Innovation has become a bit of a cliché. The word has graced the spine of one-too-many books in the business section. As someone who researches and writes about innovation I find this painful to say but, if I’m honest, there was a whiff of the naughties about it in 2012 when Paul Callaghan and I wrote Get Off the Grass. Today we disrupt, we reimagine, or sometimes we rekindle.

So this week we’ve partnered with Figure.NZ to take another look – we want to reframe New Zealand’s conversation about innovation. This is not so say that innovation is no longer important in New Zealand. New Zealand’s research and development spending – one of the traditional proxies for innovation – has grown significantly over the last decade, especially in the business sector.

shimg1Yet we still lag behind many other countries in our spending on research and development, as you’ll see below. As a proportion of GDP we invest about half that of Australia and Singapore, a third of what Denmark and Finland do, and one quarter of what Israel does. This was essentially the story I told in Get Off the Grass, that we simply need to invest more in research and development, more in knowledge, if we wanted our economy to match those of other small advanced countries.


I’ve had many conversations about this since, and while many people agree, others find this statistic misleading. Some people tell me that we are more innovative than proxies like this suggest; that I’m just not looking in the right places. So our goal this week is to take a broader perspective. We want to look for innovation in unusual places.

In this broader sense, innovation is the creation and realisation of ideas that make people’s lives better. In some circumstances, this might be facilitated by businesses competing in markets to deliver better products or services. But at other times it will be about organisations in the voluntary sector challenging themselves to find ways to deliver better social services – or a not-for-profit finding new ways to encourage public discourse.

Indeed, there will be a second experiment underway this week. This week we are putting Figure.NZ’s platform for public display of data through its paces. Both the figures I’ve used above are built form data held by Figure.NZ. As the conversation develops you can follow the data our bloggers are using through their shared lists: my data board is here. I am really looking forward to seeing whether we can use these to enrich the types of conversations that are possible on social media using Figure.NZ’s portal to our data.


Professor Shaun Hendy is the Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini. Shaun teaches in both the Department of Physics and the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland, and has a range of interests, including materials science, innovation, science communication, and the use of evidence in public policy.

In 2012 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and in 2013 he was awarded the E. O. Tuck medal for research in applied mathematics. Shaun tweets (@hendysh), blogs, and has a regular slot on Radio New Zealand Nights as physics correspondent.

In 2012, Shaun was awarded the Callaghan Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize for his work as a science communicator. His first book, Get Off the Grass, co-authored with the late Sir Paul Callaghan, was published in 2013.

View Shaun’s Figure.NZ data board.

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