Manufacturing the next frontier for Kiwi creators
New Zealand could excel in high-tech manufacturing by harnessing the same creativity that brought its film and music industries to the fore, American Shawn O'Keefe believes.
The creative sector has often been associated with artsy and digital products such as books, films and computer games.
But technologies such as 3-D printing and the "internet of things" mean the digital economy and manufacturing are starting to collide in new ways, says O'Keefe.
He has now moved to Wellington to head a drive by technology incubator Creative HQ to help revive the country's manufacturing fortunes.
O'Keefe himself "found technology" through music, dropping out from university to tour with Indie band American Analog Set, before later landing a job helping organise SBSX Interactive, a technology-focussed spin-off of the massive South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
He spent 14 years as a producer and strategist for the technology show, seeing its staff grow from two to a team of 30. He was lured to New Zealand with his family after a mountain-biking poster caught his eye at a Grow Wellington boothe at the exhibition, and he now lives in the harbour suburb of Eastbourne.
One of his first tasks has been to recruit eight to 10 startups to join a 12-week "Lightning Lab" mentoring programme that will kick off in Lower Hutt in August. Participants will get seed funding and will be able to tap into expertise from Callaghan Innovation's Gracefield labs.
Candidates include a company that plans to make more sustainable wooden surf boards and another that believes it has an innovative way to stop water-loss in underground pipes.
Companies such as Dyson, which revolutionised vacuum cleaners and hand dryers, have shown how creativity and innovation can combine to transform the most mundane products.
"I have had a front-row seat to a lot of the innovation and creativity happening in the US for a long time, and a lot of the people that innovated in the digital space are looking around them and integrating technology into objects," O'Keefe says.
"I am seeing a lot of talented creators turn their attention to the 'maker space' and realise that they have access to tools that they never had access to before such as 3-D printing and CFC machining. There is an amazing two-way street between the digital space and the industrial design community."
CFC machining involves making objects out of super-strong and light carbon fibre composites.
O'Keefe believes the next round of innovation will come from building internet connectivity into more manufactured goods. "The things we buy are going to be able to connect to other things and act behind the scenes on our behalf."
He cites as an example the Nest thermostat, a smart-home device that was snapped up by Google in a US$3.2 billion acquisition last year.
O'Keefe says he has been impressed by the spirit of inventiveness in New Zealand and doffs his cap to the "No 8 wire" mentality.
But at the same time he is sceptical that populations differ fundamentally in their creative potential. "The more I travel, I realise that people are more or less the same everywhere. Human nature has been what it is for a really long time."
Even if we like to think of ourselves as especially inventive, Kiwi startups won't be competing in a global manufacturing marketplace that is standing still.
Manufacturing giant China is on a drive to increase creativity in its business community through initiatives such as the development of its "798 Art District" in Beijing.
It is a sprawling complex of galleries, design shops and street art set amongst the post-industrial backdrop of an abandoned military factory.
O'Keefe says creativity is more authentic when it is "organic and comes from the bottom up", but he also says that unleashing it is mainly a question of giving people the right resources and tools.
"You can't force it but it will grow organically if you give it the appropriate ingredients."