Strategy, burritos and the Internet of Cows

Vaughn Davis

Every month, The Moxie Sessions bring together a small group of Auckland business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet and boost its competitiveness. For more, see themoxiesessions.co.nz.  This month, the question was, “are we going to get from making milk powder to making software and high-tech products, and if so, how?”

It’s 2052. In his high-tech hospice bed, billionaire New Zealand Internet business pioneer Clicks McWeb is enjoying one last visit from his adoring grandchildren. As the setting sun filters through the window, his favourite, little Ruby, plays at the side of the bed, swiping through a picture book on her tablet. Through a fog of fatigue and painkillers, Clicks notices she’s staring at an image, and seems puzzled.

“What’s the matter, Ruby? What is it?”

Ruby holds the tablet up for Clicks to see the picture. It’s a bucolic New Zealand setting, a lush green pasture with snow-capped mountains in the distance. In the foreground is a fat, black and white Friesian cow.

“Granddad, what’s that?”

Clicks smiles, takes one last deep breath, and dies happy.

Because that’s the dream, right? A high tech value-added future where exports are judged not by their calorific content but by the intellect of their creators.

For every dollar that comes through our export door, Callaghan Innovation Fellow, author and Moxie guest Shaun Hendy points out, 20 cents is from milk powder. This is dandy when market conditions are buoyant but, as last year’s “notulism” scare showed, a fairly high-risk strategy. An Internet-based economy could prove more sustainable in more ways than one.

Or maybe not.

The problem with the Internet, says Moxie guest and former New Zealand Institute Head Rick Boven, is that everyone has it. The tools are ubiquitous, and the odds of success are not particularly high.

What if, instead of “getting off the grass,” as Hendy’s book title provocatively suggests, we give each blade of it an IP address and looked for ways to combine our unique advantages with the opportunities the Internet delivers?

Of course, we’ll still need talent, and we’ll still need it to be concentrated in ways that allow and encourage the happy collisions innovation requires.

Even with all the connectivity the Internet brings, you still can’t beat physical proximity. While the Internet, Hendy say, is great for access to codified knowledge (and means he no longer spends Fridays in the library reading the latest shipment of journals), tacit knowledge – the subtleties of how things are done, that often don’t get written down – is best shared face to face.

But maybe that’s just process. Former Mega CEO Vikram Kumar tells (with a completely straight face, so it may well be true) the story of a Wellington City Council meeting on how to attract more tech talent to the city, which concluded that it simply needed more Mexican restaurants. (Also neatly adding value to end-of-life dairy cows, which can’t be a bad thing.)

More important, Boven suggests, is strategy. Viewing tech as “as well as” the primary sector, instead of “instead of” could be an important pat of that plan.

The upsides for the primary sector are attractive too. Repositioning dairy, forestry, wool and so on as sexy high-tech industries could go some way towards solving the sector’s talent problems, not to mention boosting its productivity far more than better fertilizer or (as TUANZ CEO Paul Brislen chanted more than once during the session) “More Cows Bigger Cows” ever could.

While some in the room weren’t so sure Government has a role to play, Vikram Kumar sees it as an essential partner in innovation, alongside the tech sector and the business community.

For Kumar (now heading up Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party) Government’s role is in backing already-successful initiatives, such as school outreach programme ICT Connect, rather than trying to pick winners. In this sense, Vikram sees Government’s job as supporting business, rather than leading strategy.

While the Moxie table didn’t reach agreement on the Government thing (after all, not all of us head political parties), there was a degree of consensus around the milk-powder-to-tech question that kicked off the discussion.

Yes, make the most of the Internet to build technology businesses, but do it in a way that acknowledges our place in the world and makes the most of our unique advantages. Take a strategic view that seeks to capitalise on, add to, and enhance the primary sector, rather than replace it. And if we have to turn some of those cows into burritos to get the right people here, so be it. 

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