What were your motivations behind launching Vision Week?
In my day job as CEO of Infrastructure NZ I reached out to all of our 140 members for 1:1 interviews early on after COVID hit. The key issue for all of the companies which I talked to was the lack of a New Zealand strategic plan that was a North Star for how New Zealand would react and reshape itself as a result of COVID-19. CEO’s were obviously deeply concerned about immediate issues of ensuring safety for their employees and shoring up cashflow for their company, however within 2-3 weeks CEO’s were calling for insight on the new strategic direction for NZ, and the core values that would guide those decisions.
Infrastructure NZ has 5 key policy priorities and one of these is to create a national vision for NZ, leading to a nation building plan that would be long term, signed off by all parties and therefore transcending the short term 3 year political cycle. Any vision for NZ had to be about the levels of wellbeing for the people of NZ (how many, where and how ambitious would we be in setting targets for our economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing).
Infrastructure is just one (very important!) tool to help achieve wellbeing, so I needed to bring in sponsors and supporters that would help bring diversity of thought and make this an inclusive platform for the views of all New Zealanders.
How did you pinpoint the key themes of Vision Week?
We needed to outline what a vision was and why it is necessary on day 1. A vision is only useful if it moves ‘off the page’ and into an action-oriented plan of action, but that comprehensive, integrated, long term plan has to start with who are we (what are our values as Kiwis) and what we want to achieve. Infrastructure NZ members are very broad, including a really wide range of Kiwi companies. The $30bn Christchurch earthquake rebuild and our missed opportunities to reimagine and build a 21st century city, rather than largely recreate the 20th century original, should be central to our thinking in how to respond to the shock of COVID-19. Our members key message was ‘don’t rebuild what was there before, take a little time to reimagine and then build back better’.
We chose our three mid-week themes (Connecting NZ, Sustaining NZ and Quality Living NZ) to cover the critical pillars of NZ’s economy and way of life. We knew from interviews with members and questions from the 4,000+ attendees on the webinars Infrastructure New Zealand ran during lockdown that tourism, the agri sector, digital, transport, our environment, energy, housing and key elements of social cohesion would be essential for our recovery. Our economy is complex, interconnected and global, so these were very much themes to direct the conversation, but we expected (and got) really rich and deep feedback from interviewees that we too and beyond the edges of these broad themes.
Despite the obvious negative impacts of Covid-19, do you think that a shift in direction for New Zealand will have an overall positive, and even necessary impact?
Absolutely. New Zealand is incredibly lucky with the physical environment we have been gifted with, but even more we heard from interviewees that our strength is in the diversity, values and adaptability of our socially cohesive society – an increasingly rare Western world phenomenon. Another key theme is that our leadership in eliminating COVID has been world beating – a great example that our ‘team of 5 million’ can achieve world leading results when we band together.
NZ has previously suffered from physical isolation, but our COVID-free status, high quality of living, stable leadership, digital and trade connectivity isolated from the world by a 1,500 km wide moat, makes us a really attractive place to be. I believe that any vision for NZ has to include a population policy – how many Kiwis will live here and what standard of living will they enjoy. Prior to COVID, global research firm Gallup identified that if NZ had no border controls that our population would rise to 11.5 million people, that those new migrants would have 3.3x more skills (measured by university degrees) than our existing population and that they would be markedly younger. In most countries in the world this would be seen as an amazing opportunity – we would realise the late Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision of NZ being “a place where talent wants to live”.
Expat Kiwis in the KEA network have a right to live in our amazing country, hence I was keen to reach out so the KEA Network could have its say on what the future of NZ should be. The NZ Government has set aside $50 billion to reset and reshape our economy – the purpose of Visionweek is to lift our sights to size on all the opportunities we have in front of us and also to acknowledge and address some areas where our performance is poor such as quality of housing, traffic congestion, mental health and equality of opportunity across society.
What advantages and setbacks does New Zealand have in terms of their potential for recovery, in relation to other countries?
Our speakers focused on New Zealander’s values and social cohesion being critical in fighting COVID and now also in addressing the recovery. Our natural environment, resilient, adaptable people, low government debt and our clear leadership position on COVID have all been cited as advantages. Our big blue moat creates physical isolation and looks really attractive compared to other countries with land borders. New Zealand’s Maori population and tikanga/values, with a focus on intergenerational outcomes for people and the environment, were seen as a huge opportunity to refocus our economy on a more balanced & sustainable way of life.
Our possible setbacks are that we are highly globally connected, so we need the world to prosper and some industries (e.g. tourism) are going to face a tough journey until we can re-open borders. Our setbacks could be that some key institutions (our 3-year political cycle, MMP, and the Public Finance Act, which focuses on balancing the books rather than government aiming for stretching outcomes for people, then working backwards to how we afford these) make it hard for Government to lead a transformation journey – voters have set up our Government to be small, hands-off and short term focussed.
The big opportunity is that our small size and our connectedness as a society means that leadership should be able to turn NZ towards more ambitious goals. COVID created a glimpse into an uncertain future – surely this is the catalyst to create a risk environment where innovation can flourish? COVID has changed so much, so quickly that incremental approaches won’t work – in uncertainty, no one party can solve this alone, but there’s a huge opportunity for new institutions that create collective leadership and co-governance between central & local government, businesses, iwi and communities.
What is the ultimate goal you are looking to achieve through Vision Week?
We want Visionweek to start the debate on what a brighter long term future for all New Zealanders looks like. Last week the Productivity Commission published a report on successful small nations and showed that we are lagging our small, OECD peers, but it also gave us a pathway for how to achieve more, together. We need to set stretching targets for our economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing, ideally in the top quartile of OECD firms, measure these clearly and make them a bi-partisan, independent requirement of the government of the day.
New Zealand has significant natural and human capital advantages but we have not set our sights high to achieve these. We had bi-partisan support to create the Climate Commission and the Infrastructure Commission, which is a great step forward, however we need a holistic and independent approach to setting the outcomes that matter the most to Kiwis – perhaps a Wellbeing of all New Zealanders Commission? Our interviewers noted that Kiwis have traditionally been good at short term adaptation & innovation to world events/shocks, but we have never expressed a clear, long term vision for the standard of living for New Zealanders.
Now is the time when we should set out sights higher than we can possibly achieve with any one party, then come together to figure out how we will get there. America didn’t know how it was going to put “a man on the moon by the end of the decade” and Singapore had limited resources but its “think big, go global” strategy in the 1970’s was much better managed than ours – a stretching vision for NZ is entirely possible and its now time to be bold and set our sights high.
What were some of the key takeaways from Vision Week, now that it’s all over?
- Set targets in the well-being framework at the top quartile/decile of OECD, explain to Kiwis what it will feel like to be that successful, add a cool slogan (I’m no marketer – perhaps World’s Most Liveable Country?) and then work backwards for what innovation we need to achieve that
- Use green energy as a platform to decarbonise and as a base to power weightless exports (digitally) and attract domestic and global nice manufacturers who care about sustainability
- Zero-carbon connections between people – use green energy to remove carbon from our transport fleet, including electric air flight, and accelerate moves towards 5G, creating bleeding edge global value and allowing remote, regional and rural working to take pressure off our cities and transport routes
- Put NZ values at the core of our future – kaitiakitanga (guardianship), manaakitanga (respect, hospitality) and fairness were the three values I heard most often during the week. Te Ao Māori values, with their focus on people and the environment over generations, provide a great base for long term thinking and action
- Focus on being the world’s best producer of sustainable/regenerative food – take this strength and focus heavily on it. We are already world class, but to be world leading the Productivity Commission says we need exports to be 60-70% of GDP (we are at 30%) and agri plus digital are the two sectors we need to focus on to achieve that.