Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Innovation, Maori, and the Māori Economy: a flat or lumpy world?

Submitting the following paper for the upcoming Nga Pae o te Maramatanga Traditional Knowledges Conference in Auckland, June 27-30. In it I outline how innovation has been framed in contemporary Maori economic development using a simple dichotomy for landscape. On the one hand, the rapid diffusion of information communication technologies (ICTs) has ‘flattened’ the world, reducing the costs of trade but making greater wealth, and hopefully happiness, possible for those individuals and nation-states that proactively engage with the processes of globalisation. On the other hand, others decry the obvious ‘lumpiness’ of the world where poverty clearly constrains many individuals and communities from benefiting from any such engagement.

The paper pulls together disparate ideas and examples of innovation with the aim of presenting some of the history and cultures of innovation that might be relevant to Māori in navigating what is certainly a bigger world, flat or lumpy.

Innovation, Māori, and the Māori Economy: a flat or lumpy world?


This paper outlines how innovation has been framed in contemporary Māori economic development using a simple dichotomy for landscape. On the one hand, the rapid diffusion of information communication technologies (ICTs) has ‘flattened’ the world, reducing the costs of trade but making greater wealth, and presumably happiness and security, possible for those societies and nation-states that proactively engage with the processes of globalisation. On the other hand, others decry the obvious ‘lumpiness’ of the world where poverty clearly constrains many individuals and communities from benefiting from any such engagement. This paper pulls together disparate ideas and examples of innovation with the aim of presenting some of the history and cultures of innovation relevant to Māori in navigating what is certainly a bigger world, flat or lumpy.

Keywords: innovation, Indigenous economies, science, development, Māori communities


By standard indicators the NZ economy continues to underperform and its relative decline (especially to neighbouring Australia) has not abated (McCann, 2009). A significant source of future growth is seen to reside with Māori (especially iwi) ventures, particularly in the primary sector where Māori agribusinesses are framed as the ‘sleeping giant’ of the New Zealand (Lambert, 2011).

Innovation in this context is often glossed as advancing technology, the theoretical examination of which roughly begins at the time of Māori colonisation. James Stuart Mill (1848) articulated the role of technology in his Principles of Political Economy when he described four fundamental sources of national wealth (represented by ‘Y’ in the following equations), namely capital (K), labour (L), land (T) and what he labels ‘productiveness’ (p). The relationships are:

Y = K + L + T + p

In plain language, a nation’s wealth is how it combines capital, land and labour, and what has been variously called productiveness/productivity but which we now recognise as ‘innovation’. But as Kiwi economist Brian Easton (1997) points out, this ‘arithmetic residual’ and has no explanatory ability, indeed has been described as a ‘coefficient of ignorance’. For the early capitalists, this theoretical ignorance was of no importance as long as profits could be made. Science and technology were thus harnessed along with land, labour, and capital to enable the supply of new or better products or services to the market, and improvements to the processes by which such things were made or supplied. In simple terms, innovation creates or alters demand or lowers costs, therefore increasing profits.

This coupling of innovation to profit is actually a much reduced conceptualisation of innovation which is better understood as any new idea, object, or activity, or even the rediscovery of an idea, object, or activity regardless of its commercial worth. But the term ‘innovation’ as it is increasingly used in Māori economic discourse broadly follows current commercial usage as “[t]he search for and development of new or improved production, management, sales or marketing processes that have the potential to add value to a firm’s, an enterprise’s, an industry’s, or a sector’s offering to end-users and/or consumers” (Te Puni Kokiri, 2010, p. 36). The role of innovation in increasing profit was promoted by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter who considered ‘technical change’ central to modern economics and fundamental feature of capitalist economies (Schumpeter, 1928). Such change was destructive in that it consigned existing inventories, techniques, implements and ideas to obsolescence (e.g., the closure of unproductive/old abattoirs across Aotearoa/NZ) but also creative as it laid the foundations for change by forcing the reallocation of capital and resources (e.g., towards eco-tourism or software development), hence Schumpeter’s term ‘creative destruction’.

In order to arrest the apparent decline of national economies, innovative/novel products are continually developed, particularly for consumers seeking ‘quality’ attributes pertaining to environmental health, sustainability, ecological resilience issues and so on (Saunders, Allison, Wreford, & Emanuelson, 2005). Indigenous ventures, including Māori, now attempt to satisfy these relatively wealthy consumers and their values (Chapman-Smith, 2012) although the targeted ‘niche’ markets can still be very large and difficult to supply.

But many so-called markets remain unfulfilled despite considerable demand, not least in health care and environmental management. This inability of market forces to recognise and remedy future threats to national or regional economies is seen to be the primary cause of unsustainability (Becker & Jahn, 1999), further complicating the role of technological innovation which is assumed as the means to improve productivity, as the cause of uncertainty in more broadly ascribed development goals, and as the solution to these concerns.
Is the world flat or lumpy?

So, ongoing innovation is increasingly seen as vital to questions of national comparative advantage, the competitiveness of firms, long-term economic growth, trade, finance, employment, manufacturing and services, and as integral to the sustainable development of Māori resources (Lambert, 2008). Importantly, the current context for economic development is global, with geographical and cultural ‘obstacles’ interpreted as having diminishing effects through ongoing technological advances, particularly with modern ICTs. Thomas Friedman (2005) argues that cheap communication and travel have ‘flattened’ the world, making greater wealth possible for those individuals and nation-states that proactively engage with the processes of globalisation. For Friedman, globalisation is broadly interpreted as increasingly interdependent participation in extensive chains of production that compete for cheap labour and raw materials from the developing world to ‘satisfy’ demand in both the developing world (where there is a growing number of wealthy and self-consciously discerning elites) and the markets of the ‘West’.

Others have decried the obvious ‘lumpiness’ of the world, evident in both developing countries, where extreme poverty constrained many individuals and communities from benefiting from the new global supply chains (Smith, 2005), and the developed world, where less dramatic but similar disparities persist. 

Māori and Innovation
Constraints to Māori participation in innovation are somewhat glaring. When innovation was theorized as residing within research, science, and technology (RS&T) institutions, Māori lacked critical mass in shaping the processes of a period characterised by the ‘science push’ concept (Fig. 1).

In this model, Māori participation has been minor and being part of any ‘value chain’ has proven difficult (Te Puni Kokiri, 2010). This model can be identified in Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) strategy lead by the Ministry of Primary Industries that has invested in programmes on wool, red meat, dairy, aquaculture, mānuka honey and forestry. Government funding is to be matched by industry investment with the aim of ‘boosting economic growth through research and innovation…to transform great ideas into research, development, and ultimately products, jobs and growth’ (Carter, 2011).

This linear ‘science push’ model was challenged by the ‘market pull’ concept in the 1970s as further empirical evidence showed the complexity of the relationship between science, technology and innovation (Martin & Nightingale, 2000). Through the 1980s and 1990s, international research revealed that the ability to innovate was deeply embedded within firms as collectives of people, capital and ideas. This included a realisation of the importance of networks, including education, localised knowledge and the role of tacit knowledge (Gibbons & Johnston, 1974).

As Fagerberg and Verspagen (2009) point out, academia has now formalised ‘Innovation Studies’ although this still amounts to a disparate collection of approaches. Some approaches have coalesced around the methodologies of geography and policy studies; others have been moulded by the ‘free-wheeling discursive voyages’ into capitalism described by Schumpeter. Beyond this, Smits (2002) notes that innovation is now linked to the emergence of a ‘porous society’ in which ‘knowledge intensive intermediaries’ have a fundamental role combining the insights and abilities of both users and producers. Metcalfe (2007) usefully distinguishes between innovation ecologies, comprised of those people that are the ‘repositories and generators of new knowledge’, and innovation systems or ‘connections between the components that ensure the flow of information necessary for innovation to take place’. This holistic interpretation of innovation has several antecedents. Wulf (2007) referred to an ‘ecology’ of innovation, comprising ‘interrelated institutions, laws, regulations, and policies providing an innovation infrastructure that entails education, research, tax policy, and intellectual property protection, among others.’ Dvir and Pasher (2004) list a number of attributes to innovation ecology, including the time and space to muse; an organisational structure with weak boundaries and a low emphasis on hierarchy; tolerance of risk; clear strategies and attention to the future; recognition and incentives; financial capital; human diversity; and conversations – the ‘unifying principle’.

While the term ‘ecosystem’ has been applied to innovation in NZ (see, e.g., New Zealand Institute, 2009), the debate is poorly informed by the research literature, dominated by various statistical analyses (often framed or emanating from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, e.g., Statistics New Zealand, 2009). Te Puni Kōkiri has released several interlinked reports that model scenarios of better implementation of science and innovation for developing the Māori economy (Te Puni Kokiri, 2010). Funding remains small and insecure; just $5 million is allocated to the Vision Mātauranga Capability MSI funding.

One approach to interpreting how Māori participate in the networks of innovation is through the active insertion of alternative cultural logics - ‘Kaupapa Māori’ - to directly or indirectly influence research, science, and technology. Consider Figure 2:

This model explicitly builds the ‘cultural environment’ into the innovation process by increasing the spectrum of creativity available for problem-solving. Where identified, it could be argued there is an opportunity for an ‘Indigenous turn’ in which localised communities and their cultures interrogate ‘outsiders’ according to cultural traditions that may include, for example, holistic interpretations of the world and self-determined strategies in which there is no ‘bottom-line’ to cultural aspirations.

But what are the implications for Māori of this ‘innovate or die’ mentality? Although the latest iteration of innovation strategies incorporates mātauranga Māori, is the landscape any smoother? It could be argued that for Māori, fundamental insights come from our communities and their ‘non-certified’ experts. Assimilating or even simply accessing their knowledge is difficult, although the rise of non-certified expertise in many areas indicates how historical boundaries between scientific expertise and a wider citizenry have been eroded (Figure 3).

Some critics have expressed either reservations or complete scepticism about the rigour or applicability of mātauranga Māori in contemporary settings. Wider ideological opponents describe Indigenous methodologies as ‘irrational’ and ‘unscientific’, standard insults against the contagion of native cultures threatening so-called rational European philosophy. However, such controversies merely emphasises the ethical, philosophical, and practical challenges posed when multiple knowledge bases collide and collaborate.

The predominant context for contemporary Māori development is one of highly fluid capital and knowledge that moves through extensive transnational networks, a feature of the modern agribusiness supply chains Māori already engage with. Participants in these networks continually re-imagine and re-orient their personal and collective involvement according to such decisions as the utilisation (or not) of natural resources, how such utilisation proceeds, and the intergenerational transfer of assets and liabilities. Much of the expansion of the Māori economy is in primary production through a number of agri/forestry/aquaculture and fisheries ventures, some of considerable size. Other ventures seek large-scale development of urban and peri-urban lands for residential and commercial uses in the face of growing ecological and social barriers (Wright, 2008).

The recently elevated ‘science and innovation’ platform on which the country might ‘close the gap’ with Australia is a dubious national goal for Māori, many of whom emigrate to Australia to close their own gaps! Again, this state strategy attempts to frame innovation for Māori without including all the people, processes or places we ourselves might bring to the table. Māori connect more dots, much like the current models of innovation that emphasise the interconnectedness or ‘ecology’ of innovation. Connecting more dots seems to be what is needed for the country’s – indeed the planet’s – sustainable development.

The personal abilities of the tactical players – often called ‘knowledge workers’ - is thus at the heart of any strategy. Serious concerns have been raised about the retention of young researchers (Ihaka, 2009; Massaro, Yogeeswaran, & Black, 2012); post-doctoral research positions are reported to have declined by 25% (Hendry, 2012). Many knowledge workers are subject to increasingly vulnerable and temporary employment conditions, and the lure of international research positions is a natural outcome of the economic model followed. Further, many Māori postgraduates are young wāhine who face additional risk factors in a work environment where chauvinist and racist attitudes persist despite the clearly negative effects on completion, outputs, rigour, professionalism, and retention. Fig. 4 represents a generic social network in which an individual student might inhabit. This network would include whānau, friends, possibly one or more Māori communities as participants, mentors, and collaborators, as well as university or wānanga staff and colleagues and possibly Crown Research Institute, corporate and industry participants. The array of issues and challenges are considerable.

This view of innovation emphasises what Māori educationalist Wally Penetito called the ‘sophistication of relationships’, an acknowledgement of fundamental influences on the success or failure of so much of our social world. It could be said that what Māori bring to innovation is the requirement that programmes and projects require occasionally intensive, possibly ongoing, intergenerational, international interaction. The challenges faced by Māori are not ours alone, although we bring our own history, culture and aspirations to the debate. Ultimately, any innovation strategy is implemented by individuals and groups with various agendas and abilities. Finding, engaging, trusting and supporting them will be as challenging as figuring out what they should do.
Smoothing out the lumps

Global extant forces now directly affect the location and practice of innovation in a way quite distinct from previous periods. The resulting economic spaces impact on the growth and influence of the Māori economy, challenging Māori as drivers, practitioners, and purchasers of innovation. The assertion of Māori cultural logics within innovation ecosystems also challenges universities, funding bodies, ethics committees, corporations, voters, and tax payers. Lumpiness as far as the eye can see!

While accusation and controversies abound in collaborative projects involving non-Māori, by accepting and using mātauranga and Kaupapa Māori – even superficially - Pākeha exhibit an essential modern skill: the skill and pragmatism to assimilate ‘all forms or aspects of social activity without exception’, to understand and apply, not only of one particular methodology but any methodology or variation (Feyerbend, 1975, p. 10).

Likewise innovators must be able to pass from one approach to another ‘in the quickest and most unexpected manner’ (ibid.). Further, good innovation is supported from above and below, is networked both here and overseas, and the benefits will be disseminated to all who have contributed, and all who need those innovations for their collective health and security. At all levels this requires understanding, vision, commitment, courage, cooperation, and perseverance, in other words leadership. Innovation will draw on iwi capital (economic, environmental, social, and cultural) through education, training and mentoring programmes, and be reliant on the sophistication of their public and private, local and global relationships. In this sense, it might be said some innovation (particularly in the environmental sciences, community sustainability programmes, biodiversity etc.) is taking an Indigenous turn to navigate what lumps exist on our innovation landscape. The challenge remains to improve the combination of land, labour, capital through social innovation to better contribute to the growth of the Aotearoa/New Zealand economy and, by a still contested association, the development of Māori society.

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