I’m a guinea pig at your service – profoundly uncomfortable and enlightened

After writing my last blog on the NZ Association of Scientists I felt acutely aware of the barriers to collaboration – stereotypes, culture, language and values. Even though everyone was talking about collaboration, I got the sense that people are looking in different directions, focusing on different things and talking past each other. I could feel my own language, behaviour and even values shifting as I moved between cultures: from science to community; community to business; from business to green; and green to creative industries. I wondered how it might be possible to reconcile these different viewpoints, to overcome traditional suspicion between sectors and to find that sweet spot where we can all meet and develop solutions?

To shed some light on those questions I’ve been using myself as a guinea pig. This is my theory: To find the sweet spot between cultures I’ll first have to understand them really well – and not just in an intellectual way – I’ll need to know what it feels like to be immersed, to belong in that culture – I’ll have to put aside my own opinions and beliefs for a bit and let myself be ‘converted’. I’ll need to sit with the different viewpoints long enough for them to find a way to relate to each other inside me.

That’s what I’ve been doing over the last month. My work time has been divided between meetings, conferences, writing, workshops and interviews. I found myself in a constant state of adaptation –continually interchanging hats –swapping high heels for jandals, recording equipment for a wine glass, chirpy-cheekiness for professional demeanour and watching my language morph to suit the environment – one minute technical jargon and the next idealistic and philosophical.

The month began with a trip to Waiheke Island to meet James Samuel who, amongst many inspiring pursuits, is responsible for kick starting Transition Towns in New Zealand. We spoke about resilience, community capacity, collectives and social enterprise –inspiring in me all sorts of possibilities for science funding, idea and resource sourcing and collective research. A couple of days later I interviewed my uncle Digby Crompton who has just written a book on a tax model that he believes would encourage more enterprise, ingenuity and fairness. Next I got the flu and spent several days contemplating the pohutukawa tree outside of my bedroom window. My recovery time was cut short by a trip to Christchurch to meet electrical engineer and social innovator Susan Krumdieck. I attended the Signs of Change conference (which Susan organised) –A national e-conference “showcasing transition to sustainability” and interviewed several speakers for a film being made about the conference. From there, I took my nasally congested self across town to a High Tech Manufacturing networking event organised by UCONZ (University Commercialisation Offices) and BusinessNZ. I tried on a jet pack and flew around a simulated city; talked to researchers, business owners, and commercialisation experts about open source, industrial design, robotics and advanced materials. I left feeling charged with excitement – excited by the discovery that key people in major universities are starting to think that knowledge sharing and open source could be the way forward for New Zealand – that it’s not just a happy hippy dream but the logical and smart way for a small country to operate. This sense of optimism grew further when I attended the annual symposium for the MacDiarmid Institute a couple of days later. Principal investigators from all around the country brainstormed how they could combine their skills and resources to create four major collaborative projects. Last but not least, my tour of cultures concluded with the opening of “TakingStock” by artist Eve Armstrong, a stunning display of plastic waste that reflects the absurdity of consumer culture.

That’s what I’ve been doing over the last month and its been a profoundly uncomfortable and enlightening experience – feeling my internal frame of reference constantly rebuilding itself to reconcile different ideas and viewpoints. My body decided it was all a bit much and got the flu. But things are beginning to come clear. Man have I got some awesome ideas to share! I’m really looking forward to diving into some of the specifics and cross-pollinating between the cultures and sectors that I have infiltrated. I am Elizabeth Connor: Science writer, art appreciator, amateur economics enthusiast, tree hugger and guinea pig.

New Zealand Incorporated! Collaboration and Innovation

It was the explosion of possibilities that caused my brain to explode after the NZ Association of Scientists annual conference a couple of weeks ago! Almost every speaker called for more collaboration between organisations. After almost twenty years of fierce competition for contestable funding, our research organisations have finally realised they need to work together! They just weren’t sure how to do it…

The theme of the day was “Re-setting Science and Innovation for the next 20 years”

Despite a huge diversity of speakers every scientist, politician, businessman and civil servant agreed that New Zealand needs to focus on science and innovation in order to create a prosperous, healthy, sustainable future. And they need to do so co-operatively.

Wayne Mapp, the Minister of Research, Science and Technology spoke about “a new era and attitude” symbolised by the new ‘Ministry for Science and Innovation’.

“Science is not just about the laboratory,” he insisted, “It’s about connecting the whole, connecting the research facilities,  connecting the universities, the polytechnics and businesses so that there is a seamlessness in growth, building prosperity.”

Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Science Adviser, shifted our attention to the “perfect storm” brewing globally – population growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation, food security, water, demographic change.

“We can’t put our head in the sand,” he urged. “New Zealand is part of this world.”

Science, he suggested, could become a new cultural heart of the country if it comes out of its “traditional silos’ to meet these challenges. “Radically new forms of relationship between science, business, government and society will be needed both on a global and national scale.”

“Science could do for New Zealand what Ed Hillary did fifty years ago,” he said. “…Science brings with it a spirit of adventure, of enquiry, innovation, looking ahead. It can be infective and  that’s exactly what we want! Because these are the very attributes that this country needs to succeed.”

Garth Carnaby, the President of the Royal Society of New Zealand, called for a new “service mindset” within the science community and urged scientists to get out and talk to industry.

Jacqueline Rowarth, Director of Agriculture at Massey University, proposed a radical shift towards free exchange between all R&D (Research and Development) organisations in New Zealand.

“We are only 4 million people compared to 7.2 billion overseas. I think we should be NZ incorporated. Everything in New Zealand should be freely exchanged and supported by the government.  We need to swing people in behind each other and align the R&D companies. Then you’ll get the bees pollinating like mad!”

Shaun Hendy, Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, showed compelling data to support the idea of exchange. New Zealand needs to act like a city of 4 million people,, he suggested to achieve the critical mass for world-class science and innovation.

Bob Frame from Landcare Research called for ways of engaging new sectors and  generations to develop solutions to the “wicked problems” of climate change and environmental degradation.

His colleague Garth Harmsworth spoke about the growing Maori population and the challenges of inspiring young people and incorporating Maori values and knowledge into the innovation system.

At the end of the conference the big question of “how?” hung in the air.

While every speaker called for more collaboration everyone of them was gnawing at the bit for solutions. How how how?

How do we build connections and collaborations and overcome the traditional suspicion between sectors?

How do we inspire more young people to pursue careers in science?

How can we share knowledge and infrastructure? How do we meet the needs of all sectors and communities? How can New Zealand become a landmark for success with science as a cornerstone of our society?

Something struck me. While I was thrilled by the fact that so many people, with different political alignments and motivations were agreeing on a principle that I hold to strongly – cooperation and collaboration – I became aware that, out of a hundred or so people, I was almost the only Generation Y present! It struck me that the answer to the how, could be exactly that – Generation Y - the tech-savvy, team oriented, socially aware, highly networked, aspiring New Zealanders.

I was also struck by the fact that the language and culture of the conference itself – men in suits, 245 dollar registration fee, formal setting – would have been isolating for young audiences.

Imagine if we could get past the barriers of stereotypes, culture and language; if we could combine the wisdom and experience of the older generation with the technological and networking skills of Generation Y. Their knowledge and our inspiration.

All the elements for success are already here. But, in the words of Bob Frame “a sweet spot” is needed – “A sweet spot where people can get together and develop solutions”.  

This is my mission. I want to connect the dots; inspire trust; help the sharing of culture and vision; give voice to possibilites; catalyse connections. But again comes the how? And what an exciting question to explore. I don’t have the answers yet, but with every person I meet the way becomes clearer. Maybe I can find that sweet spot between the people and sectors.

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