Comment: Statements about the need for innovation and creating enabling regulation have been made for years, says Jacqueline Rowarth, but now is the time to develop the right people with the right mindset to take New Zealand into the future.

"Innovate or die": the catchphrase of the 21st century.

Books have been written using the title. Seminars have been given. Programmes have been instigated. Performance reviews include it and recruitment includes questions on the ability to "think outside the box".

Innovation. Stay ahead or become yesterday's news. Or toast.

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Since May, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman's Koi Tu document, KPMG's Agribusiness Agenda and the Ministry of Primary Industries' Fit for a Better World have been published, and all used the term repeatedly.

The reports emphasised the need for innovation to develop new markets for new products and allow reinvestment in education, science, more innovation and development.

MPI's visionary document included recognition that key regulatory systems need modernisation to support innovation, increase efficiency and remove complexity while managing risk.

Excellent. But similar statements about the need for innovation and creating enabling regulation have been made for years.

The reorganisation of the science system didn't have the desired effect. Nor did the ongoing changes in the education system nor the MRST/FRST/MSI/MBIE funding system.

The RMA hasn't been the enabling document Sir Geoffrey Palmer envisaged.

Over the years, compliance has escalated, paperwork has burgeoned and more time spent on ticking boxes for regulatory matters means less time thinking about what might really make a difference.



Leader or follower?

Innovation. Without innovation, New Zealand is doomed to be a follower, kilometres away from markets and with higher costs of doing business than other countries because of distance and regulatory compliance (Occupational Health and Safety and Environmental, in addition to industry specific factors such as food safety and animal welfare).

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Since the late 1980s, the primary sector in New Zealand has been off the boil.

Certainly, there have been advances, but the precautionary principle has led to stagnation in some areas of research (gene technology, for instance) and many good scientists have been lost to overseas laboratories.

A big part of the problem has been a focus on process rather than outcome, which in itself is a product of a State Services Commission report in 2003 that people management skills were of more importance than discipline knowledge.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

In 2010, over half of policy advisory staff who responded to a Treasury survey had a background in political studies or economics; 14 per cent had a background in public policy and the rest had studied law or humanities.

There were no policy analysts with qualifications in science or engineering. Health and agriculture were mentioned only as ministries.

The Treasury report, which mentioned the word "management" 180 times in 122 pages, went on to suggest that policy capability required more than generic skills in policy, it also required professional knowledge and subject specific knowledge.

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New Zealand is not alone in the trend towards managerialism, but we could be ahead in innovation if flexibility allowed new thinking.

What's needed to be innovative?

Management guru Gary Hamel has explained what is required to be innovative as a company.

Fundamental is employing people who have been taught to think like innovators, who challenge invisible orthodoxies, harness unappreciated trends, leverage embedded competencies and assets and address unarticulated needs.

Innovation-friendly management processes are also required. And the foundation of progress is understanding the context of the industry in which the company is operating.

When it comes to regulation derived from policy, the same applies. MPI has recognised the need for "modernisation", but without the appropriate people who understand the issues, modernisation will not have the intended outcomes.

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Gary Hamel has pointed to the need for the innovator mindset, but education globally has not been encouraging questioning and analysis.

Professors at America's top universities made the problem abundantly clear in an open letter to new university students in 2017.

The letter urged the students to "take the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions in order to decide what they believe ... Don't be tyrannised by public opinion. Don't get trapped in an echo chamber. Whether you in the end reject or embrace a view, make sure you decide where you stand by critically assessing the arguments for the competing positions".

Knowledge is vital

Critical assessment, taking initiative, and asking questions rather than making assumptions, is paramount in developing innovations.

The principles apply whether those innovations are in products and services, processing, marketing, organisation or business models. At the heart of all is knowledge of the issue.

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During his time as Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman established chief science advisors at most of the ministries.

What is needed now is more people in those ministries who are more than career policy people – who actually have a discipline qualification aligned with the focus of the ministry.

This has implications for the education system. Graduates need to have the ability to analyse information and data in order to be able to inform decisions, as well as integrate multiple perspectives in order to enable change.

Developing the right people with the right mindset will create the workforce of the future, whether on the land or in the cities, and people who innovate from a platform of knowledge will take New Zealand into the future.

• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com