The Genesis of Kiwi Ingenuity
Many of you reading this would have heard of 'Number Eight Wire'. A common phrase as familiar as the old kiwi favourite, pavlova. In case you didn't know, Number 8 Wire is quite literally, a gauge of steel wire, commonly used in rural fencing. That is, fences around paddocks which keep the sheep in, not two blokes in tights fighting each other with floppy swords.
The Ol' Kiwi Way
In 1976, New Zealand adopted the metric system and Number 8 Wire officially became 4.0mm gauge wire. Despite this, the tradition of calling it Number 8 still lives on to this day. A simple phrase has grown to represent Kiwi ingenuity and resourcefulness; a can-do attitude and ability to think laterally to solve a problem. Perhaps this was borne out of isolation; in the 1800's England was a long way to travel for spare parts. The early settlers had to adapt and improvise and Number 8 wire was readily available. Out of years of hardship and struggles to make the new country work, grew the myth of the Number 8 Wire mentality; commonly known as Kiwi ingenuity. In essence, New Zealanders; particularly the men, are practical, problem-solver types, able to invent, fix and create machinery with basically whatever scraps they have lying around in the garden shed.
From this stemmed a long line of New Zealand entrepreneurs, inventors and can-do types who went out and changed the world with their creations. This unique mindset has long offered a competitive advantage to New Zealanders thus far and has seen the success of many Kiwi inventions - the jetboat, electric fence, bungy jumping and even the egg beater.
From small beginnings
This same mindset is also responsible for launching several hugely successful Kiwi startups, such as Xero, who are now a global company with 20 offices and more than 1400 employees. What started out as a product for a handful of local companies has turned into a market leading software, recording over NZD$1 Trillion of transactions in 2016. With small beginnings, Xero spent five years in New Zealand, refining and building its product to become "The Apple of accounting". With a big picture view from day one, they managed to raise $15 million by listing the company on the NZ stock exchange; actively defying the myth that New Zealand is not a suitable place for startups.
Those we celebrate
I could continue for weeks about all the different creations that have come out of New Zealand over the last century or more. Nowadays some of them are well celebrated and acknowledged thoroughly. In some instances, the brilliant minds behind such innovation are usually immortalised in film and a bronze statue is cast in their likeness, such as the famous Burt Munro's 'World's Fastest Indian' erected proudly on the boundary of Queen's Park in Invercargill.
Burt was the quintessential Kiwi inventor, working from and living in his shed to be near his beloved creations. Even the motorbike pistons were hand-cast using sand from local beaches and usually formed in a tin can. They were then painstakingly finished with file and lathe, a true testament to patience and an innate feeling for design.
Another prime example of true kiwi ingenuity is Richard Pearse. Today, near the site of his farm outside of Timaru (which is in New Zealand by the way), there is a modest monument beside a green paddock. It is a replica of Pearse’s flying machine, perched atop a pole that is mounted on a simple stone foundation. A small plaque tells the story of what happened there:
“ This monument commemorates the first powered flight to be made by a British Citizen [which all New Zealanders used to be] in a heavier than air machine. Most evidence indicates this flight took place on 31st March 1903 and ended by crashing on this site.”
Pearse was not out to seek fame and glory. He was a humble farmer and inventor, who was mad enough to attempt flying, using a winged contraption made of bamboo, canvas, tubular steel, and you guessed it, wire. Regardless, he personifies a widespread belief of home-spun innovation, working with restricted resources in a remote part of the planet to create a new and brilliant contraption.
Despite New Zealand's impressive feats of design, there are some that make the point that we 'used to be' an innovative nation. Authors Jon Bridges and David Downs, who in 2014 released their sequel No. 8 Re-wired, following on from their first book No. 8 Wired; make the point that "Kiwis have been resting on their laurels while other countries have cranked up their race up the innovation ladder". There may be some significant truth behind their statement; New Zealand’s number of triadic patents (a family of patents filed in different countries) filed is significantly lower than Denmark, a country with similar OECD measures to our own. Perhaps this is a reflection of our Gross Domestic spending on Research and Development; NZ's miserly 1.2% of GDP versus Denmark's 3.0%. I am no economist but surely there has to be some correlation there?
So what if New Zealand's attitude towards innovation was to change slightly? In an interview regarding his latest book, Bridges states, "We have a culture where we don’t just do things everyone else does. But in the modern times, as technology goes on and the world changes, that is not enough anymore. It can’t just be one guy in a shed anymore. There needs to be a lot more deep science, deeper research and collaboration to develop a brand new idea”. This point is deeply important. The time of the bloke in the shed has almost come to an end. For New Zealand to compete on the world stage, whether it is software, a simple household product or a portable GPS tracking unit; time and money have to be invested into correctly engineering the product or service for its specified use. Number 8 Wire will simply not cut it when up against world class companies that are well funded and have the top engineers and designers.
On the other hand
The good news is there are people using more than just Number 8 Wire thinking to create world-class innovation. Wellington company, Good Nature have created multi-species, self-resetting kill traps, a game changer for pest control in multiple countries. What started out as a University project is now distributed internationally with skyrocketing success.
There are numerous other Kiwi companies like this who are taking a well formed, ingenious solution to a problem, rounding it off with the careful application of design and engineering, and most importantly collaborating with the companies or individuals who have the unique skill sets or processes that are required to see a product succeed.
Maybe New Zealand is lagging behind slightly in the race for innovation. Regardless, I think the Number 8 Wire approach speaks volumes. If we look at our history and the last 150 years it is full of amazing inventions, innovative people and stories of how hardship created opportunity. Ernest Rutherford, Richard Pearse, Burt Munro, John Britten, William Hamilton and countless others. Hero's that all had a vision of what they wanted to create and kept striving towards it.
One of the best
I will leave you with the trailer below for the soon to be released documentary about one of New Zealand's foremost innovators. Bruce McLaren was a pioneering spirit with unswerving tenacity and endless passion. An inventor who pushed the limits in every area of his life and applied the Number 8 Wire mindset in the best way possible. McLaren is the untold story of a motor racing icon, directed by Roger Donaldson, the man behind The World's Fastest Indian. One of New Zealand's most treasured sons and the father of Britain's most cherished motor racing empire.
Do you have a Number 8 Wire invention and require some assistance to make it on the world stage? Motovated Design & Analysis is an ideal design and engineering partner. Check out our website here for more info about how we can help, or give us a call.
If you enjoyed some part of this blog post please share with your networks or simply click the thumbs up icon and let me know.