Trickling down the knowledge wave

Been bowled over by the knowledge wave lately? You know, the one that was making big surf in August? Probably not. But there is a quiet swell.

The hype of the conference co-chaired by Auckland University vice-chancellor John Hood and Prime Minister Helen Clark in August has faded and the slogan has also dropped from public view. But there are some initiatives that directly result from conference recommendations and others to which it added impetus. The slogan has provided a low-level unifying theme.

Science Minister Pete Hodgson says the knowledge wave has “legitimised what we [the government] are doing and accelerated policy development”, though progress has been slowed by distractions like the Air New Zealand collapse and 11 September. Knowledge wave thinking and recommendations are being incorporated in a government strategy to be announced in February for which, Mr Hodgson says “nearly all our policy ducks are now in a row”.

Even less publicly visible are private sector initiatives which were either stimulated or boosted by the conference. A strong theme of the conference was reliance on private initiatives, not government action, and that remains a bias of the Knowledge Wave Trust — studded with high-powered people, including Mr Hodgson — set up in September.

Peter Townshend, Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce director, took the private-sector focus to heart. He called a meeting of 40 chief executives to “leverage off what came out of the knowledge wave conference”, work out “how to develop the good stuff into actions” and apportion responsibility for getting some initiatives moving.

Out of that came a plan to ensure every school has an informal linkage with a business (separate from existing arrangements, such as supplying computers) and a forum for manufacturers, to which 100 turned up, to work out how to create an environment to promote manufacturing and raise individual manufacturers’ capabilities (compliance costs, international marketing and skills shortages were among focuses).

The most high-profile initiative at the conference was $100,000 stumped up by Warehouse chairman Stephen Tindall and expatriate Professor David Teece of the University of California at Berkeley for a database of extpatriate New Zealanders.

That fed into the KEA (Kiwi Expats Assocation) project thought up late last year to tap into the “diaspora” of high-achieving New Zealanders overseas, emulating Irish success with its diaspora.

Run your eye down the “heroes” thumbnailed on the funky website developed by Brian Sweeney and Kevin Roberts and you will see almost all performed their heroic feats overseas. The same goes for a list of “hot” people on the website. The KEA project’s rationale is that, even they stay offshore, they can be drawn on.

A prime mover of KEA, Dr George Barker, a Knowledge Wave Trust member and a director of the Law and Economics Consulting Group which is providing the infrastructure, says the project, which has some government help but is intended eventually to be self-funding, now has a director based in Wellington and is developing “nodes” of expats — the first in Silicon Valley, linked also to Stamford University and Berkeley, with London and New York likely to follow.

Through these nodes companies here will be able to identify and network “high-end” expats they can hire home or link into to for their technical and marketing skills and contacts for sales, alliances or intelligence about new developments.

Another initiative to which the conference gave a boost is Lowe Lintas’s Mike O’Sullivan’s private-sector-sponsored one-minute “Minute of Innovation” slots to run for 40 weeks from March on TV1 weekdays during the 6pm news to, Mr O’Sullivan says, “give us a sense of identity and confidence in ourselves”.

They are modelled on similar series in the Treaty of Waitangi sesquicentennial and at the millennium. They have five themes: “clever science” (of the sort that is developed into profitable products); “bright futures” about learning at all levels; entrepreneurial “knowledge champions”; “enterprising ideas” by which businesses have used research and development to add value; and the ICT (information and communications technology) industry.

Ernst and Young is developing an entrepreneur of the year award and Television New Zealand is planning an educational series for its breakfast programme.

The Knowledge Wave Trust is principally a facilitator, occasional small funder and monitor of others’ projects. But the trust is leading a number of projects recommended at the conference.

One is a social venture capital fund. Trust member Andrew Grant, Auckland chief of consulting firm McKinsey and Co, is developing a pilot for what is intended eventually to be two or three $1 million private sector funds investing in 15-20 non-profit organisations, with returns measured by achievement of agreed goals. With more rigorous assessment that enables funders to judge how effective their contribution has been, promoters hope more private sector funding will be encouraged.

Mr Grant also heads, with Chris Liddell, Carter Holt Harvey chief executive, a working party to establish by end-2001 a “balanced scorecard” of targets in economic growth, establishment of a knowledge society, talent development, social cohesion and environmental health. Progress towards these goals will be monitored.

Among other Knowledge Wave Trust projects:

* a knowledge wave symposium and a knowledge wave week in August 2002;

* a “teaching oscars” project to honour top teachers;

* a broadband project, in conjunction with the Law and Economics Consulting Group.

Private sector participants left the knowledge wave conference confused by mixed government messages before and immediately after the conference — and near-silence since.

In fact, Ms Clark has got her Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) working up a strategy which will form the centrepiece of her annual Prime Minister’s statement in February — thus perhaps filling what many observers see as a void left after the concentration in her first two years in adjusting 1990s policies.

This pulls together four reports nearing completion:

* an innovation strategy developed by the Prime Minister’s Science and Innovation Advisory Council (SIAC);

* a Treasury report on the challenges and opportunities of our small size and distant location, among other things looking at adult literacy and what Mr Hodgson calls the “interconnectedness of scientists and industry” and focusing on specialisation as a vehicle for economic transformation — in her speech to APEC on 19 October Ms Clark prioritised biotechnology, information and communications technology, creative industries and environmental technologies;

* A report, known as the LEK report, on developing and attracting talent, which ties into the KEA project; this includes (over initial Immigration Department objections) a “talent visa” to enable employers to fast-track extended work permits for high-talent foreigners;

* A Boston Consulting Group report on attracting and facilitating foreign direct investment — though ministers are wary of simply aping Ireland’s strategy and want foreign investors locked into the economy here.

These four reports will be meshed with strategies being developed in other portfolio areas and partly by Industry New Zealand, most notably on e-commerce, incubators and early venture capital and in tertiary education, on which the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission’s final report, on funding, will be released on Wednesday.