Sir Peter Gluckman is one of those formidably energetic people who not only seem to have an idea every few minutes but who then go out and actually make them work.
Now he is responsible for a Government initiative which Prime Minister Bill English ranks as one of the most profound and important things the Government is doing; even if almost no-one has ever heard of it.
Gluckman is heading a project which aims to challenge the way the Government thinks about this country’s place in the world and through that to find new solutions to some of our most intractable problems.
Gluckman’s range is sweeping – he is the Government’s Science Advisor, he is a medical researcher and academic with an international reputation and likes to amuse himself with nature photography.
And it was photography that drew him to Spitzbergen in 20911 and then coming home he found himself left with an idle day in Copenhagen.
Not a man to waste a minute he decided to look up his Chief Scientist counterpart in the Danish Government and then in what would seem a most un-Gluckman like action, ended up spending eight hours in a bar with him.
Gluckman himself rattles ideas out at machine gun speed. The Herald once called him Professor “Brainstorm” and the bar conversation was one of those.
“What became clear was that both of us were struggling with issues which related to country size,” he says.
“We were trying to strip down policies which were developed for the United Kingdom or the United States, Australia or Canada to countries that were small.
“This was clearly not working in the science and innovation space.”
Gluckman came back to New Zealand ran into David Skilling who he had worked with on the Knowledge Wave conferences in the 1990s and early 2000s and who had gone on to found an economic and strategy consultancy in Singapore which focuses on small countries.
What interested Skilling was that the small countries had performed better economically over the past 30 years.
Gluckman suggested to Skilling that we set up some form of think tank.
The next question was to ask how it would be different.
“What we are doing in the policy community is that all the time we are comparing ourselves to these big anglo phone countries.
“Maybe it’s time we started getting ideas from other small successful economies.”
So Gluckman went and saw then Prime Minister John Key who was quickly enthusiastic about the idea.
The next question was who to invited to join the group.
Gluckman and Skilling decided that a “small” country would be one with under 10 million population.
That meant that outside Europe only three who fitted that bill could be considered advanced — New Zealand, Singapore and Israel.
They then somewhat arbitrarily decided to include Denmark, Finland and Ireland and after a couple of years, Switzerland asked if it could join.
In essence what they had founded was a sort of G7 for small countries, but it is a group that though it deals with political issues, has managed to proceed largely by not including political leaders in its day to day work.
It has meetings but not summits.
Much of its work is done electronically.
There are three work streams; science and innovation, economics and foreign affairs.
There are two meetings a year.
“Everybody says they are some of the best meetings in the world because there are no country positions taken.
“It’s all in confidence like ‘we stuffed this up, this is how we should have done it’ .
“There’s a lot of very frank sharing of what works and what doesn’t.”
And so, for example, the meetings have recently been looking at how digitisation impacts on small countries.
Here the talk has focussed on the impact of digital disruption and its costs and benefits.
The meetings heard how Denmark had established a Disruption Council to enable open and frank conversations on the pros and cons of digitalization.
Other ideas came from Singapore and Ireland who both focus on developing skills for the digital economy.
Finland’s Prime Minister chairs its work on digitalisation, and though it has concluded that the economic benefits of digitalisation are slow to emerge, it is possible that it it has already added half a percent of GDP which has not been measured by conventional methods.
Other work deals with how to handle trade negotiations and how small countries can deal with the monopolies created by companies like Google or Apple.
The upshot of all this work is that the Small Advanced Economies Initiative has started to gain considerable global credibility.
It is run from Gluckman’s Auckland office, and he is in regular touch with the OECD and EU on work that the initiative is doing, and even the White House(under Obama) has asked for briefings.
Currently, thanks to the Inititatiove, the EU has staff in Wellington looking at how StatsNZ produces the big data that forms the basis of the social investment programme.
Gluckman believes that already the initiative has produced a cultural shift within Government in Wellington.
“What it has done is change the perspective of New Zealand officials.
“It has made us outward looking.”
Prime Minister Bill English says the grouping is starting to turn into “quite an effective” multi-national policy focussed discussion.
“I’m particularly pleased to see it playing a role in reviving our relevance to Singapore, where after the end of our defence relationship, given their preoccupations, it hasn’t been that easy to maintain relevance, “ he recently told the Institute of International Affairs.
“But when we get together and talk about the way our science and research systems work, or the way our public service reforms work, you’re starting to rebuild a depth of relationship that adds to the dimensions of the diplomatic relationship.’
In a way what Gluckman is doing by opening New Zealand up to non-traditional sources of inspiration is to make policy making more multi dimensional.
That may be worth remembering over the next few weeks as election campaign slogans begin to dominate the political discourse.