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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 20 April 2018, 1:54 pm

Developing news: R&D gets a break

New Zealand's research and development spend is woeful.

Roughly half of the OECD average, we trail dismally behind almost every major country with whom we compare ourselves.

Never mind the leadership of places like Israel which spends around 4% of its GDP on R&D, we don't even make the middle of the pack and it's long been a bone of contention that New Zealand companies don't see the benefit of spending to develop new products and markets.

If we break down the spend we do have into public and private it's relatively easy to see where the problem lies. The public spend is on par with the rest of the world. On our behalf, the government invests a huge amount of money in R&D and choses carefully (some would say laboriously) where to spend the cash.

I've heard of companies that won't bother applying for grants because the process is so onerous that only those with serious capital can fund such a move, making the whole thing worthless in the long run.

But at least we're spending and well done on previous governments for increasing that side of the ledger.

No, where we really fall down is on the private side. New Zealand companies invest less than 1% of GDP in research and development and that's abysmal.

We're supposed to be a nation of innovators, of entrepreneurs, of Number Eight Fencing Wire maniacs who are keen to suck it and see and to try new things.

But apparently we won't spend money on it.

Part of the reason for that is it's much better to spend your money on buying up an old house and doing the bare minimum to make it into a rental property. Tax incentives and other issues being what they are, the market for providing rental accommodation is  growing fast and when you have a small pool of capital as we do here in New Zealand that comes at the expense of other opportunities.

So it's great to see the government step in and put down a tax credit for those who conduct R&D. The 12.5% will surely help encourage some to get into the game and others to step up their efforts because there's no way we're going to grow the economy or survive the demise of the primary sector if we carry on as we have been.

NBR - Businesses asked to comment on 12.5% R&D tax credits

Newsroom - Govt wants tax incentive to boost woeful R&D spend

Interest - New tax regime for R&D

BusinessDesk - NZ government proposes 12.5% R&D tax incentive


Open Government.jpg


Whither the CTO?

How to write about the government's CTO role? A mirth-filled one-act play? A mocking open letter to the minister? A whitepaper outlining the reasons why we need one (or perhaps the reasons why we don't)? Perhaps an interpretive dance.

I'm undecided, but ironically deadline's wait for no man (whoosh) and while we wait for the next phase of the process, whatever that might be, it's time we had a chat about the CTO role.

As you'll remember, this was mooted as a really useful way of focusing all of government onto the single issue of digital disruption and how best to navigate those uncertain waters. Who better than a digital person to show us the dangers, the opportunities and the benefits of the new digital age?

Many people (this writer included) put up their hands. Many people put down their hands and walked away. A short list was drawn up and interviews undertaken. A deadline whooshed past and the D5 summit was held without our new cyber-czar.

It's now late April and we're no closer. The advisory panel that is going to help advise the CTO is still only half populated and until they chose the rest of the panel, the panel won't help chose a CTO and so we struggle on. Rudderless, as it were.

I think the role is possibly in need of a quick rescoping. The cabinet paper that creates the role shows the CTO has no power, no authority and no ability to make change. All the CTO can do is produce a wish list strategy and then hope that things happen appropriately.

Given the types of people who applied and the type of person required to do the job appear to not be overlapping groups, perhaps we shouldn't be looking for a digital leader or a coder or an engineer at all. Perhaps the role isn't actually one for a CTO but is in fact a futurist role.

We need someone who can say "farming is about to be totally devastated by artificial food. Here's the proof and here's the opportunity." We need someone who can go to Estonia and report back on how they manage online elections. We need someone who can harness the disparate groups within New Zealand tech circles and at least point them all in the right direction. We need someone who can talk to government departments about the dangers of doing what they're doing and the opportunity.

Given there is no authority to make anything actually happen, calling the role CTO might be a step too far. This role is about the future and where New Zealand could go. We need a navigator and a champion, rather than an organizer.

NBR - Search for govt CTO 'a right mess' Hudson says


Arise NZRise

Meanwhile, New Zealand tech organisation NZRise has been producing a list of what it sees as critical steps for the government to take in terms of growing the digital components of our economy and society.

Many of the action points focus on government as spending agency. The New Zealand Government is the largest buyer of ICT services in the land and yet tends to spend its money offshore. The big institutional players (IBM, Accenture and so on) get the lion's share of the contracts and NZRise suggests this is bad from two obvious points of view: New Zealand developers miss out on a large contract and the government ends up with a product that doesn't always do quite what it says on the tin.

I have some sympathy with them on this. Having spent tens of thousands of dollars on large-scale systems that turned out to be horribly overblown once they were in place (and then replacing them with hundreds of dollars' worth of cloud services) because of a smooth sales pitch, I'm familiar with the problem. Buying New Zealand made product not only gives local business a growth opportunity it gives the buyer a local body to grab by the shoulders and shake when things go wrong (cough cough Novopay cough).

It's also vitally important we look across all of government to make sure our biggest keeper of personal information and data about New Zealand is doing a robust job of ensuring that data is available for generations to come and won't just disappear with one closed-system upgrade. This has become apparent to me as I've aged disgracefully and my memory has stopped working for many things. I vaguely recall writing something but can't find it online because Computerworld's archive doesn't run back that far (remember everyone: Lotus Notes spelt backwards is SETON) and I am reliably told that NBR once decided the internet was for fools and managed to repurpose the server on which was stored 20-odd years' worth of business reporting, without backing it up first.

That's bad for people like me - narcissists with bad memories - but if it was a government department that would be unacceptable. Yet I wonder at all the PDFs and assorted documents I've seen over the years and wonder just how long they'll remain accessible.

These are issues that should be embedded in our buying decisions and while we are sans-CTO it's up to the operational teams to ensure we create contracts and buy tech services with more than just our own present-day needs in mind.

Techblog - Government aim for ICT to be our second-largest contributor to GDP by 2025 - NZRise recommendation

Techblog - Government commitment to "Open" - NZRise recommendation


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