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OpEd: Is Economic Growth a Turn-on, or a Turn-off?

Is Economic Growth a Turn-on, or a Turn-off?

19 April 2004
Rick Christie
Chairperson, Growth and Innovation Advisory Board

There was a time when being small and distant from international markets was seen as a burden New Zealand had to bear. Although partially offset by the fact that grass grows well here and the scenery is superb, the wisdom was that a small, remote, agriculture-based economy was never going to make the cut in the club of industrialised nations of the OECD.

But it’s never quite been like that. New Zealand has always ‘punched above its weight’ internationally. We have been on the OECD rankings, albeit not quite as high as we used to be. New Zealand’s growth rate, for example, has held steady around or above the OECD average for nearly a decade. There was the trauma of 9/11, grounding the tourism industry world-wide, and yet the tourists kept coming. Along came Sars and once again tourist numbers held steady for us and collapsed for most other countries in the region. Our food industries continue to grow in favour despite worldwide scares around food safety.

Could it be that we are being perceived differently from many other countries and that this is gaining momentum? Are we moving into a niche characterised by “safe”, “clean”, “pure”, “natural”, “authentic” and “genuine”? Has New Zealand slotted into a rich vein of opportunity precisely because of its small size and remoteness? Has our ‘New Zealandness’ finally become our greatest competitive and comparative advantage?

I believe so. But it’s not quite that simple. There is certainly an international consumer who is looking for safety, even quiet, in a fractious world, and seeking authenticity in an increasingly “manufactured” environment.

Simultaneously New Zealand has begun to make serious inroads into the international consciousness. Lord of the Rings was the biggie, but there has been a steady build-up of profile from many products, activities and events. There is now a brand package - our “New Zealandness” - and this is becoming a significant point of difference. That package is landscape, location, people, smart technology, creativity and values – the total experience.

Late last year the Government-sponsored Growth and Innovation Advisory Board commissioned a major piece of research to understand the attitudes and perceptions of New Zealanders that might throw light on how this opportunity could be grasped. We asked the researchers to find out New Zealanders’ attitudes to economic growth, personal aspirations, innovation, business, and the workplace.

The results show just how well placed New Zealand is to take advantage of this opportunity. But there are some real issues that need urgent attention. While there is support for the idea of economic growth, it lacks enthusiasm and commitment. There is enormous passion for quality of life and quality of environment, whereas growth is associated with opposites such as more traffic and congestion, a more materialistic culture, a growing gap between rich and poor, a deteriorating balance between work and life, more stress, immigration and damage to the environment.

New Zealanders recognise that we need growth if we are to get better health and education services, but they don’t trust it to do so. Unfettered growth is a turn-off because of the potential negatives associated with it.

So how do we turn New Zealanders on to growing the economy in a way that resonates with their aspirations, and those of an increasing number of global consumers who we need to sell to in order to earn the money to enhance our quality of life. The research tells us values have to come first – we need value-driven economic growth. It has to enhance quality of life and environment, not detract from it. At the same time preservation of these values cannot create insurmountable obstacles to the generators of growth - business and enterprise.

The key is leadership and the research has some important messages on this subject. National-level leaders such as politicians, the media and trade union leaders rate lower on credibility, while friends, family, workmates and, employers rate higher. People have greater trust in the networks around them.

If national leaders want New Zealanders to support growth, and most do, then they have to win trust. They need to demonstrate how growth will bring benefits and minimise downsides. It’s about allowing the natural motivation of Kiwis to come to the fore. The average New Zealander likes nothing more than succeeding in an international forum based on those very real Kiwi characteristics of practicality, giving it a go, resourcefulness and improvisation. It appears that after the 1980s and 90s when core values were seen to be challenged New Zealanders became more cautious. Now they want more assurance around quality of life and environment, while also being more adventurous.

The best example of this is in their attitude to business. Support for business and enterprise through the research is very strong. Business is becoming ‘cool’. Being in business is seen as a great vehicle for achieving success and living/working those core values. Kiwis strongly support business enterprise. They are, however, deeply suspicion of “big business” because it is not seen to connect with Kiwi values. Big business’s agenda is seen as being different from the average Kiwi’s agenda. Similarly, while it is recognised that New Zealand businesses must grow larger to take hold of export opportunities, there is real fear of loss of connection with core values and as a result, that these businesses will act solely in their own interest.

The challenge of leadership is to develop a values-driven vision of growth. For example, big business must, if it wants greater credibility, reconnect itself with core values, with a focus on “giving something back”. Many of these businesses are seen as takers – despite acknowledgement that they create jobs, innovation and opportunity.

The research tells us, contrary to stereotypes, that New Zealanders are ambitious. They work hard on self improvement. They are prepared to make sacrifices to get ahead, less motivated by money and more by quality of life and environment. They are very positive about innovation and see it as the key to a modern economy. Their understanding of what innovation involves is not clear, but this understanding will improve as innovation becomes part of everyone’s lives. They are positive about the workplace and see themselves contributing to innovation and growth through the workplace, whether as employer or employee.

The research has led us to a very simple formula for presenting what values-driven growth means. It’s something like this. Values (quality of life, environment) plus value-add (innovative technologies) produce value (economic growth) for New Zealand.

If you think this sounds a bit like smoke and mirrors, look around and we see the truth of it everyday. Take this example. New Zealanders are out there in their hundreds when there are whale strandings, driven by their values about conservation and natural heritage. It is this commitment to preservation of natural heritage that has led directly to a multi-million dollar whale-watching industry. These natural heritage values, plus the value-add of the whale-watching idea, has produced an industry of enormous economic value. This industry is about to embark on another major investment in Kaikoura producing economic growth that will transform the town. There seems to be little suspicion of this growth, in fact, support in the town is enormous because of the values underpinning the industry. The people of Kaikoura apparently feel involved and in control of their future. This is values-driven growth.

This isn’t anyone else’s formula. It’s New Zealand’s, because we have the energy, passion and courage to pursue it. As we look through the lens of our values we will see more and more opportunities to create added value, and that’s a real turn-on.

It’s something New Zealanders love. New Zealanders got behind Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings because the whole enterprise was modeled on Kiwi values – taking on a challenge, using the best of local and international capability, creating something of international dimension, and yet still remaining essentially Kiwi. The message is: start with Kiwi values and Kiwis will follow. We are no longer the passionless people of the 1960’s. Belief in our values will surely drive economic success.

- Research Summary - Research on Growth & Innovation
- Growth Culture Research Project - FAQs
Media Releases
- Values And Value - Growth Survey
Kiwis will Support Growth if it Supports Kiwiness

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