New Zealand marries indigenous wisdom and worldliness for enterprise success

How does an isolated nation like New Zealand become a major player in the international marketplace?  The short answer is that they know how to weave. Lynne Dovey, SF ’02, who has spent the last four decades working for the New Zealand government in a range of policy roles, notes that the nation’s remoteness has inspired Kiwi entrepreneurs to embrace new ideas from around the world through trade relationships, scientific collaborations, and commercial partnerships.

But the country has a prodigious store of indigenous wisdom, Dovey says, and that knowledge is a vital part of the mix. Dovey says that the New Zealand government promotes a culture of entrepreneurship that leverages proprietary knowledge in areas that have become the nation’s province like biosecurity, healthcare, earthquake science, and renewable energy. Into that approach it integrates a healthy dose of ancient, homegrown Māori wisdom, the body of knowledge first brought to New Zealand by the Polynesian ancestors of present-day Māori. Woven together, these components have made for a thriving enterprise climate.

What Māori adds to the mix

n the Māori worldview, humans are connected physically and spiritually to land, water, air, and forests. People are an integral part of ecosystems and ecosystems are an essential part of people’s heritage. Such holistic thinking can be at odds with reductionist scientific approaches, so the goal is to develop knowledge management frameworks that can mix and reconcile traditional and modern knowledge in the R&D system—integrating the best of both perspectives. “We have the ability to tap, manage, apply, and transfer that indigenous wisdom to our thinking and research,” Dovey says. “It’s a rich natural resource we intend to leverage to the fullest.”

Dovey reports that New Zealand is investing considerable energy and financial resources into another of its homegrown resources—its top-notch university system. The New Zealand government has committed to creating a more far-reaching and agile R&D system that optimizes the innovation happening at science and technical universities across the country

“The idea is to create a world-leading science system that makes a more visible, measurable contribution to our productivity and wellbeing,” Dovey says. “The government’s job is to promote, inspire, support—not to pick winners. We have no intention of channeling capital into specific enterprises and just hope they’ll take off. We want to invest in a verdant environment for invention and entrepreneurship that increases the chance of success for Kiwi enterprises.”

Learn more about the enterprise climate in New Zealand.

Read the MIT Sloan Fellows Newsletter focused on government enterprise engines.

Is New Zealand the world’s best startup hub?