Creating innovation ladders for New Zealand

By Robert Hickson 04/09/2013 5

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?

5 Responses to “Creating innovation ladders for New Zealand”

  • For my money you basically answer the question about what the Big Challenge is for NZ industrial science.

    Address the meta question raised in your last sentence: “How do we make NZ the “best” place in the world to develop certain classes of products?”

    The art lies in picking the domains/niches to focus on. High-value low-run instruments/equipment is an obvious one based on our existing manufacturing strengths, but we could have ambitions in emerging domains such as components based on new materials systems (of which sensors could be a special case) and the physical sciences/biotech interface.

    But the science should focus on developing the tools, equipment and capabilities required to address this class of problem faster and more cheaply, and their application in NZ.

    The economic argument for why this is important to NZ is (as the UoA has realised in their recent funded proposal for a Product Accelerator – but we need to go well beyond this) is that in short-run manufacturing (NZ’s main HV export manufacturing base) the product development phase is a disproportionately high source of cost; if we want to diversify away from commodities then the key is in product and process development; and the value created in this process is largely weightless and that has advantages for a remote economy.

  • Robert, it is more complicated than just the service side of things. Unless one understands the manufacturing (and market) challenges you’ll be a lousy product developer. My last category above (the weightless bit) is more by way of the icing on the cake. In the other two categories we have the manufacturing expertise to leverage off and that it is an essential part of building a competitive position.

    The problem with the product accelerator is that it is focused on today’s problems rather than investing in the problems the sector will face in 5+ years time (which is where public investment in applied R&D in general and the HVMS challenges in particular need to be focused). Short-term stuff, no matter how fashionable these days, is for the companies.

    So the product accelerator is an important part of what the Challenge should be, should form part of it, but the new money needs to put it on steroids. And rather than focus on trying to spot the big specific opportunities (where any selfish company worth its salt will try and capture the funding for – just as any scientist worth their salt will chase projects in their area of expertise), we should focus on improving NZ’s capability to do this class of business.

    • Well put Simon

      So we need to bring the scientists, engineers, and designers together to collectively think about the manufacturing trends and issues of the future and use that to help shape the research agenda.