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NZTech: Labour win good for tech

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 20 October 2020, 8:51 am

It didn't release anything new in the way of tech sector policy in the lead up to the election, but industry body Tech NZ has welcomed Labour's return all the same.

"Their economic growth policy takes a leaf out of the Singapore playbook, with a focus on industry transformation," NZTech chief executive Graeme Muller wrote in an update to members yesterday.

"Labour's return to Government is good news for tech."

While Labour was criticised for a general dearth of significant new policy announcements during its campaign for re-election, Muller points out that economic development minister Phil Twyford in July refocused the Government's industry policy to prioritise a handful of sectors, including digital tech, as a response to Covid-19.

Twyford signalled a focus on "a narrower set of sectors (digital tech, advanced manufacturing and parts of food and fibre) that are well-positioned for and will benefit from a high-intensity and high-investment approach where we consider a sector could become a highly productive and internationally competitive cluster of businesses."  

"Helping these sectors transform will be key priorities for the Economic Development portfolio," he added

Who will lead tech?

With a cabinet reshuffle likely before the end of the year, Twyford's role as economic development minister is up in the air, as is that of Kris Faafoi, who with responsibility for government digital services and broadcasting, communications and digital media is the closest thing we have to the type of technology minister the National Party was proposing to install.

But whoever has influence over the tech sector - and Dr Megan Woods with responsibility for research, science and innovation has her hands on important funding and policy levers too, it seems unlikely there will be any major surprises for the tech sector one way or other as the new Government gets down to work.

In June, as we huddled in lockdown, I compared and contrasted the approaches of New Zealand and Singapore when it came to leveraging tech to meet the challenges thrown up by Covid-19. Singapore was doing more and spending more then.

While Twyford's updated plan to boost the role of digital technologies is to be welcomed by all, it is vague as to what that might involve.

"Our digital sector is strongly internationally oriented and is already providing strong productive growth, high-wage employment and the emergence of large firms," Twyford noted in July.

"Though we have enjoyed success in this area, there are more opportunities to develop and scale-up export-focused businesses."

Indeed there are. How we best go about that in the context of the pandemic is still to be articulated. The one concrete area of tech-related work and budget allocation touched on in the paper is for building capacity to use Industry 4.0 technologies with a view to boosting productivity in high-value manufacturing.  That received a "fiscally neutral swap from capital to operating funding of $600,000".

The key area of development outlined by Twyford that has implications for the tech sector is Digital Technology Industry Transformation Plan (ITP), which has given us the best shot at developing some strategic thinking for the future of the tech sector. IT Professionals is taking the lead on the Skills workstream of that plan.

Transformation plan

Other ITPs have been kicked off for priority sectors, including food and fibres, advanced manufacturing and transport and logistics.

"Development is well underway with collaborative workstreams digging into changes in the education pathways to accelerate the development of local skills, changes in Government procurement approaches to stimulate the local tech sector, a deep dive into tech export successes and the development and activation of a strong tech story for New Zealand," Muller wrote yesterday.

"There is also work being done on the development of a national AI strategy and data-driven innovation. Work on the advanced manufacturing ITP has also started and this should be beneficial to the high-tech manufacturing and biotechnology parts of the tech sector," he added.

So there is plenty going on, even if there's precious little resource earmarked for investment in the sector at this point. 

As Tech Blog editor Paul Brislen pointed out yesterday, "left to our own devices, the tech sector is growing at about 10% year on year. Imagine what it could do with a bit more support from the policymakers?"

That support, in the form of policy and investment, will certainly need to come further down the line to realise the ambitions of a plan for transformation.



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