Where the rubber hits the code: NZs journey to a 'knowledge based economy'

In the tech space there's too much talk. When I listen to visionaries giving speeches I am also playing buzz word bingo in my head and thinking, how are you actually going to make this happen!? 

A friend of mine recently pointed out 'we have too many think-tanks, we need some do-tanks'. She's right. We've been talking about a national initiative to 'increase our knowledge-based economy' for as long as I can remember.

Not even a year into a brave new millennium Michael Cullen gave a speech entitled 'The vision: A high quality, value-added, knowledge-based economy and society' which reads like the strategy speeches of the last election. 

We have been poor savers, we have been poor at developing skills, we have had a low level of private sector research and development, and we have not been good at moving out of commodity production... [The vision] is of a high technology, value-added economy, adaptive and responsive and able to take advantage of a wide range of niche opportunities in the global marketplace.

These familiar problems and the oh so familiar solutions lead me to believe there is a bigger issue. An issue of follow through.

Only a year before Computer World's Y2K reporter predicted the implementational failing of Mr Cullen's grand strategy.

By the time you read this, both National and Labour will have announced their policies designed to bring about this state of "nerd-vana" that will help propel New Zealand into the next millennium. Neither party, however, goes far enough. Like a badly implemented electronic commerce package, they’re all flashy front end with very little change behind the scenes. To stretch the metaphor, they’re receiving purchase orders online, then printing them off, carrying them to the warehouse and sending out the product via carrier pigeon.

However, we have some rare gems. People who are doing that really hard but totally necessary thing - strategy implementation. 

One such gem is Summer of Tech - the matchmakers of NZ IT. They've been running for 10 years. They've placed over 700 IT grads and students into work and their 80% retention rate shows just how good they are at partnering people up! If Tinder could boast such happy matches we'd be in for another boom generation. 

But even the gems feel the frustration of fast talk and no action. When Emily from Summer of Tech attended the NZ Tech Awards in 2015 she met with businesses who frothed at the prospect of 'engaging millennials' and getting their hands on some 'young talent'. Except, after their gush of enthusiasm, not one of them followed through. Not one of them replied to Emily's email to seize the opportunity to meet with the pool of talented grads and students. 

How talented are these students? See for yourself. We filmed them as they attempted to build a working app in 48 hours!

In the world of too much talk, these young designers and developers were so refreshingly solutions focused. They've had the mantra of business drummed into them. Find a relevant problem, understand the market experiencing this problem, design a solution to fit the market. Do user testing. Adapt your solution. 

A FEW OF MY FAVE SOLUTIONS FROM THE SoT 2016 WELLINGTON HACKFEST *Disclaimer: Some of the methods for gathering data are not commercially viable, they were used over the weekend to display the skill of the hackfest participants"

  • An app that shows users if the waterways near them were too polluted to swim in. API integration with Google Maps, NIWA and Ministry for the Environment. Sadly, this is a summer essential. 
  • An interactive desktop map showing the incidence and location of common diseases to help councils and health organisations focus their funding efforts. Targeted public health in places that need it, when they need it!
  • A price comparison app to show students where they could get their groceries the cheapest. 
  • Flatmate compatibility app which integrated with Spotify and TradeMe and aimed to match your music tastes with those of potential flatties.  Cos let's face it, that pile of dishes is less likely to matter if you're both rocking out to Janelle Monae.
  • A vehicle buying comparison interface. Integrating with TradeMe Motors and making the UX of car comparison a whole lot nicer (hint hint).

    There were heaps more, but these were the standouts for me.

It's been nearly 17 years since Michael Cullen gave that speech on NZs knowledge-based economy. And we need another strategic vision like the world needs another blogging platform. 

If there's to be any real change we need policy that has gone through the same rigours of market validation that any business idea is put through. Know the market experiencing the problem and design a solution to fit the market. Above all, do user testing! 

UPDATE: Since publication, other noteworthy DoTanks have been brought to my attention
Vodafone xone connection, cash and Christchurch
Kiwibank and CreativeHQ collaboration, FinTech
R9Accelerator, the change agent for Government


How small things shape little people

When I was five years old I was given a magnifying jar. I put bugs and leaves inside it and an entirely new world of detail, pattern, and beauty emerged. It was the beginning of a lifelong love (and career) founded in natural observation.

Attitudes, moments, and small items are profoundly impactful for a little person. And sometimes little people grow up to be badass scientists. At 5.30am one-day last month I got up and navigated multiple pre-dawn public transport options to get my sleepy self to the Dowse Art Gallery. In a room of their peers, just as the sun was coming up three amazing scientists shared their personal ‘how I got here’ stories.

 Kate McGrath, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Professor of Chemistry, Director of Callaghan Innovation, Chair of the Board at VicLink; Sonja Bermudez, Paleontology Technician at GNS and Forensic Scientist; Baljinder Devgun, Executive Member of the Association for Women in Science, Branch President for the United Nations Association of NZ, and CEO of the Global Women & Girls Empowerment Charity - photo credit Photowellington.

Kate McGrath, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Professor of Chemistry, Director of Callaghan Innovation, Chair of the Board at VicLink; Sonja Bermudez, Paleontology Technician at GNS and Forensic Scientist; Baljinder Devgun, Executive Member of the Association for Women in Science, Branch President for the United Nations Association of NZ, and CEO of the Global Women & Girls Empowerment Charity - photo credit Photowellington.

For Baljinder Devgun it was the words of her wise Grandmother and the actions of her ballsy father that the set stage.

“1 woman will impact 100,000 people in her life.” - Grandma Devgun

Her father fell out of a tree and – according to family legend - "had all the sense knocked out of him.” Instead of staying in the small village in India where he was destined to grow old looking after his elderly mum, he hightailed it to the city and studied Physics. Not suprisingly Baljinder's childhood was imbued with science and experimentation - syphoning petrol, making wine and ginger beer, and observing the natural cycles of their garden.

Despite dropping out of school at aged fiftenn she ended up graduating from Waikato University with a BSc in Earth Science and Chemistry, a Masters in Management, and a DipComm in intercultural Communication! Appropriately, she was the first Indian to graduate on a Marae.

 “Soon you will be too qualified to marry off” lamented Bajinder’s Mother.

But the words of her Grandmother remained clear and she repeated them back to us with an added rally.

“My Grandmother said we each influence 100,000 women. That means in this room we have the power to reach and influence 1/8th of the population of NZ.”

Kate’s family put a heavy emphasis on education - she and her siblings are all first generation University graduates. This attitude gave Kate the opportunity to go deep into education, and deep she went. A BSc in Chemistry, a PhD in Molecular Self Assembly and a post doc at Princeton.

By aged 28 she was in Dunedin having landed a dream job as a Senior Lecturer at Otago University. Whereupon she had what I call an 'oh, shit' moment. 

“I’ve spent 10 years trying to get to this point and I hate it.”

Kate had, in her words “taken the path based on the ideas, advice and values of others”. She went back to study and began a Masters, which gave her options to take a path of her own choosing because - 

“Being only partially yourself isn’t the best recipe for life”

For Sonja Bermudez the seed was planted at aged eight with a yellow sticker – given to her by her father when she got her first bike – it read “Girls can do anything”. I have a feeling it was around the same time as this campaign was happening in NZ, and while I couldn't find the sticker I found the campaign poster in the Te Ara archives. 


At aged 11 Sonja was given ‘Lost Star’  the story of Amelia Earhart. A woman who had literally gone where no woman had ever gone before. It made me wonder who or what had planted that seed in Ms Earhart.

The tour of the forensics lab at Gracefields when Sonja was sixteen was the clincher -

 “All my science teachers were male, so when I saw what a lab looked like and the science potential I was hooked”
Megan Cook. 'Women’s movement - Health, fertility and education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 15-Nov-12

In terms of items that could shape young minds Sonja was pretty taken with Lottie the Fossil Hunter. I'm pretty sure if you're a girl related to Sonja this is what you'll be getting for Christmas.  

To this I would add the book ‘Good night stories for Rebel Girls – 100 tales to dream big’ 

What were your small things? How did they shape the way you saw world?

Thanks to the Hutt City Council for making this event happen as part of the second STEMM festival. An event that showcases, celebrates, and connects the Hutt Valley science and technology businesses and capability (there’s a lot of them). 


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First year career in the cave of endless stories

I was hired on instinct by a great woman with experience and international cred out the wazoo.  This was my first REAL job - the kind i'd done tertiary education to get, but the job itself was unheard of. There was no rule book and no job description.  Perhaps this is because most academic institutions haven't realised the value of telling their applied research stories. Yet.

I took on the vaguer than vague brief of 'tell our Research & Enterprise stories to everyone' with unbounded enthusiasm. However, after a few months of honeymooning reality hit home. This job was much bigger than I'd fathomed. 

If you imagine an institution of this size as a body of water. It is definitely the result of several mergers.

A few glacial rivers at its source, some rapid and turbid streams in the mix, and hundreds of calm creeks, and hidden springs. They converge and diffuse and create one deep, wide, and slow flowing industrial river.

Armed with only a bucket I was meant to scoop up those stories and splash them everywhere. 

I strongly believe this kind of role was and still is needed because I found the river's stories to be diverse, complex, and plentiful - engineering, design, occupational therapy, industrial design, web development, information technology, nursing, sports and adventure, art, food design, community engagement and health and well-being.

I'm proud of the stories I captured on film (there are a few links below), in blog posts, awards submissions, press releases, tweets, Facebook posts, LinkedIn write ups and even a book - I wasn't able to catch them all. Not even close.  

There weren't nearly enough bridges or buckets. With over 700 applied research projects happening every year and no budget for marketing, the unrealistic nature of my task was pretty disheartening. I learned that the vast majority of stories would just have to float on by. I would have to resist the urge to dive in after them or dream about the way I might've shot them.

This job was intellectually enriching, skill stretching, but ultimately deeply frustrating.

I emerged a little less green, and a lot more experienced. But more than anything else I came out of this job fired up to try and crack open the story chest of our institutions and research organisations. They are a GOLD MINE of important and very relevant stories. 


Poppy's Chair was a shooting challenge as the chair evolved and was worked on over several months. The mentoring of the intern filmmaker was the joy of this project.

Shot and edited in a week this whirlwind project supported the South Island Information Technology pitch to the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment.

Capturing an objective perspective on my academic area of interest in the strategy to implementation gap.

Science communication, exhibition design, filmmaking - this project tickled my fancy is so many ways.







Conference finale and the far reaches of film: dedicated to Eva Gluyas at Workspace

I’m a fan of the moving image and like most in the industry I have an area of specialty, a genre that gets me going. Mine is documentary, or at least ‘based on a true story’, which if we’re being honest is really what documentaries are.

At this conference there were two individuals doing things with mobile film technology that piqued my interest. They were totally different ways of gathering data, telling stories and communicating science.

The first was project COBRA, an amazing, simple and empowering initiative that allowed tribal cultures in the Amazon to make films about how the forest sustains them, and crucially, how they sustain and manage the forest.

Of several hundred tribal communities that once lived in the Amazon only a handful still exist. The films being made by a cluster of communities are being used to educate policy makers on the economic value of the ecosystem services that the forest provides. These tribes don’t log the whole lot, sell it and move on, theirs is a mentality of guardianship, not ownership or capital worth.  By capturing on film their wealth of knowledge on plant and animal life cycles that it would take years to learn, the communities are in a more powerful position to argue against logging and habitat destruction.  I love this and the presenter of this project, Andrea Beradi and I are hoping to collaborate and do something similar in New Zealand.

I think we are now at a stage where audiovisual technologies have become so accessible that we can transition from a situation where non-indigenous people construct narratives ‘about’ them, to one where indigenous people themselves are in control of the narrative creation and dissemination process.
— Andrea Beradi

The second was an initiative through the Oxford University’s Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam. The Mekong Delta in Vietnam has the highest rate of Zoonotic pathogen transfer in the world. Zoonotic’s are the kind of pathogen that moves between humans and other animals like swine flu or mad cow disease. This comes from the practice of eating raw meat, drinking blood, low regulations on the slaughter of animals and the absence of hygiene/protective practices like using plastic gloves.

Traditionally in order to address this sort of issue, you’d send in a bunch of researchers and run workshops that instruct the people who live and work there that they’re wrong, that their ways of managing their food are unhygienic. Then expect them to be grateful and immediately change the culture around their food. This group went about it in an entirely different way.

By giving the people who raise, slaughter and sell animals a camera and the simple direction ‘film things you think are unsafe’ they got over 30 films that were astoundingly rich in information. Richer, and more insightful than the data you’d get from a paper survey with externally generated questions. This enabled the researchers to create hygiene workshops around the information gathered by the residents of the Mekong, a far more empowering experience and, it turns out, far more effective at changing behavior.

As a filmmaker I feel I may be encouraging myself out of a job, but these projects are just too exciting and promising to not celebrate.

Collaborations and inspirations abounding the conference is over, and I have two days to immerse myself in the food and music of this colourful place.

Harsh realities: day three dedicated to Kainic Medical

Another beautiful morning! It’s about 25 degrees at night, sticky and sweet smelling and then almost 30 degrees by breakfast. I’m in fruit heaven with fresh Papaya juice and melons galore. Still, I’m missing good coffee – fresh espresso is a rarity and for this coffee snob it’s all a bit of a shock.

 Pousada Fonte de boi, Salvador, Brazil

Pousada Fonte de boi, Salvador, Brazil

Wearing the outfit I would’ve worn for my presentation I sashayed up to the conference to hear a seriously impressive panel discuss the use of social media in science communication. Naturally, the twitter feed was plentiful and you can find the thread on #pcst2014.

Dominique Brossard summed up in her first slide, stating categorically that social media definitely impacts public understanding of science. The trouble is that this assertion is based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence.

However, a later session with Eric Jensen from Warwick University showed that when science communicators are evaluating the benefits/impacts of science communication we’re kind of messing it up. His scathing assessment of top university’s inability to create un-biased evaluation methods was powerful and to the point. He said one of the most common, and confounding mistake was having no negative option. Assuming an experience was either “life changing” or “average” will give you completely rubbish data and biased results. Similarly, asking the opinion of teachers on their students engagement is another sure way to get nonsense.

On the subject of results, when searching Google for information you’re likely not to get what you search for, but rather what Google’s algorithms show as the most popular hits around that subject area. This is a bit of a problem, and I hate thinking I’m being kept in a positive confirmation bubble by an algorithm. I’d rather an Internet that shows me things I’ve never seen and challenge my point of view.

I was looking forward to hearing from a Nigerian academic who was using mobile technology to educate isolated communities on sexual health. Sadly, he wasn’t there and later when I was talking to one of the conference organizers she told me the reason. Even with all the official documentation and a letter of invitation to the conference it is extremely difficult to get a visa into Brazil from Nigeria. The organizer shared her own stories about the assumptions by custom officials in the West about the occupation of young, single, Brazilian women when they're traveling abroad. Hearing these stories I felt extremely ignorant and naive and also hugely grateful to come from New Zealand who has good international relationships with most other countries.

 Padraig, Meghie, Eric, Eric and me

Padraig, Meghie, Eric, Eric and me

Being a socially inclined creature, the highlight of the day was a rowdy dinner with a crowd of my fellow PCST goers. We went to a local restaurant where a new friend shared a delicious vegetable stew with me. Several hours and bottles of wine later we all trooped back to the hotel for a nightcap only to find the bar closed. Luckily a member of our party volunteered his apartment and we ordered room service and talked till 4am, at which point I decided we should all go swimming in the infinity pool.

Looking out over the sea from way up high, giddy on great conversation I took a moment to appreciate how lucky I was to be here.

Dedicated to Kainic Medical: providers of writing to the medical communications industry.