Transforming Not Recovering

By Robert Hickson 24/10/2011

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”

0 Responses to “Transforming Not Recovering”