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Howard's End: Inventors Don’t Sit On Committees

The Prime Minister has announced an "innovation strategy" for the country which will see taskforces appointed and there is also to be an Innovate Conference in Christchurch in March. But can we handle innovation? Maree Howard writes.

I will lay dollars to doughnuts that the people appointed to these new "taskforces" will not be the people who are the real inventors of breakthrough technology.

On a global scale, more than 95 percent of breakthrough technology originates with lone inventors and small companies.

Let's take alternative energy and disruptive technologies - those which could displace existing technology completely and create new areas of industry.

During the 1990's I saw a thesis on disruptive technologies. After starting out with a large number of disruptive technologies, as suggested by various authorities and experts, a careful study was made of each technology represented to be disruptive.

Each scale was measured until there was a hard core of 40 technologies each of which could create whole new areas of economic and industrial growth as they disrupted existing methods and replaced them with something entirely new.

It was startling to learn that the average number of employees at the companies producing such breakthroughs was four.

During the oil crisis the destruction of our productivity-increase-rate by the OPEC embargo, resulted in an economy of ever increasing consolidation within relatively stagnant industrial sectors. Since the embargo, large companies haven't really created jobs, they mostly shipped jobs and productivity overseas.

Since energy - despite the phenomenal growth of e-commerce - is still the largest business in the world, it is apparent that one of the easiest ways to re-start the economy is to enable, or allow, the disruptive technology that the oil crisis cut-off, to re-emerge and even accelerate.

The non-disruptive technology - between OPEC and other overseas countries which have us in their grip if we continue to assume existing technology - must be interrupted.

Despite the lack of leadership on this point, the New Zealand people must cut in and insist on being included. We can no longer afford the exclusiveness of the value network of the large oil and oil-service companies.

There has been astonishing resistance in trying to deploy the technologies that could give us fuel independence. People in this field have attempted to partner with large companies but most have been put back on the shelf because of resistance and turned to other things.

The corporate culture, the value network not only doesn't want them to be seen, it will seek to control and delay in every way it can.

The real problem is that our leaders won't lead. They seem to have become part of the corporate value network.

If a question of energy arises the politicians invariably turn to someone in the corporate world - like in the US where Enron and other "biggies" were consulted extensively over the American energy policy.

There are energy taskforces which summon no one other than from those resisting the disruptive technologies that would bring some relief. Anyone who suggests actual alternatives, as opposed to boondoggle subsidies, is attacked by shills and marginalised.

Let's have more horse and carts, they cry!

Their last line of defence is to assert that the new technologies that threaten them do not work. And they are most careful to assure the prevalence of this allusion. Then they might try to "buy" the technologies from the inventors behind the scenes. Failing that, they attack the inventors.

The simple truth is that either technologies work or they don't.

All we need to do is assure the inventors that their property will not be stolen and most inventors are only too willing to demonstrate that their technologies work.

If the government paid the bill to test the inventions on an expedited basis, it would be a tiny amount and a fraction of, say, Air New Zealand's fuel bill.

The biggest obstacle is that a lot of important companies and politicians would be exposed and embarrassed. It would take real leadership to overcome that obstacle.

The real question is: Do we as a nation want to win enough to face such a huge roadblock?


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