The value of innovation and R&D for the sustainable future of New Zealand

By Michelle Dickinson 16/07/2014

Disclosure – I am not affiliated to any political party and do not officially endorse any political policy.  I am a New Zealand citizen who has a vote to cast in this upcoming election, my personal passions lie in education, innovation and sustainability.

Today the Green Party announced its economic priority for the election is to build a smarter greener more innovative economy with an additional $1 billion of government investment in research and development above current spend.

Photo courtesy of the Green Party

Photo courtesy of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand

As an academic, any announcements on investment in education, innovation, engineering and sustainability will catch my attention and this new document describing how innovation would be funded aligned with many of my opinions on how investment in the research field needs to be modified to produce a smarter economy.

I was asked by Dr Russel Norman if I would be willing to talk about my opinions on the value of innovation and R&D for the sustainable future of New Zealand.  The voice of an early career researcher is not heard very often by the public and many of us are concerned about where we fit into the new National Science Challenges, how the system will function with a lack of funding for postdoctoral researchers, and how little our government seems to understand our science and innovation system. The truth is, I have another 30 years of academic career ahead of me and I’m troubled by what I see in the current funding landscape and from what I’ve read in the National Statement of Science Investment, so I agreed to give the talk to share my visions of where I think New Zealand should concentrate its efforts to diversify its exports to include growing our patent and IP filing as well as nurturing our ICT sector.

My speech was recorded and can be viewed here (starting at minute 3:00)  and I’ve included my transcript below:


The value of innovation and R&D for the sustainable future of New Zealand

Do you remember when your phone wasn’t so smart?

When I say the word wireless do you think internet or radio?

How about the word text, would you look in a book or at your phone?

We are living in an age of fast paced technological revolution and its really exciting not only to be a person who uses this technology, but also as a nano-technologist and an engineer, because I get to be one of the people who helps to create and advance this technology.

In only a few years, my smart phone has become more powerful than yesterday’s supercomputers, last week in California I witnessed a car that was able to drive itself and today at home I have a printer which makes complicated three-dimensional parts.

Science fiction is actually becoming science fact and technologies we thought only existed in films and movies are now standard in the robotic controlled labs we have today.

The future of how New Zealand prospers in this field could dramatically improve if we develop high-tech initiatives by working collaboratively and doing what us Kiwi’s already do really well – innovate.

New Zealanders are known for their innovation skills, we are the nation that dares to dream and we often break the traditional rules to reach our destiny.

We get things done, and we get them done quickly, if we don’t know how to solve the problem, the chances are, we know somebody who does.

We all know the man or woman in our neighbourhood who has a garage full of tools and anytime you have a problem, they rush off to build you a home-made solution.

That’s the magic of New Zealand, we live in connected, networked communities and are good at fixing problems. That’s one of the most common things that I hear when I go overseas to work with other tech professionals, that they love how easy it is to just get things done in New Zealand.

Our speed, nimbleness and drive to solve problems is what makes us different from competing countries, and we don’t tend to have the big piles of bureaucratic paperwork and red tape that often slows down other nations.

And we work hard, you work hard and I work hard and the data shows that compared to most of the developed world New Zealanders actually work much harder and yet we earn a lot less.

So what if we changed this low value work trend and rather than work more hours we actually worked more productively?

What if we valued our time and created a way to work smarter, producing more GDP per hour worked?

Several other countries that also have strong agricultural export businesses and small populations have been able to do this by leading in high tech and medical device industries. They are able to manufacture and export this high value product through investing heavily in their internal Research & Development.

Sadly in New Zealand we only invest half of what most other developed countries do on R&D and it shows as OECD countries produce around four times as many patents as New Zealand.

That’s important as when it comes to making money from ideas, patents are like gold dust.

This makes us good at coming up with ideas, but not so great at taking those ideas from our heads and our office desks into a space where they can be sold and exported or used domestically to help improve our current technology.

To move forward and become a nation of successful commercial high tech exporters, I believe we need to significantly increase our investment to R&D from the current 1.3% of GDP which is way below the OECD average of 2.4%.

Our 1.3% investment is massively below Finland’s 3.1% who have shown this model works with their highly successful technology export economy and a comparable population of 5 million.

New Zealand’s economic growth has relied heavily on primary industries such as agriculture and forestry and I don’t deny that these have been the backbone for our economy, but the positive financial growth has resulted in a negative environmental impact both from CO2 emissions and runoff into our waterways and we need to be careful about putting all of our financial eggs in just one basket.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is not how do we farm more? It’s how do we apply home grown innovation and technology to farm smarter, to convert our agricultural waste products into valuable commodities and to create whole new industries in the IT and high tech sector that are not so land intensive.

If you look at some of New Zealand’s most successful new businesses they are totally independent of agriculture and farming. Orion Health, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Vend, and until very recently Lanzatech – the list goes on for great stories of New Zealand innovation.

Xero is a fantastic example of how we can grow an innovative, sustainable business in the ICT sector.

Their current value of $5 billion from only a handful of offices means they have a very small physical and carbon footprint compared to many of our primary industry export businesses. If we could build another 10 Xero’s over the next 5 years we could reduce our dependence on our land and grow our economy through more sustainable means.

So how do we do this? You can’t just create innovation, what you need to create is an educated community of passionate people who have the skills to build, design and create new ideas from concept to commercialisation.

New Zealand has a shortage of graduates in the STEM fields and the only way to improve that is to provide more funding into the education system. We need to encourage young people to study science at school so they can further their education at the tertiary level.

I’ve been an academic for 5 years teaching Engineering and in that time, no matter how hard I’ve worked, I’ve witnessed our countries universities International rankings drop each year.

And that doesn’t surprise me, as my class sizes keep going up and the research funding pool keeps getting harder to obtain, especially for funding crucial positions like postdoctoral researchers.

That really frustrates me, because I’m working as hard as I can, but in the last 5 years, I’ve seen my first year engineering class size increase by almost 40%. The ratio of students to staff now means that a student I once knew by name has now just become a number.

New Zealand’s universities operate with the lowest income and expenditure per student of any of the top universities in the world and to be fair we do amazingly well on the International scale when you look at our research, however imagine how much better we could do with targeted investment in R&D.

One thing I strongly believe in, having come from industry, is that it’s not just about teaching derivations to equations to pass an exam, but it’s about connecting industry to academia so our students are exposed to real life experiences as part of their education and become fluent in the processes of problem solving, communicating and industry practices.

Every week I have an excitable student, or a home garage inventor approach me with a great idea they’ve come up with. Many of which will help to address an issue of social need, such as purifying dirty water or measuring bacteria content on surfaces. But an idea is just an idea without the specialised knowledge and funding to protect the IP of that idea and to take that idea through to commercialisation.

In my time living overseas I’ve been exposed to several entrepreneurial and start up training enterprises which taught the processes required to take your idea from its concept to a final product – by teaching this as part of our science and engineering disciplines we can create a generation of innovative thinkers who have the knowledge to see when a new idea could solve a problem and then have the skills to create a business out of it.

We invest 3-4 years of teaching and research knowledge educating our undergraduate students so they can get degrees and I watch as a quarter of them leave to find jobs overseas.

If we are going to create a country full of talented, innovative people, we need to make New Zealand a place where talent wants to come to, wants to live in and wants to stay.

Our country is stunningly beautiful, it’s still clean and pure, and it’s a place I feel passionately about, a place I call home. It’s not just a country, it’s a community of like minded people who work together to build a place that we are proud to live in and we all want to see it grow.

I really believe that New Zealand can grow into a sustainable home for all of us and I believe it can happen with the help of strategic investment in smart research to turn our innovative kiwi ideas into international successes.




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