There’s a surge of interest in NZ’s future, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Rod Oram looks at new initiatives that could change the course of the country. 

“The leading talent hubs of the past 25 years have mostly been dense, well-connected global cities with excellent restaurants and cultural offerings. That model is over for now.

“The new demand is for a safe haven from Covid-19. The ideal for many westerners would be an English-speaking democracy with a developed economy, lots of space and nice weather, though not so hot that it catches fire in summer.

“Bring on New Zealand. The country’s isolation has suddenly gone from historic disadvantage to unique selling point.”

                      Simon Kuper, Financial Times, April 30.

As it happens, such ideas are on the minds of quite a few Kiwis. There’s a surge of interest in our future, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Lots of excellent proposals are emerging. First, we need to evaluate, choose and knit the best into a broad strategy which offers wide appeal and support across society. Then, if we deliver real outcomes to match, we can change the course of the country.

Here are five initiatives under way. If I missed yours, please tell me know at

The Aotearoa Circle’s Fenwick Forum: The circle is a group of private and public sector leaders committed to putting our natural capital at the heart of our economy and society. After all, we have the largest endowment of natural capital per person in the world, after oil and gas producers, according to the World Bank.

The Forum is named after one of the Circle’s co-founders, Rob Fenwick, the environmental and business leader who died in March. It is seeking proposals and strategies that will ensure a focus on our natural capital to enhance our recovery and rebuild. A series of discussions are under way, and proposals will be announced soon.

To help the discussions, Sir Jonathon Porritt, the British environmentalist and co-founder of the forum, wrote a paper reviewing the Covid recovery funding of 16 countries.

“By far the biggest disappointment in this research relates to the near-total lack of any government leadership on biodiversity, on ecosystem protection and restoration, or on the underpinning value of natural capital for any economy’s prospective recovery,” he wrote.

Yet conversely, there is a “strikingly clear and unambiguous signal from business to government of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for a recovery distinguished by strong action to tackle the climate crisis and deep unsustainability. This message is evident in a number of countries and among many multinational companies, he said in an interview ahead of the Forum.

Better Futures Forum: It is focusing on five key areas where the environment, people and economy intersect, interrelate and overlap. “Therefore, joined-up thinking that integrates mātauranga Māori and Te Tiriti will be critical to how we engage with these key areas,” say its six-member core group, which includes Mike Joy, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University.

VisionWeek: This initiative has offered an extensive programme of presentations and discussions this past week. It invites people to sign up to join in the ongoing forum and to access the recorded presentations.

“Imagine if our five million Kiwis set a vision for our future that ensures NZ’s long-term sustainability, productivity, resilience and high-quality outcomes for all people, communities and the environment,” it says by way of encouragement.

Its backers include organisations such as the NZ Infrastructure Commission, InternetNZ, the Sustainable Business Council, Infrastructure NZ, the Ministry for the Environment and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority.

A new New Zealand: This is an online platform led by Roger Dennis, a Kiwi with a long track record of helping companies here and abroad respond strategically to the great global shifts in technology, societies and economies. The site focuses on four broad areas: agriculture and the primary sector; technology; tourism; and the business environment.

The 2020 Vision Project: This is led by Cole Armstrong and Mark Finnegan, who advise companies on consumer behaviour, marketing and related subjects. The site offers, for example, a report on Ten Lessons From Lockdown.

Commission for a Post-Covid Future: Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University has launched a Commission for a Post-Covid Future. Its goal is “to provide contestable policy advice to the New Zealand government on options for our foreign, trade and economic policy, which aim to help New Zealand recover from the economic and political damage of the pandemic.” It grew out of her work on the international research project Small States and the New Security Environment.

Many useful insights and ambitions will come out of these and other initiatives. However, it will be very challenging to make them the start of a process that leads to a vision and strategy for New Zealand. That’s why so few countries have done so. The best they can do is to articulate some things about themselves and devise some specific strategies on, for example, trade policy, R&D, sectors and the like.

A Singapore model?

Singapore is one of the few examples of a country that thinks, plans and delivers a holistic approach. Even then, its central themes sound very generic. In its 2017 version, these were: deepen and diversify our international connections; acquire and utilise deep skills; strengthen enterprise capabilities to innovate and scale up; build strong digital capabilities; develop a vibrant and connected city of opportunity; develop and implement Industry Transformation Maps; and partner each other to enable innovation and growth.

The full 143-page report from the Committee on the Future Economy makes for more interesting reading. But it is hardly the sort of stuff that draws people cheerfully and purposefully to work each day.

Nor should we expect our government to take up the task here. Whichever party leads will disqualify itself on two grounds: it will be far too focused on the short electoral cycle and its efforts to win the next election, and its own worldview will narrow the discussion, lower ambitions and deter constructive consensus.

However, it is essential that we achieve agreement on some big, long-term goals and on some pathways to achieve them. Then government, regardless of the party leading it, might be emboldened to deliver. If it doesn’t, we can vote in a new government.

Four ways to help ourselves

Broadly speaking, we can help ourselves in four ways.

First, the businesses, associations, NGOs, and other organisations promoting future-focused initiatives such as the ones described above should apply the insights to their own sectors. It would be fascinating, for example, to hear from Infrastructure New Zealand how it will respond to radical changes in the climate, the natural environment, people’s desires, and economics and technology over the next, say, 20 years. Or from the University of Canterbury academics about 21st century education.

Second, there are some excellent collaborative platforms and organisations that can help in these discussions. No surprise, two of the best are led by younger people who have a long and deeply uncertain life ahead of them: Generation Zero and ActionStation Aotearoa.

A futures commission?

Third, the Government could establish a permanent Futures Commission to help build understanding of long-term issues and our response to them. This was suggested last year in the second report on reform of our environmental legislation by a working group consisting of the Environmental Defence Society, the Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern), Property Council New Zealand and Infrastructure New Zealand.

Fourth, the government could establish a citizen’s assembly to evaluate, choose and report on the wealth of insights being generated about the future of Aotearoa New Zealand. Such assemblies are populated by a true cross-section of the public, using the sortition process to select members.

The Irish used such a body for its 2012-14 Constitutional Convention, which led to strong support in a referendum for a change to same-sex marriages. And the UK has just concluded a Climate Assembly consisting of 110 members recruited this way. The assembly will deliver to Parliament in July its recommendations on the country’s journey to net zero emissions by 2050.

So, let’s use these ways to begin turning bright ideas into bold action before we default to business as usual.

Declaration of interest: I’m involved in the initiatives of the Aotearoa Circle and A new New Zealand.

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