On the Intellectual Isolation of New Zealand, and its Marketing Capacities

6 min readJan 6, 2021

Published on The Objektion Project here

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

I have a small worry about my country, whilst I am not there. Out exploring the world, I am coming to realise how different things and done in other countries, and how people are aware of, and live in, vastly different realities. The people of Europe, for example, living in such close proximity to their neighbouring countries, and also to the Middle East and Africa, have a much greater sense of what’s going on in the world, than can be said of most New Zealanders, I think. They seem to know a bit more about their place as Europeans, and also have a concern, an interest, in the affairs of the rest of the world. One could take a negative approach and say that this is a result of a colonialist mindset: they are aware of what is going on because they want to involve themselves in other people’s business. Or, one could look at it more positively: they’re just more aware of what’s going on and how people are actually living.

In New Zealand we have the concept of the ‘big OE’ — a (now long forgotten, thanks COVID) concept where one goes overseas for a while to learn about the big wide world, before settling down again in New Zealand. This trip is great because it allows the voyager the chance to measure their own reality at home with the reality of life for other people around the world, and come to understand the struggles and the benefits of life elsewhere.

But what seems have become of the intellectual space of New Zealand in this sense? Have these overseas experiences formed a nation of people who are acutely aware of how others live, and the problems they face, and the ways they are trying to solve them? Or do most New Zealanders come home, happy to live in their little ‘paradise’ at the bottom of the earth, and forget about the ways of the world? Once or twice, they might read about something that happened in the U.S., or a terrible disaster in Asia, but for the most part their primary concern is the reality in front of them: a very isolated one, at that.

I’m concerned that New Zealand as an intellectual space cuts itself off from the rest of the world, only looking for ‘best practices’ and ‘major failings,’ feeling itself well-fed by the bullet-point summaries of policy changes in other countries, instead of really getting to know what is happening there. Perhaps this is true of some parts of the space, and not others: I can only react based on the impression I get from not being in New Zealand…

This suspicion of a lack of worldly insight has some serious consequences. Not only will New Zealand not see that the rest of the world is turning in different directions (it is… COVID-19 is changing a lot of things — not only those NZ thinks it has already nailed), but when things ‘go back to normal’ (will they?) the world outside the kiwi bubble won’t be the same, and it might take some adjusting if to re-integrate with this world.

‘Beating COVID’ might not be the biggest blessing if New Zealand doesn’t keep its eyes peeled as to what’s actually going on in the rest of the world, and what it’s like to live in different countries. And also, where they are going, and what they are now focusing on, what they are developing, thinking, researching — the things you don’t read in the news until they’ve already happened and you’re too late to the party.

As I’ve said, this is a suspicion, a thought, a fear, a worry, about what is happening back home. Ignorance isn’t bliss, and having a kiwi bubble doesn’t mean one should always turn inwards and assume that one’s backyard is the only place to be.

But what does this have to do with marketing? This post is in fact inspired by a conversation with a friend recently. We were talking about the woeful image of Wellington city at the moment. Public transport seems a little off-kilter (and not working for its users…), the city’s water pipes are bursting, the library is all over the place… Yet the apparent focus of all those who seem to be able to do something is to be marketing the city of innovation, the coolest little capital, or whatever it is now, to the rest of the world. That is, a world which can’t travel to New Zealand because it doesn’t have the means to pay exorbitant $3000 quarantine fees, and which is a little preoccupied with its own business at the moment, to consider a business trip to a city with a water problem. Add to that a University more concerned with its international student intake than its own current students, and it looks like bit more introspection is needed.

I was myself present at one of these citizens’ brainstorming sessions (in Wellington), and the only notable ideas from the session on COVID-19 recovery were marketing ideas to share what Wellington does best (beer, movies, food… you can get these in Europe you know…) to the rest of the world in the hope of attracting more people, raising tourist dollars, recovering money. That idea of marketing over all else, and not looking to make the city a city that works first and foremost for its inhabitants, shows this mistaken idea of what the world wants (right now, not travel), and also a mistaken belief that everything’s great on the home front.

If some more people knew what it was like to live in Europe or Asia, and knew the ways that these countries are going about first recognising, and second dealing with their problems, I think things would be a bit different in the big cities of New Zealand. Paris has, for example, a magnificent Green agenda, complete with banning cars on the weekends in certain streets, increasing cycling lanes, improving recycling facilities, creating community gardens, rooftop gardens, and more. Wellington’s approach of marketing the use of new products sounds more like green washing than actual environmental practice. That’s not, of course, to forget the improvements to environmental policy that have been made, but only to criticise the prominence of marketing as a strategy to solve a problem. Marketing doesn’t solve things, it presents a vision of the world to people.

It will be interesting to see what happens now that a lot of overseas Kiwis have returned to New Zealand. Will the tone change? Will the learnings of other countries be better acknowledged and understood? New Zealand cannot remain so isolated and think itself very good and very important, because it created its own bubble of glory. What is needed is not to just know the problems and the best practices, but to really get to grips with the solutions and the reception of ideas, the true nature of problems and visions of other countries.

But I am interested to know: is this just a misplaced theory; do New Zealanders really look at the rest of the world and understand what’s going on? And what is happening, with the influx of ex-expats returning to New Zealand? Love to hear what you think in the comments!

Jack Goldingham Newsom is the Chief Objektioner and Founder of the Objektion Project. We help people, social enterprises, and volunteer organisations to carry out their mission more effectively by challenging current ways of thinking, and developing new frameworks to support their vision.
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