The Government dug back into history yesterday and revived the 2001 “Catching the Knowledge Wave” programme.
The conference appeared to have been largely forgotten; written off as go-nowhere talkfest.
But yesterday the outgoing Economic Development Minister, David Parker and Warehouse founder and one of the prime movers of the original conference, Stephen Tindall, both credited it with launching the country’s tech export boom.
And they did so seeking to launch a sort of Knowledge Wave Mark Two with the Beehive Banquet Hall packed with business leaders, unionists and lobbyists.
Tindall says the sceptics were wrong; the original Knowledge Wave conference got people like him thinking about investing in high tech, and now the sector is booming.
He also credits the way Team New Zealand thought outside the square with their use of carbon fibre and other high tech tools on their boats with stimulating people like Peter Beck and Rocket Lab.
He told POLITIK that now Australian and Silicon Valley venture funds are regularly looking at New Zealand for high tech investments.
And Parker was also full of praise for the Knowledge Wave.
“Our predecessors identified three priority areas,” he said.
“These were chosen because of their potential for export growth and because of the underlying importance that competence in the sector had to the wider economy.
“The crucial sectors identified were ICT, biotechnology (with a food and beverage bent) and, thirdly, the creative sector and design.
“They got it right, and I am pleased to doff my cap to those who called it at the time. “
In October last year, Parker reported that the technology sector with $11 billion of exports was third behind dairy and tourism.
Technology Investment Network Director, Greg Shanahan, says the sector now employs over 43,000 people in companies ranging from big names like Xero Technology down to small game developers.
Parker, as he often does, argued that investment in New Zealand has been distorted and this has been to the disadvantage of the tech sector.
“I believe there is no doubt we inherited an economy based on excessive property speculation and high rates of immigration driving consumption-led growth,” he said.
Parker was an advocate of a capital gains tax to correct those distortions.
“A capital gains tax would have improved things, but we’ve lost that,” he said.
Parker said new Industry Transformation Plans – an idea borrowed from Singapore – would maximise the opportunities offered by “the fourth industrial revolution and help move towards a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy.”
“The agritech sector has been chosen as a key focus because it brings together two of New Zealand’s key competitive advantages – our expertise in agriculture and horticulture with our well-educated workforce,” he said.
Tindall, however, was not asking the Government to do much at all.
“Because technology has got such a head of steam now and we are starting to see quite a large number of successes, I think this is going to play out by itself,” he said.
“I think the bright line thing which kind of slows people down in terms of investing in rental properties will have people thinking again.
“People in these angel funds, of course, will be talking to the mates about the fact that they are doing this really interesting stuff which they get actually involved in as well as investing in and a number of them are starting to get some returns.
“I think it’s up and running we have just got to keep feeding the beast.”
Tindall said his own K1w1 venture fund was seeing 30 new entrepreneurs a month.
“So there’s plenty of them.
“And I’m also really encouraged that we’ve got Australian Venture Capitalists coming over here all the time because they now realise that we’ve got such a great market, so they are putting money in.
“And then the people from Silicon Valley because they’ve had some great successes they’re coming in on more and more things as well.
“So the thing is growing exponentially.”
However, Parker said n important part of developing the sector was the development of industry transformation plans.
These describe an agreed vision for the future of a sector and set out actions required to realise this vision.
“Our first Industry Transformation Plan was the Construction Sector Accord,” he said.
“It was co-developed by an industry Accord Development Group. Industry leaders working with the Government.
“Our next Industry Transformation Plans focus on four other priority sectors: food and beverage, digital technology, forestry and wood processing, and agritech.
“The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council and the Future of Work Tripartite Forum will provide strategic leadership.
“Key components of each plan will include assessments of the opportunities and risks from digitalisation, the future of work and skills training.
Each plan will also set out decarbonisation pathways, ways to increase exports, as well as an assessment of capital constraints.
Like the original Knowledge Wave conference, they are not really tangible tools which will transform an industry overnight.
But Tindall said it was the Knowledge Wave conference that got him going as an investor into technology.
“It got me really motivated to try to put my money where my mouth was and start investing in technology companies.”
Tindall said he didn’t know whether the conference would stimulate high tech development.
“I think if you talk about a slow build, you see a graph where the hockey stick starts to get steeper and steeper.
“If that hadn’t kind of accelerated over the last say five six even years then I think I’d be saying well it didn’t.
“But I think it did because I think it was the catalyst for a number of people to start thinking we just have to invest in these things.
“And so now it’s a really thriving industry.”
The original Knowledge Wave conference went on for three days and attracted a host of star speakers.
It had been organised by the University of Auckland and co-sponsored by the Clark Labour Government along with supporters from business like Tindall and Chris Liddell, now an advisor to President Trump.
Then-Prime Minister, Helen Clark spoke to the conference and said that while others had been transforming their economies and societies through the application of knowledge and innovation, we hadn’t kept up with them.
“Our export profile resembles that of developing countries, not that of a developed one,” she said.
Yesterday’s conference at the Beehive demonstrated that in 18 years, things have changed even though the mission to continue to transform the economy has not.