Rediscovering our Entrepreneurial Spirit and Capacity to Innovate

New Zealand is faced with one of its greatest opportunities to improve our economic position in the world.

Rediscovering our Entrepreneurial Spirit and Capacity to Innovate – Abstract

New Zealand is faced with one of its greatest opportunities to improve our economic position in the world – by recapturing the pioneering spirit of our Maori and Pakeha ancestors and more recently Rutherford and Pickering – and build our technological capability that will enable us to be leaders in the world today.

Rediscovering our Entrepreneurial Spirit and Capacity to Innovate

New Zealand is faced with the greatest opportunity to improve our economic position since the "Dunedin" left Port Chalmers for Britain on 15 February 1882 with its load of refrigerated meat.  We have the opportunity to escape the shackles of our agrarian industries and strike out on our own as world-leading purveyors of knowledge and knowledge-based products.  No longer are we at the end of the earth but potentially as central to the global economy as people in Tokyo or New York.

A prosperous future is one where New Zealand will succeed by relying not only on our ability to grow good food but also on our ability to produce and apply good ideas.

As the renowned US economist Julian Simon aonce said, "the essence of wealth is the capacity to control the forces of nature, and the extent of wealth depends upon the level of technology and the ability to create new knowledge."

The key to achieving this vision is not to fall back on our lauded No.8 wire heritage.  That is a fallacy.  It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes innovation, and what built our once great reputation for scientific discovery.

New Zealand will become a successful technology nation not by continuing to value the No.8 wire mythology, but looking back into our history and understanding where we came from.  Havelock at the turn of the 29th century is a good place to start.

Havelock would not normally be cited as an epicenter of scientific discovery in New Zealand, but it was this pretty little town, situated at the foot of Kenepuru Sound at the top of the South Island, which helped to produce two of our greatest innovators – Lord Ernest Rutherford and Sir William Pickering.

That Havelock, the self-proclaimed greenshell mussel capital of the world, could foster the brilliance of a Rutherford  or Pickering had nothing to do with elaborate national strategies or Government grants, but something deeper and more intrinsic – who they were as New Zealanders.  Is this something we have lost, along with our ability to be real innovators?

Rutherford, famed for pioneering modern atomic physics with his work at the turn of the 20th century, and Pickering, one of the technical masterminds behind the American victory in the space race of the 1960s, are truly from another era.

They both epitomized New Zealand's pioneering spirit, the ability to reject everything that had gone before and create something completely new and quite different.  Theirs was a spirit born of a unique combination of the tangata whenua and Pakeha settlers.

Maori were the original pioneers, fearless explorers who challenged existing maritime technology to reach New Zealand's shores hundreds of years previously.  The Pakeha settlers were escaping the class strictures of Victorian-era governments and endured incredible hardship to build a life in New Zealand.

This combination gave our forefathers a hunger for exploration, to prove what New Zealand was, to prove that it was a great nation.

It was critical to the success of Rutherford and later Pickering, as well as many others – the likes of flying genius Richard Pearse, mathematician Alexander Aitken, chemist and Nobel laureate Alan McDiarmid and world-renowned biochemist Allan Wilson.

These uniquely New Zealand attributes were summed up by Wilson's friend Charles Laird after his death:  "I have wondered about the parts of his personality that were so unusual even among first-rate scientists.  His courage, his openness, his ability to focus on a problem and not let go.  His special vision to see the final experiment and not to get distracted by intermediate ones and the details in between.

"Where did these traits come from?  Do we learn them?  If so, can we learn them as young adults, or teach them to our children and students?  Or do we have to learn them from our parents when we are young?"

These traits were intrinsically part of New Zealand, but have been steadily eroded in recent decades, diminishing our ability to be innovators.

We often congratulate ourselves on being innovative, but real innovation is about succeeding by being different, seeing what others do not.  Much of our technological success in recent years tends to be improvisation – our ability to cleverly make do with what is already around, rather than make fundamental new discoveries.

The No.8 wire heritage has been a historical progression.  The pioneer is an iinnovator possessed by the excitement of discovery and totally accepting of difference.  New Zealanders were first pioneers and innovators, and have now become improvisers.  To be a technology success in the future, we need to go back to the past, to rediscover our pioneering spirit, to get back to that sense of exploration and to that feeling of being on the edge of the world.

It is not about going back to the 1900s, but trying to recreate that pioneering attitude in a way that fits with the New Zealand of today. – one that reflects all of the cultures that make up our country and the world in which we live.

Unless we can recapture some of this pioneering spirit we will fail to contribute technologically to the world.

So how can New Zealand rediscover its pioneering roots and become a true technology nation?

Years of import protection have blunted the New Zealand business sector's entrepreneurial spirit and its ability to innovate.  Because we had so much import substitution we didn't encourage the development of enough export-focused industries.  We just copied other nations' ideas and products rather than discovering our own.  Now we are struggling with that legacy.

Seventeen years after our borders were opened by the reforms of the fourth Labour government, a culture of entrepreneurialism and innovation is immature but growing.

Government leadership is not the answer.  As the great thinker Friedrich Hayek said:  "The successful politician owes his power to the fact that he moves within the accepted framework of thought, that he thinks and talks conventionally.  It would be almost a contradiction in terms of a politician to be a leader in the field of ideas.  His task in a democracy is to find out what the opinions held by the largest number are, not to give currency to new opinions which may become the majority view in some distant future."

It is not the role of the government to articulate a vision for New Zealand's future.  It is the role of business to do this and for government to take a supporting role and remove any impediments to achieving this.  Anything that motivates people to think that the government will provide is an impediment to moving forward.  A revival of our entrepreneurial spirit is the key to technological prosperity.

The government does of course have a crucial role.  It must create the right environment for ideas and innovation to flourish, and provide a basic safety net for those who cannot prosper in a knowledge-economy.  The right environment is one where regulation is kept to a minimum, inflation is low, trade barriers are minimized, education is good and laws are clear and well-enforced.  A basic safety net is one that works within the community to help people up, not to enslave them to generations of state dependency.

We have to accept that a new economy can't be created overnight.  The first step is for New Zealanders to realize that it is okay to be an entrepreneur, that it is okay to be innovative.

What we must believe as we try to create a "new " New Zealand is that we were once great pioneers and can be great again.  It is about creating the right kind of New Zealand, one that encourages every New Zealander to discover this pioneering spirit for themselves.  Those who do are our future.

Sir Gil Simpson

Founder and President of Jade Software Corporation Limited

Sir Gil Simpson is Founder and President of Jade Software Corporation Limited, an international software company headquartered in Christchurch, New Zealand.
He is the creator of LINC, a mainframe software development tool that has been New Zealand's most successful software export to date. His company is again achieving international success with JADE, another ground-breaking software programming technology.

He is recognised around the world as an adviser and speaker on information technology, particularly in the area of electronic commerce. In February 2001, Sir Gil was appointed Chairman of the New Zealand Government's E-commerce Action Team, a body aimed at making New Zealand an e-commerce world leader. Sir Gil also acted as Chairman of the country's first E-commerce Summit in November 2000.

Awarded a knighthood in 2000 for his services to the computer industry and the broader community, Sir Gil is a fellow of the New Zealand Computer Society, the New Zealand Institute of Management and the New Zealand Institute of Directors. Sir Gil is the immediate past President of the Royal Society of New Zealand, a member of the New Zealand Business Roundtable, Chairman of the Christchurch City Mission Foundation and a Founding Patron of the Royal District Nursing Service in Victoria, Australia.

In October 2000, Sir Gil won the New Zealand Computer Society's supreme award for the most outstanding contribution to computing in New Zealand over the last century. In April 2002 he received an honorary DSc (Doctor of Science) from the University of Canterbury to recognise his contribution to technological innovation.

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