In Business

NZ’s opportunity to fast-track innovation

February, 2021

By: Robert Blache

Callaghan Innovation

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Just as past wars triggered innovation, COVID-19 is giving rise to smart, tech-savvy and efficient manufacturing opportunities.

As NZ-born doctor Harold Gillies watched the wards of London’s Queen’s Hospital fill with wounded soldiers, he knew that better treatment methods had to be developed — and quickly.

In 1917, the war-wounded were arriving back in England with terrible facial wounds from gunshots and shrapnel. The medical textbooks offered few answers on how to treat them, so, Gillies, and a team of doctors, began to experiment and improvise, pioneering techniques that would form the basis of plastic surgery.

The ‘tubed pedicle’ method, for example, taking a flap of skin from one part of a patient’s body and applying it to the wounded area, has since been used to treat millions of burn victims worldwide.

Gillies was knighted for his work in 1930 and was a true innovator, willing to move fast and experiment to ease his patients’ suffering.

Opportunity in crisis

COVID-19 has spurred a flurry of innovation to deal with the resulting social and economic disruption.

The scale of this crisis is unprecedented, uniting us all in the quest to find solutions to rapidly changing, or entirely new needs, either directly related to the health crisis, or to mitigate disruptions due to lockdown measures:

  • Scientists worldwide are collaborating on one of the largest joint global efforts in the history of science to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Factory owners have retooled and employed 3D printers to produce protective masks and gowns for health workers.
  • Brewers have gone from producing beer to pumping out hand sanitiser.
  • Brick-and-mortar businesses have reinvented themselves as digital organisations.

A key tenet of innovation is a laser-focus on understanding the specific problem and then being able to apply the best processes and technology, or to develop them if they don’t exist yet, to solve it. Now more than ever, highly productive firms have an advantage, because they get more output from limited resources.

The crisis also demands an immediate response; people will literally die without access to drugs and ventilators used to treat COVID-19. Every government has been racing to ‘flatten the curve’, to minimise hospitalisations, and the damage to the economy following lockdowns.

Action bias

Crucially, we are also witnessing what Harvard Business Publishing executive Larry Clark calls, a ‘bias towards action’.

“An organisation that normally gets trapped in ‘the intense study of the obvious’ now must force itself to quickly create experiments, see what happens, and experiment some more,” writes Clark.

“This process of experimentation allows the freedom to test different thinking, to fail fast, to learn, and to move forward – in short, to innovate.” (read the full article here:

This bias towards action is enabling businesses to have greater influence over creating solutions to pressing problems. Mary Meeker, respected Silicon Valley analyst, suggest that innovators will have a seat at the table in the mid-to-long-term, as the impacts of the crisis continue to reverberate around the world.

Mary points to Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet/Google. These major tech companies are increasingly run by engineers. That’s because those with an engineering background are known for their design-led thinking and openness to collaboration. Those traits are what keep businesses innovating to stay competitive (

Some of NZ’s manufacturers have rightly identified opportunities in the current crisis to expand their business and increase their competitiveness. With global supply chains continuing to be threatened by disruption, there is scope for our manufacturers to reshore production and attract new business.

Productivity boost

We will always struggle to compete on price for volume-driven manufacturing, but NZ has a chance to shine with high-value manufacturing.

NZ is already highly trusted and seen as a great place to do business. By adopting the most effective automation and Industry 4.0 methods and technologies, we can close the productivity gap with other nations and make NZ a go-to hub for high-value manufacturing.

Well before COVID-19, Callaghan Innovation was helping NZ businesses innovate through applying ‘lean’ methodologies, robotics, rapid prototyping and automation. It doesn’t necessarily require a huge financial investment to innovate, rather, making small changes and experimenting, to develop more effective processes.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to move quickly and overcome the ‘analysis paralysis’ that often plagues companies. Callaghan Innovation is ready to be part of the journey. Let’s show the world just how creative NZ can be.

Robert Blache – Future Insights Manager Advanced Manufacturing
Callaghan Innovation

If you’re a manufacturer wanting to gear up for faster and smarter innovation, email, or visit

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