to claim that it is the next industrial revolution, but it is opening up new design and manufacturing opportunities, both for established and new companies. And the larger issue it highlights is a growing interest in Do It Yourself technology development (be it biology or engineering) that may lead to new well springs of innovation, similar to what has occurred in the software sector, and what kick-started the first industrial revolution.

Four-ty four times more data

Avind Krishna from IBM predicts that in 2020 there will be 35 zettabytes of data (let’s just say that’s an awful lot), compared with 800,000 petabytes in 2009. (Of course all computer companies would say there will be more data, but we can see this in our daily lives too).

To help make that more imaginable – a smart phone user now may download about 15MB of data a day. In 2020 that may be 1 GB. The interesting issue is what we will be able to do with that information.

However, our ability to absorb and understand the information may limit this trajectory.

Update: — I’ve found that Avind Krishna’s prediction actually comes from IDC’s Digital Universe report

5 million folk

… in New Zealand by about 2025. Of these, around 1 million will be over 65. How many will (still) be working, and able to live well and healthily?

By 2031 around 2 million people may live in the Auckland region. That will still be small by international standards, but it’s a big chunk of our population in one place. What will that mean economically, socially, and culturally for New Zealand?

6 emerged economies

The World Bank projects that by 2025 half of global economic growth may come from Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Russia. A multi-polar world.

As the McKinsey Global Institute point out, much of the future economic growth will reside in ‘middle-weight’ cities (ie those smaller than megacities), many of which are or will be in Asia. New Zealand would do well to cultivate closer relationships with ASEAN countries.

Another six in my next posting.

The Future of Healthcare Robert Hickson Dec 16

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I’m still preparing my end of year trend posting, so for now I’ll just point you in the direction of a short article on the future of healthcare that I wrote for  Pharmac’s (the New Zealand government’s pharmaceutical purchasing agency) Annual Review (PDF, 1.5 MB).

The Pharmaceutical industry is in an interesting period of change. About US$100 Billion “patent dividend” is anticipated over the next few years as some major blockbuster drugs come off patent, so pharmaceutical companies are looking to where they could generate new income. Some companies are big on mergers and acquisitions, others are trying out more open innovation models. Some Big Pharma companies are moving into generic medicines, others are heading upstream to become more involved in diagnostics, and some may transform into healthcare management companies. Smaller pharmaceutical firms and biotechnology companies are producing more of the pharmaceuticals now.

Meanwhile regulators and pharmaceutical purchasers around the world are demanding more information on the comparative effectiveness of new medicines. Better outcomes, not just more pills is what they are looking for.  Generating that information adds more time and money to developing new treatments. Some patient lobby groups though are wanting access to drugs quicker, even if critical clinical data is lacking.

“Electronic medicine” is being viewed as a means to help reduce (or at least better contain) healthcare costs, through better management and smarter use of patient medical records (NZ doctors are already good users of electronic records). The amount of information about patients is set to skyrocket, so there is going to be a lot more information to manage, and mine for better treatment options. IBM, though, has noted that doctors now often have more information than they know what to do with [PDF, 0.9 MB].

Lots of applications for smart phones and tablet computers are appearing. These are intended to help folks better manage their own health. However, the  health apps field has been called the “wild west” because many of the apps have not demonstrated clinical validity or sought FDA approval.

The future will be interesting. Patients will be  expecting more personalised care, while major healthcare providers will be ever more involved in number crunching and analytics to determine the treatment options that best meet their performance requirements.

The Schizophrenic Futurist Robert Hickson Dec 08


We are approaching that time of year where journals, magazines and pundits look back on the biggest stories and issues of the past year, as well as some looking forward (see New Scientist and Nature) to what may be in store for the coming year. In my next post I’ll also indulge in some forward prognostication, but before that it is useful to consider what role, if any, prediction has in the futures field.

It is easy to point out predictions that got it badly wrong, but harder to find examples of what was on, or close to, the money, particularly when considering complex issues with high levels of uncertainty. When I started this Blog I noted that I’m interested in foresight (looking at trends and potential implications) rather than prediction. But foresight too often doesn’t get it right or provide actionable intelligence. So what’s the point of looking to the future?

A great report by Richard Danzig — Driving in the Dark — examines foresight and prediction in relation to US national security. He notes that the likelihood of failure is usually not admitted, or if admitted is not adequately taken account of, when predicting future military and security threats. This applies to other fields as well.

Danzig suggests that humans are predisposed to make predictions, but that our ability to make good predictions usually falls short. No surprises there. But rather than throw prediction and foresight out he suggests that they still have value, so long as the likelihood of getting it wrong is acknowledged. The benefits of foresight are not necessarily about getting things right but about helping break out of thinking that the future will be similar to the present, and for developing policies and strategies to help cope with change.

Hence the title of this post — futurists need to both predict as well as to plan and prepare for failure of their predictions.

Lack of certainty though, isn’t what government departments, politicians or many businesses want to hear, particularly when things get turbulent and less predictable. Tough. But it is part of the futurist’s roles to make the organisation more comfortable in dealing with uncertainty.

Policymakers will always drive in the dark. However, they must stop pretending that they can see the road. A much better course is to adopt techniques to compensate for unpredictable conditions and, in so doing, better prepare us for perils that we will not have foreseen.

Danzig offers five propositions to prepare for predictive failure (his focus is on military and security issues, but they also apply more generally):

Make some decisions quicker, and put off others until things look more certain. When things are unpredictable, dragging out decisions isn’t always helpful. Having a shorter time between decision and execution helps reduce your predictive time frame, and so can reduce uncertainty. However, procrastination and then knee jerk reaction also isn’t usually a good tactic.

Create more agile processes so that they are better able to quickly respond to changing needs. This can apply not only to designing and building tanks and software systems but to, say, a science funding system.

Prioritize equipment that is most adaptable. The New Zealand Defence Force has done that to some extent with its new offshore vessels. But what about other critical infrastructure? What transport infrastructure are going to be the most adaptable to changing technological, societal and environmental conditions?

Build more for the short term. That is, don’t invest in the most expensive and long lasting options if you think that you’ll need to change or adapt them in the short to medium term. The rebuild of Christchurch, as well as new subdivisions in other major centres, need to think more about this as a way of managing uncertainties associated with the forces of nature (and population growth or decline).

Nurture diversity; create competition. This does happen even in the armed forces — both between and within the different services. The trick is to ensure that you have fruitful competition that can operate across the different groups rather than fostering redundancy, rivalry and inefficiency. Schemes like Whanau ora could work in this way. Charter schools may not be the best means to improve the education of disadvantaged children, but some new ways of lifting school performance need to be considered.

Danzig concludes:

Policymakers will always drive in the dark. However, they must stop pretending that they can see the road. A much better course is to adopt techniques to compensate for unpredictable conditions and, in so doing, better prepare us for perils that we will not have foreseen.

The Future of Science in 2021? Robert Hickson Nov 25

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The Institute for The Future has released another of its graphics of future developments. This one is about where science will be in ten years’ time. I find their graphics in general are more style over substance, and often difficult to digest.


Their ‘Multiverse of Exploration’ includes fairly obvious advances over the next decade, such as developments in neuroscience, and data intensive science. They also plump for quirky things such as invisibility cloaks, real time genome tweaking, and $1000 satellites. They don’t go into a lot of background analysis of how they selected the key developments and have an eclectic range of signals (such as reverse engineering a chicken to create a dinosaur, and a strange conference series called BLUEMiND that links studying the ocean with understanding the human mind).

The ‘Multiverse’ has an absence of health-related developments, but perhaps that is because they have another forecast of well-being in 2020. Their main purpose is to stimulate thinking, but I find that they do a poor job of that. The Institute for the Future’s graphics are more hedgehog than fox - they seem to proclaim what is going to happen, rather than provide a more open discussion of possibilities.

For one thing, they leave a lot out — such as energy- related developments, robotics, or non-oceanic environmental science. Missing stuff out is fine if you provide additional background material that points you toward some of the other interesting things. They don’t, so for those unfamiliar with what is going on in science it is too simplistic and misleading.

There is also an underlying assumption that these things will happen, without acknowledging technical and societal factors that may influence what and when. A catastrophic failure of SpaceShipOne, for example, will change the optimism about private space flight.

I’m sure various forms of open innovation will be around in 2021, but it isn’t how all science will be done in the future. Open innovation works in some cases, but not in others.  Similarly, “massively multiplayer data” may be less successful than they think. Sydney Brenner has voiced scepticism that more data is always better. A quote of Prof Brenner’s, which I unfortunately haven’t found a source for, is apt:

So we now have a culture which is based on everything must be high-throughput. I like to call it low-input, high-throughput, no-output biology

What’s next also produces some complex maps of trends, which overwhelm rather than enlighten.

I don’t want to be too negative. Making good graphics of trends and developments is hard. We got this far in MoRST’s Futurewatch programme, but I always considered it a work in progress that needed refining. I’m a big fan of Edward Tufte  and his insights about visual representations. Some of the graphics from David McCandless are also great. We need more of this in the futures space.

So what do you think are big science developments  that may happen over the next ten to twenty years? If I have enough time over the summer I’ll try and put together a more informative futures graphic that includes your insights.



Stem Cell Therapies Robert Hickson Nov 17


The US Biotech company Geron was the first company to get FDA approval for an embryonic stem cell trial (in 2009). It has just announced that it is ending the trial, and will instead focus on cancer therapies. Stem cell therapies have been a bright hope as a way to treat or cure many illnesses for several decades (an exception being bone marrow transplants, a common and less sophisticated way of adding stem cells). However, scientific challenges and ethical concerns have resulted in slower clinical use of stem cells than many had anticipated.

Drivers: Technological progress, combat injuries

Trends: Increasing number of stem cell trials & other forms of regenerative medicine applications

Opportunities: Treating or curing diseases and serious injuries

Challenges: Demonstrating long term benefit and safety. Securing funding for trials.

Geron’s trial was on repairing spinal cord injuries, and was a phase I clinical trial that was solely to assess safety. Geron state that they are cutting the trial short not because of safety reasons, but because they are having trouble raising money to keep the trial going.

Does this mean stem cell therapies have had a major setback? No. The issue doesn’t appear to be one of safety, but of finance. Some researchers were sceptical of Geron’s chances of success before the trial started.

The FDA and some other regulators are taking a cautious approach to embryonic stem cell trials, because of the newness of the field and concerns that stem cells could create tumours. They have approved only one other embryonic stem cell trial — one by Advanced Cell Technology that is attempting to repair an eye disorder. There are though many other trials (Phase I and II) underway in the US and elsewhere involving adult or foetal stem cells; the Financial Times stated ‘more than 2,700 trials’ worldwide (unsourced, but presumably using info partly from

Firms like Geron, as well as some patient advocacy groups, have criticised the cautiousness of the FDA in their approach to stem cells. However, regulators recall deaths and other unexpected outcomes in the 1990s from another novel approach; gene therapy. Plus there are quite a few dodgy stem cell treatments are being offered by dubious companies and physicians.

Greater caution is warranted because stem cells are not the same as a pharmaceutical. They are living complex biological entities whose behaviour in our (or a mouse’s) body we don’t fully understand and can’t control. A recent review by Trounson et al. notes the wide variety of stem cell trials underway. While these trials have all demonstrated safety, they haven’t all demonstrated that the treatments work, or will have sustained curative benefit. Trounson and colleagues also comment in their paper that the initial hope of induced pluripotent stem cells as an ethically acceptable treatment option has been tempered due to abnormalities that result when they are used.

Approved human treatments probably won’t be available for another decade or more. But for those who have the money, treatments for pets are already available. The North American Veterinary Regenerative Medicine Association is also interested in veterinary applications. Meanwhile, lab-grown meat, created from stem cells, is also a (distant) possibility.

While now 5 years old, a Futurewatch report from MoRST – ‘Stem Cell Research in New Zealand’ — describes both the medical and agricultural stem cell research (not trials) that was underway in New Zealand a few years ago. AgResearch is interested in using stem cells as part of its livestock breeding programme.

Some of the recent human stem cell trials initiated around the world include treatments for heart disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis and eye disorders . Red blood cells have also been created from stem cells. Stem cells may be able to be collected and banked from your teeth for future use.

This recent activity in stem cell therapies is part of a surge in the field of regenerative medicine. This involves not just treating diseases, but growing replacement body parts —be they pituitary glands, blood vessels or muscle. Technologies such as 3D printing and nano-structured materials are helping provide scaffolds for tissues and organs to grow upon.

The US’s Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a consortium between the army, universities and medical centres, is being particularly assertive in developing and testing treatments to repair burns, replace limbs, and treat other traumas resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others are also interested in using stem cells as part of reconstructive or cosmetic surgery.

The non-biological challenges, as Geron has found, are that such trials will take considerable financial backing, which is currently in short supply, and lengthy regulatory oversight. However, the variety and pace of developments signal that a range of new options are emerging to both repair, replace or enhance bits of our bodies. Which are going to be acceptable (and affordable), and which aren’t?

The Atlas of Economic Complexity Robert Hickson Nov 02

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An analysis of economic complexity by Hausmann et al. from MIT presents a different perspective on economic potential than that provided by the World Economic Forum. The main contention from Hausmann is that wealth comes from the use of productive knowledge, and that the better a country is at connecting this knowledge in different ways the more prosperous it can be.

This is similar to other current discussions about networks — for example, Steven Johnson [TED video] and Shaun Hendy’s blog. Shaun has previously discussed earlier reports by Hausmann and Hidalgo on this theme. W. Brian Arthur has also argued the point in his book The Nature of Technology that technologies develop along similar lines of increasing complexity.

Hausmann and his colleagues delve deep into economic factors but convert their findings into captivating visual analytics. They claim that future economic performance can be predicted from their ‘economic complexity index.’ This index involves characterising the diversity and ubiquity of products that a country exports. Their analysis only considers exported products, ignoring products that aren’t exported and services. The latter exclusion is problematical given that around two thirds of both the US economy and the New Zealand economy (and many other countries) are based on services. The authors recognise this and are working to incorporate services into their models.

Time will tell if their predictions of performance potential hold up, but their analysis does provide hope that New Zealand has scope to improve. Our exports have diversified over the past 50 years, and perhaps surprisingly we have greater diversity than Australia. [Warning: the visualisations on the Atlas web site weren’t running earlier today, so you may need to try again later]

New Zealand's exports in 2009. Source: Hausmann et al. (2011). Atlas of Economic Complexity
New Zealand’s exports in 2009. Source: Hausmann et al. (2011). Atlas of Economic Complexity

Countries that do well are those that export complex products. Hausmann and colleagues point out that countries diversify by building on what they already have. This isn’t an argument for the status quo or conservative thinking. New Zealand is unlikely to prosper by just shifting from exporting bulk milk powder to exporting more fancy milk products (since most of the value will be captured by the big multinational food companies — for another dose of mathematics applied to global corporate control see this paper by Vitali et al [PDF, 2 MB]).

A better example of leveraging off existing capabilities is how Gallagher’s transformed from producing largely electric fences for farmers into a global company producing agricultural electronics and security fence systems. NDA Group also evolved from a cooperative farm servicing company (gumboots to milk vats) to a global supplier of specialised engineered products for a range of markets. Lanzatech has picked up on microbial fermentation and used it in the biofuels field.

The latest TIN100 report identifies companies (particularly IT and healthcare companies) with the potential to do a lot for the economy, although the report does note that we have to expect some failures. (See this Herald article for more on the findings of the TIN100 report).

My view is that rather than rush away from primary production to ‘High Tech’ sectors, we still need to consider what other capabilities we have in primary production that we can better build on. We are seeing this in the wool garment industry, and in developing bioenergy potential from plantation forests. What other skills can we capitalise on?

While appealing, Hausmann & Hidalgo’s analyses need to be considered alongside other factors so that the potential they identify can be reached. Underplayed in their report is the role that ‘Intelligent Design’ (irony — I’m talking about government) as well as ‘Darwinian Evolution’ can play in enhancing complexity. For a country like Singapore, 60 years ago half of their economy was based on natural rubber products but look at it now. Government policies and support were needed to make that switch. They didn’t just leverage off capabilities developed in tapping rubber. It is also instructive to see how the exports of Denmark (to which NZ politicians and policy makers frequently look now) have evolved from 1962 to 2009. In 1962 New Zealand’s exports looked like this.

The Atlas makes light of the role that education plays in developing complexity. They compare the effort put into education by Ghana with Thailand and their current exports, commenting that Ghana’s investment hasn’t paid off. This is unfair and glib — a more comprehensive analysis needs to be made.

Still, many commentators enthuse over the wealth of data that the Atlas brings together and the scope for exploring it in more detail. And it provides good food for thought for us to consider how to improve our economic future.

Making New Zealand Too Small To Fail Robert Hickson Oct 25


Rather than thinking that we can’t be prosperous (economically and otherwise) because we are small and isolated, we should consider how we can make New Zealand ‘Too Small To Fail’ during turbulent times.

Fail (with a capital F) is when our economic, social and environmental performance not only decline but remain where they are now. Because, as Sir Paul Callaghan has pointed out, we need to be a country where talented people want to live.

Too small to fail isn’t about being risk averse and irrelevant. It is about capitalising on the advantages of our smallness to not only get us through turbulent times but to prosper. What are advantages in being small? Agility, cooperation, openness, and ingenuity are common attributes.

During times of uncertainty and change experimentation, rather than conservatism, is often a better strategy. Old solutions are unlikely to work for the new environment. So as a country we have to be willing to experiment and take calculated risks. This involves being prepared to fail (with a small ‘f’). Being small lends itself to a greater capacity (and necessity) to learn from both successes and failures and to adapt quickly to those.

You may grumble that we have experimented before with tragic results -  Think Big, Rogernomics, and the 2007 Rugby World Cup All Blacks reconditiong programme. But you can also experiment by making small bets that don’t risk as much.

New Zealand’s approach in recent times to finding solutions has been to go for high profile events such as the Knowledge Wave and the Jobs Summit. These haven’t resulted in much, perhaps because they focused on quick politically palatable actions rather than long term strategy.

The Knowledge Wave and Jobs Summit do, however, demonstrate that we can get most of the countries movers, shakers and leading thinkers in the same place at the same time. Being small we can do this well.

Despite being small we still like to create silos, both inside government and across the private sector. In a changing world problems and opportunities aren’t neatly packaged. Business models are changing. In the pharmaceutical sector there is a realisation that companies have to move from a ‘profit alone’ mentality to a collaborative ‘profit together’ approach. The same will hold for the energy and other sectors as new technologies, processes, fiscal and social requirements emerge.

Our science system has recently been encouraged to become more collaborative. New Zealand firms also need to consider where collaborations can improve their business.

Being small also tends toward having fairly flat managerial and political structures — both in government and firms. So information, ideas and changes can theoretically move quite quickly; if the right incentives and processes are in place. Adaptability is likely to be a critical success factor in the future, and this is where small can be advantageous.

For most people it is often the small or local things that are of most importance — the things our local council and school boards do. So part of becoming ‘Too small to fail’ is paying greater attention to the little things and local issues, voting and demanding better performance and accountability from those elected.

Rory Sutherland is better at illustrating this than I am.

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Small is also about stopping problems becoming too big to handle. This requires being well informed of challenges and opportunities, as well as knowing the underlying issues and being prepared to act. Sweating the “small” stuff can be important.

As the leadership expert John Kotter has described, good administration and management is fine for an army in peacetime, but during a battle leadership not management is what matters. The same principle applies to getting New Zealand through turbulent times. And it is not just leadership from the top. We are small so everyone has to act.

If most of the country can get behind making an international sporting event a success, what is required  to get them involved in something that’s really important?

What other attributes of smallness do you think New Zealand can prosper from?

Transforming Not Recovering Robert Hickson Oct 24


In my previous post  I noted some of the major global changes underway. No one has the solution to how best navigate the energy, economic, educational, and geopolitical transitions underway. So what could New Zealand do?

Futures practitioners often write about ‘possible futures’, ‘probable futures’ and ‘preferred futures’. The object of the last is to identify where you’d like to be and the actions that will help you get there.

What are preferred futures for New Zealand in such an environment? A range of recent discussions have looked at where New Zealand needs to be in the future. These tend to focus on a particular issue — such as the need to be more sustainable, or to have a more diversified  and productive economy

These are good and necessary aspirations. But will they be enough given the other changes going on in the world? I don’t think so because we also need to create a society (not just an economy) able to not only weather but prosper through the turbulence. Dame Anne Salmond  also recently passionately urged the need to think beyond technical innovation to improve New Zealand’s well being.

One thing is certain, we need a plan. Muddling through won’t do. Ernest Rutherford’s bon mot ‘we’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think’ applies to more than science. Other countries are strategically stronger and committed to long term planning.


Strategic Planning

China is onto its 12th five year plan  (see also The Economist). Whether you agree with their approach or not, they have certainly made things happen. We aren’t, and don’t expect to have, a centrally planned and controlled economy like China. But countries such as Denmark also plan well. In 2006 they created a strategy to prepare the country for the future, with a particular focus on improving innovation. 

We can do that too. Again. We have looked to the future many times [PDF, 1.9 MB], but what we haven’t done well is to link such activities strongly to national policy and strategy, and to follow through. The Sustainable Future Institute has recently attempted to stimulate development of a strategic plan for New Zealand.

Management gurus have noted three strategic approaches to uncertainty (it mostly seems to be three of anything with management gurus) . Shape, adapt and ‘no regrets’ moves (where what you do is good no matter what happens).


Improving Education

An obvious ‘no regrets’ move is to improve the education system — making it relevant to the changing nature of work, as well as engaging a greater proportion of students. Kiwi kids can do very well in school in certain measures of educational achievement. But there is a long tail of educational underachievement. Our universities, while having some great researchers and research teams, are also slipping in international rankings.

Improving achievement in the basic skills is important but it is not the end point, and there is the risk of stalling education on measuring national standards.  Secondary Futures explored ideas for the future education environment in New Zealand a few years ago, but this has been discontinued and it doesn’t seem like any of their findings are informing educational policy. Alternatives forms of teaching at university — concentrating on teaching how to learn are being explored overseas.

New Zealand has produced some remarkable and influential educationalists in the past — such as Clarence Beeby & Sylvia Ashton-Warner — while current educational entrepreneurs such as Wendy Pye are having a significant international effect on curriculum development for literacy.

Many factors go into having a great education system. Copying these in another country doesn’t necessarily lead to the same outcomes. So focusing on building an educational system that meets the requirements for the future will be a considerable competitive advantage.

Another ‘no regrets’ move is to reduce social inequality. As Anne Salmond and others have noted, creating a fair and just society will be critical for both economic and social well-being. New Zealand has led before in introducing far sighted social policies. It is time we do again.


Energy Change

In the energy sphere we are certainly in a position to both shape and adapt to low carbon economies. In terms of natural resources for energy and food production, we have an enviable set of cards. The challenge is to play them well. Others already consider that we have the potential to be a leader in being able to do more with less.


Geopolitical Shifts

We will need to adapt to the changing geopolitical environment. Remaining neutral as the US and China consider each other’s geopolitical capabilities and ambitions is likely to be a good strategy. What would it take for New Zealand to become a Switzerland of the South Pacific — a country that prospers in part from geopolitical neutrality? What does New Zealand need to prepare for to manage challenges (and opportunities) likely to arise from environmental migration?


Economic Transformation

Economically New Zealand is weakening in terms of global competitiveness. Philip McCann has pointed out how our geographic location can influence productivity. In addition to geography, under achievement may be attributable to the modest ambitions of many businesses, lack of capital, under investment in infrastructure and R&D, and unsophisticated management. So, business as usual won’t be a great help. Shaping, adapting, and no regreting will all be required.

To borrow from Umair Haque, we should be thinking beyond recovery (such as catching up with Australia) and be focussed on transformation.

In the next post I’ll look at why being small can be beneficial for transformation.


Update 26 October - the NZ Institute has updated their “Report Card” – Ïmprovement in some measures, but on the whole they give NZ a “C”

Turbulent Transitions Robert Hickson Oct 17


If you are keeping up with your futures’ reading then you’ll know about the plethora of trends and drivers that are shaping, or could shape, our future — continuing globalization, population growth or stagnation (depending where you live), multilateralism, paying down debt, urbanisation, aging western populations, obesity, rising economic inequalities, energy crises, climate change, technological convergences, economic growth across Asia, open innovation, and the rising costs of health care, to name a few.

Thomas Friedman provides a précis of two books that highlight potential threats and opportunities from the combination of some of these trends. To hear more about one of these books, listen to Paul Gilding talk about the ‘Great disruption’ on Radio New Zealand National.

Four particularly significant transitions occurring at the moment revolve broadly around energy, economics, employment, and geopolitics (they are inter-related to varying degrees).


 Energy Transition

In a previous post I touched on the transition from fossil fuels to a lower carbon economy.  See also this critique of the techno-optimism of some in the oil industry. Some countries and large corporations are already planning how to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels for economic rather than environmental reasons.  


Economic Transition

Following the global financial crisis (the 2008 one) there was much speculation about whether that model of capitalism was at an end. Despite on-going protests it hasn’t expired yet.  But significant economic upheaval is looking more likely and may lead to a new economic paradigm. Various prescriptions of what a new capitalist system could or should look like have been prepared by Leadbeater, Haque,  and others.


Employment & Education Transition

As the Economist noted recently in a special report on the Future of jobs, globalisation and technology are changing the shape of the labour market and the types of work. There is an emerging divide between well paid interesting jobs and commoditised low skilled jobs. Lynda Gratton has written about the need for serial mastery — where most workers having to acquire new skills every few years.

This will require a new approach to education and training. Ken Robinson and Charles Leadbeater  have pointed out that the current educational system in the west was designed in the industrial era to largely create workers for factories.

 ”The tragedy is that meeting the many social, economic, spiritual and environmental challenges we now face depends absolutely on the very capacities of insight, creativity and innovation that these systems are systematically suppressing in yet another generation of young people.”  Ken Robinson

India is experimenting with industries having a more active and driving role in educating its future work force. This may be picked up elsewhere, but are firms currently any better at identifying what skills and knowledge they will need in the future than traditional education and training organizations?


Geopolitical Transition

If China, India and other Asian nations continue to develop (not necessarily smoothly) then greater geopolitical tensions seem likely, particularly in the South China Sea and more widely in the Pacific.  These changes will have trade and security consequences. The implications of the rise of the emerging economies doesn’t just rest with what they do. How existing economic powers respond will also be crucial . Colin James has also pointed out that for New Zealand we need to think carefully how we manage the management of us by China.  

The main message from these transitions is that there are high levels of uncertainties within and between them and it isn’t possible to predict what will happen. There aren’t clear scenarios around which to plan. So what choices does New Zealand have? Are we able to identify where we are able to shape strategic responses, what we need to do to adapt to the chances, and what we can do that will be important for our prosperity and well being regardless of what happens?

I’ll look at these questions in the next post.

Illuminating communication Robert Hickson Sep 30

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Wired Magazine recently featured the new big thing in the lighting world – Light Emitting Diodes. But wait, there’s more. Harald Haas is developing LEDs that can transmit data, so wherever there is a light you could get high speed wireless data. He suggests that this will dramatically improve capacity, efficiency, availability and security of  data transmission. As well as being a greener way of transmitting electronic information.

Watch his TED video:

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