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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Derek Handley

On Newshub Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Derek Handley June 9, 2018

Lisa Owen: Digital entrepreneur Derek Handley was recently back in New Zealand, giving a keynote speech on technology and inequality at tech week. He says we could be on the cusp of another "knowledge wave" - but the last digital revolution passed us by because the government at the time failed to grasp the opportunity. I asked him if he's confident this government is investing enough in New Zealand's digital future.

Derek Handley: Well, I said we’re on the possibility of another knowledge wave. I mean, everyone is at the moment, in terms of where technology is. We’re in another revolution, right? The first revolution in our generation was the internet, and we all knew it was coming. We organised ourselves to prepare for it, and then we did nothing. And, you know, a columnist from the Herald looked back 10 years after and said it was one of the biggest missed opportunities of our generation. So the question I’m asking is — do we want to be written about like that again in the next 10 or 20 years? Because for the last couple of decades, clearly, no government authentically, genuinely committed to creating a pathway for a digital or innovative technology-oriented nation. Now it seems that maybe, just maybe, both of the major parties acknowledge that that has got to be critical to our future.
Lisa Owen: So if nobody put in the right amount of investment over a decade, how far behind the digital eight ball are we? And can we catch up?
Well, of course we can catch up, right, but it’s not really a question of how far behind we are versus everyone else. When I think of New Zealand, I think that we should be at the front. We should be a model nation for showing and illustrating to the rest of the world how we can lead. And if that means leading through innovation and shaping and reinventing the future, rather than just reacting to it, if it means thinking about sustainability and how we move to become environmentally sustainable, socially sustainable, inclusive, an economy that integrates all of those things, that’s the opportunity, right? How far are we behind? I mean, there are so many ideas and services and concepts that should exist in New Zealand — that we should be leading — that we’re not. And to me, I just can’t understand why we don’t have that aspiration and that vision to lead.
So why do we lack aspiration? And at what level is it?
I don’t know. For example, as a country, why do we not already have a vision and a goal as to when we are going to be running fully electric fleets? Our grid is 85% renewable.
We import about half of Fonterra of petrol into this country, which impoverishes all of us, and we use it to fuel vehicles that are running on combustion engines when we know, in the next three, four, five, seven years, there are going to be an enormous number of lorries, vans, cars, bikes, buses — electric — that we should be saying, ‘By this date, the entire country will be electric.’
So, Derek, are you saying that a brave government would put a moratorium on, say, the importation of petrol cars, effective of ‘this date’? Warn you that it’s coming, slap a target on it.
I don’t know what the different tactics would be, but you’d start with the aspiration and say, ‘This is where we want to go. How do we get there? And how do we realistically look at the nature of what we’ve got now, what’s possible in the world, and get there?’ And I mean, that’s just one example of, you know, electric vehicles. We all know that’s coming. Another example that, for me, as someone who’s lived in the US for a few years — I can see a doctor anywhere in the country within 10 minutes on my phone. We talk about the infrastructure challenges we have in New Zealand with the health and medical practices. We’re quite a distributed country. Last year, I got diagnosed a kidney stone via a doctor through the video, and I went straight to the hospital. These are the kinds of things— they’re not rocket science; they’re possible now.
You’ll be pleased to know, then, that there is a pilot around that — seeing the doctor on your iPad — but I’m wondering, when you’re talking about a big strategy, an overall strategy, how important is this role that the government has created for a chief technology officer? And is that what that person should be doing?
Well, that’s why I say I think we’re on the cusp of maybe the opportunity that we missed 20 years ago, right? So, the fact that both major parties last year said this was going to be a part of their thing, I think that alone — the recognition and the acknowledgement of that — is a hugely positive signal. And then this role, the fact that it is— Whatever you think of the role, whether its scope is too broad or too narrow, or whether it has enough teeth or not enough teeth, the fact that it even exists, the fact that it will be working with the prime minister and the minister, to me, is a symbol and a signal that we get it and that it’s important. And I think that means we can open that up and push into that and say, ‘Okay, we really want to get behind that as a country.’
If you can get someone to fill the role, because they’ve had some difficulty getting the right person. So who do you think the right person is?
Well, I think the right person should be able to understand that there is this opportunity, that there is a road map that we need to pull together, that there probably is a lot of amazing existing activity within New Zealand — in the private sector and the public sector — already happening. But how do you map that, bring it together, stitch it together and then decide what levers are you going to push to make change happen quickly? So it’s part futurist; I think it’s part communicator. You’ve got to understand technology in a sense, but you don’t have to necessarily be a technologist, like, on the tools. So, you know, all these things I think would be important for this role, but the fact that it even exists and it’s being opened up, I think it’s a great signal.
Is the right person you?
Well, I live in America, so partly, you know, that doesn’t help. But I’m focused on what I’m doing there. I’ll be coming home soon. But I’m sure there’s plenty of amazing candidates at home here too.
Then why haven’t they come forward? Is it unattractive to move out of the private sector? I mean, the job offers about $400,000, which is a lot of money, but compared to the circles that those people move in…
I don’t think you do this job for the money. I think you do it because you want to see and create the change for the future of the country. So I think that whether a package is good enough — all those are kind of not as important as someone deciding this is what they want to do.
So someone with a social conscience in some way?
Yeah, deciding that this is their service; it’s time for them to contribute.
Well, on digital infrastructure, by world standards, we have good infrastructure. The problem is not everybody has access to it here in New Zealand, and if you look at the figures from the 2013 Census, 23% of New Zealand households don’t have access to the internet, and it’s 33% for Maori households. So what happens if we don’t close that digital divide?
I mean, this is really worrying, right, but also an amazing opportunity. You know, for 500 years, the technology of the book has become the main way we get smart and we learn and we grow. We have had studies the entire last century that link the number of books in homes to people’s likelihood of succeeding in life and also staying out of jail and all those kinds of things. So we know that that is tightly connected. We haven’t been around the digital space long enough to see all the studies that will come out that will show that gap, if it’s not closed on the digital literacy level, will be so much more exacerbated, right? So, my son, navigating freely and creatively across the internet — last week, learning about the volcanoes in Hawaii, learning about the Hyperloop, learning how to code — this is all in one week, on his own and in his own aspirations. He’s heading towards the space age, right? Kids, in the example that you just mentioned, in homes without internet, don’t even know how many books they’ve got — those people are being prepared for the Bronze Age. And so this divide continues to expand, and we can’t set ourselves up as a nation to be fully digital and fully inclusive. So as a size of a problem, to me, right now, you might think, ‘Oh, they’ll get over it. They’ll get internet in the library.’ But this thing, over the next three, four, five, seven years of a child’s life, could become such a big handicap that it’s too late to even the playing fields.
Well, it’s $60 or $100 a month for quality internet. I mean, should it be cheaper? Are we being stung?
I think, you know— I don’t know if it’s expensive or not for the average consumer. But for people who clearly can’t afford it or don’t have the motivation to get it or whatever, actually, it’s in the nation’s interest to ensure children have internet access in their homes, and we need to find ways to make that happen. I don’t know what they are, whether they’re public policy or private policy, but we need innovative ways to make sure that this is happening in the same way that everyone can have water. It’s that kind of level of seriousness, because we could be sitting here 20 years later, and having not fixed it, we will see a litany of problems that have emerged from us not acknowledging a digital literacy divide could be 10 times worse than a physical books literacy divide.
Because you mentioned you don’t know whose job it is, but I’m wondering – you mentioned community, government, charity — do you have a thought in your head whose job it is?
It’s probably some kind of combination of them all, right, where you have people coming together to say, ‘Look, there is deep need here.’ There is not necessarily an economic, financial model that will solve it, or a profitable business model. We need some sort of a hybrid. Maybe it’s a social innovation platform, some kind of social entrepreneurship. I don’t know. But clearly, if there’s a whole bunch of customers and they don’t want to buy this stuff at the moment — they’re not financially profitable customers for a corporate — then we need some other way to address it.
Do you think that our education system here in New Zealand is adapting well enough to equip kids for a workforce that is increasingly reliant on the digital world?
So, I’m not familiar enough with all the different levels of education and how they’re all equipping themselves. I think my main thought about that would be, in the next 10 to 20 years, the way we teach kids to think and learn will be much more important than what they’re being taught. So, at university, where I’m associated with AUT as an adjunct professor, I push heavily that we should be thinking about those skills such as creativity, agility, the ability to adapt, the ability to change, the ability to recognise opportunities and paths, and also the ability to understand what you’re best suited to do with your skills. These kinds of skills are going to be the skills for the future, because jobs will change faster and quicker, and some jobs will disappear. New jobs will be created. But those skills will never be out of fashion — being able to be creative, being able to be analytical, being able to map different ways forward and navigate them without fear.
On the other side of things, perhaps the unhealthy reliance on digital technology — social media apps specifically designed to be addictive in the same way that you pull the handle on a slot machine and it hooks you in — what responsibility do you think tech companies have to address that?
Yeah, I think this has become much more of a big issue in recent years, right, and you have some of the early founders of some of the big social media companies coming out, being very concerned about what they’ve invented. We are, again, probably on the edge of just figuring out that these are addictive — in the same way we think cigarettes or gambling or other kinds of things are addictive. So we’re not, I think, as a society, yet clear on ‘what does that mean?’ and, you know, ‘how badly are you addicted?’ But at the end of the day, if a company is producing something that is designed to be addictive — which I believe a lot of social media tools are designed that way, with the little responses that they send back to you to kind of give you a hit of endorphins — the responsibility should go back on to them to figure out ways to ensure that people aren’t going down really dark holes and dark places. As a society in New Zealand, you know, we should also be thinking about how we do not get so attached to digital that we become so disconnected from each other and from the environment and the things that are in the real world.
From real-world relationships.
Right? And you can see that when you go to a bus stop, or you go to a bar and you see people waiting; they can’t wait on their own any more. They can’t be with themselves. So culturally, we need to kind of decide — is that okay? Do we want to be constantly digitally connected? And do we want to be 24/7 digitally connected in our work? Or do we want to say, actually, as a country, we will decide that we think it’s probably not okay if you’re constantly on your devices?
And you? What do you think?
I don’t at all. I mean, I ran an experiment a year ago where I was only checking email once a week. And, you know, there are certain days where I don’t have a device at all. And I’m very, kind of, experimental in terms of how I can minimise the way I’m interacting with either a small screen or a big screen. And to now, I’ve pretty much reduced— minimising with a big computer, you know, down to a small number of hours a week.
Amazing. Derek Handley, there is never enough time. Thanks for joining us on Newshub Nation. It’s good to see you again.
Thanks for having me.

Transcript provided by Able.

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