It is critical that the New Zealand technology industry directly influences official policy on funding for research and development, education and infrastructure to allow innovation to flourish.
Innovative industries such as computer science and engineering also have an image problem that needs serious attention.
These were some of the key points that emerged from a roundtable discussion hosted by Cisco last week that debated the strategies New Zealand needs to employ to nurture innovation, compete globally and grow its economy.
The debate was led by a panel that included Cisco senior vice president Howard Charney, New Zealand Institute CEO David Skilling, Auckland University’s UniServices general manager of technology Will Charles and Professor Thomas Neitzert, head of AUT University’s School of Engineering.
Opening the discussion, Cisco country manager Geoff Lawrie described innovation as a critical survival skill for the future. “This is a very relevant topic for New Zealand and particularly relevant when we are coming up to an election – that tends to prompt some of the debate around how we can create and generate a more prosperous nation.”
One of the aims of the debate was to determine why innovation is not more pervasive in New Zealand, even though it generally understands the role of innovation and has produced some obvious examples of innovation, says Lawrie. “We want to understand what it is we need to do as a country to leverage the innovation that is apparent and drive the kind of prosperity we are capable of.”
Points on which all panellists agreed was that the country was not doing enough to encourage young people into careers in technology or engineering, and was not investing enough in research and development, or the infrastructure needed for innovation to thrive.
Engineering and sciences have a serious PR problem, says Charney. “We do not talk enough about what is possible with technology. We should ignite a zeal among young people.”
AUT’s Neitzert agrees the country needs to get more people into engineering as a whole, saying there has been a dramatic reduction in engineering graduates.
“Five percent of graduates in New Zealand are engineering graduates – 95 percent are doing something else.”
Figures are similar in the US and UK, says Neitzert. “The nations that are going somewhere at the moment, like Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and China, are producing at least 15 percent or more of their graduates in engineering or related fields.”
The country needs good role models to make careers in engineering appeal to young people, he adds. “We need to promote some outstanding computer scientists and engineers instead of seeing rugby greats on the news every day.”
Skilling says the country needs a clear and coherent strategy to “engineer a step change” in its economic performance. “Just as a company needs that clear, coherent strategy so do countries. Unless we do, it will be very difficult to align, sustain and calibrate the policies required to achieve that step change.”
He proposes the concept of a “weightless economy” where economic activity is transmitted over telephone lines and fibre optic cables. “That erodes traditional barriers of distance,” says Skilling.