This word has been thrown around a lot lately. In a recent guest lecture at the University of Waikato, I spoke about innovation being a mix of creativity, serendipity and courage. New Zealand is uniquely qualified for all three of these attributes so it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that our little country ranks 15th on the 2015 Global Innovation Index.

Our number 8 wire DNA means we tend to look at seemingly complex problems and find simple and creative solutions. Our lowered sense of class hierarchy means we strike up serendipitous conversations with people regardless of rank or station.

The last attribute in this mix is courage.

“Courage to take a leap of faith while believing our idea, our solution has true value.”

Courage to enter a market when we may have very little commercial experience, connections or know-how.

The New Zealand Government has worked hard to foster an ‘innovation’ environment. Over the last 5 years start-up incubators have popped up and millions of dollars have been made available for Kiwis as ‘innovation grants’. Considering the tech sector’s GDP contribution has now surpassed NZ dairy and tourism, it seems like a winning ticket.

Contribution to GDP of the New Zealand tech sector, compared to dairy and tourism

However, this tech boom and the money being thrown at it has a lining of caution. Caution that innovation is part of the journey, not the destination. That, at the front end there needs to be adequate education; at the back end is investment accountability.

A few months ago, I attended the New Zealand Future of Work Commission conference and was subsequently invited to participate in their leadership workshop. As one of ~12 national thought-leaders in the tech space (and one of only 2 women), we discussed and debated with policy-makers how we could get our country’s future back on track by addressing digital equality and education reform. During this workshop I stressed that throwing tablets into classrooms doesn’t mean we are creating value. Technology itself should be invisible – it should be about the educational value the students create with it.

“Technology is a tool, not a final product.”

More locally, I was asked to attend a Hamilton ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Forum by industry leaders. The group was experiencing an enormous skill gap with ICT graduates and an acute shortage of experienced ICT professionals to enable growth. As such, a common theme between this group and the NZ Future of Work Commission emerged. It outlined a stark disconnect between how we are currently educating our youth and what the tech industry actually needs. Since technology rides an exponential curve, by the time you’ve finished reading this article, the disconnect has worsened.

To further validate industry’s cry for reform, let’s take a look at the most recent NZ census report showing the mean personal income in the New Zealand tech sector by qualification:

Mean personal income in the New Zealand tech sector by qualification

Based on this data, there is no financial gain in entering the tech sector with anything greater than a Level 5 and 6 Diploma. In fact, you are financially disadvantaged when entering ICT after tertiary study. If our tertiary ICT education system was actually of value to the tech industry, why aren’t the more qualified people being paid more? Why are they being paid less?

“This should be simple arithmetic, but it isn’t.”

As New Zealanders, we are born with innovation running through our veins. Why can’t more ‘innovation grants’ be directed into re-writing our secondary and tertiary technology education systems? Why can’t ‘innovative’ be a term used to describe our curriculum?

For example, what if secondary and tertiary school students were guided by their teachers to design their own online learning programmes based on key knowledge requirements for a technology subject? This would shift the students into active learning (e.g. LdL) which has shown to increase knowledge gain to 50% compared to 12% by students in traditional, lecture-based classes. The teachers can, in-turn, learn from the very digital natives they are trying to teach.

The online learning programmes the students create could be presented to the open NZ education market through a forum like Pond, initially for comparison alongside the traditional curriculum. As rated feedback is received and positive outcomes are verified through higher test scores, the government could take the most successful programmes, reward the winning groups with innovation grants and approve those programmes as the baseline educational tool for that technology subject. As the tech industry needs change, the key knowledge requirements change and are again submitted to the open NZ market. The previously-designed online programmes are cross-examined against the new requirements and adapted by the students again, if needed. The cycle then continues with the winning programmes receiving innovation grants and a new curriculum baseline being adopted.

A second iteration of this would be co-creation funds being made available for the tech industry AND schools to apply for as partners, to design better technology education programmes together.

Not only does this concept teach the younger generation coding and learning design, but it solves the problem of the industry:curriculum disconnect for the whole country.

The fact that students also gain valuable entrepreneurial skills would help create a better start-up ecosystem in New Zealand.

I look forward to the day the media can re-frame our country’s success not by an All Blacks win, but by the wins we are achieving in technology education and innovation. Until then, I will continue to champion a stronger NZ tech economy through smarter strategy and lobby for education reform in technology.

For more data about the tech sector, check out my board on Figure.NZ. Or read more thoughts on a healthy NZ tech future.

If you want to support my voice in lobbying for education reform in technology, get in touch.


Rachel Kelly is a University of Waikato Alumni, who graduated with a Master of Science (First Class Honours) in 2005. In 2006, she moved to California to work for a global biotechnology company where she managed and grew multi-million-dollar business units within the USA, South East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, and Africa. Rachel returned from California in 2014, launching a successful sales and marketing consultancy called SparkTank Ltd.

Over the last 17 months, Rachel has worked within the technology commercialization space through KiwiNet, offered advisory to various tech start-ups and SMEs including Clevercare, FlipIt, Climsystems and Aeronavics, and designed sales enablement solutions for such companies as 2degrees Mobile, Trustpower and Pinnacle Midlands Health Network.

She is often invited to guest lecture on creativity, innovation, and commercialization; to guide government policy on modernized education and digital equality; to judge MBA Dragon’s Den and local business competitions; and to mentor business events such as the Lion Foundation Young Enterprise Scheme (YES) and Innes48.

Rachel currently holds governance roles with Rotary International, NZ Technology Industry Association, Newstead Residents Association, and a new technology initiative (currently unannounced) in Hamilton. As a member of the Institute of Directors, she is committed to governance excellence and authentic leadership.

Rachel, her husband and two young children have chosen to settle down in Hamilton, and hope to make a big impact within the local and national technology sector moving forward.

You can find Rachel’s articles on local and national technology strategies on her LinkedIn page.

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