New Zealand has economic, social and technology advantages that should help us rebuild better from the pandemic, and be well-placed to meet new challenges, writes Don Christie in a piece for

The pandemic has impacted countries and people in ways we would hardly have thought possible a few years ago. It’s been reported that five to eight years of digital transformation took place in the first two months of the outbreak as people around the world adapted to working from home.

A recent APEC forum hosted (virtually) by New Zealand looked at the implications for the region of this rapid transformation. “ While the digital economy is booming….. The lack of generally accepted principles for digital trade is becoming worrisome in a world where so much interaction in many spheres is digitally driven,” noted a briefing paper.

I was asked to provide input from the New Zealand digital sector into how APEC countries might respond to the challenges.

This process, and being able to view a series of presentations from other nations, has clarified for me the areas where we should redouble our efforts.

How do we harness the potential – and mitigate the disruptive – impacts of transformative technology in the digital age? Catalyst’s view is that technological sovereignty is perhaps the defining issue of the decade.

This is a critical issue as many other jurisdictions are now aware of the risks around the dominant approach, adopted by multinationals. It is one that is predicated on business models extending back hundreds of years. Large multinationals arrive in country, contribute nothing in the way of paying local taxes, and exfiltrate value and data (“the new oil” as it was unironically christened by The Economist).  It is essentially digital colonialism.

Of course, there are other approaches. Ones that involve paying taxes that provide for schools and hospitals, keeping data onshore and respecting te ao Māori, acknowledging the value of New Zealanders’ privacy, and building a resilient digital sector that will provide fulfilling, high-value jobs for Kiwis for decades to come.

Some jurisdictions are now moving positively in this direction. A total of 27 EU nations have recently established a European Alliance on Industrial Data and Cloud, a key part of the European Commission’s data strategy, which aims to create a single market for industrial data, and they plan to invest up to €10 billion to develop Europe’s cloud and data infrastructure.

Australia’s Centre for Responsible Technology has been considering similar challenges. They recently proposed using the ABC’s network to develop a social networking platform to reduce Australian’s reliance on Google and Facebook.

I was particularly taken with the presentation to APEC by Professor Wonki Min, President of SUNY, Korea. Korea’s is determined to make huge investments in “damming” its data and using these national repositories to drive a national digital transformation.

This is exactly the sort of nation state activity that we were suggesting is available to most countries, regardless of size, due to the rapid evolution of technology.

The Korean government is investing $34 Billion in a “Digital New Deal”. The collection, storage and utilisation of data is at the core of this strategy. Korea plans to focus on data centres, building 305 new ones by 2025, and creating “Data Dams” to leverage AI capability in those dams.

This will come with a new digital governance system that also covers AI which has huge potential for good, and significant risks for harm, particularly for indigenous populations.

Korea expects to create 567,000 new jobs in the sector by 2025. They will build 30,000 smart factories based on AI, data and 5G.

The Koreans are also very concerned about cybersecurity, and have a strong focus on helping SMEs become more cyber secure.

This seems to me the sort of strategic thinking and planning that New Zealand needs to be doing now. We have assets and capabilities that put us in front of the game: an excellent education system, the most corruption free government in the world, access to renewable energy, and a cultural inclination to self-reliance.

Rebuilding New Zealand’s economy in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, and under the shadow of climate change, is a challenge that we have not seen since the end of World War II. The decisions we collectively make now have the potential to impact, positively or negatively, generations of Kiwis to come.

The positioning of New Zealand’s IT sector is a critical plank in the rebuild strategy. The sector contributes more than NZ$15 billion per annum to our GDP, and more than a third of that in export revenues.

The challenges of the past 18 months, where international travel and trade has been severely impacted by the pandemic, has afforded us some insight into the longer term challenges we will all face in dealing with climate change. National resilience must be a key strategy as we rebuild our economy and reshape it to be fit-for-purpose for the coming decades.

We should be planning for our own data management, cyber security, and artificial intelligence applications, and how these can be implemented across all of our sectors: agriculture, education, finance, and others. Building and delivering value for the current and future generations, now that technology is interwoven into every aspect of our communities and our economy.

Why should we continue to rely on the large, foreign-domiciled multi-nationals to dominate the New Zealand market? Their products and services are not tailored for our people, businesses and communities, they are indifferent to our laws, and do not pay their fair share of tax. And yet they are as invasive as gorse in our government agencies, schools and tertiary institutions.

Our government and our sector, working constructively together, can help us all rebuild New Zealand as a society and economy for the future. Where our children are in control of their data and their destinies, and our digital sector is vibrant, innovative, and a key platform for our prosperity.

It’s clear from the approach taken by other nations that there is a better way. We should be doing the same. New Zealand’s digital future belongs to New Zealanders, starting now.

This article was originally published at

Don Christie is the Managing Director at Catalyst IT, one of New Zealand’s largest independant IT firms. He is also a founding board member of NZRise and tweets regularly at @NormNZ

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