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Maharey Speech: Communities &The Knowledge Economy

Thursday 11 April, 2002 Speech Notes

Communities And The Knowledge Economy

Address to Second Flaxroots Technology conference. Unitec, Auckland.


Thank you for inviting me here today to speak at the second Flaxroots Technology conference. Greetings to those of you who have just joined the conference from Christchurch and Dunedin.

I want to begin by acknowledging the conference steering groups, who put together such an exciting programme for this conference.

The success of this event has been driven by a number of sectors working in partnership, including significant input from community groups, businesses, universities and central and local government.

As Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector I was pleased that the government was able to support this event through the Community Development Group of the Department of Internal Affairs, and the Community Employment Group of the Department of Labour.

Communities and the Knowledge Economy

I have been asked to talk to you today about opportunities for communities in the “knowledge economy’.

The knowledge economy is a major change for our society.

Throughout the world, “knowledge economies’ are rapidly taking the place of industrial ones.

On a global scale the change is as significant as the industrial revolution that occurred during the 19th century.

What is new about this change is the rate at which technology is linking the world together into a single global marketplace where information, ideas and finance flow rapidly around the globe.

So what exactly is a knowledge economy?

In a knowledge economy mental labour becomes the primary source of employment, over and above physical labour.

Technology is at the heart of the knowledge economy and it is creating incredible opportunities for businesses, communities and individuals.

The growth of the Internet is one example of the scale of change we are experiencing.

A US Supreme Court Judge recently described the Internet as a “never-ending worldwide conversation."

The pace at which people have adopted the Internet eclipses all other technologies that came before it.

Radio existed for nearly 40 years before 50 million people tuned in. The Internet took only four years to reach that mark. It is now the primary tool for global connectedness and the flow of information.

The Digital Divide

Since the rapid reforms of the late 1980s New Zealand has not only come up to speed with the information age - we have raced ahead of many other nations as we embraced the internet, cellular communications and rapidly enhancing information technology.

Our businesses rely on technology for their day-to-day activities; students consider it an essential tool in their studies; and today many farmers would be lost without it.

However, there is a clear and present danger that those not able to access the technology or keep up with the rapid changes will be outpaced, and left behind.

In some areas New Zealand scores well on access to information and communication technology. Overall 97 per cent of New Zealanders have access to a telephone; and on measures of Internet access within the home, we rank ninth in the OECD.

Doesn’t sound too bad? Well evidence indicates that a “digital divide’ is already emerging in New Zealand society.

And certain groups are more likely than others to be left behind as we embrace the information revolution.

These groups include Maori and Pacific Peoples, people on low incomes, sole parents, older people and people in isolated rural areas.

Many of these people face real barriers to participating in the information society. With barriers like cost, time and access to training.

Many people can’t afford to buy a computer, don’t know where to go to access one, aren’t sure how to get training, or feel daunted by the complexity of new technology.

For all of its potential benefits, there is a danger that the drive towards a knowledge economy could isolate parts of our society, and further widen the gaps between rich and poor that emerged in the 1990s.

To avoid this happening we need to ensure that all New Zealanders - regardless of wealth or social status - have the opportunity to access and learn about new technology.

We need to make sure that the knowledge economy is beneficial for our whole society - not just a privileged few.

Previous governments argued that economic growth was the overriding concern for our society, and that other aspects of development (such as eliminating poverty and social exclusion) would either take care of themselves, or were a luxury we could only afford when the economy had grown sufficiently.

The evidence today does not support this. Many of our people are not better off. Compared to other countries in the OECD our well being has declined. At the same time we have witnessed a widening gap between rich and poor.

While there are a number of reasons for this, I believe a key reason was a failure to recognise the importance of the social development in growing a strong economy.

Research tells us that the stronger our communities are the more likely we are to have economic growth.

The approach this government is taking is to put the development of strong communities at the centre of its agenda for economic growth.

And in the new knowledge economy, it is absolutely vital that any investment we make not only takes communities into account but also provides them with the opportunity to benefit from this change.

Digital Opportunity Strategy

The government is committed to closing the digital divide by way of a “digital opportunity strategy’. We have already made significant progress on this strategy.

In partnership with industry, we are contributing $10 million to pilot schemes to give more young New Zealanders - especially in less advantaged communities - the chance to develop skills in ICT.

We are piloting broadband telecommunications access in, for example, the Far North and Southland, and my colleague Information Technology Minister Paul Swain has set a target of providing broadband access at the community level by next year.

We are funding community based ICT projects through the Department of Internal Affairs and the Community Employment Group; and hosting and maintaining the Community Net Website.

I have asked the Community Employment Group to further explore digital opportunities with the aim of developing a framework for government and the community to jointly address digital divide challenges.

These are concrete initiatives that will improve access to ICT and assist communities to participate in the knowledge economy.

These new initiatives are beginning to show great results but more needs to be done.

Assisting communities to participate in the knowledge economy is a shared responsibility.

Government has a role to play by supporting community organisations in the innovative work they are already doing.

However, as this conference has shown, there is also a significant role for local government, the philanthropic, voluntary and private sectors and of course communities themselves.

Community Initiatives

In this new “information age’ the pace of change can often feel quite overwhelming.

Fortunately, however, there is a groundswell among community organisations who are taking up the challenge and developing their own ICT strategies.

Organisations are establishing their own web sites, setting up comprehensive databases and making technology much more accessible to the communities and individuals they serve.

There are many excellent examples of how community groups have used technology to strengthen their organisations and improve the services they deliver.

Examples include:

- The Computers in Homes pilot project in Porirua, Panmure Bridge and Kutarere - winner of one of the prestigious, 2001 Stockholm Challenge Awards for pioneering IT projects benefiting people and society.

- Senior Net Timaru - who have grown from 25 to 400 members in 4 years -demand for their courses is so high that they are fully booked for the next 6 months.

- The “Not Just Gumboots and Scones’ organisation whose ICT training assists people in isolated rural areas from South Canterbury to Southland.

It is vital that experiences from projects like these are shared with other organisations - so community groups are not constantly re-inventing the wheel as they develop ICT initiatives.

These are just a few of many examples of how sharing knowledge and experience can open the door of opportunity for others’ benefit.

I am sure we will see many more projects of this kind in the future. I look forward to working with you as we take on the challenges and opportunities of the knowledge economy.


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