Talking about the future is an iffy business. Things always happen: a wall falls; a bank fails; an earthquake strikes. Time and chance, as the Bible has it, happen to all of us, and the further into the future you project, the less certain things become.
In the 1970s, when I was a university student, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler seemed be on everyone's shelves. Future Shock's thesis was that the giddying pace of change, the accelerative thrust of the times was such that it was leading to social and psychological dislocation. Toffler's work set the template for many a futurist book thereafter: an anecdote followed by a sequence of breathless speculations.
You don't need to read much of Toffler today to see how wrong, mistimed or self-interested most of his speculations were, or how grounded they were in the 1960s, the decade in which he was writing. Certainly these days that 'furious pace of change of the 1970s' angle doesn't work the way it used to.
Toffler knew his market. The ideas that sell are the ones that are novel or nicely counterintuitive. Saying that what lies ahead will be a modified version of what went before makes for dull dinner table conversation. Disruptive change is much more fun.
But when it comes to intelligently investing in our future, drawing on the evidence of past performance, it is a more useful approach - and I believe a programme of intelligent investment is called for.
I know this will sit awkwardly with many New Zealanders of a certain generation. The era of currency controls and Think Big scarred the New Zealand psyche: they turned us into a marketised society with a visceral mistrust of long-term planning.
And in some ways I agree: Governments should not behave as venture capitalists, placing a spread of bets in the belief that one or other of their investments will make enough money to cover the losses on the others. Our philosophy should be instead, as the investor and writer Howard Marks puts it, to invest in a way that avoids the losers; if we do that the winners will take care of themselves.
So what are the strengths we can marshal? Here are some. We are a small, isolated, well-educated, socially cohesive nation. We are blessed with fertile soils, a temperate climate, and the most innovative and forward thinking community of farmers and horticulturalists in the world. In the 1960s we were known as Britain's farm; now, increasingly, we are China's. We have universities that, despite New Zealand's tiny population base, are world class.
Here is one of my investment tips. Agrifood. There is money to be made. In 2010, Nestlé, the world's largest food company, earned US$105 billion - a 6.2 per cent increase on 2009 - of which US$32 billion was profit. Despite recent missteps, we know we are good at agrifood; we cannot go far wrong. We just need to be more strategic about we how do things.
Earlier this year I was present when Minister Steven Joyce launched the second stage of an enterprise called FoodHQ, Food Innovation New Zealand, bringing together a partnership between AgResearch, Fonterra, Massey University, Plant & Food Research, the Riddet Institute and the Bio Commerce Centre. This is the way things should be trending.
Here is another tip, this one addressing a weakness. Literacy. Recently Massey's Institute of Education conducted a study looking at the success, or lack of, that New Zealand has had in addressing literacy's so-called long tail: the gap between our high-performing and low-performing students is one of the highest in the OECD. Their verdict? The approach we have taken over the past decade has not made any significant difference. We urgently need to fix this, both because an educated and flexible workforce is vital to our economic success and because, if we do not, the social consequences will wreak havoc with the fair and decent society to which most us aspire.
So, when you read these predictions, allow the authors some latitude. Sometimes they will be right; sometimes not so much. And, more importantly, think about the sort of future you want for New Zealand. There are choices to be made.
You will find here longer-form versions of articles that Massey academics produced for the Future New Zealand print publication, in partnership with the New Zealand Herald, along with additional content. I would also like to say thank you to the New Zealand Herald, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. This project fits well with the paper's long history of informing and inviting public debate within New Zealand.
And I would like to issue an invitation. Next year Massey University celebrates its 87 years as a degree-granting tertiary institution, 50 years as an independent university, and the 21st birthday of its Albany campus, which has become part of the fabric of the North Shore and the Auckland region.
If you haven't yet visited the Albany campus, make sure you do so, and if you are one of Massey's alumni community, stay in touch with us and make sure you come along to our Jubilee year events.
Steve Maharey, Vice-Chancellor of Massey University.