New Zealand Labour Party

KiwiFoo Camp 2015

I was lucky enough to be invited to join some of New Zealand’s best and brightest technology thinkers as part of the "Kiwi Foo Camp" 2015.

The private gathering of about 150 people from New Zealand, Australia and the world is a hothouse for innovation. Invitees are doing interesting work in fields such as neuroscience, Internet applications, robotics, drones and sensory technology, psychology, open source programming, art, business, physics, social enterprise and all manner of interesting science and technology.

But more than anything they represent science and innovation at its best. They are out there doing it – developing ideas, attracting investment and finding innovative ways to market their ideas and collaborate to make them even better.

I’ve enjoyed talking to a number of business and academic leaders over the past weeks since taking over as Opposition Spokesperson for the Science and Innovation portfolio. My question to everyone I meet is – What makes great innovation? And what can we be doing as a country better to build a future economy built on our brains?

I’m still getting lots of answers but it’s pretty obvious that we all stand to gain from building a more innovative future, that not all the benefits of innovation accrue to the companies or organisations conducting the R&D, and that an active and strategic role for government is a crucial link in the innovation chain.

Sure, the organisation matters. One CEO summed up his company’s dysfunctional approach to innovation succinctly: “We say innovation is our top priority, but we don’t effectively allocate our time, resources and efforts to walk the innovation talk.” Other senior managers told me the reasons their companies aren’t effective innovators are that ‘‘innovation is risky”, “‘the urgent [quarterly earnings] drives out the important [innovation]” and “we punish innovation failure but don’t reward innovation success.”

They might be talking about their own individual situations- but they could just as well be talking about New Zealand as a whole.

The Government’s approach to innovation is less than, well, innovative. It doesn’t create an environment where teamwork can thrive and collaboration is encouraged. Instead our tertiary institutions are pitted against each other in a fight for funding and our Crown Research Institutes rob Peter to pay Paul by doing what pays well to deliver much needed future innovation. We see increasingly innovative television advertisements to attract new students, but where’s the pure innovation that’s going to grow jobs and wages for the country’s future?

We can and should be doing more.

In listening to those who are out there doing it, it’ pretty obvious that innovation is actually about building teamwork. It’s about combining people and their skills.

There have been some lone geniuses, but more often they are the footnotes in history. Instead some of our greatest innovations have come from more than one brain.

How many of the great innovators of our time have worked in pairs? Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

The lesson is that innovation is not something we do in isolation. It needs an environment and the right people to turn build on what exists, develop new ideas, share and test them with others, redefine and develop, start up and scale up businesses.

In the minds of many of the innovation leaders at Kiwi Foo 2015, the social context and social impact of innovation is crucial. Innovation flourishes in a community where citizens are well educated in critical thinking; one where talented people want to live; and one where innovation, creativity and diversity flourishes. It was well recognised that inequality, deprivation and the growing digital divide are both bad in themselves and diminishing of our collective future prosperity.

So innovation works by: building on what exists, developing new ideas, sharing and testing them with others, redefining and developing, prototyping and building, testing to see what works and then developing it into a product or service that appeals to a lot of people – a world audience. That is the innovation that becomes the game changer for New Zealand.

Over the next few months, my challenge is to hear more of your ideas as to how to create that environment for a Labour Government to deliver.

It is absolute teamwork.