Speech to NetHui
12 July 2012
Speech to NetHui
I’d like to start with a short personal story.
About 7 or so years ago I was the head of the UN’s Humanitarian office in Jerusalem.
Just as I arrived the number of checkpoints in the West Bank was increasing.
Although the underlying issue was security for Israelis from Palestinian attacks, it was also part of a sophisticated lockdown to carve the West Bank into separate, discrete areas.
More checkpoints made it harder for the Palestinian population to move around. Children couldn’t get to schools, students to universities, or people to their work places.
They couldn’t even make it to hospital. In a number of cases it meant women were giving birth at the checkpoints while waiting to get through.
The humanitarian tragedy worsened. We were failing to tell the story of how these checkpoints and roadblocks impacted on the ordinary lives of Palestinians.
Our response was to adapt technology to serve a humanitarian purpose.
It started when I sent staff out to take photos of checkpoints and collect GPS data of their locations.
We then matched that data with aerial and satellite photography.
With the help of some very clever people we combined this information with statistics to build a comprehensive set of interactive maps that we printed and made web-based.
The numbers and maps told a humanitarian story with real authority that had previously been unknown. Our website received 200,000 hits a month.
They became incredibly powerful tools that raised visibility across world of what was happening on a neighbourhood to neighbourhood basis.
We were able to say that in the past year, for example, Israeli military road blocks had grown by 40 per cent and estimate what that meant to the Palestinian economy.
We were able to clearly point to increasing poverty and human rights violations in a way that made it difficult to refute.
Most importantly, it gave us the leverage to get checkpoints moved to allow people to travel more freely.
It also meant a greater international awareness of the situation – visitor numbers to our office soared including a slew of foreign ministers and heads of state.
Since then, the reach of technology has only grown.
More recently, in other parts of the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring has adapted social networking sites and technology to connect to others in their country and beyond their borders.
Operating beyond the reach of authoritarian regimes, it has stimulated a call for democracy in countries where previously it was thought impossible.
I start with these stories because I think it shows the profound reach of the internet.
It is not merely an efficient tool for connecting buyers to sellers, or readers and writers.
It has found for itself applications well beyond what many might have originally envisaged.
From revolution to election campaigns, from fundraising to news gathering, the continued rise of the internet has been as dramatic as it has disruptive.
Less than a decade ago Youtube, Twitter and Facebook weren’t a feature of the internet landscape.
Given where we stand today, that is hard to imagine.
Today they are avenues that connect people, businesses and ideas in ways never before possible.
New Zealand is no exception. The rise of TradeMe has been just as dramatic.
It is difficult to imagine any other area where a business can go from anonymity to global recognition in such a short period of time.
It’s also pretty evident that predicting the future is a dangerous business, particularly where technology is concerned.
However, it is safe to assume that the influence of the internet is only going to grow.
The constant innovation in and around the internet has changed the way we live.
And it is a revolution still gathering steam – or more appropriately, megahertz.
Today, these innovations are also changing the economy and creating enormous opportunities for a small and geographically isolated country like New Zealand.
But let’s also be realistic about at where we are today. For many people right now, life is really tough.
Most people would tell you that they've never been working harder than they are right now.
But the hard truth is that unless we make really significant changes, as tough as it is now, it’s going to be vastly tougher two decades on from here.
In the words of the late Sir Paul Callaghan, we have chosen to be poor.
We're not doing nearly enough to change that. And people aren't nearly aware just how big a problem that could be for us.
We are thin on the high value industries that prosperous countries can boast of, and overweight on the businesses where your hourly input equates to a comparatively poor output.
We work harder than almost any country, but we have comparatively little to show for it.
Until we make big changes to the kind of work many of us do, and the investments we make, until we make big changes in how we invest in education and R&D then nothing is going to change.
I have a strong belief in the centrality of innovation and science to our future prosperity.
To put innovation at the heart of government policies.
To do that will involve taking some tough decisions.
We need to be bold. I think our next Government must be reformist. It must be prepared to make the big progressive changes needed to remake the economy.
Nowhere is this more important than in industries like yours.
The NZIER report commissioned by InternetNZ got it right when it said the internet “provides the possibility for transformative economic and social change”.
Most promisingly, the digital future and the weightless economy allow us to tame the tyranny of distance.
It is a challenge that has plagued our economy for decades.
Research by Philip McCann showed that the adverse effects of our isolation on our labour productivity (and therefore on our growth) were greater than for any other advanced country, with the exception of Australia.
He said that OECD estimates suggest that the tyranny of distance reduces labour productivity by more than 10 per cent.
The IMF says the same. It notes that half of the productivity gap between New Zealand and the OECD average is as a result of geography alone.
My point is that our distance from markets has a price.
It is a challenge that we first overcame with technology.
As the late Sir Paul Callaghan wrote, it was “refrigerated shipping [that] lifted New Zealand from subsistence trade to relative wealth”.
In a new century we’re faced with the same challenge.
And technology, again, offers the solution.
Our primary industries are important – and always will be – but it’s our ideas and talent; our science and innovation that underpin our future, both in agriculture and beyond.
The potential gain for New Zealand from the development and export of high tech and high value products is immense.
That is something we are acutely aware of in the current TPP negotiations.
Labour is committed to taking a principled approach that puts New Zealand’s interests front and centre.
There is little doubt that gaining access to new and larger markets may offer huge opportunities. We have always supported trade agreements that deliver benefits to New Zealand in terms of exports and jobs.
But not at the expense of our right to make laws and regulations for the public good on a whole range of issues – and that includes intellectual property and copyright.
We also need to think beyond red meat and milk powder. We also have to enhance the benefit from innovation and technology because these are the areas that will matter for our future.
As a country we are well placed to seize this opportunity. It’s time to seriously commit to the vision.
We may not be able to fit too many more cows on our land, but through science, innovation, and design – through digital technology – we can lift ourselves and grow the jobs that will keep our young people in New Zealand.
If we look at like-sized countries in the world – Singapore, Israel, Finland, Denmark –they hold a fraction of the natural resources we have, but have rocketed ahead through their own innovation and talent off the back of advanced technology.
If they can do it, so can we. I want to see more exporting businesses using our science and technology advantage.
Our spend on science is one of the lowest in the OECD, particularly in our businesses. Our goal is to lift that investment radically.
We have some fantastic hi-tech companies growing, but not nearly enough. We need to double, triple, quadruple that number.
I also want to see a greater commitment to keeping our outstanding scientists here.
A leading scientist has said we may lose 40 per cent of post-doctoral positions we had in 2008 through a changing of government policies.
The loss of these opportunities is driving skilled New Zealanders overseas.
Our future will be built on our skills and talent. It will be built by our ability to compete with the best in the world.
We need a skilled workforce that can take advantage of the job opportunities of a 21stcentury economy.
That means addressing equity issues too. There are swathes of New Zealand that completely lack the most basic computer in the home. Everyone deserves – and needs access if we are to achieve our aims
If we want more high value export industries, then our children need to be equipped to do the job we’re going to be asking them to do.
That means we need more kids that are able to become software developers, engineers, scientists and designers. And that starts at school – with the subjects they take.
What you are discussing here today is one aspect of a much wider opportunity for New Zealand.
That will be the focus of any Government that I lead
I have no interest in being leading a government that cautiously tinkers. It will be reformist and it will be bold.
And most importantly, we are interested in ideas. We want to listen. I’ve outlined the broad parameters. But the “how” – the precise policies that make the most difference – is what we’re working on.
We want to engage with you and your ideas. We don’t want to be assuming office in 2014 and then trying to decide what to do, or asking officials. We want to pull the levers and get going.
If Finland, Singapore and Israel can change their small economies, then we can too, in our own uniquely New Zealand way.