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Community values

I support Technology Valley because I think we have a lot to gain from sharing ideas and experience. I’m beginning to think one of the biggest obstacles facing the New Zealand economy is our tendency toward conformity. We expect others to be like us. I see this a lot. Several months ago a technologist told me: “The New Zealand economy is all about biology,” by which she meant everybody should focus on biotech. Ironically, the NZ biotech sector has at least two factions: Synthetic chemical manufacturing (i.e. drugs); and natural chemical extracts. Them and us.

I’ve just finished reading a book by a prominent New Zealand scientist who thinks New Zealand’s economic future lies in niche applications for new scientific discoveries. I wonder what he would have thought of our automotive and aerospace manufacturers.

The Kiwi predilection toward collectivism is probably best illustrated in our relationship with the All Blacks. If they win, we’re happy. If they lose, we sulk. Sometimes it’s a positive force. Collectivism can drive everyone in a small company to strive for a common goal, like building a world-beating racing yacht.

Today’s Kiwi politicians lean heavily toward collectivism. On the right, we have a choice between conservatives, conservatives, and conservatives. Even the supposedly individualistic ACT party is represented in parliament by an arch-conservative. On the left, we have a choice between progressivism and Marxism. I don’t know the difference. Ask a political scientist. All I know is they're both collectivist.

Is collectivism holding us back?

Technology Valley is about creating wealth. Fundamentally, that means boosting per-capita economic growth.

Thanks to the efforts of economists here and overseas we have data on New Zealand’s per-capita GDP since the 1880s. The data show two critical points, the first during the 1940s and 1950s, and the second in 1990. Per capita GDP 1900~2012

Since about 1950, per-capita GDP growth in New Zealand has lagged well behind other “Western Offshoot” economies. Before 1950, New Zealand’s per-capita GDP tracked the other Western Offshoots (and the UK). Our per-capita growth rate faltered in the early 1950s, and by 1960 it was well behind the other Western Offshoots. Whatever went wrong, it happened before 1950. Most likely, the problem was caused by something that happened during the 1930s or 1940s. I've illustrated this by "normalising" each country's 1950 per-capita GDP to 100.New Zealand just couldn't keep up.

Comparative per capita GDP 1950~2012

Something changed in the 1980s. Whatever it was, per-capita GDP growth accelerated after 1990, matching growth in the other Western Offshoot economies. The global financial crisis in 2007 clobbered everyone except Australia. Australia escaped the crisis mainly because China kept importing all the coal and iron ore the diggers could dig up.Comparative per-capita GDP 1990~2013

What happened during the 1930s or 1940s that tanked the New Zealand economy? What happened during the 1980s that took the shackles off? I don’t remember much before 1960. History records that collectivism in New Zealand was cool. The Labour party at that time was almost exclusively socialist. The Nats were conservative. If we had any liberal or libertarian politicians they've been forgotten.

I remember the 1980s vividly. It was an exciting time to be a technologist. Individualism was cool. The economic data clearly show we did something right.

Collectivism is bad.

Collectivism at the national level can be dangerous. I’ve seen what it did to people in the Russian Far East. The evidence very strongly suggests it’s at least partly responsible for New Zealand’s lacklustre economic performance between 1955 and 1990.

Collectivism at the local level can lead to factionalism. Them and us. They do not conform to our ideas of what is right and good. As a technology journalist I'm constantly biting my tongue, listening to technical entrepreneurs telling me that the bloke down the street is in the wrong business. Biotech entrepreneurs think New Zealand should not try to make cars. Why? What special knowledge do they have about the global car market? Software manufacturers think New Zealand shouldn’t build anything at all, unless it’s weightless. Why? What special knowledge do they have about composite manufacturing, or superconductors, or electric fences, or replica World War I aircraft?

Individualism values each individual for who and what they are. It’s about valuing a manufacturer because they created wealth for our economy. It doesn’t matter what they built. We have people in our community exporting superconducting magnets, cars, aeroplanes, racing yachts, fire alarms, software, fire engines, movies, racing car components, cable cars, robots, aviation simulators,  laser-calibrated cameras (I'll write about those very soon), to name a few.

We have a lot of catching up to do. Per capita GDP in New Zealand is about 65% of that in the USA. In 1940 we were level with them.

Manufacturing in New Zealand is difficult. It is also critical to New Zealand’s long-term viability. That’s why all Kiwi manufacturers need to help each other as much as possible. We can only do that if we put factionalism behind us. We must put aside our differences and actually talk to one another. That means we must embrace and celebrate the positive aspects of individualism.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a}

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