Last year, I had a look at how science and innovation are made Down Under. In some ways, I saw similarities with another country I know, France. But, at the same time, I discovered a few technological issues very specific to New Zealand. I’ll try to do a small recap here.
New Zealand performs well at IT and electronics. They may lack of skilled engineers and developpers, but the country combines first-class training, like at Auckland University of Technology or Otago Polytechnic, and world-renowned research labs. Last year, I mentioned the Human Interface Technology (HIT) laboratory (the one in Christchurch, not Washington DC !). HIT partners with Google or French company Aldebaran Robotics. Their goal is to set standards for more efficient and emotionally aware robots or human interfaces. I reported about one project using Google Glass, to see buildings in augmented reality, before they were destroyed by earthquakes in the former capital city :
Start-ups make money on wearable electronics too. A company that buzzed a lot in 2014 is Stretch Sense. They recently won the Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup, in the Sport and Fitness category. This spin-off from an Auckland research laboratory wants to become a global retailer of flexible sensors for sports, medicine or animation. Last time I heard, they were working on their production line. Like elsewhere, wearable technology in New Zealand is getting more discrete. Look at MeMini for instance : the camera’s main feature is to travel back in time, but it’s tiny enough to stick it on your clothes. “Geekiness”, with freedom of movement, in other words.
One interesting fact about MeMini and other technology ventures, is that they are partly crowdfunded. Kickstarter launched their kiwi platform by the end of 2013 only. It will be interesting to see whether crowdfunding becomes a real trend here.
The battle for fast-Internet
Lack of Internet coverage is probably the first thing that will annoy you in New-Zealand, especially if you travel. Worse, when you get some, you have to pay in most case. It‘s not a coincidence that Google experiments 3G-enabled balloons in the kiwi stratosphere. What’s more, in terms of speed, New Zealand ranks only 47th, of 193 countries. Despite a small population, a lot can be done to improve Internet technology, even in big cities. Wellington was for instance the only town I visited where I could get free Wi-fi outside.
That’s one reason explaining the ongoing race between Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) providers in the country. Chorus, with its Gigatown challenge, definitely caught the most attention in 2014. It received many critics as well, beginning with the ability for the telecom company to deliver their fiber optic technology in just one town. With the biggest Internet-Service Provider now on board, it seems that Chorus was right from the start. They also succeeded to raise New Zealanders awareness about UFB.
Before being reelected, current Prime Minister John Key revealed plans to extend UFB access to 80% of the population.
Fun in science
Like other rich nations, New Zealand has to cope with disinterest in science and scientific carreers. If unaddressed, this could have a negative impact on innovation Down Under. The politics have their own response on the matter, so do scientists. They can make research both more visible and entertaining. At this game, I found out that kiwi women were better performers than men, overall. Here are a few famous science popularizer I spotted last year : microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, the very versatile “Nanogirl” a.k.a. Michelle Dickinson, science journalist Veronika Meduna who wrote a popular book on research in Antarctica, astronomy-lover and museum director Ian Griffin. Last but not least, Tweet your Science is a Twitter account listing more than 500 scientists active on the social network worldwide, and giving tips to be good at it. Its author recently created Pop Up Science, a similar iniative, but towards kids. Turns out this person is also a she !
From time to time, there are (rare) occasions where science is its own rocket booster in medias. There have been several examples in 2014, but if I had to pick one, I would choose the “Beer Trap”. This conservation initiative from university students traded dead rats, a dangerous pest in New Zealand, for beers. Beer to involve students in science projects is a bit cliché, but it worked :
The Beer Trap campaign was a great success; many rats, hedgehogs and mice have been eradicated: http://t.co/LcIqmxJlmt
— Gareth Morgan (@garethmorgannz) 10 Juin 2014
Let’s wish for more crazy ideas like this in 2015, to nurture the next generation of researchers and entrepreneurs.
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