The common theme in the early part of this forum – which brings together scientists, business people, government officials and community leaders from across the country, is that New Zealanders generally agree on what we want as a nation – a high standard of living, social cohesion and economic growth without significantly damaging the environment.
But as self-made millionaire and entrepreneur Derek Handley pointed out in the opening session of the Transit of Venus, science and prosperity, our definition of prosperity needs to change as we face increasing pressure on resources.
“We blindly continue to define our success with three outdated letters – GDP,” said Handley, who founded the mobile technology start-up The Hyperfactory ten years ago and sold to US advertising and marketing giant Meredith in 2010.
Handley said issues around the environment and resource use normally seen as the domain of “treehuggers” were now mainstream issues that the business world was forced to address.
Business practices were changing as multinationals questioned the sustainability of their activities, said Handley, who pointed, as way of example, to food manufacturers Kraft and Nestle, who are co-operating to ensure the supply of cocoa from farmers around the world – on a farm by farm basis.
“This is an indication of the future of business,” he said, adding that New Zealand’s goal of closing the GDP gap with Australia may turn out to be a goal “not worthy or pursing” if we focus as a nation on sustainable growth.
Others at the forum have pointed to the increasingly evident brake on growth for the nation, in that we are running out of capacity in our key export industry of dairy.
New Zealand Trade & Enterprise chief executive Peter Chrisp reminded forum attendees that with just 260 New Zealand companies with export revenue of over $25 million, “even our big companies are small and medium-sized enterprises”. New Zealand had a positive brand worldwide, but ranked badly on global measures of innovation and technology use.
Ministry of Science and Innovation chief executive, Murray Bain, said New Zealand had a “boiling frog” issue where our economic growth prospects are deteriorating slowly over time as we fail to innovate sufficiently to remain globally competitive.
He pointed to other small countries that had transformed their economies based on science and technology, but which had experienced significant shocks – for Finland, the collapse of communist Russia, for Israel, the constant threat of attack from hostile nations.
This Bain refers to as a “burning platform” that can ignite innovation. “We don’t need a burning platform,” he concluded, suggesting New Zealand could mirror some of the success of those other small countries by making better use of science and encouraging innovation in the private sector.
“Each nation has its own path to innovation,” said Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, who is convening the forum on behalf of the late Sir Paul Callaghan, who in the final years of his life urged New Zealand to forego “incremental change” for a radical overhaul of the economy based on science and technology.
Follow the live webcast of the forum here.