Saturday morning, I gulped down some fresh strawberries and a savory and took the plane down to Dunedin, on the southern tip of the South Island. The plane flew by the Southern Alps, then headed into the white-speckled hills of sheep country. New Zealand has 65 million sheep and 3 million people, and the South Island is the site of huge farms.
In Dunedin, I met Ian Forrester, Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Research, Science, and Technology. A former professor at Otago University in Dunedin, he keeps a house there even though he lives most of the time in Wellington.
The house was an old farm house, honeycombed with gardens and pastures for the horses and sheep. Ian’s son, a medical student at Otago, lives there year round and Ian had come down for the summer holidays. We sat in a rose garden and drank Speight’s Beer (“Pride of the South” as the label reads, though in much the same sense as Stroh’s would be considered the pride of Detroit) while Ian’s son cooked up some artichokes from the garden.
Ian started at Otago as a biochemistry professor. He was marginally interested in computers, using tools like Medline to search databases and using an early Apple computer. His main interests, though, were medicine and agriculture. Agriculture is the key industry in New Zealand and Ian was studying problems related to livestock.
Although bats were the only native mammal to the country, deer, elk (brought in by Teddy Roosevelt), and lots and lots of sheep had taken root. Ian’s interest was in helping find ways to keep the population of animals genetically healthy. On a Ford Foundation fellowship in Laramie, Wyoming, he looked at topics like how to freeze elk semen to increase the diversity of the genetic pool. Throughout the 1980's, Ian continued this line of research. He spent a few more years at Otago, got interested in biotechnology, and went to Madison, Wisconsin for a few years.
Meanwhile, New Zealand was undergoing a revolution. The 1987 stock market crash had reduced the stock index by one-third and recovery was only marginal. GDP was growing by only a fraction of a percent.
In this dismal economic climate, and with a bloated government bureaucracy, New Zealand initiated a drastic deregulation campaign. Many large government departments became state-owned enterprises and many were then sold off. The telephone company, for example, was sold to Ameritech and Bell Atlantic.
Even traditional government departments began to be run like businesses. Heads of government departments were called chief executives. These executives negotiated contracts with specific output goals with the cabinet ministers for the area. Government employees were put under contracts.
Change was equally drastic in the area of government-sponsored research. New Zealand had long emphasized government laboratories over university efforts for research. The government researchers were spread out in different ministries, such as agriculture and forestry.
A small ministry of 30 people, to which Ian belongs, was formed to advise the cabinet on national research policies. Once the cabinet decided on national policy, money was funneled into a Public Good Science Fund, administered by a foundation. Researchers who wanted money submitted bids and, if they were awarded, signed contracts. Researchers were no longer guaranteed money if their work did not meet the strategic directions set out by the cabinet.
The next step was to remove the research efforts from the operational arms of the government. Ian and others worked as part of a committee which recommended that 10 independent research institutes be established, each headed by a chief executive. This plan was approved in June 1991 and had been implemented so quickly that the institutes were opening their doors a mere one year later.
As Chief Scientist, Ian was both scientific advisor to the government and an advocate for researchers. In going around and talking to people, he quickly saw that getting computers and communications onto the desks of researchers was a way to help the entire scientific community.
Although there was a university network in place, linked to PACCOM, each of the government research groups also had their own networks. The technical level of networking was uneven throughout the country and interconnection was sporadic.
With independent research institutes being formed, it was evident that some form of unified research network was needed. As part of the proposal to form the Crown Research Institutes, a recommendation was inserted to make a national research network a strategic direction. When the cabinet approved the divestiture plan for the institutes, a side benefit was approval for the national net.
Working out the mechanics for institutes and networks kept Ian busy most of the time, but as the first occupant of the post of Chief Scientist, he also had some freedom to help define his job. Looking at a national research network exposed Ian to topics like broadband networks. If this was the wave of the future, was there some way to speed up the future?
This was the genesis for the idea of making New Zealand into a world communications laboratory. Ian started to push the idea that the country could become a testbed for new technologies. Massive deregulation, small size, and an educated workforce would all make New Zealand an attractive place for large corporations to deploy and tune new technologies.
With unemployment at 10 percent and GDP flat, this also might be a way out of New Zealand’s economic doldrums. Applications could be deployed to make industry more competitive and the workforce could be trained in high technology. He prepared a paper on the idea for the cabinet which authorized an in-depth study. When the second briefing paper was submitted, the cabinet asked Ian to start working with the private sector to develop a business plan.
In New Zealand’s climate of deregulation, the World Communications Laboratory was certainly not going to be a large government project. Instead, Ian was trying to form a coalition, led by government but working with industry.
How could New Zealand get a state-of-the-art telecommunications system, the prerequisite to becoming a world testbed? Ian was hoping to follow the example set by the State of Connecticut. By pooling the purchasing power for telecommunications services and promising a long-term commitment, the state was able to convince Southern New England Bell that it was a sound business decision to invest in a large fiber network.
When I spoke to Ian, many of the details of the World Communications Laboratory were vague; the project was long on vision and short on substance. However, an active campaign was being waged to convince large corporations inside and outside of New Zealand as well as the general population that the project was viable.
The project was publicly unveiled to people in New Zealand in November 1991. To help build a constituency, Ian emphasized the benefits of high technology to traditional industries such as agriculture. He painted a picture of food stores in England using interactive video to decide how they wanted lamb chops cut. The specifications would go straight to the meat packing plant, which would scan the carcasses and make the optimal cuts. Just-in-time inventory management for the meat-packing industry.
At the same time, he was trying to drum up support from large multinational corporations for the project. He held a telephone conference with participants from groups like American Airlines and Citicorp to brief them on his vision.
Ian had adopted the “highways of the future” metaphor of Senator Gore with a vengeance. He saw the ports of the information age being established, and he wanted New Zealand to be one of those ports. The challenge would be building a political consensus and then performing the hard technical work to turn the vision into reality.
Ian Forrestor’s World Communications Laboratory might or might not get off the ground, but this high-level policy focus on information technology was an important first step. Even if the only result turned out to be a good national research network, Ian’s efforts would have paid off handsomely.