As New Zealand’s vaccine rollout is completed by the end of this year, it is vital that we all discuss and debate what our next normal might look like.
It won’t be the same as before Covid but will need to be “normal” in the sense that it should provide stability and confidence for people to get on with their lives and understand the new ways in which we might live.
Our next normal will be about ensuring that we can have as much freedom as possible while ensuring that serious illness and death from Covid is minimised. Absolutes either of freedom or public health are unlikely to be helpful in guiding our way forward. We don’t have those absolutes anywhere else in our lives. That is not how we choose to live in a liberal democracy.
As we move forward, we might usefully focus on a few broad issues:
The first of course relates to health. Ensuring that we get the fastest and best possible access to vaccines and other public health measures that might keep us safe and well. Add to that a much bigger focus on mental health. Around the world we have seen major issues in mental wellbeing brought to the surface by Covid.
Another is the capacity of vital public services like education to operate in this new world. We cannot continue to have our children out of school and suffering the consequences of widening educational, digital and income inequality.
A third needs to be prosperity. The enormous sums the Government has spent on Covid response will need to be paid back somehow. We have to make sure our country is as prosperous as possible in order to pay for the next emergency and of course, all the other things that are still pressing like infrastructure, housing and climate change. Prosperity is the way we will keep our best and brightest here and attract the kind of talent we need. That is about a business-friendly, growth-oriented agenda.
How might we prepare ourselves for this change over the next few months?
To my mind, there are two very important things we need to change about what we are doing now to succeed in the future.
We must ensure that more people in New Zealand have their say about what the future might look like. Public debate around Covid has been dominated by public health gurus of one sort or another. That may have been appropriate in the past, but it won’t serve us well for understanding our next normal.
One of the reasons our country is so successful is that we hear from lots of voices and make decisions accordingly.
Therefore, it’s vital that Government encourages an empowered diversity of voices about what our future might look like. This should include iwi and pacific peoples, local government, educationalists and business people, just to name a few.
One initiative Government should start right now is to add to the public health advisory bodies that advise us so publicly on our future, with other public initiatives focusing on future issues. What will the future of education look like post-Covid? What do we do to bridge the digital divide? What will future business and travel arrangements look like? What do small businesses need to succeed? This could contribute to a proper national debate that we could all feel engaged in.
The second thing we need to change is to focus on the role that innovation might play in our ongoing Covid response. One of our great strengths is our innovation system, including medical technology and devices. Yet funding levers provided by Government have not really responded. That is not to say that nothing has happened.
For example, Callaghan Innovation distributed some funding for Covid-related innovation. That’s a good start but much more needs to be done. After all, we have been telling ourselves for years that more high-tech jobs mean a better, more productive future.
We should be actively searching around the world for the latest Covid innovations that are working and bring them to New Zealand quickly.
Also, and more importantly, we should be focusing on our own homegrown talent through our domestic tech incubators, innovative businesses, and start-ups to help New Zealand lead the world in Covid-related technology and innovation.
Deep tech firms in NZ are already doing world-class work in areas such as antibody diagnostics and high-tech face masks. Much more could happen if we actively focused on it and properly funded it.
All of this will require a sea of change in the way in which our Covid response is organised though. The core ministries which have been leading the Covid response over the last year have hardly proved themselves to be innovative.
This is unsurprising.
Often large organisations, both in the public and private sectors, find innovation difficult. We need to think about new organisations, accountabilities and funding to enable these conversations and innovations to occur, to be celebrated and then to be used to build New Zealand’s prosperity, freedom and health response.
That way we might build a leadership position for New Zealand around the world for our next normal and contribute to better lives and a better future for all.
• Phil O’Reilly is managing director of Iron Duke.
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