New Zealand is a small country, spanning just about 240 000 square kilometres in area, just slightly bigger than the United Kingdom.

It’s population is even smaller – just over 4 million people as of the 2006 census (the UK has about 60 million people). And even though this country is perhaps better known for its dairy products with vast free-range grazing fields, it’s certainly far from being short of high-tech innovations.

The huge rugby ball at the Queens Wharf, downtown Auckland.

When I was walking down downtown Auckland the other day, I had the chance to go see some of the high-tech New Zealand-born (or should I say bred?) inventions and innovations at the Queens Wharf, where the nation’s biggest fanzone for the soon-to-be-concluded Rugby World Cup 2011 is located.

Being an engineer in training myself, I’ve known about most of the products on display through general reading and the occassional demo in class. But I must admit, getting to actually see them on display is something different. I didn’t intend to even see the display in the first place, but seeing them made me wish I had brought along my DSLR camera. Instead, I had to rely on my phone for the pictures.

Eye candy

What caught my attention the most is this electric bike called Yikebike. It’s just so slick and supercool. All of the bike’s electrical components like the electric motor and the battery pack are built into the chassis, so you don’t see them at all. It can even be easily folded and carried indoor, or wherever else you might take them.

And it’s not that expensive either. You can get a new one for about NZ$2,500 (US$2,000). Compare that to a Segway, the cheapest of which costs about NZ$13,000.

And if that Yikebike is supercool, this Martin Jetpack must be über cool. Yes, that’s an actual jetpack for taking an actual person on an actual flight. It’s still in development though, so you won’t see anybody landing down from the sky just yet. They did demonstrate an unmanned flight up to about 1.5km (5000 ft) from the ground though. You can see the equally-cool videos at the Martin Jetpack website.

Other innovations

Those are just the two products on display that I took picture of. There were others, like a combined rotary-reciprocal internal combustion engine, seamless chainmail, cinema-size LED screens.

New Zealand has had quite a long history of innovations, albeit less well known. Technologies like electronic-control washing machine and brushless DC motor were invented in this country, by Fisher & Paykel Appliances. Navman, perhaps the world’s best known consumer GPS navigation system manufacturer, is a New Zealand company. And these are just some that I can pull off on top of my head. There’s plenty others.

Innovation drivers

So what is it that enables such a small country to produce such big innovations? It could be that it is a developed country whose tertiary education system, like most other developed countries, has strong emphasis on scientific research and development. It could be that it has a relatively stable political climate, and a growing number of venture capitals providing the much-needed funds to develop early-stage prototype technologies into production-stage consumer products.

It could be the high-cost economy they employ that attracts researchers from world over, but particularly from Asia, to settle down and base their research here. Perhaps it’s the prevailing culture of encouraging their kids to tinker around and experiment with serious stuffs, instead of limiting them to what’s “safe” that encourages and develops that genuine interest in knowledge, be technical and non-technical.

Or perhaps it’s the minimum wage law that encourages the development of high-skill knowledge industries by preventing massive influx of low-cost and low-skill jobs like mass manufacturing plants that so define the economic competitiveness of developing countries.

But of course, it is the combination of a multitude of reasons that allows this beautiful small country to make significant contributions to the world, despite being better known for its agrarian economy and small population. Embedded in these are examples that can be emulated and lessons that can be learned, if only the politicians can stop petty bickering and vote-fishing and actually sit down and cooperate and think hard for the harmonic development of the country instead.

But of course, politicians are seldom good at anything but politics. But that’s gonna be a whole new post to write about.