Posts Tagged New Zealand

Transport Futures Robert Hickson Dec 07

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Thirty billion, 60 billion, one billion, 10 billion. Those are some of the numbers from the Ministry of Transport’s recent Future Demand project.

  • 30 billion kilometres travelled a year on New Zealand roads (excluding trucks) – that’s 100 round trips to the sun.
  •  $60 billion is the cost of the road network (that’s about four times the total health budget in 2014) , which requires about $1 billion annually in maintenance.
  • $10 billion additional funding may go into the transport network over the next decade.

It’s a good study. They start out noting that in the past decade travel demand has fallen relative to earlier times, and the speculate whether we are seeing “peak car”.  Since 2005 projections of vehicle kilometers travelled have significantly overestimated the actual amount, so old models aren’t likely to be much use in helping to direct how future transport investments should be made.

In Future Demand rather than predict they examine two key uncertainties that will influence peoples transport decisions up to 2042 – the relative costs of energy and people’s preference for going somewhere in person, or doing it virtually (such as meeting someone, buying something, or attending an event).

This throws how the transport agencies look at transport into a U-turn. Now it’s about what do people want to access not about just jumping into cars.

A lot of workshops and research has gone into the project, and there is a lot of info available on the MoT website. This robustness is required, not only to convince the (perhaps) skeptical transport engineers and planners (or at least get them more comfortable with uncertainty), but also because the amount of money involved demands it.

They are also going to be releasing a model for others to play with in the future. This will probably be a big help for the councils, and others, who can play in their own local data and assumptions.

Wilkinson & Kupers noted that the famed Shell scenarios also had to include numbers so that engineers wouldn’t dismiss out of hand what you were talking about. But the numbers and models aren’t the whole story. They just help with providing a common set of numbers and engaging some key groups.  Wilkinson and Kupers note:

Quantification is essential to scenarios. The challenge lies in realizing how, when, and why models linked with them can hide assumptions and constrain thinking rather than refine it.

The Ministry of Transport study doesn’t provide answers to how to invest in the transport network, but it is a great approach to get people thinking more critically about what options we need to consider.

Another transport-related futures report that is influencing me at the moment is Re-programming Mobility, out of New York University. Rather than a quantitative approach, they have created some very stimulating scenarios for how technological innovations will affect transport in 2030. These are strong imaginative narratives, based on four futures archetypes [Pdf] developed by the University of Hawaii.

I’ve taken this archetype approach for an opinion piece on the future of science in New Zealand in 2030 that I have just submitted to the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Counting sheep scenarios Robert Hickson May 14

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I’ve just come across this research project – Counting sheep - being run by Anne Galloway at Victoria University’s School of Design. It is exploring how cultural studies and design research could support public engagement on the development & use of science and technology.

In a post last year I had asked if any NZ design groups were interested in foresight. It is good to see that there is interest.

Anne’s team is interested in what could be done with the increasing amount of information being generated by farming. They have developed four scenarios about possible futures of merino sheep farming, and are now soliciting feedback from the public to see what appeals and doesn’t about the particular uses of science and technology, and potential future farming practices.

The scenarios are:

Boneknitter – using merino wool as a knitted cast to help fix broken bones

Grow Your Own Lamb – you choose how to have a lamb raised on a farm on in a lab for your later dining pleasure.

Kotahitanga Farm – high tech farming on the urban fringe, where you can monitor animal and farm performance through a suite of sensors

PermaLamb – a genetically modified and cyborg lamb to look after at home, and receive tax credits

The last scenario is particularly off the wall. Boneknitter and Kotahitanga reach back to include some more traditional practices. If they tweak the Kotahitanga scenario by providing cheap-ish shepherd cottages that could also help address housing affordability near major centres. But I can imagine the price of lamb if it was growing next to Auckland. Grow your own lamb seems to offer the potential for a reality TV spin-off.

Great to see this imaginative approach being taken here. I’ll look forward to reading the results.

Trends in manufacturing Robert Hickson Sep 09


Boeing’s Dreamliner has 6.5 million lines of software code for onboard systems support. It’s a very complicated aircraft.

The new Chevy Volt – a humble little hybrid car – has 10 million lines.

That says a lot about the direction of travel of transportation in particular, and manufacturing more generally.

Simon Arnold noted in his comments to my previous blog post that some of the large R&D manufacturing initiatives in NZ are focused on the here and now problems of firms, rather than developing capabilities for future needs. Some will dispute that point – I know Scion has done a lot to try and alert the forestry sector to opportunities in bioproduct manufacturing.

What is a possible future for manufacturing? The McKinsey Global Institute looked at just this topic last year.

They note that manufacturing, like many other sectors, is going through considerable change.  Technology, supply factors, demand and policy are all influencing manufacturing, creating greater risks and uncertainties.

New materials, robotics, additive manufacturing techniques (such as 3D printing), the rapidly increasing use of sensors (as part of the product as well as in the processing and distribution chains), and the ability to design and model performance virtually are opening up new opportunities for manufactured products and processes.

“Green manufacturing” ,where the whole lifecycle of the product and its production is considered, is being taken seriously by leading firms. This is driven partly by consumer demand, but also by the desire to improve resource use by firms, so that they save money. As with “food miles”, there is likely to be a growing interest in properly valuing the costs of raw materials in manufactured products.

Some are even suggesting we are moving into a glucose-based manufacturing economy.

As products become increasingly sophisticated so the supply chains become more complex, and harder to manage. Firms are starting to design manufacturing processes and supply chains that are more resilient – both to natural disasters as well as failures of suppliers. Agile operations that are able to quickly respond, and prepare for, changes will be more successful.

Volatile energy and raw material markets influence company strategies. Government policies (or lack there of, or their inconsistency) can also add to the uncertainty of the operating environment.

Demand for major manufactured commodities may increase by 30 – 80% as the global population continues to grow. This will open up of new opportunities in the emerging markets. Within and between markets there are also growing demands for greater customization of products to meet local needs. More sophisticated and customized products are leading to greater demand by customers seeking services (training, software support, etc) from manufacturers, not just products.

And, there is intense competition for highly skilled workers in the manufacturing sectors. Capital markets may also become tougher.

The McKinsey report states that its a whole new manufacturing world and that:

“manufacturing companies need to develop new muscles”


To be a global manufacturing company means that greater collaboration internationally will be required, and that firms need to develop a much better understanding of their different markets so they can tailor their products and supply chains accordingly. McKinsey point out that China isn’t a single market, but at least 22 different markets.

The profiles of some of NZ’s existing “High Tech” manufacturing firms are available in MBIE’s recent sector report [Pdf].

If NZ want’s to remain a viable niche player in the global manufacturing scene then firms (and government) need to think hard about the changing manufactured world, and how we can develop and attract the skilled people who will be needed. Universities and CRIs can and should help local firms meet their immediate needs, but they also need to help those firms see further ahead and support them in developing the capabilities they are going to require.

If factories in a box become common, what will be the valuable niches where NZ firms can thrive in? As Simon pointed out in response to my previous post, we need to be producing high value “weightless” products and services because we are a long way from the key markets.

One opportunity I see is in extending the sophisticated computational modelling skills developed by the Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute into the manufacturing sector to help design and prototype sophisticated manufactured products, as well as to design resilient supply chains and life cycle analyses.


Creating innovation ladders for New Zealand Robert Hickson Sep 04


After Elon Musk announced his Hyperloop design last month Molly Wood wrote an impassioned piece about why Americans are now so sceptical about big ideas. This builds on a disputed theme lamenting the decline of technological innovation in the States (See two of the principles lay out their arguments politely in this TED “debate”.

New Zealand can’t pat itself on the back, though, about being more enlightened and accepting of big ideas in science and technology. We do have some crazy technological ideas, but generally on a smaller scale – Rocket Lab, Martin Jetpack, LanzaTech. Gareth Morgan’s big kill the cats idea had predictably a polarised reaction, and not many have taken Paul Callaghan’s pest free NZ much further (so far at least).

But we can have plenty of ideas. The Pounamu game Science in 2023, run over 24 hours last week, produced over 6000 forecasts and comments on forecasts. This is rapid fire forecasting, and it felt like being in the way of a fire hose of tweets when it was running. The game is fundamentally a method of engaging lots of people to think about the future, with few rules and quality control. It certainly engaged many of the 350 playing (several school classes were logged in, so there were more than 350 people).

I didn’t see any novel big ideas emerge (and they were similar to the ones coming out of the National Science Challenges). From what I saw there were the predictable make NZ cleaner and greener, and get rid of diseases and inequalities desires, with a few references to robots and nanomaterials mentioned along the way. But there were very good ways of framing some of the thoughts and responses to the ideas.

One of the frustrations when the game is going on is that its hard to get an overview of the ideas or how the conversation threads are evolving. However, Dion O’Neale from Callaghan Innovation has create some graphics of some of the conversation threads which are useful. If you are familiar with these themes you probably won’t be too surprised with how some of them evolve. But for those new to such discussions it can be very illuminating.

I certainly took away a few ideas to think more about.

The catch with these events is the follow up – how to keep the ideas and momentum continuing. Stephanie and Shaun are certainly thinking about how to keep it rolling. They, and others, put a lot of work into it, and deserve congratulating. Some of the payoffs are likely to be long term – particularly if they influence how some of the school students think about the future.

For this method to work more effectively for those desiring more tangible & quick results, say businesses and government agencies, it needs to be able to graphically track the discussions and threads as they occur, and be able to pick out the most interesting ideas and explore those more carefully (rather than getting drowned out by other threads). That’s doable.

I’d run it over several sessions, too – an initial free for all of ideas, provide participants with an overview, let them explore and think in their own time, and bring them back a few weeks later to build on that reflection and focus on the promising ideas. And you need the right mix of people participating, so you stimulate as well as challenge, and keep them focussed to some extent on an outcome or a problem.

Having big (or small ideas) is one step. What really starts to excite people, as Elon Musk has demonstrated, is when you give them a plan of how it could work. I disagree with Molly Woods’ sentiment that any big technological idea is good, but NZ does need to become bolder with ideas generation and turning some of those into plans or actions that can inspire the rest of us.

In other words, how do we create a better innovation ladder so we can get from idea to plan as efficiently as possible?

Governing CRIs Robert Hickson Aug 25


[Update 1st Sept.: I've done a better analysis of Board skills in the subsequent post.]

Continuing the theme of the culture of innovation I raised in an earlier post, this entry considers what role do and should the Boards of Directors of  New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes play in innovation.

Unlike universities, the CRIs have a mandate to support specific sectors to

innovate and grow. They strive to address New Zealand’s most pressing issues and achieve economic growth by improving sectors’ productivity and improving the sustainable use of natural resources.

Many research institutes have scientific advisory boards and/or a board of trustees to help shape their direction and strategy. Few government research labs though seem to have a board of Directors, so the CRIs appear unusual in this regard. Australia’s CSIRO has a board but that is much more high level – overseeing the whole organisation rather than the particular specialities of CSIRO’s different flagships.

In the commercial world the quality of the board and senior management is usually critical to the success or failure of the company. Having a good spread of experience and skills in a board is one of the critical factors associated with high performance.

CRI boards, though, have some different constraints compared to a private company. Notably, the government has considerable say about corporate intent and who joins the Board.

The CRI Taskforce review [Pdf] noted the need for CRI governance boards to include a broader range of skills. The suite of changes introduced in 2010 were intended to make CRIs less reliant on competitive funding to shape their research and to become more strategically focussed on their core purpose and better connected with their key sector(s). Their boards were given a greater role in shaping the scope and direction of research.

As set out in the CRI Toolkit,  functions of the Board include:

  • providing leadership and vision to the company in a way that will enhance shareholder value
  • developing and reviewing company strategy and performance against the strategy
  • monitoring the performance of senior management
  • reviewing and approving the company’s capital investments and distributions
  • ensuring compliance with statutory requirements
  • providing leadership in its relationships with key stakeholders including, where relevant, industry groups, Maori and staff

New Zealand’s small population, and scarcity of large companies, means local companies have a shallow pool of suitably experienced and talented potential Board members to draw upon – for private as well as public entities.  Relatively few boards make up for this by having Directors from other countries. For research and development intensive organisations, like CRIs, the governance talent source is more a puddle than a pool if you want people with experience in the more specialised nature of their operations.

How well equipped then are the CRI boards to provide leadership, vision, and strategy? And how well can performance be monitored (apart from a narrow input/output focus of counting funding income, papers and patents) in areas that aren’t about producing widgets or growing market share?

To “provide leadership and vision to the company in a way that will enhance shareholder value” I’d expect to see boards with not just good governance, financial, legal and strategic chops, but also some practical understanding of the sectors the CRIs are supposed to be working with, as well as some experience in commercialising or transferring R&D.  How else could they develop a good understanding of the opportunities, challenges and options facing the CRI?

Relevant science expertise wouldn’t be amiss either. The CRI Taskforce recommended that each board include an “eminent scientist”.

How well do the CRIs stand up to my expectations? Based on the brief biographies provided by the CRIs for their board members I have allocated their skills and expertise into one of four categories:

  • general governance skills (ie standard Director types with financial, legal, previous directorship experience, and/or  experience in working with Maori organisations)
  • sector knowledge – experience (beyond directorship) in the sector(s) that the CRI has an interest in. For example, farming, horticulture, manufacturing, wood processing, regional council or running a small business relevant to the CRIs interests
  • scientific knowledge – science expertise relevant to that CRI
  • technology transfer – have hands on involvement in converting science or technology into a business opportunity or helping a company commercialise R&D.

Somewhat simplistic perhaps, but useful in providing a broad overview. I’ve avoided double counting by putting each director in the category which I think best describes the main attribute that they bring. If, for instance, an AgResearch board member is a farmer as well as being involved in a range of other boards then I’ve classified them as having sector knowledge. If a scientist has set up a company to commercialise their research then they are in the tech transfer box rather than the scientist one. Someone who is sitting on lots of boards, or has done marketing, but doesn’t appear to have handled a pipette professionally gets allocated to general governance.

I’ve included Callaghan Innovation as a CRI even though it has a broader role than the others.

Out of 58 CRI board members (one sits on two CRI boards), nearly two thirds have general governance experience and just 10% appear to have direct hands-on technology transfer experience. More than passing knowledge of the relevant sectors and science are also low (Click on image to get a larger view).



Is this good or bad? A similar analysis of eight “high tech” or R&D intensive New Zealand firms (six ranked in the TIN100) shows that sector knowledge is more common:


(The firms included are F&P Appliances, F&P Healthcare, Orion Health, NDA Group, Tait Radio, Rakon, LanzaTech and Blis Technologies – a spread of small to large firms).

Looking at each CRI, there’s variability in how much sector knowledge each board has. Only three appear to have board members with hands on experience in the relevant sector(s) for that CRI, and only four appear to have board members familiar with research commercialisation or technology transfer:


[Agr = AgResearch, CI = Callaghan Innovation, ESR = Environmental Science & Research, GNS = GNS Science, LCR = Landcare Research, NIW = Niwa, PFR = Plant & Food Research, and SCI = Scion]

AgResearch’s board is the one CRI that seems to have the expected diversity.

Its possible that there may be a greater knowledge of the sectors than is indicated by the Director’s brief bios, but you’d expect that to be highlighted (as some of the Directors do). Overall the composition doesn’t fill me with confidence that most of the boards have a sufficiently good understanding of their sectors and what it takes to provide technological services and products.

Callaghan Innovation is the most worrying. While their  sector – manufacturing – is very broad, there are a range of largish companies from which experienced board members could potentially been drawn. This is the research organisation most in need of developing a better understanding of its sector. And the one most in need of having a good understanding at the board level of technology transfer.

You could say that this experience doesn’t matter on the board. They have access to that through their management, staff, or other advisory groups. The Taskforce report suggested that CRIs may wish to set up advisory groups to provide the boards with sector and science insights, but its not obvious from the CRI websites that any have formally established such advisory panels. So I’m not sure if they are getting good independent advice on these matters, or being overly reliant on the one or two board members with such knowledge.

You could also say that the main function of the boards is to stick to regulation, governance and compliance – the areas that many NZ boards already seem to focus on - and leave strategy and that innovation stuff to management and the scientists and engineers. That’s the impression I get from the current board composition.

But the CRI toolkit, and the changes to funding and governance arrangements are clear that the board has a role greater than just assuring Ministers that the CRIs are financially sound. Understanding their sector seems an essential part of any board’s core functions.

Internationally company boards are thinking more about strategy rather than just compliance (see here too). And boards that think and ask management hard questions about innovation are good for the organisation.

So I do think innovation is a critical issue for CRI boards to take more leadership on. And the government needs to think more about the range of experience that each CRI board needs to do that better.




Intergenerational equity Robert Hickson Apr 16


Last week I went to demographer Paul Spoonley’s informative lecture at the Treasury about migration. He started off by noting a conversation he had with his son, where the latter proclaimed that

“the baby boomer generation is constructing a future that will leave problems for subsequent generations”.

Paul didn’t directly respond to this question in his lecture, but I got the sense that his view is that policy makers are too passive with respect to migration and they should be more actively constructing  sensible and forward looking migration and population policies so that there are fewer problems for our descendants to clean up.

If you replace “the baby boomer” with “your” I also think Paul’s son’s complaint is one uttered every generation by offspring to parents.

This timeless conflict between younger and older generations is also illustrated by this rather unhelpful video posted on the McGuinness Institute website made by some of the LongTermNZ participants. There are valid reasons to be worried about what is now being called intergenerational equity, and it has got some international business leaders attention [PDF].  But setting up a contrived Them versus Us conflict is not constructive, although it is one way of getting people interested in a topic.

New Zealand’s National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, based at the University of Waikato, has produced a good report examining New Zealand’s demographic forces and what population ageing [really] means [PDF] (they also have a range of other excellent reports and data sets available for thought provoking perusal).

As Paul Spoonley suggests, more time needs to be devoted – by all of us, not just policy makers & demographers – to thinking about New Zealand’s future population trends and characteristics and actively creating fair and equitable policy and actions for all.

Future Foods Robert Hickson Feb 26

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Will farm livestock become endangered species? Social, economic and environmental drivers are converging to not only look at producing food more efficiently and sustainably, but are also stimulating new ways to produce meat or remove the need for it altogether. Such changes, if successful, could have substantial effects on New Zealand’s agricultural and economic landscapes.

Lab-grown meat has been worked on for a while, and convergence with other technologies is starting. Modern Meadow  is aiming to print meat. In vitro production of meat still has a long way to go, technically, economically and socially. There is scepticism that it will become economically viable and sufficiently scaleable. Or even appeal to consumers. But would it really be that different from currently available mechanically extracted meat products , insects or some of the delights whipped up by molecular gastronomists?

Will our culinary future need meat? Bloomberg BusinessWeek  notes the emergence of start-ups looking at plant proteins to replace meat and egg products. This goes way beyond that culinary favourite of yore – textured vegetable protein What is particularly noteworthy about these developments is that some of the key backers are VCs who have also focused on clean technologies. Some of them are hoping that the food companies will give quicker returns on investments.

Like the “food pills” of yesteryear these new technologies may not come to pass, but they warrant careful consideration because of their potential to disrupt traditional practices. If a good cheap substitute for milk powder is created what effect will that have on our milk producers? A premium price for real milk or a quaint cottage industry?

Alongside vertical farming and technologies to enhance food safety these developments signal a higher tech approach to food production, and increasing emphasis on production practices, that New Zealand may not be sufficiently prepared for.

 The Future Food project undertaken by ESR, Plant & Food Research, and others, considered the implications of some new technologies and social factors on food production here, but didn’t consider the full range of technological innovation occurring in the food sector. 

Thinking Futures Workshop Robert Hickson Feb 22


The NZ Futures Trust is running a workshop in Wellington on 6th March. The purpose is to help connect up future thinkers and to help identify how the Futures Trust can better support futures thinking in NZ. The workshop will:

• identify gaps in the way futuring works to support New Zealand businesses

communities, policy-making and decision-making.

• identify and review potential “fixes” for the system gaps

• consider new ways to connect with other organisations, and

• work out how we can open up access to the resources held by NZFT and other organisations.

To find out more and register go here. Spaces are limited.


I’m involved in helping organise the workshop.

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”

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