2016 will, of course, be remembered as the year we lost not just Ray Columbus and that one match to Ireland, but social video app Vine, um, other social video app Meerkat, the 3.5mm headphone jack (for new iPhone buyers at least) and the geek’s favourite smartwatch, Pebble.
But how did the tech and innovation sectors fare closer to home? Did 2016 see us continue our collective march to global innovation domination? What do we need to do to make 2017 even better? And is there a rugby connection? (Spoiler: it’s New Zealand. There’s always a rugby connection.)
To answer these lofty questions, and snaffle what remains of our snack stash before it passed its expiry date, a dozen or so business leaders, innovators and commentators gathered recently at the Wynyard Quarter’s GridAKL for the last Moxie Sessions of 2016.
Leading the conversation were three very well-connected folks: Frances Valintine, founder of Unitec joint venture Tech Futures Lab, Icehouse CEO Andy Hamilton and Vic Maclennan of Wellington-based business intelligence company OptimalBI.
Vic’s view of the world takes in more than business intelligence though; she’s also involved in government working groups, informal business and pro bono organisations and is a Code Club trustee. Despite this wide range of connections Vic says 2016 was a wakeup call for her.
“2016 was a shit year. First in the UK, Brexit happened when my echo chamber was 100% positive it wouldn’t. Then again in the US, where all my business partners gave Trump no chance.”
The lesson, she says: look outside your own network and test the mood of the broader nation. Vic says this is something our government could learn from too. “Government tends to talk to Wellington businesses… not Auckland and certainly not the provinces.”
There were upsides to the year, though. On a personal note, Vic was named IT Professional of the Year – an award she says is significant because she was the first woman to ever win it. And Vic says a growing group of government ministers are facing up to our need to “get off the grass,” and connecting that to the need for change in the education system.
Frances Valintine is part of that change, first as founder of The Mindlab by Unitec and more recently with executive education business Tech Futures Lab. Her view of 2016 depends on who she’s talking to. The good news is that the kids are OK… in Frances’s view we don’t need to worry too much about what to teach them, because while we’re worrying, they’re happily teaching themselves.
Not so reassuring, she says, are many of our teachers (typically, she says, 55-year-old women) “They really don’t drink our (innovation and technology) Kool-Aid,” she says, and many are oblivious to the scale and pace of changes in the world.
Most worrying, though, are the senior executives she speaks to, in particular their lack of a Plan B. By focusssing on doing what they’ve always done, our biggest companies risk being gazumped by global disruptors they’d never even considered. (She gives the example of a roofing company suddenly realising they were in competition with Elon Musk following his solar roof announcement.) As well as the risk to our international competitiveness and GDP, Frances points out that we risk having nowhere our smartest young people will want to work – and that’s a real worry for NZ Inc.
By connecting to executives and board members, Frances hopes Tech Futures Lab will go some way to adjusting that mindset. And at the supply end, 2019 will see her launch a charter secondary school specialising in science, technology, engineering and maths (aka STEM).
As CEO of Auckland-based business incubator The Icehouse, Andy Hamilton is well placed to compare 2016 to the last 15 years or so he’s spent at the helm.
While indefatigably optimistic about New Zealand businesses, he’s a little disappointed that we haven’t made more progress in that time. “In 2016 there were only 2,300 firms in New Zealand employing more than 100 people… and half of those are focussed only on New Zealand.”
How do we create and grow those big, export-focussed tech companies? Interestingly, Andy doesn't mention world-beating ideas. As several Moxie Sessions during the year have touched on, we’ve got no shortage of those. What we need the most, he says, is funding and talent.
On the money side, he’s seen companies raising money at inflated valuations being “found out” in 2016, and gives Wynyard Group as an example. (One that he hopes won’t scare off more investment in the sector.) On the upside, the angel community is active and supportive, and he’s excited by the Spark-led $100 million innovation fund.
As for talent, Andy see this as a problem the business community needs to tackle, rather than relying on government or the education system. He says most New Zealand companies do a bad job of managing the talent pipeline and sees a need for more collaboration, rather than the current competition for people.
A broader world view, less complacency among business leaders and educators, more outward-looking large companies and a rethink of the way we fund and staff innovative businesses… but what will it take to make that happen?
Consensus is rare around the Moxie Sessions table but in this case one thought stood out. If our underlying problem is complacency, the best thing that can happen to New Zealand Inc right now is a crisis to challenge that smug she’ll-be-righteousness. Whether that’s a major corporate collapse, political upheaval or – God forbid – three consecutive All Blacks losses, a “non-lethal disaster” could be just what’s needed to make 2017 as memorable as 2016 was forgettable.
And as I write this, reports indicate we may or may not be at war with Israel. So there you go. Happy New Year!
Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see themoxiesessions.co.nz.