New Zealanders are proud of how we have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some ways lead the world. Rod Drury argues we are ready to be more ambitious, have a clear vision and lead in big economic and environmental ideas. 

(This article has been updated below to include a video interview on Friday between Newsroom’s Bernard Hickey and Rod Drury)

Covid-19 has forever changed New Zealand. As a small island nation we are in a unique situation. Our international tourism industry is decimated but our geographic moat also gives us an incredible opportunity to get back to a new-normal faster and begin the process of reinventing ourselves for a post pandemic world.

It has been humbling and inspirational to watch New Zealand business, community and political leaders quickly coordinating and working as a team. Many of our business leaders operate across other markets and could see what was coming at us, and were understanding the science. Those leaders enlisted many of us to help communicate the message that New Zealand must close its borders and mobilise key projects.

Roger Dennis had looked at pandemic planning a few years earlier and quickly established a framework for response that efforts could fit in to.  

In Wave one – what are the things we need to do immediately? These included finding and manufacturing ventilators, obtaining oxygen, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, and implementing a national communications tool. People across New Zealand’s private sector were spun-up to focus on those projects.

In Wave Two – how do we keep ahead of the situation, save as many jobs as we can, and get our economy back into action? 

And Wave Three – what actions do we take to position New Zealand for this new world?

In Wave Two we have some big questions to ask ourselves.

For example: In Queenstown, tourism has just stopped and the airport is closed. The construction sector, which is underpinned by tourism, will fall next. So how can we get Queenstown’s economy back into action?

One of the things I learned from running a global company is understanding New Zealand has a unique set of values. Environment obviously is one. Equality is a value felt much more strongly here than in most of our close neighbours like Australia and the USA. We see this reflected in our recent policies, like when the Government banned the sale of property to foreigners – partially justified on the basis it would help solve our housing crisis.

So while we may not like the idea of overseas people coming here and buying houses, in places like Queenstown, Hawkes Bay and Northland, in a post-pandemic New Zealand, would we allow areas to be designated as okay for overseas ownership and construction? We could make 1,000 sections available for, say, $5 million dollars plus construction project costs, therefore adding $5 billion of residential construction and jobs to our economy this year. How do we feel about that now?

We’ve seen working from home actually working because of New Zealand’s massive investment in ultrafast broadband (UFB). Our domestic internet is the envy of Australia and even the USA. Treating fibre to the home as essentially public infrastructure any Internet Service Provider can connect to, and innovate over, has been an unqualified success.

As we move into the realm of 5G we could do the same. Let’s treat 5G towers as public infrastructure that any number of telco businesses could provide mobile services over.

With New Zealand and Australian superannuation funds looking for stable long-term investments and with low interest rates, let’s apply the UFB model to 5G and kick start the capital works. Let’s have the best mobile data infrastructure in the world. This requires no Government funding – just regulatory intervention to separate critical infrastructure from the retail service layer.

While we’re at it, let’s use this time to get the courage to finally fix our domestic payments networks so we can be completely contactless. This just requires courage from the Minister of Commerce to front up to the Aussie banks and lay down the law. That will spur further investment in banking and payments technology that can be taken to the world.

It’s Wave three that gets truly exciting. What can we do now that changes New Zealand for the better for the next generation? What is our big thing? It’s pretty obvious to me what it should be – renewable electricity.

What could New Zealand look like in 10 to 15 years if our new platform was renewable energy?

– We could be the leader and a global research and development hub for electric aviation. Our domestic aviation network is 100% very short haul. You can’t fly for more than two hours in New Zealand. Imagine super cheap flying with no carbon guilt. Dr Rod Badcock and his team are already working on that at Victoria University of Wellington. Air New Zealand is already collaborating with the Google founders on electric flying taxis.

– China is rolling out tens of thousands of electric buses per month. Almost everyone in Auckland has a phone to connect to transport network information and anonymously share their transport usage. We could build the smartest city network of autonomous buses chained together with software that dynamically configures the network each day so you no longer have to drive to park and ride. In Auckland, small buses could pick you up near your home in Albany and as your bus nears the bridge other buses are software chaining together, stopping briefly to allow you to change from bus B to E to take you to Westmere

– Companies like Zoox are developing autonomous buses for San Francisco and New York – let’s collaborate with them to enable Wellington as the right hand drive test market, bringing in further investment

– Let’s flip our car fleet to 100 percent electric in 10 years to reduce oil imports and be the global test lab for electric refueling, billing systems and smart grid management

Why aren’t we 100 percent renewable now? Well, two reasons. Electricity is too expensive for industrial heating and other processes and we only store a few weeks of water. Wind and solar are great but our unique geographic advantage as a country is our rain and hills. The best battery of all is a lake. Water management allows more investment in plant based proteins, better management of waterways, and more green industry.

If we want this renewable future then as a country we need to have a mature discussion about water storage which must be, and will be, a net positive for the environment. And again this does not cost the Government and its taxpayers money. There is superannuation fund money looking for long term stable infrastructure investment. We just need to have the vision and guts to implement the plan.

Democratic western countries have been operating in a short-term focused economic model, essentially coasting along making only minor incremental tweaks. Recent global politics and now this pandemic force us to ask hard questions about the way we operate.

Positively, New Zealand’s recent crises have been well managed and communicated by our Prime Minister, and have given New Zealanders pride in how we respond and how we lead the world. We are ready to be more ambitious, have a clear vision and lead. We have a chance not to waste this crisis if we think differently, get coordinated, act with urgency and go for it.

Covid-19 has shown us that we can’t take life or our economic system for granted and that we must use the opportunity this crisis presents to go hard and achieve something as a country. These projects are the things I want to work on for the next 10 or more years and I’m putting my hand up for all of them. Let’s go.

Rod Drury is founder and former chief executive of Xero, where he still serves on the board as a non-executive director.

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