The majority of the world would be hard-pressed to determine the link between cows, pipes and mountain bikes, but for the New Zealander this connection appears to be as crystal clear as our natural water-ways. It came as no surprise that following the recent botulism scare for our national dairy giant, a wealth of media reports targeted our “100% Pure” tourism campaign, casting doubt on New Zealand’s clean green image.
This connection between agriculture and tourism has been well established in the national psyche, with the AgroDome in Rotorua standing as a visual metaphor for the importance of these two industries to Aotearoa. When both sectors are thriving, all is well, but when news of dirty rivers, unethical treatment to animals, poor use of pest-control or the environment impact of bovine flatulence hits the press, tourism operators are quick to bemoan the economic impact of this on our carefully structured Kiwi brand.
It is difficult to deny the importance of farming and the tourism service industry on our national history, as well as their current economic significance, with the latest estimates showing them contributing a combined 13% of our GDP. From AJ Hackett’s popularisation of the bungee through to Gallagher’s mass commercialisation of the electric fence, New Zealand’s story is full of creative ventures from the farm and for the traveller. Our use of the phrase “Number 8 Wire” to describe Kiwi innovation shows the effect of agriculture on our cultural understandings of business and independence.
More and more people, however, are noticing that this binary metaphor is having a limiting effect on the New Zealand imagination. The late Sir Paul Callaghan campaigned for an innovative new push into the future that moves away from our supposed reliance on agriculture and tourism, two industries that are heavy on resources with relatively low return. Callaghan urged for a movement towards the ‘weird’, niche industries that many New Zealand industries are already excelling at, such as Weta Productions world-beating special effects or Rakon’s crystal controlled oscillators.
Diversifying our economic focus requires a collective innovative mindset, that is fostered through both the public and private sector. Unfortunately, New Zealand currently ranks 28th in the world’s most innovative countries, and even lower for our public funds’ investment in research and development, languishing at 0.5%. However, given New Zealand’s relatively small size and varied population, we stand advantageously poised to transform our creative future, if we choose to move in this new direction.
Throughout history, certain locations have generated hot spots of creativity, be it Florence during the 14th century or Silicon Valley in more recent years. These locations have been characterised by two common factors, being a gathering of eclectic individuals from a range of professions, and a common sense of collaboration amongst the area. Frans Johansson describes the Florence area as being full of “sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, financiers, painters and architects”, who – under the patronage of the Medici family – forged new ideas that shaped the world we inhabit today.
Similarly, the latest Harvard Business Review explored the open culture between organisations in Silicon Valley, finding “the development of much denser and more highly interconnected networks – which make it easier for people to innovate”. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, has described this characteristic as “coopetition”, describing the tech industry in San Francisco as a place where working with your competitors can be mutually beneficial.
To develop the values of collaboration and diversity into our culture will take a dedicated and co-operative effort, from many sectors of New Zealand industry. For this change to be sustainable and growing into the future, however, a substantial shift must take place in the approach to learning that many of our educational institutes take.
Our nation’s teachers do an excellent job teaching our students under the dominant educational philosophy, resulting in some of the highest literacy and numeracy ranks in the OECD. Unfortunately, this educational model is still strongly informed by latent industrial-era notions of success, aiming to train students to do tasks in a certain way. This is excellent in developing logical thinking but does not create inquisitive, curious minds that can engage in deliberate creative processing.
British Educationalist Ken Robinson has been particularly scathing of the Western education system, stating that “we are educating people out of their creative capacities”. Instead of valuing diversity, play and new approaches to learning, we persist in assessing students based on their ability to retain and process information, rather than their ability to create and explore new possibilities.
New research on creativity and innovation is challenging the notion that creative ability is in an innate gift, and many researchers – including Theresa Amabile and Lynda Graft – are proposing new ways to educate and grow these talents among businesses and schools. These ideas are being adopted throughout America, with CHAD school in Philadelphia seeing particularly incredible results, including an attendance record of of 95%, 30% higher than Philadelphia’s average. This school, composed of 88% racial minorities, has seen 80% of their graduates attend university, a significant outlying statistic that is suggesting the value of creative educational classes.
As New Zealand goes through another period of criticism through the botulism scandal, we are uniquely poised to take a different course of action for our future. If we can begin to nurture innovation, diversity and collaboration into our national story, and expand our frame of thinking beyond tourism and agriculture, we may move into a creative future that is more sustainable, profitable and reliable than what we experience today.