Wednesday August 27, 2014
Plato said that Necessity was the mother of invention. If necessity is the mother, then the father is Kiwi ingenuity - that good old fashioned ‘person in a shed, invented something out of nothing, using only their cunning and a bit of wire to solve a problem in a way no one thought possible’. We love it so much, we've given it a name - We call it No. 8 Wire thinking, and 200 or so years of New Zealand’s history has infused our culture with this spirit.
We love it so much, we wrote a book about it – we thought we’d set out to show how NZ was the most inventive and ingenious nation in the world. And we were horrified to find we were wrong. New Zealand is nowhere near the most inventive country in the world, and in fact we are well down the list. And not only is our No8 Wire mentality not helping us catch up, it’s actually part of what’s holding us back.
To start us off - what’s at the heart and the root of our No8 Wire tradition? Distance, isolation and the necessity it creates.Let’s go back about 800 years. When the first Polynesians got to New Zealand – one of the last places on the planet to be settled - the first thing they were of course looking for was food.And the first thing they saw was our only native palm tree, the nikau palm. The name Nikau means ‘No coconuts’. So the name of the palm records the disappointment our first settlers felt when they landed.
The early Maori, settling a new land, after 2.5 thousand miles of paddling, had need. There was necessity. Luckily they had brought with them sweet potato, what we now call the kumara.Unfortunately the kumara would only grow in a small part of NZ, the soil was too cold as they moved further south. They developed a technology where they mixed small stones in with the soil, to soak up the sun’s rays during the day and disperse that heat back out at night, effectively lengthening the day and turning a temperate soil into a tropical soil. This technique, unique in the world, scientists now call ‘Lithic Agronomy’.
So the tyranny of distance creates an opportunity for independence and invention. Early settlers had a frontier mentality, they were a long way from help, often just a long way from the shop.They had to think outside the box, simply because we were thousands and thousands of miles away from the box.
Speaking of thinking outside the box, here’s another great example of how isolation creates new solutions. Robert Ellis of Brightwater near Nelson had necessity in 1910. He was given the task of turning off and on the town’s new streetlamps each morning and evening. Pretty boring task, doing that night after night, so Ellis decided to invent a better way to do it. His idea was simply to use his chickens – he knew that at the end of every day, the chickens come home to roost, and in the morning, when it gets light, they get up and go about their business – so he wired up the switch for the town’s electricity to the stick they roosted on.
We could tell a similar story aboutJohn Hartstone, making the world’s first milk meter out of an old lemonade bottle and some parts from the local plumber and creating company ‘Tru Test’ as a result – propelling NZ to be a world leader in dairy.
Or Bill Gallagher, wiring his car up with an electric current to stop his horse rubbing against it, and inventing the electric fence.Or more recently, young Ayla Hutchins – coming up with a safer way to chop kindling by making the sharp bit stay still and moving the wood instead of the blade.
So distance creates necessity creates a different way of thinking –but there is another major ingredient in our No.8 Wire mentality. We have a rebel spirit, a willingness to challenge the status quo.
William Vernon Hudson, in 1895, fronted up to the Wellington Philosophical Society – the authorities at the time – and said ‘I’ve got a great idea. How about at the beginning of every summer we change the clocks so that it’s lighter in the evening for longer and then all the working class people can get out and enjoy the summer sun!”
They were not receptive, questioning if all of clocks were going to need 2 sets of hands and dismissing his idea.He didn’t give up though, and he started telling his friends and stirring up action, lots of people got interested, and he managed to convince the Wellington Philosophical Society 4 years later that it wasn’t a stupid idea and that daylight savings time could work. He thought differently, and he challenged authority.
Ken Drew and Les Porter challenged the orthodoxy in the 1970s, when they decided to try to domesticate the deer - the first large animal in the world to be domesticated in over 5000 years. Colin Murdoch challenged medical authority when he invented a disposable plastic syringe – the authorities said people wouldn’t want plastic near their bodies – but now his plastic syringes are used in their millions around the world.
NZers independent spirit and lack of respect for the status quo is something that can actually be measured. The ‘Power Distance Ratio’ – the x axis - measures how easily a person accepts authority.The y axis shows how independently a person thinks and acts. I do it my own, I don’t need to work with others. The combination of these two has NZ as an extreme example, compared to other countries, of an individualist nature, with a lack of respect for authority. We get on and do things by ourselves, we don’t hang around waiting to be asked. Bugger the boxing, pour the concrete. Measure once, cut twice.She’ll be right.Good enough is good enough.That’s the no.8 wire spirit right there.
NecessityPlus Thinking Differently – ingenuity - plus Challenging Authority That makes up our Number 8 wire approach.
But there is a problem-It’s not enough anymore. And hasn’t been for years. That approach is good for getting ideas started, but it’s not great for seeing them through, and getting real value from them.
Colin Murdoch may have invented the syringe, but he (and New Zealand) never made any money from the disposables revolution – other people stole his idea. Hudson may have thought up Daylight Savings first, but NZ took way too long to agree how to put it in place. Germany was first - during World War 1. We were about 35th in 1927.
And take number 8 wire itself – more properly known as British Industrial Standard Wire Gauge number 8 – comes from England, always has.Our very metaphor for invention and ingenuity is imported.
Let’s have another example of lost opportunity: In 1884 John Eustace, a tinsmith from Dunedin invented a new way to close tins His invention for the first time made tins airtight and stopped bugs and water getting in. World beating idea. Eustace invented this tin lid and it’s still the best way to close tins like this today. But what happened? Well he did patent the idea, but only in NZ. They got so popular here that he sent off to get some extra ones made in the UK. Pretty soon, as well as his lids arriving in the country, other products using the same design coming in.He hadn’t patented it in England, He was naïve about the ways of the world and he lost out. In fact, we lost out.
But that was the old days, right? Nowadays we’re smarter, and given our inventive nature we probably file more patents than your average country, right?
Ah No.In fact while we celebrate that fact that NZ has a lot of patents, the reality is that in an important area of triadic patents (registered in 3 USA, Europe and Japan) we are very far behind.Denmark has 25 patents per million people per year. NZ hovers around 3.When we miss out on capturing the value of our ideas, the whole country loses.
Time for another invention!Of course you all know about expanded polytetrafluroethelyne – this is the chemical compound now known as Goretex. But it wasn’t always called that, in fact it could have been called Croppertex, because it was a NZ man called John Cropper who first worked out how to manufacture this substance.
Cropper invented a machine that made tape out of it and he started to manufacture this breathable materialBut he kept it a secret. He wasn’t aware you could patent a process for making something – it was a bit naïve. So he created the machine and sent them off and basically said ‘shh, don’t tell anyone how it works’. Unfortunately – and its well understood and accepted – two years LATER, the same process was patented by Robert Gore in the USA, who then sued Cropper and others for patent infringement.
The fight went all the way to the US Supreme court to see who had the right to make what is now known as Goretex. I guess the name tells you who won.And today, the operating revenue of the Gore company is about 3.4 billion dollars – so not only did Mr Cropper miss out, we all did. If Goretex was a NZ company it would be a top export earner.
So this naivety can sometimes really act against us. In rejecting authority, and going it alone, we isolate ourselves from the help and advice that would allow us to protect and value our ideas. Our No.8 Wire mentality is working against us.
Does it really matter though? We believe it does. We believe we are at an inflection point where what was our greatest strength is now becoming a real weakness for us.And it’s hitting us in the pocket. In 1973 NZs GDP per capita was on a par with Denmark, Finland even Australia. Nowadays we are well below all of them. In fact we are 10 to 15 thousand dollars per person per year poorer than those other countries.
Ouch. So what is Denmark doing differently to us that could account for more patents and a higher GDP? To answer that let's take a look at another NZ invention from a Kiwi leader who's managed to adapt the number 8 wire mentality in a new way. This is a crowd showing us a way to REWIRE our No8 Wire mentality.
If you lie awake at night, listening to your partner snoring, there are 2 ways you can deal with it. You can elbow them, and hope they roll over, but a better way is to blow warm moist air up their nose. We’ve all tried it.And that’s what this invention does. The humidifier, looks like its out of the shed - the prototype was made from an old Agee jar, bit of a lid, some holes drilled in it. A real number 8 wire solution. But it didn’t end there, because this device was made by Fisher & Paykel Healthcare. They protected the idea. They refined it, they got really good at it – world leading – and they built up the IP. They are now the world leader in this niche of sleep apnoea prevention products. They can capture the value of their ideas.
The measureable difference about Fisher and Paykel? They invest heavily in Research. 8% of their operating revenue – over fifty million dollars a year in R&D.
8% is about 8 times the NZ average of just over 1% of GDP. That 50m the Fisher & Paykel spends every year would be about 10% of the NZ Manufacturing sector’s total investment in R&D.
And again, does it matter? Well, let’s compare with our nemesisDenmark – similar sort of country – spends three times what we do in R&D. Does that translate itself into real value? It does, Denmark's R&D spend and relative wealth per person has grown in a similar way.Of course there are many factors at work, but the fact remains a very similar country to NZ has very different outcomes and their level of innovation is a big part of why.
We think that part of the reason we don’t spend on research and development is because we don’t think we need to. After all, we’re the No8 Wire country aren’t we?But Fisher and Paykel Healthcare show it can and should be done by marrying together the great inventive Number 8 wire attitude with new Re-wired thinking.
So investment in R&D is the first step in rewiring our national mentality. The second step: Commercialisation – turning deep science into real world solutions.
Who knew New Zealand are world leaders in Superconductors! Normal wires lose 8% of their power in transmission. If we could save that 8% it would be revolutionary - the challenge is how to get those superconductors working at a high enough temperature and in a useful form Scientists Jeff Tallon and Bob Buckley, working with scientists from around the world, came up with a solution, and they are led the world in the hunt for the superconductor holy grail.
Not only did they work out how to make a high temperature superconductor, they worked out how to turn it into a wire – with real commercial applications in medical health, power transmission, motor design and others.
Another step in our re-wiring. Come out the shed, shake off a mistrust of the neighbours and collaborate!
We've all experienced how wireless revolutions transform the world. Wireless communication was first, then wireless data. The next big step is wireless power.Auckland company Power by Proxi have put themselves at the international forefront of wireless power. And they’ve done it by collaborating – with Grant Covic and John Boys at the University of Auckland who developed the IP. With business, financial and commercial partners around the world.
Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Superconductors, Power by Proxi. Deep science, lots of technology, lots of collaboration, working cross border, bringing in capital, smart money, working with others in a smart way, protecting their IP.
We’ve gone from No.8 Wire to the wire of the future, to no wires at all.
Number 8 Wire thinking has served us really well. But it’s not sufficient to take NZ forward. We need to add investment in R&D, Commercialisation of science and genuine collaboration. And if we can do this again and again, we can catch up to the rest of the world.
That’s Number 8, Re-wired.