New Zealand is one of just three “Stand Outs” among digital nations, writes Rod Oram. 

When it comes to measuring the digital capability of countries, New Zealand is in a small, elite category. We rank with only Singapore and the UAE in the “Stand Out” category at the top of the Digital Planet analysis by US academics. 

Even more notably, we are in a category of our own – an open democracy that scores high on trust and institutional measures in digital societies, according to Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, one of the authors of the report produced by the Fletcher School of international affairs at Tufts University in Boston. 

Speaking at the Digital Nations 2030 summit that attracted some 550 delegates from 20 countries to Auckland this week, he noted the very rapid digital progress by many countries over recent years. But he cautioned that maintaining the momentum of digital innovation and adoption is one of the hardest tasks all countries face. 

Some nations such as Norway, Sweden and Estonia score slightly higher than us on the report’s Digital Evolution Index. Estonia, for example, offers digital citizenship to people from other countries. That segment of its “population” is growing faster than its newborn Estonian citizens. But such leaders are showing some signs of slowing down. 

New Zealand, though, is maintaining its innovation and momentum in many areas the index measures in depth via some 100 indicators: supply conditions; demand conditions; institutional environment; and innovation and change. 

For example, we rank in the top five countries for the spread and speed of ultrafast broadband; and we are among leaders in online government services such as renewal of passports and payment of taxes. If you take the top 10 interactions between our government and citizens, 70% of them are online. 

But we lag somewhat behind the best in the world on the digital economy, the report shows. The UK, which is among the best, reckons its digital sectors account for 16 percent of GDP, 10 percent of employment and 24 percent of exports. To prove the point, the Charles Bowman, the current and 690th Lord Mayor of the City of London, led a fintech delegation to the summit. 

Nonetheless, we have some strengths of our own, as Anders Langlands of Weta Digital impressively demonstrated to the summit with Weta’s ultra-high tech work on War for the Planet of the Apes. Likewise, Ian Taylor, founder of Animation Research, a global leader in visualisation apps for the America’s Cup and other sporting events, made a compelling case for New Zealand’s abilities. 

And just this week, our Financial Markets Authority declared it was now ready for applications from companies proposing to offer robo-advice. These are automated services, tailored to individuals’ financial needs and circumstances, and delivered through a website or app. 

The FMA said it hopes such services will ensure more people get advice. Its 2015 survey of KiwiSaver, for example, found only three in 1,000 plan sales or transfers involved any personalised advice. 

While digital technologies hold great potential to transform our domestic economy, they offer even greater gains for improving our integration into the global economy. 

The phenomenal growth of cross-border digital flows accounted for more than one-third of the growth in global GDP in 2014, according to the report’s authors. In addition, e-commerce sales globally are forecast to hit US$4 trillion in 2020, double their volume in 2017. 

Our government’s efforts to help lead in this field began with a conversation with its British counterpart in 2014. Later that year they brought together three like-minded countries – South Korea, Israel and Estonia – to form the D5 grouping. Its focus is on driving digitisation of government services and the uptake of them by citizens, and on the role of government in helping to develop digitisation of the wider economy. At this week’s summit, it became the D7 with the addition of Canada and Uruguay. 

The summit traversed all the big themes about how to transform government, the economy, even society itself by harnessing existing digital technologies and vastly more powerful ones such as artificial intelligence which are developing at lightning speed. 

The webcast of the first day’s keynote speakers and panel discussions is available here until March 5. 

The biggest concern of all, though, was how to ensure equality of access and opportunity for all members of society. The issue is particularly acute in the workplace. These technologies will rapidly and radically change the nature of work. 

People will need frequent and comprehensive reskilling and re-educating so they can enjoy the rewards of work. Above all they need to feel secure in that process, so they are up for the change. Arguably, Swedish society is one of the best at this, as this New York Times article describes. 

For about one-third of the summit’s programme, delegates divided up among five workshops to sketch our strategies for the education, health, finance and productive sectors, and for society. 

Out of that process, came some sense of how ready businesses here – or indeed, elsewhere in the world — are for these challenges. Understandably, even these delegates who are deeply into these technologies often struggle to turn their knowledge into far-reaching roadmaps. There was, for example, a tendency to focus on incorporating existing technologies such as cloud computing and big data into organisations. Radical reinvention thanks to artificial intelligence and other massively powerful technologies that are coming was harder to envisage. 

There was also useful discussion about changing styles of leadership. Rather than being strong on deeply analytical skills, for example, leaders will also need to rate highly, for example, on EQ and AQ – emotional and adaptability, or agility, skills. 

If the challenge is huge for business, it is monumental for government and society at large. Government the world over, for example, is very slow in setting policies and passing effective laws and regulations. Then, keeping those up to date with a world changing at an accelerating rate is even harder. 

We need to massively reinvent democracy and government, and greatly deepen citizens’ engagement with them, if we are to use these new powers for good and to minimise the negative consequences of them. On that the summit struggled. 

In New Zealand, though, we have one great advantage to build on. We have a high level of trust in our digital life, economy and institutions. Hopefully, that will give us confidence to be bolder, faster and more effective in our digital nation building. 

Disclosure: I was a co-MC of the summit 

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