Techweek celebrates local innovation, but it’s not all kumbaya

Earlier this month, the second annual Techweek was held in 24 locations across New Zealand. The week-long celebration of local innovation featured 287 events, from Whangarei to Dunedin. It was a big step up from last year’s Techweek, which covered Auckland only. Originally created by Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), Techweek was subsequently handed over to the New Zealand Technology Industry Association (NZTech) to take it nationwide.

I asked Graeme Muller, CEO of NZTech, what the highlights of Techweek 2017 were for him. He told me he enjoyed seeing our traditional sectors, like farming, embracing technology (note: later in this column, you’ll read a dissenting view). At the Farming2020 conference, held in Rukuhia just outside Hamilton, Muller came across new technologies like sensors, data analytics and automation systems. In other events, he saw “how New Zealand companies are quickly developing great offerings in the latest technologies like AR/VR, Blockchain and AI.” To cap it all off, he said, the NZ Hi-Tech Awards were held at the end of the week and “recognised some of our country’s best.”

I myself went to two conferences as part of Techweek: MagnifyWorld in Auckland and Future Realities in Wellington. Both were focused on Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies, although Future Realities also featured experts in Internet of Things (IOT) and Artificial Intelligence, plus world-renowned science fiction author Neal Stephenson.

Future Realities was a new event for this year’s Techweek and managed to sell out in both Wellington and Auckland. It was the brainchild of Jessica Manins, who runs the VR production studio and consultancy Blackeye VR. I told Manins that I was particularly impressed with the high quality of the local presenters, who more than matched the overseas stars like Neal Stephenson. It was refreshing to see a local conference supporting local tech talent, instead of relying on so-called big names from overseas.

“We worked very hard on the curation of the event,” Manins replied, “and we wanted to make sure that our local talent had a chance to share their innovations. We often put international talent on a pedestal, but when it comes to storytelling and mixed reality we have some of the best in the world.” She pointed to Stephenson’s interviewer, Greg Broadmore from Weta Workshop, as a great example of “the high caliber talent we have in NZ.” I couldn’t agree more.

Another example of local tech talent was Tim Rastall of NEC, who gave an inspiring presentation showing how VR can be used to view Wellington City Council data. NEC’s 3D maps showed parking availability citywide and earthquake risks by location. It can also be used for urban planning (for example to visualize a new road plan) and simulations. Rastall noted that the VR views were possible thanks to Wellington City Council’s “open data” policies.

I got a chance to try out NEC’s VR views under an HTC Vive helmet at Future Realities, and can confirm it gives a much better view of data than, say, the 2D visualisations of GIS (think GeoMaps on your local city council’s website). While still in the prototype stage, NEC’s software is a great example of what’s possible for smart cities in New Zealand. I’d love to see this rolled out across the country.

It wasn’t just conferences in the big cities that made Techweek worthwhile. Events happened all over New Zealand. Two local podcasters, Mike Riversdale and Raj Khushal from Wellington, took a road trip up the North Island to check out Techweek in the provinces. The highlight was an event called Silicon Mahia, held in the little town of Mahia on the East Coast (about halfway between Napier and Gisborne). The event was convened by the Poutama Trust and featured talks on digital currency, drones, and food technology. Mike Riversdale told me that some of the presentations “challenged the status quo,” for example Dr. Rosie Bosworth’s talk about food technology and how it threatens the local farming industry. “Everyone had their brains stretched with the what’s rapidly approaching,” Riversdale said.

Dr. Bosworth’s presentation at Mahia was about alternatives to animal farming. She’s written before about how startups are “successfully producing tasty, healthy and environmentally friendly protein, milk and dairy product alternatives,” along with substitutes for meat “that taste like the real thing.” This is a message that (unsurprisingly) isn’t going down well with New Zealand farmers. Plus, as Raj Khushal pointed out in the accompanying podcast, many people perceive lab-made food to be unnatural. Bosworth’s reply to that? “There’s nothing natural about a chicken pumped full of hormones.”

Perhaps at next year’s Techweek, we can get Dr. Bosworth on a panel with Fonterra representatives at the Farming2020 conference, so that both viewpoints can be thrashed out. It’s not all Kumbaya when it comes to technology disruptions.

Despite the provocative discussions and fun times in Mahia, Mike Riversdale had some misgivings about what he and Khushal discovered on their Techweek road trip. “Everyone seemed to be living in their own bubble,” he told me, “doing amazing stuff, but not connected to those doing similar work – or those who could assist.” He hopes that people make an effort to get outside their local bubbles and reach out to others across New Zealand. “With all that enthusiasm during one week, let’s hope we don’t have to start again in 2018,” he said.

I asked NZTech CEO Graeme Muller what we can expect for Techweek in 2018. “Next year I would love to see a few more towns around New Zealand getting involved, and in particular their schools,” he replied. The schools that took part this year “found it really valuable having their local tech companies engaging with students and teachers.”

I second that, and also I’d like to suggest that city councils get even more involved next year. Techweek is already well supported by our central government and some city councils, but I’d love to see more tech projects get the green light in our towns and cities. For example: it’s great that Wellington City Council has a prototype VR viewer for public data, but how about a commitment to bringing it to the people?

Techweek should not only be a celebration of local tech talent, but of innovation being implemented locally too.