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Mark Thomas: Our nation needs to be smarter – not luckier

by July 18, 2017 General

• Mark Thomas was an Auckland mayoral candidate last year. He is now based in Singapore leading a smart cities enterprise.

John Clarke wrote the iconic Kiwi anthem, We don’t know how lucky we are, in 1975, 10 years after the Australian seminal work The Lucky Country was published.

Ironically NBC Sport titled their America’s Cup preview last month, “Hard Luck Loser Kiwis Back For Another Shot”.

Happily Team NZ turned that luck around not by waiting for chance but by a world-beating combination of effort and smarts. New Zealand Inc needs to do more of the same.


We Kiwis think we’re hard workers but an OECD study in 2016 had us just below average in terms of hours worked per week. Maybe we’re working smarter? In the Pisa international education standard rankings last year, New Zealand was 12th in science and 23rd in maths. Australia was 14th and 19th but Singapore was 1st or 2nd. On the international innovation index, New Zealand is 26th, Australia 22nd and Singapore? 1st. So, we’re good – but not quite making our own luck.

We have been world beaters in exploits as diverse as rugby, atom splitting, movie making and of course sailing. And we’re one of the most desirable countries in the world to live in or visit. We are 7th in the OECD’s better life survey and 5th out of 195 countries in the good country index.

But on other measures, we’re much less successful. Our income equality is 54th in the world, our imprisonment rate is 68th and our best university is 82nd.

At the heart of it is the quality of our economy. We were 9th in the OECD in GDP per capita in 1970 but have declined almost every year since then and are 31st in the world. Australia is 17th. Singapore is 5th.

Since independence in 1965, Singapore’s population has almost tripled (from 1.9m to 5.7m) but their economy has increased 300 times. Over the same period, New Zealand’s population hasn’t yet doubled and our economy is only 30 times bigger. Australia has doubled its population and its economy is 50 times bigger.

GDP is not considered a key liveability factor in a number of the global surveys. The Mercer survey, most often quoted to measure Auckland’s high status, excludes it. This is a mistake and something the centre for liveable cities in Singapore has highlighted, because a higher GDP gives countries more options to deal with issues such as income inequality, imprisonment and universities never mind transport and housing.

Compared to countries such as Singapore and the more than a dozen others who have climbed above us in GDP terms, New Zealand has by its actions placed less priority on our growth. In doing so, we have reduced our capacity to address some of the toughest liveability issues.

Are we happy to continue to count our luck, or do we want to count more growth? Are we prepared to trade “liveability” to be actually more liveable?

That doesn’t mean adopting a political environment like Singapore or indeed even Australia. The Kiwi response is to follow the Team NZ maxim and chart our own course by combining a better mix of effort and smarts, and by more clearly prioritising growth.

Key to that is having a more global looking national disposition. This means embracing greater foreign investment, boosting skilled migration, innovating our education capabilities and fast-tracking new technology. Based as I am in the heart of Southeast Asia, New Zealand seems a million miles away, rather than just 5300. Everyone has heard of New Zealand, but surprisingly few Singaporeans have visited. A big opportunity is brewing. Singapore will develop an enhanced economic partnership with New Zealand over the coming year.

Our nation and our cities need to be much smarter and Singapore needs more Kiwi-type ingenuity. We have something to give, but we have things to learn. This should be a model for other economies.

Although Team NZ is portrayed by some as a loner, it is clear with its funding, R&D and even skippering, they have engaged effectively around the world. New Zealand has the opportunity to make more of our own luck, and so develop a clearer idea of exactly how lucky we really are.