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Rod Drury: Why NZ needs a tech kingpin

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A chief technology officer for the country could identify big issues and own a national strategy, writes Rod Drury.

Xero chief executive Rod Drury. Photo / Dean Purcell
Xero chief executive Rod Drury. Photo / Dean Purcell

Barack Obama has one. So do many large companies. The chief technology officer's role, for the US at least, is to apply technology to help create jobs, reduce the cost of health care, help keep the nation secure and increase access to broadband.

New Zealand is the farthest country from its trading partners in the world. As a small, sub-scale, island nation we have the most of any country to gain by technology.

Our Government has done a great job with fiscal management and has achieved some useful incremental tweaks, but we haven't as a country played a bold move with technology. We lack a technology plan.

In the last term, we went through the traumatic restructure of our telecommunications industry, and during the past three years the focus has been the implementation of the domestic ultrafast broadband network - a key part of improving the internet.

Over this timeframe, technology has seen entire industries disrupted, and new organisations like Xero, Vend and others become world-leading cloud companies, all from our small set of rocks in the South Pacific.

But as a country, we've been far too passive about using technology to redefine our place in the world.

We have a natural advantage that we haven't exploited. In business, small empowered teams are how you get things done. A small country of only four million people should be best placed to change the game.

One issue is that even capable politicians are not in the internet generation. Insulated from technology by their press secretaries, many see the internet primarily through secure email on their BlackBerries.

They don't live the internet everyday as a communication tool like most knowledge workers, service industries and many, if not all, young people.

Ideologically, parties to the right have a bias to let market forces sort things out. But experience has shown that infrastructure monopolies form in small sub-scale markets.

The Southern Cross cable monopoly has shown its adeptness at keeping competition out of the market, paying hundreds of millions in dividends while business calls from New Zealand on Skype stutter along.

The traditional engagement model between the public and private sectors only really allows technology businesses to work reactively on government initiatives.

We can only deliver incremental improvements, and often solutions implemented are down the laggard end of the innovation curve.

Yet the technology industry in New Zealand is full of passionate, globally experienced people. Our industry has resources and is comfortable with investment and risk.

The opportunity to harness that experience and investment from the technology industry is huge. To design our technology environment for the good of New Zealand, in a time of unprecedented technological change, is one of the true game-changing opportunities available to our small but perfectly formed country.

But how does the Government, without deep technology expertise, engage in sorting out the vested interests and overwhelming information flow, in order to come up with a step-change plan to transform our place in the world?

I believe the answer is to appoint a chief technology officer of New Zealand. Similar to the chief science officer, Peter Gluckman, but in the technology arena. A respected senior, international, technology leader at a point in their career where they want to give back.

That person can identify and determine the big issues of the day, own a New Zealand technology strategy and be the interface between the private sector and the Government.

They would be able to co-ordinate and encourage the investments that global technology companies will make in New Zealand.

Like Gluckman, a chief technology officer would have the ear of the Prime Minister and report regularly to the Cabinet. They would provide the interface point for industry to connect to the Government and provide the opportunity for a bold vision to be determined and implemented. So far, only the Greens have moved such an idea towards policy.

The potential for a chief technology officer transcends political parties and is an idea with no downside. If we missed the obvious opportunities to use technology to transform our place in the world we would be acting negligently towards future generations.

I choose to remain living in this country because we have a unique way of life while the world has become global.

I truly believe this is the best place to live and we are already proving that we can do big things from here. We can have confidence that with some planning and deliberate actions we can do so much more.

Let's take this exciting opportunity.

Rod Drury is the founder and chief executive of online accounting software firm Xero.

- NZ Herald

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