TEDxAuckland 2013

Brian Sweeney’s TEDxAuckland talk, ‘Punk Eek’

Seventeen years ago I experienced a revelation on the road to Karakare. I was driving with this man, who told me a story about New Zealand’s unique and powerful position in the world.

A big moment coming up, I thought. A possible lifetime Eureka moment. I slowed the car. My passenger was Kevin Kelly from San Francisco where he was the founding editor of Wired magazine and a principal articulator of the digital zeitgeist that was gripping the world in 1996 and is in full force and flow all around us today.

Kevin was visiting New Zealand to give presentations on exponential network effects created by the World Wide Web, which was a mere three years old at the time. I had seen him at the TED conference in Monterey earlier that year and I invited him to lunch in Auckland and, it being Sunday, we went for a drive. On the road to Karekare he was pumping me with questions about New Zealand –Who? What? Why?  I made the statement along the line that “a disproportionate number of New Zealanders have changed the world in some way,” though I did not know why.

“That’s easy to explain,” said my companion as he invoked a theory of evolutionary biology called Punctuated Equilibrium, or Punk Eek that proposes that change happens first on the edge of the species, where new forms of life have the freest environment in which to emerge, evolve and adapt. ”Therefore New Zealand’s role in the world,” said Kevin Kelly, “is to be world-changing. New Zealand’s role in the world is to be its edge.”

I was thunderstruck. The car accelerated. My whole mind had been shifted. My view of New Zealand changed in a few sentences.

Today, how can we embrace this challenge, this calling to be the world’s edge?

How can we leverage and communicate the possibilities this powerful metaphor offers?

This matters because nation branding is an essential element of statecraft and is today practiced aggressively by many countries, regions, and cities to promote trade and investment. Defining and promoting New Zealand’s story is vital to building our export-based international competitiveness?

Here are two sets of data that show both our challenge and our opportunity.

The first is from the field of behavioral economics. This is a heatmap developed by a cutting edge research technology company in Toronto. The heatmap shows market landscapes in deep and compelling ways; to uncover strengths, weaknesses and possibilities; and to guide creative executions.

There are 96 attributes positioned across eight segments. This map is from an international survey of the perceptions of several countries and regions. The hotter the color the higher the percentage of emotional resonance.

This is New Zealand which displays a warm and positive center and few negatives. We’re seen as competent, reliable, easy-going, kind, and balanced. Progress however, does not come from balance; progress does not come from the center.

This is our Pacific neighbor, California, which incorporates the powerhouses of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the Napa Valley. California’s profile is hotter and pulls to the entrepreneurial side of the axis with characteristics such as leadership, creativity, passion, confidence and innovation. We can be in this space. How might we get there?

The second dataset is an analysis of New Zealand’s international media coverage. What is surprising and concerning in this particular survey, is that our negative coverage equals the volume of our positive coverage. In the discipline of reputation management, alarm bells start ringing at this sort of profile.


This also speaks of the opportunity to reframe a unified New Zealand story based on a core idea to drive stronger outcomes.

What is this story? How should it be told? Who should tell it?

Taking the punk eek metaphor, I commenced a personal nation branding project called the New Zealand Edge.

Change the language and you change the conversation. We need new language.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as small, remote and somewhat irrelevant, we become the Edge. In marketing terms, Edge is our One Word Equity.

Out of this comes a scene-setting personal purpose statement: Winning the World from the Edge.

World Class gets reframed as World Changing. World class is parity; there are many world class achievers and aspirants on the planet. Being “world changing” is uniquely endowed to New Zealand.

We reframed the New Zealand population of four million as five million, by changing the language of Expatriates to Diaspora – the global community of New Zealanders – Aotearoa whanu whanui kite ao nui.

From a Brain Drain, to a Network. We’ve mapped New Zealanders who live in over a thousand locations internationally. A thousand points of lights.

From Tall Poppies to New Zealand Legends. The anthropologist Margaret Mead said that “It is New Zealand’s role to send out its bright young men and women to help run the world.”

From New Zealanders as Consumers to New Zealanders as Exporters. Economically we have an Export or Die paradigm.

And we helped reframe a national flag, from this colonial hangover, to the Silver Fern, by far the best known and most emotionally resonant symbol of New Zealand internationally. This is Lloyd Morrison’s flag which we proudly fly on the masthead of our website nzedge.com mapping the Global Life of New Zealanders.

Edge is a proposition we have advertised. “Every World Needs An Edge.”

Our metaphor has been embedded into global media surveys of New Zealand, this is from Time magazine.

A core content area of nzedge.com is a global digest of news generated by New Zealanders. We survey The Times of New York, London, India, Japan and hundreds of other titles charting the achievements of news-making New Zealanders, be they scientists, engineers, artists, designers, business leaders, policymakers, sports men and women.


The second core content area is our New Zealand Legends page, with 100 stories of people who have changed the world in one way or other. These are ordinary/extraordinary people who can be inspiration for us all. These are people we can all get to know.

Ernest Rutherford, a colossus of 20th century science, the father of nuclear physics. There is a good reason why Rutherford is on our $100 banknote.

Edmund Hillary, who defined resilience as “it’s the getting down that counts.” Leanne Pooley’s film of Sir Ed’s Everest ascent will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. It’s title? Beyond the Edge.

Katherine Mansfield, who changed the way stories are written.

The rustically beautiful Nancy Wake, a third generation Maori woman who, at the top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list, was called “The White Mouse” because of her ability of evade capture; she commanded an army of 5000 Resistance fighters in the South of France, and became the most decorated woman of World War II.

Two legends of the skies, aviatrix Jean Batten, one of the most famous women in the world at the time for her daring flights across lonely oceans, and William Pickering who led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena that put America into space.

Rewi Alley, Cantabrian, a key participant in the Chinese Revolution who founded the Chinese Work Co-operative Movement known as Gung Ho, meaning “work together.”

Harold Williams, Aucklander, witness to the Russian Revolution, foreign editor of The Times and one of the most accomplished linguists in history, conversant in 58 languages.

Bruce McLaren, Aucklander, Formula One driver, designer, engineer, winner, inspirer. This is the 50th anniversary of the founding of McLaren and big things are happening in his honour from the company based in Surrey England.

And my favorite, Ernest Godward, whose genial demeanor belies a chronic over achiever, with a total of three years formal education, founded a successful bicycle business in Southland in the 1890s but got bored and started innovating with household products – a revolutionary egg beater, a burglar-proof window, a mechanized hedge trimmer, a spiral hairpin that sold in the millions throughout the world, and most famously the Godward Economiser, a fuel-saving carburetor made at his factory on the corner of Broadway and Chambers in New York City that was installed in US army vehicles and the entire fleet of 3500 buses and taxis in the city of Philadelphia. By the 1930s he was recognized as the world’s leading authority on the internal combustion engine.

Here’s the kicker. For 36 years Godward commuted to the world by steamer from Invercargill. He was a North Invercargill Borough Councilor, an accomplished race driver, rower, swimmer, runner, boxer, portraitist, musician and elocutionist. He had 10 children but not a lot of time for parenting, and died on the SS Mongolia enroute to New Zealand after winning the onboard skipping competition. Ernest Godward had an edge or two or three.

If there is a tweetable line in this presentation, it is this: FIND YOUR EDGE.

Everyone here has the ability to be extraordinary in their own world, with the prize being the whole wide world.

Learn our stories.

Get your role models.

Find your inner Ernest – Godward or Rutherford.

Be inspired.

Get involved.

Work together.

These are the action points.

Gung Ho!

Tags: Brian Sweeney  Nation Branding  TEDxAuckland  TEDxAuckland 2013  

  • Puncture The Equilibrium | The Social Perimeter | DK - 9:13 am on December 16th, 2013
    […] Brian Sweeney for ‘punctuated equilibrium’ […]
  • DK - 3:44 pm on August 16th, 2013
    Wonderful presentation and thanks for the wisdom / insights
  • Lewis Holden - 1:27 pm on August 10th, 2013
    This is brilliant, Brian! Pity the video appears to have disappeared off YouTube. Do you have a copy?
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