Investigators' Blog

The invisible glue holding families together during the pandemic

The invisible glue holding families together during the pandemic

7 November 2023

A collaboration between sociologist Holly Thorpe and illustrator Jean Donaldson. Edited by Jonathan Burgess.

Aroha* turned 16 just one week before the first nationwide lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand. Before the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores, she had been focused on school, sport and having fun with her friends.
During the first lockdown, Aroha willingly moved from part-time to full-time work at her local supermarket to help her family out with the bills. Both her father and older brother had lost their jobs, so she had offered to increase her hours.

Initially, she enjoyed going to work because it was an opportunity to get out of her crowded home and to see some of her friends. But as time went on, she saw the strain of the pandemic on her community. She recalls being verbally abused by shoppers taking out their stress on young workers, and this seemed “really unfair”, particularly when such attacks left some of her co-workers in tears in the tearoom.

After work, she would walk home, take her uniform off at the door, and immediately put it in the washing machine — trying to limit the possibility of bringing the virus into her home. She was particularly worried about her 85-year-old grandmother, but also her mother, who had a serious heart condition. After a full day of work and washing her uniform, and having a quick play with her young nieces and nephews who were staying with them too, she retired to her bedroom to catch up on her school work.

At times, exhaustion took over and she fell asleep on her bed. Other times, the distraction of social media called. Aroha felt bad about spending so much time on her phone, but it was a way to connect with her friends, whom she missed deeply. Sometimes it was TikTok, Instagram, Netflix or YouTube that would absorb her entirely for the next few hours.

A dark blue illustration of a young woman scrolling a phone in bed in the dark.

While social media helped her to escape from the stress of pandemic life, she felt bad that she wasn’t keeping up with her school work. Before the lockdowns, she’d been in the top teams for netball and touch, and was training for an upcoming waka ama competition, but all of this was cancelled. While she understood why, Aroha was sad to miss out on these important events.


Young women played important roles in supporting their families and communities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Aroha was just one of the 45 young women that we interviewed about their experiences during the pandemic. Overwhelmingly, these young women “stepped up”.

Young women, particularly Māori, Pacific and those from diverse ethnic and migrant backgrounds, carried increased responsibilities in the home, including childcare, cleaning, cooking and shopping. Our multicultural research team found that the weight of the pandemic did not fall evenly on the shoulders of young women; gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic factors combined to impact young women’s pandemic lives differently.

"Locked down like all alone... I definitely felt very, very lonely and very, very depressed. Which I never felt before. Even though my issues were kind of insignificant... I had a roof over my head, I'm still eating everyday... To me it felt like my whole world was ruined." - Sofia

Young women were forced to grow up quickly, often taking on adult responsibilities in the home, the workplace, and their communities. While many did so willingly, this ‘double burden of care’ took a toll on their schooling, mental health and wellbeing.

Young people are now back to school, sport, and socialising with their friends, but the pandemic took a significant toll on many young women. Even after the lockdowns ended, many young women spoke of increased social anxieties, body image concerns, a loss of confidence in their educational and sporting skills, and new questions about their futures.

The radical disruption to their everyday lives and routines during a critical stage of identity development, prompted young women like Lady* to “question the future [because] you don’t really know what’s gonna happen”. Feelings of uncertainty for the future impacted upon their everyday motivation, their feelings of hope, and social connection.

"Because my parents both worked, I was looking after my brother. Trying to manage him doing his school work, as well as myself was really hard." - Angel*

Young women took on new roles and responsibilities at home, at work and in their communities. They missed key milestones and events, and critical phases of social development. Many young women continue to grieve some of these losses, and continue to struggle rebuilding social connections and aspirations. Young women were often the invisible glue holding families together, but they rarely received the credit they deserve for their efforts during the pandemic.

In a context where many want to close the pandemic chapter entirely, it is sometimes hard to see, or to speak to, the challenges experienced by our young people during this difficult time in our families, communities and collective history. But for many young women, the emotional toll of the pandemic continues to be carried today.

There is a need for greater acknowledgement and empathy for the challenges young women have gone through over recent years, and the additional support some may need to get back on their feet.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of research participants.

Explore the research behind this post


Holly Thorpe is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini and a recipient of a Royal Society Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellowship focused on women’s wellbeing during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and illustrator who works with Toi Āria: Design for Public Good. She is based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at

New co-director for Te Pūnaha Matatini

New co-director for Te Pūnaha Matatini

6 November 2023

Te Pūnaha Matatini is thrilled to announce that Associate Professor Markus Luczak-Roesch will join our leadership team as co-director from 1 January 2024. From next year, Te Pūnaha Matatini’s directorate will consist of Associate Professor Priscilla Wehi and Associate Professor Markus Luczak-Roesch as co-directors, with Associate Professor Michael O’Sullivan as deputy director.

Markus has been a part of Te Pūnaha Matatini since 2019, and has made valuable contributions at hui, workshops and through joint research projects. He is someone who cares deeply for our mandate, ambition and people.

Markus has a strong and internationally recognised transdisciplinary research profile with a focus on complex systems modelling and analysis. He is a prominent public voice in complexity science and its relevance to Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond. He founded and leads the Complexity and Connection Science Lab at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, the only research lab at an Aotearoa university that is explicitly dedicated to complexity science.

“I’m really looking forward to working with Markus,” says Cilla, the current director of Te Pūnaha Matatini. “He brings a wealth of connections to international complex systems institutes that will be incredibly valuable to Te Pūnaha Matatini as we grow our relationships. And he also brings the humanity that we are known for.

“Te Pūnaha Matatini Advisory Board Chair Richard Aitken says that “it is a pleasure to welcome Markus into Te Pūnaha Matatini’s directorate. What impressed the Advisory Board was Markus’s strategic vision for the future of Te Pūnaha Matatini.”

“Te Pūnaha Matatini should become one of the world’s leading centres for complex systems research, while retaining its uniqueness,” says Markus. “What makes Te Pūnaha Matatini unique amongst international complex systems research centres is its grounding in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and te ao Māori, both of which embed a longitudinal and humanistic perspective into the science of complex systems and networks.”

“Together, we have a clear vision for the future,” says Cilla. “I look forward to working with Markus and Mike towards our joint vision for the future of Te Pūnaha Matatini.”

Find out more about Markus

Three new partners for Te Pūnaha Matatini

Three new partners for Te Pūnaha Matatini

Image: Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, Associate Professor Priscilla Wehi, is excited to welcome three new partners on board.

30 October 2023

Te Pūnaha Matatini is thrilled to announce that it has partnered with three new institutions: NIWA, Toha and Cawthron Institute. This enlarges Te Pūnaha Matatini’s network of partnerships to fifteen institutions across Aotearoa New Zealand.

All three of these new partner institutions have an environmental focus, which clearly demonstrates the direction that Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre for Research Excellence in complex systems, is moving in.

Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini Associate Professor Priscilla Wehi is excited to welcome these new partners on board. “We value the thought leadership of our new partners,” says Cilla. “Their approaches to both the culture of research and engaging with communities align very much with our own.”

“Their researchers bring a wealth of experience in transdisciplinary research and approaches such as mātauranga Māori, freshwater systems and nature based solutions, which will bring depth and innovation to our future research.”

NIWA, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, is a Crown Research Institute that conducts leading environmental science to enable the sustainable management of natural resources for Aotearoa New Zealand and the planet.

Dr Rob Murdoch, Deputy CEO of NIWA, said that “NIWA is pleased to become a partner with Te Pūnaha Matatini, as the environmental issues we deal with are some of the most complex and critical issues of our time. Our principal investigators will benefit from new collaborations and approaches in their areas of remote sensing, flood forecasting and the marine food web. We look forward to developing improved solutions in the light of increasing extreme events across the atmosphere, freshwater and marine domains.”

Toha is working to bridge the gap between finance and environmental action. They have developed the infrastructure to allow regenerative outcomes to be reliably measured, quantified and traded in the market. They are convening a network to accelerate the flow of impact investment into frontline nature-based solutions to climate change with urgency and scale.

Chief Science Officer and Co-Founder of Toha, Dr Shaun Hendy, says that “The Toha Network is very pleased to partner with Te Pūnaha Matatini. As an organisation, we are both a consumer and producer of high-quality research, but this new collaboration with the leading minds in complex systems research represents a levelling up for us.”

Cawthron Institute is Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest independent science organisation. They deliver world-class science that helps to protect the environment and support the sustainable development of primary industries in Aotearoa New Zealand and worldwide.

“Cawthron Institute was eager to join Te Pūnaha Matatini as a partner to enable our researchers to collaborate on complex and transdisciplinary research that addresses the critical challenges we’re facing in Aotearoa New Zealand,” says Chief Science Officer, Dr Cath McLeod. “There is a strong alignment of values and objectives between Cawthron and Te Pūnaha Matatini, making partnership a natural fit. Cawthron is committed to delivering research that creates a better future and we know that fostering collaboration and connection across Aotearoa New Zealand’s research, science and innovation system is critical to achieving that vision.”

All three partner institutions have researchers that are affiliated with Te Pūnaha Matatini as principal investigators, and we look forward to seeing the innovative research that comes out of these partnerships.

‘You know Granity is falling into the sea, yeah?’

‘You know Granity is falling into the sea, yeah?’

4 October 2023

An excerpt from Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigator Rebecca Priestley’s forthcoming book End Times.

‘You know Granity is falling into the sea, yeah?’ says Maz.

I look past the row of houses that separates the highway from the stony beach, and nod. As sea level rises, some coastal towns are making plans to retreat, to move buildings, walkways and roads inland, and let the sea do its thing to the coastline. In Granity, there’s nowhere to retreat to. It’s home to about 160 people living on a tiny strip of land between the steep-sided hills and the encroaching sea. As you head inland from the highway, there’s the row of houses, the railway line, then the hills. We drive past St Peter’s Anglican church – I am the way the truth and the life: Jesus says a sign – and the Granity Judo Club and then a startling display on an unhitched trailer. A life-sized naked female figure, with large round breasts and no hair, reaches her arms high above her head to hold – or throw? – an angry-looking baby. Orange flames reach as high as her raised elbows. Beneath the flames are the words GLOBAL WARMING. The placement of figure and flames, and the fierce look on the woman’s face, give the impression she is about to hurl the baby into the flames, but I doubt that’s what’s intended.

At the north end of Granity, we park on a gravelly verge and walk over a mound of earth. There’s a pīwakawaka flitting about and gulls circling over the grey-green water. I walk south along the steep beach, which is covered in rounded pebbles of speckled granites and diorites. The sections backing onto the beach all have barriers. There are fences made from driftwood, others of traditional wood and wire mesh, one with fancy gabion baskets, and one concrete block. Further along the beach, a stretch of houses is protected by a long pile of sandy coloured boulders, a rock revenant or riprap. There’s a gentle roar of the ocean, a constant reminder that the tide is coming in. One section, lower than the others, has no fence. The sea has washed a river of stones and huge bleached logs over what used to be the lawn and up around the house.

I walk until I reach a tumble of broken concrete and mangled reinforcing wire. It’s impossible to tell what it used to be. A sea wall? A pier? Remnants of an earlier civilisation; the concrete and iron age. I take some photographs then turn back towards Maz, who’s sitting in the distance, hood up, looking down at her phone. A black-backed gull flies low over the waves and a yellow glow of morning sun starts to appear through grey clouds. As I’m looking at the sky a wave surges up the beach towards me. I run but the foaming water seeps through my boots to wet my socks. I shout out – ‘Maz!’ – but she can’t hear me above the tumble of rocks being dragged back by the undertow.

I join her, laughing now, and we look along the beach, to where a digger and three people in orange hi-vis are working. There are works planned here – a news article says the government has promised funding for a seawall between Ngakawau and the north end of Granity. Locals, though – one of those interviewed describes the town as being populated with ‘rednecks and creatives’ – are asking about the rest of Granity. The seawall will protect only five houses, three of which already have rock barriers.

An oystercatcher pecks at the sand, and I think of food. It’s 11:43am – high tide isn’t for another three hours.

We drive south to Waimangaroa, where we saw a sign earlier – Fresh homemade pies cooked daily. It’s an outdoor café, with a food cart and a few picnic tables next to some sort of post-apocalyptic sculpture garden. It’s been a busy summer, the woman in the food cart tells us when we ask how business is going. We’re aware things have been tough for the Coast, which relies on tourist dollars, and are happy to be spending our city folk salaries here. We order tea and pies – chickpea and pumpkin for me, steak and cheese for Maz – then go for a wander. The sculpture garden contains derelict machinery, wooden carvings and vegetation. A man called Woody makes the art, we’re told. We pass a rusted-out truck, a tractor, larger-than-life human figures carved with tā moko on faces and buttocks, driftwood carvings behind glass screens. Under a corrugated iron roof is what looks like an ancient waka. Beneath and between the sculptures the garden is wild with ponga, nīkau, grasses and pond life. We come back smiling, buzzing. We find a place to sit, and nod a greeting to a man sitting at the next table.

‘Where’re you ladies from?’ he asks. Auckland and Wellington, we say, then Maz tells him she used to live in Westport and they have the conversation in which they identify people they know in common. Things have changed on the Coast since Maz left, he says. House prices have doubled in the last few years. ‘People are asking crazy prices for West Coast houses, and they’re selling.’

We talk about COVID-19, the vaccine rollout, and the new variants we’re starting to hear about. ‘I probably won’t take the vaccine for a while,’ the man says. ‘I’m not really into it.’

The woman from the food cart delivers our tea, a big pot of English breakfast with the kind of floral bone-china cups and saucers my Nanna used to have. She tells us her daughter is vaccinated ‘homoeopathically’, and neither she nor her daughter are going to ‘take’ the COVID-19 vaccine. She knows someone whose kid nearly died after a vaccine – he had an allergic reaction. It’s put her off, she says.

I listen, and nod, but when the man starts to query whether the Pfizer vaccine is really a vaccine, ‘since it changes your cells’, my respectful and curious listening reaches its limits. ‘I’m going to do a little plug,’ I say. ‘It is a vaccine. And it had been tested on millions, if not billions, of people by the time it got to New Zealand.’

He agrees there’s a lot of misinformation out there. ‘We’ve had the leaflet drops. They say it’s going to pre-programme you to die,’ he says. ‘Will you guys take it?’

‘Absolutely,’ we both say.

‘Are you guys nurses?’ asks the woman.

‘No, but we’re both science-trained,’ I say.

‘Personal choice,’ she says with a shrug, and walks back to the caravan to check on our pies.


End Times will be available from all good bookshops from Thursday 14 October.

Come on Barbie, let’s diversify

Come on Barbie, let’s diversify

3 October 2023

A collaboration between ecologist Will Godsoe, educational theorist Kirsten Locke, and illustrator Jean Donaldson. Edited by Anna Brown and Jonathan Burgess.

One of the amazing things about nature is the sheer diversity of living things. There are thousands of species of birds, hundreds of thousands of species of insects, and countless varieties of microbes that scientists are still learning how to name, let alone study.

Does this diversity matter? Many scientists think so, but after generations of research the answers we come to often seem abstract. We can say things like “on average plants seem to grow better in a community with a variety of other species”. But going deeper than that requires a lot of experimental design, calculus and information theory.

Perhaps what we actually need is some popcorn.

The 2023 Barbie movie explores diversity in a glorious Technicolor shade of pink. It can be seen as a narrative for the importance of diversity in the social world: for diversity of ideas, for social justice outcomes, for political representation, for empathetic and other understandings of difference, inclusion and acceptance.

Focusing on the experiences of the characters also highlights why diversity can be so important in ecology. Diversity is important for both plants and people. Deepening and applying our understanding of the nature of diversity can improve both social and ecological outcomes.

The Barbie movie highlights how a lack of diversity can limit the ability of a community to change. In Barbie Land all power is controlled by Barbies. This lack of diversity (or “Kennergy”) limits what is possible in Barbie Land. A running joke of the movie is that Ken realises these limitations when he comes to visit the ‘real world’ and experiences a taste of patriarchy.

Ken is so intoxicated with this power that he seeks to change Barbie Land so that the Kens are in control. The problem is that this new Ken World lurches into misogyny and tips the power balance so that only the Kens can thrive at the expense of all the Barbies. Diversity hasn’t been achieved, and so Ken World is just as (if not even more so) unstable than Barbie Land.

An illustration in pink showing lots of Kens and only a few Barbies.

The Barbie movie shows us that communities that lack diversity are unable to adapt in the face of challenges and that lack of diversity can have harmful effects that affect all members of a community.

In nature, a lack of diversity can also keep ecological communities from adapting. A term ecologists use for this is the ‘portfolio effect’. Like an investment portfolio that balances risk with a range of different forms of investment, a community that includes a diverse array of species will be better able to change in the face of challenges. A community where one species dominates is going to be susceptible to disasters.

The reason this metaphor works is that individual experiences of diversity (like in the Barbie movie) echo the way diversity works in many other circumstances. The ways that diverse ecological communities adapt to challenges can parallel the ways that human society can benefit from multiple insights and different perspectives available in diverse communities.

At the risk of spoiling the plot for you, Barbie is able to rescue Barbie Land from the ludicrous grip of the Kens. The balance of power and the resilience of that world are strengthened by the inclusion of multiple forms of representation where even Weird Barbie and Allan have meaningful contributions – alongside Ken, when he’s not busy doing ‘beach’.

There are unique features to diversity in ecology that don’t translate so easily to the social world. Characters like Ken and Barbie have the capacity to tell us about their experiences in communities that lack diversity. Plants… not so much.

When the plants can’t speak for themselves, visiting Barbie Land gives us a creative opportunity to consider the conditions in which both plants and humans can flourish.


Will Godsoe is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini who seeks to better forecast how species will respond to climate change and other environmental disturbances

Kirsten Locke is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini who applies a history of educational ideas to current social and educational challenges and issues.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and illustrator who works with Toi Āria: Design for Public Good. She is based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at

A raindrop hits the ground

A raindrop hits the ground

4 September 2023

A collaboration between scientist Céline Cattoën-Gilbert and illustrator Jean Donaldson.

It’s Sunday 14 August 2022, and I’m sitting in front of my computer. I feel a surge of numbing emotions and prickly memories gushing through me. My eyes scan the river forecasts for Westport, mentally tracing and mapping the ominous contours of rising water levels.

I research how to develop, improve and communicate flood forecasting models. Today the models have made me pause. Some of the highest predicted scenarios look like what occurred in 2021, when widespread flooding devastated Westport. Thousands of people had to be evacuated, and insurance companies paid out $97.2 million in damages.

I breathe and tentatively remind myself that uncertainties are still very large. We are five days ahead of a massive storm – known as an atmospheric river – hitting the West Coast and Tasman regions. We have time.

The Covid-19 pandemic thrust modelling into the public consciousness in Aotearoa New Zealand. Models are simplified representations of real-world processes. They are one of the tools available to decision-makers facing tough choices. For flood forecasting, we’re working with an unfathomably complex system to try and make predictions across many scales: from atmospheric to catchment to the human scale.

Flip flops. The supercomputer clocks.

It’s Monday morning. I lean forward watching my screen, and feel a mix of relief and frustration. The models are flip flopping between a widespread urban flooding scenario and a less severe rural flooding scenario for Westport. With each forecast update, I am mesmerised by the oscillation of the worst case scenarios between river forecast updates: one world where the storm heads on to the West Coast and a parallel one where it moves north, hitting Nelson. The following day the West Coast declares a regional state of emergency, enabling a strategic and coordinated response. We still have time.

A hand-drawn illustration showing two scenarios: widespread urban flooding or less severe rural flooding.

Flip flops. The rain drops. The supercomputer continues to clock.

In 1922, Lewis Richardson attempted to solve weather prediction equations — by hand. A century later, we have bigger, faster and more advanced supercomputers — powerful machines capable of processing enormous amounts of data and performing complex calculations. We have technology advances in observations with satellites. Breakthroughs in modelling the pathway of rainfall from the atmosphere to the rivers. We now have access to unprecedented and enormous improvements in our predictions. But despite all our efforts and advances, it is still difficult to predict and prepare for floods.

Enter chaos, the butterfly effect, and the human mind.

In the 1960s, Edward Lorenz was bewildered by his failed weather modelling experiments. Using the same computer model, and the same initial conditions but rounded to three decimals, two dramatically different results occurred. The weather is predictable, but given ever so slightly different conditions at the beginning of the simulation, the forecast will deviate over time. Dramatically. Chaotically. Known as the butterfly effect, the amount of difference in the starting points of the two scenarios is so small that it is comparable to a butterfly flapping its wings.

Flip flops. The rain continues to drop. Now the ground begins to soak. Relentlessly, the supercomputer clocks.

When a raindrop hits the ground, it faces a myriad of options to travel through the landscape to reach the river. Sliding over the land, percolating below the surface, gushing through tiny holes from bed rocks, roots, urban stormwater pipes. Knowing the correct pathway will tell us how fast and how high the river roars, where the water rises, and where help may need to go.

A hand-drawn illustration showing a single raindrop suspended above a hilly rural landscape with rivers and trees.

Flip flops, flip flops, flip flops. The rain pours onto saturated ground. The supercomputer delivers new scenarios. Which one will unfold?

The butterfly effect means that we need to capture uncertainties at each step of the prediction process. Instead of relying on just one computer model to predict floods, ensemble forecasting uses a whole bunch of them. These scenarios consider small variations in rainfall, river levels, and how much water is already in the soil. Each model might give a slightly different prediction based on its own initial state, assumptions, and calculations. By looking at all these different predictions together, we can consider a range of possible outcomes to prepare for.

Tick tock. The humans talk.

Science is meant to help people foresee the invisible. To imagine how rising forecasted river levels could transform into a chest-height wall of water or an ocean of mud at their doorstep. Humans must be able to imagine that the worst-case scenarios of the forecasts could occur. Even when the rain outside has stopped, the rushing river upstream may still be bursting through its banks.

But the human mind can struggle to envision the possibility of an extreme flood forecast becoming reality, even after it’s occurred. The sheer devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle was far beyond what I could possibly imagine as I drove north of Gisborne Tairawhiti recently. Witnessing its aftermath with my own eyes months later, I was astounded by the massive volumes of sediment obscuring the severely eroded riverbanks. The trees and trunks uprooted and scattered in seemingly random locations. The roads scarred and interrupted by countless landslides. My heart sank at the sight of the hilly landscapes disfigured, marred by erosion over kilometres and kilometres of land. I still can’t imagine the nature of forces at play needed to cause such a profound and lasting impact on the land.

We are running out of time. By Tuesday, exhaustion runs through my body and my mind. I impatiently check updated river forecasts and scrutinise every nuance in our scenarios. A pattern is emerging from the chaos. The latest modelling is reassuring and indicates an easing in predicted intensity for Westport. But the next day, north of Westport, the Maitai River in Nelson city will burst its banks. More than 200 homes will be evacuated and numerous landslides will be triggered.

Aotearoa has experienced some serious floods over the last few years, and we’re going to have more. For those whose lives and homes have been devastated by these floods, the recurring threats of floods surpass imagination with a haunting memory. The mere sound of a raindrop, the scent of damp streets can trigger a rush of fear. The chatter of past emotions can overwhelm the human mind in an instant. So, when the river’s forecasts hint at receding waters from a second front for Westport during that August flood event, a distinct kind of strength emerges for Coasters. It takes incredible mental stamina, clarity of communication, trust in the science, the responders, the authorities, and the unity of the community to divert emergency efforts to their neighbouring catchment — where help is most urgently needed. Emergency responders, with their unyielding commitments, are unsung heroes of our changing climate.

Working with decision-makers has been an invaluable personal and professional growth experience. Through this, I have learnt that models don’t need to be perfect to be insightful. I have peeked into some of the complex pathways from predicting floods to decision-making for early actions. From that experience, I see that we urgently need improved integrated predictions across disciplines of science, natural hazards, forecasting, human behaviour communication and social science.

We must continue to move towards a world where we better weave together our science, our people, our community, our values and our imagination to effectively enhance flood preparedness.


Céline Cattoën-Gilbert is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini who focuses on forecasting floods.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and native bird fanatic based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at

Halcombe, we have a digital twin

Halcombe, we have a digital twin

3 August 2023

On Tuesday 14 April 1970, astronauts on the spacecraft Apollo 13 let Houston know they had a problem.

An oxygen tank had exploded, and there was damage to the main engine. With the clock ticking, NASA employed multiple simulators to see what had caused the failure. Back on Earth, the astronauts had trained for their mission in a physical model of the spacecraft they were now in. NASA extended this model to include digital components, which meant they could import and analyse data from space to see what had caused the explosion, and explore scenarios that could get the crew safely back home.

This was the first digital twin. A digital twin is a virtual representation of a product, system or process, and they are now commonplace. Digital twins allow manufacturers to optimise their production processes, hospitals to complete more surgeries, and commuters to find the best way home during rush hour.

Half a century later, in Aotearoa New Zealand, the digital twins approach pioneered by NASA is now making an autonomous shuttle between Marton and Feilding possible for Ngā Iwi o Te Reureu.

Graeme Everton, the project manager for Māori economic development agency Reureu Kotahitanga Ltd, wants to improve connectivity for Ngā Iwi o Te Reureu. Graeme approached Atawhai Tibble from Te Pūnaha Matatini’s advisory board about using digital twins to develop and validate his plan for an autonomous shuttle running on rail tracks between Marton and Feilding.

Associate Professor Mike O’Sullivan, deputy director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, has worked with digital twins in healthcare. He brought Dr Yang Zou from the University of Auckland on board to use light detection and ranging (LiDAR) to scan the rail track and convert it into a 3D model. In partnership with Ryan Curry from KiwiRail and Gordon Lyall from iLinks, Graeme and Yang have now successfully captured the first six kilometres of rail track between Te Reureu Valley and Halcombe.

The next step is to add a realistic model of an autonomous rail shuttle to the digital twin and implement a control system for how the shuttle would operate in practice. Once the digital twin of the track between Te Reureu and Halcombe has been validated and de-risked, a second capture will be done between Marton and Feilding.

This combined data will provide a digital twin to test and showcase a fully autonomous rail service on the network. Graeme can use this digital twin to support the business case for the real-world infrastructure necessary to have an autonomous rail service running between Marton and Feilding by 2027.

The approach pioneered by Graeme, Yang and the rest of the team can also be extended across Aotearoa New Zealand’s entire rail system to provide a digital twin for evaluation, management and innovation into the future.

This work was funded and supported by Waka Kotahi through the Hoe ki angitū – Innovation Fund.

Environmental engineering in early taro and kūmara cultivation

Environmental engineering in early taro and kūmara cultivation

1 August 2023

Field work is archaeologist Alex Queenin’s happy place. At the moment, she’s finding that happy place on Ahuahu Great Mercury Island, an island off the west coast of Coromandel.

An archaeological investigation has been running on Ahuahu since 2011, exploring some of the earliest sites of human habitation in Aotearoa New Zealand. A group of Te Pūnaha Matatini investigators are working with data from these sites to explore how Māori learned to live in Aotearoa after their arrival from Polynesia.

For her Te Pūnaha Matatini-funded PhD project, Alex is working to reconstruct human-environment interactions on Ahuahu. She is looking at how paleoenvironmental evidence can inform archaeological interpretations of both settlement and horticulture by studying sediment from the island.

On Ahuahu, she is collecting and analysing sediment cores from catchments adjacent to archaeological sites. Alex uses geochemical techniques like x-ray fluorescence and physical techniques like magnetic susceptibility to understand more about human activity on the island.

“You don’t always get all the information from the archaeological sites,” explains Alex. “For example, when people first got to Aotearoa from Polynesia, you get a bit of initial occupation at archaeological sites and then generally a burn off of the forest to start agriculture. This created charcoal that was mixed into soils to grow taro and kūmara.”

“Not a lot of that evidence survives in archaeological sites, but you get big sediment deposits in adjacent catchments after the burn off.” This is proxy evidence of human behaviour. “Because the forest cover has been removed, you’ll then get detrital indicators showing that soils started to erode a lot quicker after the burn off.”

Evidence like this allows archaeologists to understand more about interactions between humans and the environment. “People had to do some very specific environmental engineering to make horticulture work on these islands,” says Alex. “Especially on Ahuahu, where the main bedrock is rhyolite, which is not great for gardening. Early Māori had to make suitable soils for gardening by incorporating things like charcoal and shells.”

This is known as niche construction, where the intentional and unintentional actions of people result in positive or negative environmental outcomes.

Alex’s work is part of the Te Pūnaha Matatini core project on kaitiakitanga and the ecodynamics of Māori horticulture, led by Principal Investigator Thegn Ladefoged. This project draws on the strength of Te Pūnaha Matatini’s interdisciplinary approach, with archaeologists collaborating with soil scientists, mātauranga Māori experts, and mathematical modellers to better understand the long-term dynamics of complex human-environment interactions through the lens of Aotearoa’s first people.

For Alex, working with experts from different disciplines creates a much more detailed understanding of archaeological sites. Archaeology is an interpretive discipline, and using modelling and different lines of multi-proxy evidence creates different ways of looking at the landscape, strengthening confidence in its interpretations.

Before starting her PhD, Alex was working as a contract archaeologist in cultural resource management. She says that working as a contract archaeologist around the North Island was hard work, but a fulfilling job. “You get to meet a lot of great people, and learn a lot of cool stuff – especially from kaitiaki.”

Even though the field is her happy place, Alex still loves lab work. In the future, she hopes to start her own lab for doing multiproxy analysis in conjuction with people doing archaeological work. But for now she has to focus on getting the balance right for her PhD. “I have to make sure to not stay in the lab all the time,” she says. “I need to do some writing, too.”

Kaitiakitanga and the ecodynamics of early Māori horticulture

Everything is information

Everything is information

3 July 2023

A collaboration between scientist Markus Luczak-Roesch and illustrator Jean Donaldson. Edited by Jonathan Burgess.

In 1975, a student working in Japan made a mistake. They misunderstood some instructions in Japanese and added 1,000 times more of a substance to a chemical reaction than they were supposed to.

The chemical reaction created a silvery plastic. When New Zealand-born scientist Alan MacDiarmid visited Japan and saw this silvery plastic, he recognised the potential of its remarkable properties. He worked on this new material alongside Hideki Shirakawa and Alan Heeger, and they created plastics that could conduct electricity.

MacDiarmid and his collaborators were awarded a Nobel Prize for this work, the third Nobel Prize ever awarded to a New Zealander. Conductive plastics now underpin most of our lives through their use in smartphone screens and solar panels.

What creates Nobel Prize winning ideas? Is it the right people being in the right place at the right time? Is it what these people say or do? Or do ideas just appear out of nowhere? Many people will say intuition, serendipity or coincidence may often be at play. Was it the way the instructions were given to the student that led to this fortunate mistake? Was it the student’s language barrier? Was it MacDiarmid’s ability to recognise the significance of this mistake? Or was it the unique composition of all of those things?

Amongst all the random occurrences in the world, do certain ones have a lasting impact? To try and answer this question, I have a suggestion to make: Everything is information.

An illustration showing a brain, eye, window, ear, hand and heart with the caption 'everything is information'.

Consider something as common and seemingly simple as MacDiarmid and his research team having a chat about an experiment they want to perform in the lab the next day. There are a lot of things going on:

  • The words that are said
  • Brain waves as sensory input is processed
  • Body temperature
  • Heart rate
  • Frequency of eye moment

Over the course of the conversation all of these signals will continuously change. Some more or less than others. If we record them all we could get a very detailed landscape of information about their chat, and hopefully capture the coincidence that led to their groundbreaking discovery.

But studying what a human says over a time period is very different from studying their brain waves over the same period, for example. We’re dealing with apples and oranges to understand the full picture of this situation. The apples here being the words someone says, the oranges being the electrical activity in people’s brains.

We’re working on how we can map all these different signals to a specific type of mathematical object, namely a network. If we combine the many networks we construct from the different signals, we get something that you can think of as a cube. A cube of all the information from the whole variety of sources that were observed over a time period. Within this cube we can then search for structures that represent meaningful coincidences — because if these structures weren’t present the cube would fall apart or change shape.

This may sound rather complicated. So, let’s explore baking a cake. When baking a cake you combine all sorts of different ingredients that come in different forms like milk, sugar, and eggs. Mixed together and baked, the result is a tasty cake. But if you leave one of those ingredients out, you end up with a hot mess that won’t hold its shape. This roughly describes what we are dealing with here on a mathematical level.

An illustration showing milk, eggs and sugar with eggs crossed out and a resulting saggy cake with candles in it.

We weren’t there to monitor MacDiarmid and his team having a chat before their discovery, but we do want to study human conversations in this way. We can also use this method to uncover patterns in complex data to better understand things like climate science, genomics, humanities, psychology and neuroscience.

Let’s connect what we just described to the present moment. You’re currently reading this blog post, which is — within the grand scheme of your lifetime — a tiny, statistically insignificant event. But at this very moment there may be something in your mind or your body’s response that may later trigger a thought. This could be minutes later, months later or even years later.

With our methods we want to make it possible to capture the holistic complexity of this moment and link it to related information in the past and in the future, to understand which indispensable ingredients are key in the baking of your life.

Do you think reading this was one of them?


Find out more about Transcendental Information Cascades


Markus Luczak-Roesch is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini who brings unique computational approaches to collaborative teams to generate new insights into complexity and contribute to our understanding of emergence.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and native bird fanatic based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at

Building a just research system, together

Building a just research system, together

9 June 2023

The global research system is in crisis. One way that we are seeing this unfold is in large-scale planned redundancies at our universities in Aotearoa New Zealand.

But the research system isn’t broken, it was built this way.

The design of the research system promotes individualism, hypercompetitiveness and productivism. The opportunity to succeed is not equally shared, and people who are structurally and socially advantaged tend to remain privileged in the system.

New research from an interdisciplinary team at Te Pūnaha Matatini states that we need systematic, collaborative and whole-of-community action to build a more just research system. This has just been published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Lead author Dr Aisling Rayne explains that “we need to build a research system which demonstrates a relational duty of care to all its participants — including those on the margins, in precarious positions and in support roles.”

“To be responsive to the critical challenges of our time, the global science community needs to travel forward in a shared and purposeful direction — one that moves us closer to a better, more just society,” say the authors.

“We challenge the science community to harness the processes of complexity with intent and urgency to build a science system that is prepared to address the complex global challenges in which we all have a stake.”

This challenge is fully supported by Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence for complex systems. “We at Te Pūnaha Matatini support systemic transformation of the science system, and the centering of collaborative and ethical research,” says Te Pūnaha Matatini Director, Associate Professor Cilla Wehi. “The kind of transformations outlined here will act to support researchers and grow the best possible work on the pressing problems of our time.”

“There’s a growing evidence base that shows that our current research system is unjust and unsustainable,” continues Aisling.

Proposed solutions such as diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives can have unintended consequences, because they don’t take into account the complexity of the research system.

We need to embrace this complexity to make lasting systemic change. This means being reflective about the changes we make to avoid unintended consequences, and engaging the entire research community in building the system anew.

Aisling concludes that “the review of the research, science and innovation system that the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is currently undertaking through Te Ara Paerangi is an opportunity for Aotearoa New Zealand to lead the way in changing how research is done.”