Flying taxis showcase New Zealand as a global tech incubator

Silicon Valley is the unquestioned home of technological innovation. Ambitious entrepreneurs from across the world still flock to it, despite a housing crisis even worse than Auckland’s.

Just as a successful Silicon Valley product is often copied and pasted overseas (TradeMe was New Zealand’s version of eBay, for example), there have been many attempts to copy Silicon Valley itself. Multiple cities across the world have tried to stake a claim as the Silicon Valley of their country.

Here in New Zealand, Wellington techies co-opted the name Silicon Welly. Cases have been made in the media for Auckland and Christchurch too.

But perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way round. Instead of trying to become a local version of Silicon Valley, New Zealand ought to be looking for opportunities to partner with it.

Why? Because we’re a great place to test new technologies, due to our relative isolation and our tech savvy people.

Luckily for us, some Silicon Valley power brokers have already picked us out as a test bed for innovation.

The New York Times ran a prominent story last week about “flying taxis” being developed in New Zealand. A company called Kitty Hawk is reportedly testing “a new kind of fully electric, self-piloting flying taxi.” The company is being funded by Google co-founder Larry Page.

A Stuff report confirmed that Kitty Hawk has been doing secret test runs of the flying taxi in “a quiet corner of Canterbury” since October. So it’s been able to stay under the radar, so to speak, for about six months.

Larry Page and his cohorts brought their project in New Zealand primarily because of strict US government regulations around autonomous vehicles. But I bet it was also nice to escape the breathless hype prevalent in Silicon Valley.

To our government’s credit, it has been responsive to Kitty Hawk’s needs and flexible about where this may lead. The New York Times reported that the government has “reached an agreement to test Kitty Hawk’s autonomous planes as part of an official certification process.”

If this pans out, New Zealand will be the first country in the world to have a commercial network of flying taxis. This could be as little as three years away, although I’d take that prediction with a grain of salt. Autonomous vehicles have yet to be fully regulated anywhere in the world, including New Zealand.

A flying taxi isn’t the only secretive technology project being developed in New Zealand, away from the glare of American media.

Last year, Apple reportedly opened an office in Wellington in order to develop augmented reality technology. It was said to have hired several ex-Weta Digital employees for the project. There’s been no news since about this mysterious kiwi Apple team, but that only proves the point: New Zealand is a place where new technology can be incubated in secret.

New Zealand is also known to be a place where Silicon Valley entrepreneurs migrate to once they’ve cashed up. In 2013, two brothers from California – Matthew and Brian Monahan – started buying up large amounts of property in Upper Hutt. A special Stuff report last year revealed the brothers aim to turn New Zealand into an “innovation nation,” to help solve the world’s problems with new technology.

The Monohan brothers went on to form the Edmund Hillary Fellowship (EHF), a programme that issues “global impact” visas to ambitious overseas entrepreneurs. This is attracting some talented people to our shores. For example the three-person team behind SpaceBase, a startup that aims to build a “democratised platform for Space.” It’s an ambitious goal, but who’s to say it’s not possible after kiwi company Rocket Lab launched New Zealand’s first rocket into orbit earlier this year.

I’m not suggesting we ignore our own, homegrown startups, because we’ve had our share of global success stories too. Xero grew from a tiny Wellington startup in 2007, to a major global player in the accounting software market today.

But we have to accept that we’ll never be a major technological hub like Silicon Valley. At best we’re an incubator, not a hub.

That isn’t a bad thing. If the flying taxis become a viable, working product here, then Larry Page and co have a template for success to take back to the US. Even with Xero, founder Rod Drury’s goal from day one was to take his product to much bigger and more profitable countries, like the UK and the US. Our economy benefits from these activities through jobs, global connections, and investment opportunities.

Will New Zealand ever be a world leader in innovation? No way. But we should embrace our growing role as a test bed for cutting edge technologies. As Jacinda Ardern commented about Kitty Hawk, “our doors are open for people with great ideas who want to turn them into reality”.

So let’s promote the kiwi incubator, instead of trying to create a local version of Silicon Valley.