Technology independence: Does New Zealand want it?

An artist's impression of the SKA dishes in South Africa (SKA)

Phase one of the $2.4b Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project will see thousands of radio telescopes put in place across South Africa and Australia, then used in coordination to create a giant virtual telescope capable of looking back into the early moments of the universe, or bouncing radio waves off the atmosphere to teach us more about closer-to-home concerns such as seismic activity and climate change. Phase two will see the SKA expanded to other countries. MBIE has been driving New Zealand's participation in the project, bankrolled via its $260m a year Strategic Science Investment Fund, which funnels money into a raft of initiatives.

Recently, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods announced New Zealand would pursue associate membership of the SKA, with limited funding that she described as "proportionate to the size of its astronomy community" in New Zealand. Don Christie and Nicolás Erdödy make the case for full-blooded participation.

The SKC has already seen at least two tangible results for NZ: AUT's radio telescope operation at Warkworth, which was created to support Australia and NZ's SKC bid but which also saw the university win a  10-year contract to track flights for Elon Musk's Space X, and Waikato supercomputing startup Nyriad which was born out of SKA research work. Nyriad has 100 staff today and plans to boost that to 180 within a year after a recent $US8.5m capital raise. Not a bad result for a $1.5m outlay from the Crown - Chris Keall

Technology has been always at the centre of the social and economic progress of nations.

In the past, having access to raw materials and large extensions of land made economies stronger and resilient. That has been dramatically changing and New Zealand is no exception: We cannot envisage a future for our grandchildren purely reliant on the primary sector as the main generator of GDP.

Fortunately, New Zealand is also the land of brave and independent souls, from the first waka arriving at these shores centuries ago. That independent thinking is needed again to grasp how the world is changing in terms of technology dominance led by IT. We all know how the first IT revolution changed our lives: The next one is emerging and will be much more dramatic. It will make nations either strategic leaders or totally dependent.

A complete understanding of IT platforms, low-level computing and programming directly coupled with deep knowledge of hardware would create significant differences for nations which know how to apply it to their main product lines and social fabrics.

New Zealand has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be part of the leading pack. Over the past decade, we have been part of the design of the largest radio-telescope in the world: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The SKA will be a fantastic scientific and engineering instrument but also the largest supercomputer in history. In an unprecedented collaboration model of academia and industry, the NZ SKA Alliance has been working partially funded by the New Zealand government in the design of the computing platforms and other areas of the instrument in partnership with the most prestigious groups in the world.

It is the first time in history that New Zealand actually leads a design at this profound level – and the world recognises it, even if the classic parochial mentality ignores it.

Nicolás Erdödy (above) and Don Christie (below) say 50 years of full participation in the SKA project could change our country forever.

What New Zealand can learn over the next 50 years of full participation in the SKA project could change our country forever – not just for participating in the discovery of the origins of the universe and the understanding of what surrounds us (95% of it is dark energy and dark matter, which we don’t understand) but also as the inspiration for new generations and bringing real and fresh talent to our shores.

Talent needs purpose: The best minds can go wherever they wish. This is not about finding young developers outdoorsy activities while they keep designing on top of platforms controlled by centralised powers. We don’t want New Zealand to become an “apps nation” – there won’t be much difference in the long run against cost-cutting countries. When Weta Digital had to establish itself as a strong production house it became a supercomputing company.

For a tiny fraction of the America’s Cup investment, New Zealand has the chance to leverage its productive matrix toward full control of its economic knowledge for decades – but it requires simple but bold decisions: Full participation in SKA will push the IT and high-tech boundaries and keep our primary sector at the top.

Just imagine if we could avoid the M-bovis outbreak which is costing hundreds of millions of dollars. And what can be discovered in the process? Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN and needed to design “a tool” which became the worldwide web. Australian radio-astronomers were working in signals and discovered what we all use today – the wifi.

The SKA project is the flagship to inspire our youth in schools about a future for a New Zealand that is worth it. Just participating in the largest IT in history should be enticing but, if you also can help discover the origins of the universe, then why live anywhere else?

It's time for the government to be ambitious, visionary and consolidate our independence. Would we be up to it?

Don Christie is the co-founder of NZ Rise and a director of Catalyst IT.

Nicolás Erdödy is the chief executive and founder of Open Parallel.

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.

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5 Comments & Questions

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NZ in wrong place on globe
Participate to encourage / be gentle
Commit $ to participation matters that really matter e.g. defense
Stop our dorky military buying one off unsupported equipment - we all agree they are special

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So we can fund $15m for the Centre of Space and Science Technology and put them in a location where access to decent broadband connection does not exists but cannot or will not fund a project that is gloabally signifcant etc and which appears to have already created meaningful opportunities for a couple of groups / maybe more.

The problem in all of this is it comes down to who knows who and not about the economic or business case.

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I was discussing with a large NZ bank options for partnering and investing in bleeding-edge Fintech projects for private wealth management. They said they are concentrating on helping people investing into the "Maori economy" as that is where NZ is at right now.

Pushing for more Government handouts for one tech. sector over another has never really helped in the long run. Good (or reformed) legislation that gets government departments out of the way and allows for free enterprise to quickly get ahead is what really gives our tech. entrepreneurs a leg up in the global competition. Stop running to Wellington to push your pet tech. projects and instead ask them to get out of the way of the ones they have blocked in the past. Politicians don't solve equations or write code, generally they are not sharp and unskilled in my experience.

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I would suggest that SKA is not a "commercial" project and therefore government funding is required - this is blue sky Research etc. This is where government has a role to play in my view - but needs to be careful not to be "dragged" into funding commercial activities - other than is already catered for.

I believe that the presence of commerical entities in the NZ team is unusal in this project - and that is a positive as far as I can see as we have people looking to create economic value in the long term.

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There is a lot of misinformation around the SKA project and NZ's participation. As I see it, this is an opportunity to create a high-tech ecosystem similar to the ones that exist in larger economies, with a very cost-effective investment from the government. And the work being done is like building capabilities for the internet in the late 60s, so once it becomes commercially viable, we already have a competitive advantage. Don't see companies investing in that way, that's where governments position themselves

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