A case and a space for diversity and connectivity – 

reframing innovation in New Zealand

read time / 25 mins

Thinking about how we might reframe innovation in the New Zealand context, and using data available from Figure.NZ  to do so, has given me pause to consider some often overlooked and what I believe are pivotal components to creating a brighter future – diversity (in this piece, focussing only on gender), leadership & interdisciplinarity. I have used Figure.NZ data to help shape my thoughts. 

You’re captain on a ship being pursued by a flotilla of pirate ships wanting your goods and probably your ship. You’re seemingly cornered, being forced forwards by the chase around you directly to an intimidating barrier of jagged rocks – from which it seems clear there is no escape. It looks like you, your crew, your goods and your seafaring home are doomed. What do you do?

In the latest ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ movie, Alice, captaining the ship, looks at a seemingly impossible situation and then in Alice fashion, together with her crew, achieves the impossible before breakfast.

Nimble with her thoughts and open to opportunities, challenges, and indeed cognisant of the dangers ahead of her, she sees a way through the rocks to freedom and safety and a brighter future. Innovatively, she leads her team, whom she trusts and is reliant upon for the plan to work, to act swiftly together to push the ship to its limits at full sail, lifting the keel up to allow clearance from the rocks. Then quickly, she cuts the sail, to right the ship at the last moment, allowing the tall ship to shoot through a narrow gap.

It’s a big, bold, swiftly enacted, audacious plan and it works. The pirate ships, with men cocky with confidence of a catch, get grounded on the rocks, whilst Alice’s ship sails through. Bold leadership and innovation leads to success.


A New Zealand voyage of innovation

Navigating New Zealand nimbly through the coming decades and beyond in amongst a suite of global, incredibly challenging or jagged issues, and doing it in a way that protects and indeed nurtures and enhances our land, assets and people is effectively the same situation as the fictional scenario for Alice above. This requires innovation.

Innovation (noun) – a new method, idea, product, the action or process of innovating.

Frequently, talk of innovation is focussed on the next, new big product and the process of generating such products. If we can only get people to get in the innovation headspace, then innovation will magically appear. Concomitantly, there is often talk of the riches we will reap from such products – the economic prosperity that will encase us.

Whilst these absolutely are aspects and drivers of innovation (both the creation of new products and the process of striving towards those), I prefer a more holistic viewpoint.

It was Sir Paul Callaghan, with Shaun Hendy, who told us to “get off the grass”. I concur that a move away from reliance on primary production is necessary for our forward progress as a nation.

Noting the definition of innovation earlier, I fear we don’t focus enough on a broader approach regarding these new ideas and methods and the processes of creating those. What are we missing in the innovation puzzle? What haven’t we yet recognised enough from a big picture perspective as a critical component to driving positive change? When we think about new ideas and methods are we looking too narrowly from a product generation and a supply chain perspective?

My journey down the rabbit-hole of the Figure.NZ data has focussed on two areas – interdisciplinary approaches and gender diversity, especially with respect to science-related fields. I believe these are critical, but frequently overlooked aspects of innovation. I also outline why leadership is a pivotal component of both diversity and interdisciplinarity. I have focussed on gender in terms of diversity because this post is sufficiently large just in terms of that facet alone (as is the data in this space), and it may have resulted in an entire book in order to cover all aspects of diversity!

However, I want to make it explicitly clear that ALL aspects of championing diversity and achieving equity are important and I contextualise this in the ‘A case for diversity’ section below. In the remainder of the post, I have constrained my discussion and analyses to gender alone, rather than also covering other areas of diversity, which are beyond the scope of the present discussion. Note also that I tend to write using the term gender, rather than sex (biological- female/male), but the latter is more commonly used in the data provided. I haven’t inserted all graphs from Figure.NZ that I reference as there are many, but I have provided links to all those not graphically shown.

What strengths might we be yet to harness on our voyage?
I believe in New Zealand we’re missing out on greater forward progress, and indeed, somewhat missing one viewpoint of innovation, by sometimes not considering that new methods and new ideas might not simply be product-focused. Rather, focusing instead on people and how they work together, instead of on the yet-to-be-developed end product might well give us the advantage we’re looking for. Indeed, new methods and ideas might pertain to how we work together, who we work with, and how we consider what innovation is.

Reframing Innovation and my invitation from Te Punaha Matatini and Figure.NZ to do so, provides an ideal opportunity to re-examine where we are at and for me to put the lens on (gender) diversity and interdisciplinarity, along with leadership.

In a simple equation, if we’re not utilising the strengths of all of our citizens we are missing out on opportunities to be innovative.


Why are gender equity, strong leadership and fostering of interdisciplinarity important components of innovation?

New Zealand prides itself as being the first country to give women the vote. That Bloody Woman, an incredibly powerful and emotional musical about the human force behind this eventual government decision, may still hit some raw spots for audiences today, in terms of being placed back in the moment of what the suffragettes fought so hard for and in some ways the realisation of how much work is still to be done more than 120 years later. Having greater insight into the life of Kate Sheppard, who may have achieved the impossible, not before breakfast, but after many sustained years of being ‘that bloody woman’, is a useful benchmark for where New Zealand is at now.

The raw spot is that our journey to equity – like that of many other countries globally –  is far from over and that means we are not achieving what we could as a nation.

What Would Kate Do, we ask? She’d ask New Zealanders today, I think, to embrace the strengths of all of us, regardless of our gender, or our ethnicity, or any other aspect of diversity.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” – Brene Brown

Kate also knew, as did Alice, that she couldn’t achieve her fight on her own. Kate was one of a team of people with a range of skillsets, and after many failures and knockbacks, and continued reconfiguration of the team, their shared vision and common sense of purpose drove success.

Today, as for Kate and for Alice, our diversity (focussing within this piece on gender, whilst recognising that ethnicity and other diversity aspects are equally important) and our ability to collaborate, via strong leadership and interdisciplinarity, is the key to our innovation voyage.

Image Source: Flickr Commons by AJ Cann https://flic.kr/p/kU1Voo

Image Source: Flickr Commons by AJ Cann https://flic.kr/p/kU1Voo


The case for diversity

This section looks at diversity broadly as a whole. My subsequent analyses of the Figure.NZ data zooms in to just looking at how we are doing with respect to gender diversity.

A significant body of research shows that more diverse teams are more innovative than homogeneous groups. This is true of both social diversity as well as intellectual diversity – the latter being a group of people with diverse individual expertise. Reflecting on Brene Brown’s quote above, diversity enhances creativity.

Why? The answer is partly because of the collective intelligence, or CI, that a group of people with different backgrounds brings. Each group member brings different information, opinions and perspectives. It goes further than that though:

Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

Diversity hence, works through the encouragement of both hard work and creativity and that is even before any interaction between group members takes place. Anticipation is an important component of the diversity equation.

The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles. The pain, as the old saw goes, produces the gain. In just the same way, we need diversity—in teams, organizations and society as a whole—if we are to change, grow and innovate.

Establishing a diverse team leads to positive outcomes on the bottom line for companies and appears to lead to higher-quality scientific research.


The case for interdisciplinary approaches

Diversity in this sense also encompasses the idea of interdisciplinary (or trans- or multi-disciplinary) approaches and the benefits that they can bring to innovation. Indeed, the wicked or jagged global problems facing us need more than one type of knowledge to solve them. Thus, interdisciplinary innovation is essential to our present and future growth.

This is as a result of the positive impact that arises from working across social boundaries by which we structure knowledge. This concept goes well beyond simply the academic setting of working across recognised research disciplines – e.g. the arts and sciences and business studies, or even the industry-research nexus –  to also be inclusive of government departments, internal functions within a company, working across employment sectors and the nexus or boundary points between all of these domains.

Working in such a way is not without significant challenges because of the very nature of working across knowledge boundaries and bringing together entities which hold differing intrinsic values and therefore motivations. Conventional modes of working within sectors such as science have a long way to go, not just in New Zealand, but globally.


The case for effective leadership

It is impossible to look at innovation, to address and indeed embrace diversity and also foster interdisciplinary approaches, without also considering the pivotal role of leadership.

The idea of what constitutes effective leadership is shifting. Again, returning to Brene Brown’s quote about vulnerability, new models of effective leadership are not based on autocracy, where the leader is positioned as the expert and the holder of power. Instead, they incorporate understanding of collective intelligence and a shift of knowledge and power from an individual to a collective, or team.

Why does such a shift matter? Some research indicates a direct link between leadership style and the wellbeing of employees. Positive-based styles of leadership, including those based on the PERMA formula for wellbeing (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments), provide space and opportunity to better utilise the strengths and diversity within a team, which in turn drives innovation.

Such a leadership approach can at first seem like it involves a sense of loss of control for the leader, but in allowing this vulnerability and also having a firm foundation of empathy, all members of the team can thrive. Leadership thus, according to Daft and Pirola-Merlo (2009) is both art and science.

Positive leadership is based on collaboration and teamwork, a climate of trust, relationship building underpinned by empathy, a sense of common purpose, recognition of contributions, and development of community and support.

Women are viewed as potentially more effective leaders overall than men, which provides a strong argument for embracing diversity within leadership positions. In fact at every level, in a study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman involving surveys of more than 7000 leaders:

more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows

Also in this same study and analysing  the 16 recognised leadership competencies, how effective women are perceived as, scores higher than men for 12 of these traits. Interestingly, although a common assumption is that women are more effective at the nurturing competencies such as developing others, inspiring others, relationship building etc, the competencies where women are perceived to be more effective from these 360 evaluations also include non-nurturing traits – taking initiative (the highest scoring difference), displaying integrity and honesty and driving for results.

Diverse teams do better. Women make more effective leaders. Interdisciplinarity leads to innovation. What do we know about how New Zealand is actually doing and where we could build to our advantage?


Delving into gender diversity data


According to Figure.NZ analysis of these data, girls are staying at school for longer and achieving higher standard levels than boys. The number of school leavers who have attained NCEA level 3 (i.e. university entrance standard) are skewed towards females across all socio-economic levels (2013).

School leavers who attain university entrance standard in NZ

There is a slight skew towards girls in school leavers who have attained NCEA level 1 literacy and numeracy.

The available data for tertiary enrolments across OECD countries indicates a dominance of females in New Zealand in tertiary enrolment with nearly 1.5 females per 1 male. This is one of the highest rates in the OECD and reflects the school leaver data.

I then looked at specific science and technology related subject enrolments in the Figure.NZ data, as these are areas most typically associated with R&D and innovation at university. Across all tertiary levels, as might be expected, there are gender ratio differences across subjects. These trends tend to hold true irrespective of age bracket. Subjects that have a higher ratio of females to males include: behavioural sciences (particularly striking difference), biological sciences, chemical sciences, and graphic and design studies. Subjects that have a higher ratio of males to females include: aerospace engineering, mathematical sciences, earth sciences, physics and astronomy, and computer science (particularly striking difference). There are a multitude of reasons why this might be –  the Science Grrl STEM report (STEM being science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is particularly recommended reading in that regard, or my own posts (e.g. here, here and here).

STEM-related occupations

Out in the workforce there are also skews in gender representation in various industry sectors. Areas where there are particularly low numbers of women include: forestry and mining; electricity, gas, water and waste services; transport, postal and housing; construction, and manufacturing. Education and training and health care and social assistance appear to be in contrast, female-dominated.

I next focussed on science and technology related sector occupations within Figure.NZ and categorised these by the ratios of males and females. I also classified these occupations by an approximation of the type of position (administrators through to management):

Science and technology related sector occupations:

  Areas skewed towards a higher proportion of female employees Areas skewed towards a higher proportion of male employees Relatively balanced areas with respect to sex
Administration database administrators systems administrators; web administrators;
Technicians sterilisation technicians surveying and spatial science technicians; earth science technicians; telecommunications technicians agricultural technicianssoftware testers; life science technicians; ICT support engineers;
Developers/ designers/ programmers developer programmers; analyst programmers; web designers; ICT quality assurance engineers; web developers multimedia designers


food technologists (marginally)

anatomists or physiologists

systems analysts; network analysts; software engineers; computer network and systems engineers; ICT systems test engineers; physicists; geologists; biotechnologists; geophysicists; chemists; ICT security specialists; environmental research scientists; chemical engineers; environmental consultants; agricultural consultantspathologists (marginally); winemakerseconomists; forest scientists; agricultural scientists; botanists; park rangers marine biologists; biochemists; life scientists; zoologists; statisticians
Management chief information officers; ICT project managers; research & development managers;

Note: I worked with available data within Figure.NZ. These data are derived from the 2013 census. The data have weaknesses- a non-response rate of 2.8% and coding issues due to this being a write-in response. For example, I recall writing a lecturer as my occupation and I may not have specified what area: hence, I may not have been coded as a scientist.

The data show a striking pattern of lower representation of females, with the majority of occupations being male-dominated. A lower number of occupations had balanced male:female ratios. Very few science and technology sectors appear to be female dominated. All management level occupations I looked at appear to be male dominated. I noted in a number of cases some regional differences in gender representation, which it would be interesting to further dissect using the raw data.

Specific striking examples are shown below, with the Chief Information Officer data particularly unbalanced with respect to gender:

Telecommunications technicians in New Zealand

Software engineers in New Zealand

Chief information officers in New Zealand

The average hourly earnings for workers in the professional, scientific, technical and administrative industries in New Zealand similarly shows a marked gender gap – females earn significantly less per hour (2006-2015 data).

Average hourly earnings for workers in the professional, scientific, technical and administrative industries in New Zealand

This is also supported by a marked gender gap in weekly earnings and in median earnings and in average earnings (excl. computer systems) (data not shown for the two latter examples):

Weekly earnings per full-time equivalent employee in New Zealand

Worker turnover rate in New Zealand by sex

Worker turnover rate by sex in the professional, scientific and technical services industry in New Zealand

This gap is of concern given that there has been a significant increase in recent years in people employed in the professional, scientific, technical and administrative industries in New Zealand, and a global trend toward STEM-related jobs and a knowledge-based economy more generally. By contrast, the numbers for employers and self-employed workers appear relatively static.

Since 2002, in line with the turnover data, more females than males tend to be unemployed (all sectors) and this is true across all ages but the over 50’s. The filled jobs data in the professional, scientific and technical services industry also shows this gender gap.


The critical role of business in innovation- examining business size, earnings and gender

Please note these data below are all for general business- I didn’t find STEM-related business data as a subcategory.

Looking at business size and change over time also offers interesting insights. In small businesses of 1-5 employees the 1999-2014 filled jobs data appears to show a widening gender gap.

Filled jobs in New Zealand small businesses by sex

The trend of a (typically widening) gender gap in filled jobs holds true across businesses of less than 49 employees (e.g. here, here and here), whereas there are more female than male employees in businesses over 100 employees in size.

A widening gender gap is also present in the median earnings for employees in small businesses, as demonstrated by the following graph of businesses with 1-5 employees, but also here and here. We need more information to better understand the business situation here, especially any gender-related aspects within STEM-associated businesses and the role that this plays with respect to innovation.


Some of the Figure.NZ data, due to origins from census data may not paint fully representative pictures of STEM or research-related fields. In addition, some of the data arises from Statistics New Zealand or there are other data where the categorisation is professional, scientific, technical (and administrative (the latter is also included for some data sets)). This category potentially includes many other workers in fields that are neither STEM nor R&D related (e.g. accountancy, legal etc). Also, other categories (e.g. mining; electricity, gas, water and waste services; information media and telecommunications; agriculture, forestry and fishing; construction; health care) may include many STEM-related occupations not grouped within data I looked at, meaning we may not get an accurate picture of the total STEM field within the data presented here.

The business data above are not pertaining to STEM-related businesses only, so these have limitations. However, I think it’s important to note that in my holistic consideration of innovation there appear to be gender differences in data pertaining to the business sector.

The OECD iLibrary has a table on women researchers as a percentage of total researchers (2000-2014). Unfortunately however, the New Zealand data is absent from the table, as is the data from countries we might expect to have similar statistics too (Australia, UK, USA), which means a useful comparison is missing.


Summary of gender data

  • Girls are more likely to attain higher school standards (NCEA) when they leave school.
  • There is a dominance of women versus men at university across all levels.
  • Yet, we start to see gender differences in tertiary subject enrolments in certain STEM subjects.
  • Such gender differences track through to employed positions with most STEM-related occupations having a higher proportion of and number of males over females.
  • Management positions are dominated by males.
  • There is a marked gender gap in hourly, weekly and average and median earnings within this industry.
  • Females in the S&T sector tend to have a higher worker turnover rate.
  • Small business data indicate gender gaps but these data were not STEM-specific. We need to better understand the role of business and gender differences (including filled jobs and earnings), especially in small business and particularly those more closely linked to innovation (e.g. STEM-related businesses).

Interdisciplinarity infomation

I could find little data within Figure.NZ to do with interdisciplinarity- what I could find is covered below. Perhaps that is because we scientists are slow to adopt this approach here? This might also be a problem with interdisciplinarity being a somewhat nebulous concept that makes data capture challenging.


Role of the tertiary sector

New Zealand has a middle-of-the-road approach to public sector spend on research and development among the OECD. Like elsewhere, the tertiary sector has an important role in contribution to this R&D. However, interdisciplinary approaches are slow to come into the tertiary sector globally as noted in this Nature Special Issue on Interdisciplinarity.  Moreover, as there has, until recently, been less fostering of links outside the tertiary sector to more fully develop an interdisciplinary approach within New Zealand, then this could relate to how innovative we are or aren’t. Recent initiatives such as the National Science Challenges directly aim to create a space for problem-driven collaboration to address this, so change is in progress, and will take some time to show impact in the data.

In terms of looking at what tertiary level multidisciplinary programmes we have within New Zealand I note that universities have far fewer tertiary students enrolled in mixed field programmes than wānanga, institutes of technology and polytechnics, or private training establishments, but it would be important to know what indicators have been measured for these data to get the full picture:

Tertiary students enrolled in mixed field programmes in New Zealand

Moreover, the Ministry of Education data on mixed field programmes we currently have in the tertiary sector suggests that they are only in employment skills, general education, and social skills, as opposed to methods of scientific research and research training.

This is potentially a gap in terms of what we could be doing to create an interdisciplinary approach to study at tertiary level, the types of mixed field programmes we could be offering and their relationship to R&D and innovation (see here for a German example that provides an interesting model).

However, a strong caveat here is that perhaps putting all these institutions together as the ‘tertiary sector’ is misleading, as they fulfil very different roles and it might indeed be a case of comparing apples with oranges. Another caveat is that interdisciplinarity happens at the margins and as such we don’t know what we don’t know. Gaining data on interdisciplinarity and making inferences is challenging. Additional data from elsewhere may provide further insight.

Globally, it is possible though that the academic sector can move beyond the present scenario of academic knowledge as the basis for R&D, to universities acting as a fundamental driver for innovation through driving new business models and company structures, as well as cost-saving in public health and social development. New Zealand could be well placed in this space, if universities are willing to be nimble and novel in their approaches (for examples, see Oxford Martin School, Green College UBC, and Karl von Linde-Academy).

It may be too that specific interdisciplinary courses are not what’s required, but rather looking at an appropriate mix of professional skills, including teamwork and problem solving, for interdisciplinary approaches. Interdisciplinary practitioners, in general, are self-selecting. If we provide interdisciplinary postgraduate degrees for example, we are simply giving licence to that selection, which is useful. Should we be thinking in New Zealand about investing in diverse professional training, rather than maintaining a traditional research model (and alongside that training innovative researchers) or invest in both these strategies? Certainly the National Statement of Science Investment is addressing this in removing sector buckets – for example, the Endeavour fund. Seminars and workshops to build bridges are also important early stages of fostering interdisciplinary innovation.

Having too broad an interest can be deemed by those within specific disciplines as chaotic, with a strong push to maintain the silos that already exist. For example, as someone with broad research interests and bigger picture thinking, I was told as an academic by my HOD at the time, that that didn’t look good on paper and I needed to narrow things down to one or two interests only. This experience is quite typical for those interested in interdisciplinary work. Advice on interdisciplinary innovation however, recognises the benefit of mixing mavericks (as influencers) and managers, and of putting expert generalists with specialists.

Discipline preservation over time may lead to ‘cognitive rigidity’ due to the building and maintenance of a particular kind of elite, which may lead to a failure to thrive of those that don’t fit the model of that particular discipline. Diversity within academic disciplines, as elsewhere, does matter for innovation. And using my personal example, biochemistry itself was a new inter-discipline once whose origins as crossing knowledge boundaries perhaps have now been forgotten by those silo-ed within it.

Interdisciplinary innovation results from a creative tension between the ways in which these structured knowledge boundaries (within disciplines) are maintained and are indeed beneficial, and the ways by which these knowledge structures shift and change. The most valuable innovations from interdiscplinarity are typically those not anticipated at the outset (as they involve not only new answers, but also new questions).

Effective ‘pole-star’ leaders who can act as brokers between knowledge boundaries and translators of different languages are the enablers for interdisciplinary innovation. Pole star leaders can also guarantee success in outcomes, whilst maintaining the essential conditions for serendipity and curiosity – how many such pole star leaders do we have within New Zealand?

Interestingly, the qualifications of people who work in the New Zealand tech sector are in general low, with the majority having level 1-4 certificates or no qualifications.

Qualifications of people who work in the New Zealand tech sector

Do we need a more skilled (with respect to qualifications obtained) tech sector to also aid in fostering interdisciplinary approaches and drive innovation, or is on the job experience the most critical when it comes to expertise? Education may potentially act as a barrier as it promotes the division between disciplines through knowledge boundaries and creates elitism. Imbalance in qualifications between sectors who are trying to foster interdisciplinary connections may also be another obstacle.

Misconceptions and prejudices that different groups have about each other can be blockades to interdisciplinarity functioning. The different approaches different sectors, institutions etc, take to defining a problem and determining the appropriate method to understanding it can be an additional barrier to interdisciplinary activities- the understanding of the ‘other’. For success, there is a need to break through from a single discipline team and their social networks and their social capital to a new shared vision with new social capital.

Different disciplines also often have different core values.  Yet, working towards understanding of new shared values is critical to find new suites of technologies (e.g. nano, bio, cogno, info –based) to approach jagged issues.

With the important role the tertiary sector plays in R&D, the ability to speak the same language and share the same values might be an important component of creating greater interdisciplinarity between science and tech sectors and beyond. The average level of qualifications in one sector versus others may be an obstacle towards that goal. Designers in particular, are skilled at spanning boundaries and have an important role to play, or for us to learn from, for interdisciplinarity.

The predominant source of conflict in interdisciplinary fields typically centres on poor communication. A lot of resources are required to establish common culture via socialising. Developing effective personal relationships is a time consuming and necessary first step and fostering excellent communication skills in students is essential.


The role of business

In looking at data on professional, scientific and technical services business births and deaths in New Zealand from 2001-2015, an interesting recent trend (from 2015-2015) appears to be businesses starting and ceasing operation mapping each other, rather than mirroring each other, as occurred previously.

Professional, scientific and technical services business births/deaths in New Zealand

A flattening growth trend has been seen for enterprises in the scientific research services industry from 2009 onwards. Data on business survival rates in this same industry (professional, scientific, and technical services) from 2007-2015 paints an interesting picture of a potentially greater failure rate of businesses established in 2010 versus those established in 2006, though more data would be needed to understand what exactly might be behind these trends.

Business survival rates in the professional, scientific and technical services industry in New Zealand

If small business plays an important role in driving innovation, the gender gaps noted earlier may mean we are missing out on key knowledge input and diverse functioning teams that might lead to greater innovation. This includes new enterprises formed, as well as greater chance of business survival. Understanding why women appear to be less likely to be present in a small business is critical, including whether this is typical across small business or whether there are specific sectoral differences. This also includes understanding why there is a marked and widening gender pay gap. There is likely much analysis being done in this space that isn’t yet within Figure.NZ data.

In addition, a recent German report by Elsevier’s Analytical Services (Mapping Gender in the German Research Arena) found that:

  • “Publications authored only by females are the most internationally collaborative;
  • Mixed-gender research teams are more likely to produce interdisciplinary publications compared to male-only or female-only teams;
  • Publications for which the majority of the authors are female focus on different research topics compared to male-only publications in a gender balanced research area.”

This analysis looked at Scopus publications and piloted a novel methodology to analyse gender in publications.

If we want more interdisciplinarity to lead to greater innovation, including more women in STEM teams is critical.


Summary of interdisciplinarity information

  • Mixed field approaches appear low within universities (recognising though there are problems with the tertiary sector data categorisation) and mixed field approaches in other tertiary areas may not adequately cover the full range of interdisciplinary options.
  • There is considerable room for growth in promoting interdisciplinary approaches in New Zealand and to look at appropriate training for interdisciplinary students and support and protection of those that self-select in this career space.
  • Teaching communication skills, collaborative team work approaches, relationship development are pivotal to interdisciplinarity.
  • Workshops and seminars between organisations are important bridge building exercises.
  • Have we identified pole-star leaders? Are we providing sufficient time, resources and space to develop relationships and establish common culture?
  • A mismatch between qualifications across sectors may make cross-talk challenging due to differing ‘languages”, elitism, and the different kinds of knowledge.
  • Diversity is intrinsically linked to interdisciplinarity. There might be a relationship of gender gaps (or other diversity categories) to business births and deaths, flattening enterprise numbers and higher recent business failure rates, especially within small businesses.


How do we shoot through the jagged gap?

Diversity, including gender balance, positive and team-based leadership, appropriate management, and interdisciplinarity are all key components of innovation. In many cases, willingness for change, or an element of disruption is also important. And maintaining time and space for collaboration and relationship building, alongside curiosity, serendipity and creativity are essential.

Fostering a culture of working across knowledge boundaries, of relationship development, working with people’s strengths and utilising collective intelligence are also imperatives.

We are a small nation and in theory we are very connected. We need to better leverage these connections to promote the importance of diversity and interdisciplinarity. Looking at the opportunities that our tertiary sector provides for innovation and then actively building relationships with other organisations is important. This includes better recognition of the strengths and expertise present in our regions. The recently announced regional research institutes are a step in addressing this.

Efforts that not only attract young people into STEM fields, promote retention and utilisation of women in the labour market, improve infrastructure for women and improve public recognition for women’s active participation in STEM are essential. In terms of what has been implemented elsewhere, Korea has been actively working to address diversity issues with respect to gender in STEM fields for a number of years, due to their very low rates of participation by women.

Korea has, for example: created a National Centre for support of women in STEM, established a database of women in STEM, conducted a survey for women in STEM (presumably to better understand their experience of working in this industry and any barriers) and implemented the WISE programme (this shares some similarities to the Athena SWAN programme for equality). What initiatives, similar to those Korea has implemented, might work in the New Zealand context, particularly with a view to enhancing our innovative capabilities?

Our unique value proposition in New Zealand is our inter-connectedness, our strong desire for equity as a nation, our small size and our strong tradition of blue skies or curiosity-drive research. We need, with overarching goals, to maintain the latter.

Recent initiatives from the government are, I believe, helping to provide an appropriate environment for innovation. The National Science Challenges in themselves are a big bold step, and although they have had their share of criticism, they are intended to support greater space for creativity and interdisciplinarity.

The Nation of Curious Minds strategic plan and the activities implemented from the plan (and with which I am involved) also offers opportunities and new ways of working = innovation. Projects funded by the Unlocking Curious Minds fund are reaching new audiences and fostering interest in STEM in young people and across communities in innovative ways.

In particular, the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) that I am National Coordinator of is providing resources to bring communities, scientists and educators together to work on locally meaningful projects. This novel way of working together with co-design at its basis is innovative for New Zealand. The PSP is breaking down barriers, with people working across knowledge boundaries and it is humbling and inspiring to see these projects in action and to imagine the possibilities that these kinds of projects could lead to.

I’d put $10 (because Kate’s on the note) on this: that if we embrace diverse teams (gender and otherwise), foster appropriate positive leadership, provide the right nurturing environment for interdisciplinarity to develop and add in a dash of disruption, it will provide the space and environment from which innovation can grow. We can journey through those jagged rocks. Who is keen to walk through the looking glass with me?

View my complete Figure.NZ data board to see all the data referenced in this post.


Dr. Victoria Metcalf is a marine biologist, geneticist and science communicator committed to making a difference. She has made seven trips to the Antarctic and has been researching Antarctic fish and invertebrates since 1998. Dr Metcalf also has an interest in New Zealand aquaculture species. She is learning more about how key species have adapted to their environment and the potential impacts of warming temperatures, ocean acidification and pollution.

She is passionate about engaging the public with science and has a role in the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor as National Coordinator for a novel flagship initiative called the Participatory Science Platform. This initiative seeks to engage communities, educators and scientists to work together on locally meaningful projects. You can find Vic Metcalf on Twitter at @VicMetcalf_NZ and read her science blog at Sciblogs.

Disclaimer: Comments, opinions and analysis are Victoria’s own.

Join the conversation

Join the conversation by posting in the comments below or follow #innovationNZ on Twitter. Comments policy: play nice. Comments containing profanities, offensive remarks or spam will be removed.

Want to start your own conversation?
Search for figures, data charts and maps compiled by Figure.NZ using the search box or Figure.NZ business guided search. Sign-up for a FigureNZ account to save content of interest to your very own data board and tell us about it on social media:

Twitter: #innovationNZ @FigureNZ & @PunahaMatatini
Facebook @FigureNZ & @tepunahamatatini