US Business Summit 2022: MC conference close (video)


Prize draw courtesy of Air New Zealand

Mat Bolland Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Air New Zealand with Auckland Business Chamber General Manager Events and Marketing Natalie Woodbridge

Conference close Tim McCready

US Business Summit 2022: New Zealand Story’s David Downs with Q&A (video)


David Downs CEO New Zealand Story

New Zealand Story Group was established to enhance New Zealand’s reputation beyond natural beauty. In a competitive global economy, reputation matters. And it’s important for a country like ours, with an economy that relies on the strengths of its exports, to continue to grow and diversify.

The more we can do to ensure we’re all telling a broad, compelling and aspirational story about New Zealand, that’s grounded in our values and resonates with the world, the greater chance we have of attracting people to all that we offer.

Moderator: Tim McCready

US Business Summit 2022: MC conference opening (video)

Tim McCready, MC


Project Auckland: Phil Goff on his greatest regret as mayor of Auckland (NZ Herald)

Project Auckland: Phil Goff on his greatest regret as mayor of Auckland (NZ Herald)

After almost six years as Mayor of Auckland, Phil Goff has decided to end to his 41-year political career and will not seek re-election in October.

After two terms leading the Super City, he points to his achievements: Auckland Council has maintained its credit rating through prudent borrowing, it pays its employees a liveable wage, the Central Interceptor is on track to reduce wastewater overflows into waterways, funding is available for transport infrastructure has nearly doubled, and the Unitary Plan has unlocked future housing growth.

“Environmentally, economically, infrastructure-wise, there have been some big steps forward — notwithstanding the difficulty of the environment in which we’re operating,” Goff says.

But it is the pandemic that has been the most dominant factor in his mayoralty, contributing toward his biggest challenges and regrets.

“My greatest regret would be the impact that Covid has had in delaying or holding up the changes that we were busy making,” he says.

“Suddenly it came along and ripped $900 million out of our revenue — and that’s ongoing.”

Auckland Council has warned of its worsening finances. Earlier this month it released a statement indicating the impact of the pandemic on its revenue is a result of a slower than expected recovery in revenue from public transport, events and facilities, and a slower recovery of dividends from Auckland International Airport.

On the cost side, it said payments to staff and suppliers, finance costs and depreciation expenses are all increasing faster than anticipated.

Considerable savings have been made. Last year, the council found $126 million in cost savings and budgeted a further $90m this year and beyond.

“We have sold surplus assets, and we’re looking at what we might do with carpark buildings and various other buildings that aren’t critical to what we do,” Goff says.

“We are going to have to focus on what our priorities are.”

Further mitigations being considered include the deferral of non-critical capital expenditure projects that are not yet subject to contractual commitments, permanent operating expenditure reductions, and fully utilising the $127m in central government Better Off funding associated with its Three Waters reform to fund operating expenditure, and possible future rates increases.

“It has been bloody tough,” says Goff. “And it has meant we couldn’t fully realise the dreams and ambitions we had.”

“But having said that, when you look at similar councils like Tauranga with the same growth problems as Auckland, we have had stable governance, we have got through our business and had clear majorities for our budgets, and the council has been in safe hands.

“There are those things to celebrate — but the job has been really tough because of the environmental circumstances that we face.”

Not enough progress on homelessness

One of Goff’s cornerstone commitments before becoming mayor was to end Auckland’s chronic homelessness. But it will be obvious to anyone that has visited the city centre over the past year that sufficient progress has not been made. The mayor accepts this. But he says Auckland Council’s instruments are limited.

He says a significant problem is the lack of housing — not enough homes were being built when the city was growing rapidly.

Statehouses were sold off, and the cost of housing in Auckland has risen.

There is movement. Kāinga Ora is creating a pipeline of small, medium and large-scale housing developments in Auckland over the next 10 years and the Auckland Unitary Plan allows for 900,000 dwellings to be built within residential areas.

Goff is a big believer in Housing First, an initiative tasked with ending homelessness that he has supported since 2017.

It provides housing to the homeless, but also wrap-around support that addresses the causes of their homelessness and helps to provide stability.

Goff was instrumental in converting council building facilities during the Covid-19 lockdown to help provide meals for the homeless. “But we need to do more of all of these things,” he says. “Because we’re still we’re still a long way from tackling the problem of rising homelessness.”

Working with different governments

In his time as mayor, Goff has worked with three different Prime Ministers: Sir John Key, Sir Bill English and now Jacinda Ardern.

He says his role as mayor is to work for whoever is in government.

“I don’t care what someone’s political background is, as long as they are there and willing to use their integrity, energy and determination to tackle the problems and not simply play politics with it.”

A former Labour MP for 32 years, Goff said the shift from a National-led government to a Labour-led government had some advantages.

“I can pick up the phone and ring Jacinda, I can ring Grant Robertson, I can talk to Michael Wood,” he says.

“That’s not to say that I can ask for something and they’ll say, ‘of course Phil, we will give it to you,’ but at least I can pick the phone up and talk to them.”

When Goff campaigned in 2016 to get rid of plastic bags, he couldn’t make it work with the supermarkets and didn’t have the power to force them. But he was able to speak with the government, and they brought in enforceable legislation which he says has been a huge benefit environmentally.

“That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been areas where I’ve had strong disagreements with government — Three Waters is one of them,” he says, noting that he understands why the government wants to reform water services but doesn’t support the form that reform has taken.

“I’ve argued consistently and strongly — and although I haven’t won the battle, I have been able to talk on a personal level with an understanding and a mutual respect with ministers that I’ve known for a long period of time.”

The job’s not done yet

With six months left on the clock in his current role, Goff says he is not done yet.

In the wake of the latest Intergovernmental Panel of Climate report, he says it is clear that the time to act for the climate is now.

“We are seeing more frequent and severe weather events, we had our hottest year on record last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this year exceeds even that.”

Goff’s council has put money into electric buses, is converting its ferry fleet from diesel to electric, is putting money into cycling and walking, and is planting trees to provide shade and increase Auckland’s canopy cover.

But he says this is the start of the solution, and more needs to be done.

“What worse time to try to find funding to deal with the impact of climate change than when you’re dealing with Covid?

“You’ve lost revenue, and your costs have gone up,” he says. “It is easy to say Covid is the big problem at the moment, and we’ll do climate tomorrow.

“But tomorrow is when our kids grow up. If we don’t act, it’ll be harder and more expensive and economically and environmentally more disastrous.”

Goff has proposed a climate action targeted rate of $1.12 a week for a median-value residential property. This is expected to raise $574m over 10 years and unlock a further $471m through central government co-funding and other sources, ringfenced for direct climate action to cut Auckland’s emissions and respond to extreme heat.

“The council we are handing over will hopefully have funding to tackle the problem of climate change, one of the predominant problems that is confronting our city, our country and the whole planet,” he says.

Councillors will vote on the decision as part of the annual budget in late June.

Goff is, of course, just one vote out of 21.

But he says the council has consulted with people, taken submissions and done polling. “I believe there is public support to make this happen,” he says.

“This is something we are doing for the long term.

“Too often people say the trouble with parliamentarians and councillors only think in three-year terms — and too often we do. This has the chance to act with a longer timeframe in mind.”

Taking Sir John’s advice

It was just after Goff’s first month as mayor that Sir John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

Goff laughs that the way Key departed might have inspired his decision to go.

“He had been in my office a week earlier and I thought, ‘he’s looking remarkably relaxed, what can be causing that?’…

“Maybe he was the role model for me — make sure you stand down while you might still be wanted, rather than waiting to the point where you’re not!”

Reflecting on his time as mayor, Goff says he has been lucky to have had people around the council table that have worked with him on things he has wanted to achieve, and he is grateful for that.

“Because in the end, success is a collective endeavour.

“The mayor might be the person at the top of the heap, but he or she is not the only person there, and it relies on that team.”

To pass his final budget, he will need them on his side.

“It might be the last six months of my mayoralty, but it won’t be the easiest six months of it,” he says.

“I’ll be working out right up to the last moment.”

Project Auckland: Gary Blick on creating foundations for the future (NZ Herald)

Project Auckland: Gary Blick on creating foundations for the future (NZ Herald)

Tim McCready talks to Gary Blick, Auckland Council’s new chief economist about Auckland’s long-term performance and the pandemic’s impact on the city centre.

As Auckland Council’s chief economist, Gary Blick assists Council staff and elected officials to evaluate the economic implications of policy and infrastructure proposals. This means assessing the likely impacts on society’s resources and wellbeing over time – including the financial, social, environmental and cultural aspects.

Originally from Southland, Blick has been in the role since late last year and has lived in Auckland for the past decade. He is particularly interested in the long-term performance and trends of the region and thinks a lot about the wellbeing of Aucklanders now and in the future, and the legacy we will leave them. He says this includes not only those that migrate to the city, but the children and future generations that do not have a voice here yet.

“I often think about the generation I am – what did we inherit? A lot of great things, but then you think about missed opportunities,” he says.

“It is very easy to get caught up with where we are now in terms of the economic cycle and what is happening with housing this month or this quarter, but I am particularly interested in where we have come from, and where we are heading over the long run.”

Getting the foundations right

Blick says for Auckland to be successful in enhancing living standards for residents, including future generations, cities need to get a couple of foundations right.

“For me it is about using our land efficiently and improving accessibility in terms of how we get around,” he says. This means enabling more people to live in locations with good proximity to job opportunities, transport links and amenities. “Many other things matter too, but getting those things right matters a lot because they are the foundations for everything else.”

The Unitary Plan, implemented in 2016, has helped Auckland to take important steps forward with its land use and transport links, including enabling more opportunities to build multi-unit dwellings such as townhouses and apartments.

“All else being equal, having more development opportunities enabled and a more responsive supply of dwellings is supportive of improved affordability over time,” Blick says.

He points to econometric research into construction activity trends that shows, relative to plausible counterfactuals, there was a material boost to supply following the Unitary Plan. He says this likely contributed to the stabilisation of Auckland house prices from 2017 to 2019.

But he acknowledges that events over the past couple of years have complicated the situation, and says it feels like housing affordability took several steps forward with the Unitary Plan, but a step or two back recently with house prices increasing approximately 40 per cent over the past two years.

“The pandemic crisis caused central banks everywhere to head off a drop off in demand and introduce low interest rates to try and stimulate activity and maintain employment. That enabled people to bid a bit more for houses,” says Blick.

“Then with rising case numbers and public health restrictions, we have seen disruptions to supply chains globally, as well as the closing of the borders and a reduction in cross-border labour flows.”

This is problematic because since before the pandemic, Auckland has been losing more residents to elsewhere in New Zealand than it has gained. There were net losses in internal migration in 2019 (11,400 people), 2020 (11,100) and 2021 (13,500), showing that plenty of people judged they would be better off living in other regions and raising a question about Auckland’s overall liveability.

Blick expects the border reopening will see population growth resume as migrants and New Zealanders with needed skills arrive or return to the city, but he cautions that if Auckland isn’t doing as well as it could be then the city may miss out as those with needed skills compare Auckland to other places.

“Liveability and productivity depend on many factors, but it is reasonable to ask whether Auckland can do better on the fundamentals of land use and transport networks,” he says.

Covid-19 hangover in the city centre

The impact of the pandemic has been uneven across businesses.

“The city centre is home to many large professional services and financial services firms that have big office-based workforces with perhaps more flexibility to adapt and adopt remote working,” says Blick.

“Often their customer base is not foot traffic on the street, it is with other businesses and may involve exporting services to elsewhere in New Zealand.”

Even so, GDP – as the measure of the economic output of all businesses in the city centre – decreased by 4.6 per cent for the year to March 2021 – more than the decrease of 2.8 per cent for Auckland as a whole.

But it is the hospitality, retail and events-focused businesses that have borne the brunt of the loss in visitors to the city centre. Heart of the City data last month showed that city centre spending was down more than 40 per cent on the same time last year, and pedestrian counts were almost 50 per cent down.

“Household spending has held up well, but the city centre has lost out as spending has been reoriented to other locations, whether that is online or other centres of Auckland,” says Blick.

While employers and workers have become more comfortable with remote working, he doesn’t expect this to have a permanent devastating impact on the city centre.

“Having that choice may suit some workers and it may mean there are fewer visits on a daily basis from people in the near term relative to before,” he says. “But not all jobs lend themselves to being done remotely on a permanent basis, and people joining the workforce and those starting in new roles may seek in-person collaboration and opportunities to build up their connections.”

The city centre is comparatively very accessible, Blick says, and the concentration of people and businesses in proximity can deliver productivity gains known as agglomeration benefits.

Proximity promotes ease of access, lower transport costs, and knowledge sharing, and a higher population density enhances proximity benefits by supporting deeper labour pools and specialisation among suppliers. As a result, cities can offer higher-paying jobs, as well as more choices in consumption and leisure.

It is this that Blick says will stand Auckland in good stead for the economic recovery post-Covid.

“There’s a good case that the reduction in visits to the city centre will be made back over time, because of its long-run trend growth in density, economic activity and jobs.”


Dynamic Business: Trends that matter in 2022 - NZ Herald

The business climate has been anything but predictable over the past two years.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused upheaval and seen companies scramble to adapt to a rapidly changing environment — the most visible changes have been the rapid uptake of digital technologies and the rise of remote and hybrid working.

That unpredictability looks set to continue, but there are several underlying trends for businesses to keep in mind as they navigate the year ahead.

A new era of geopolitics

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US and EU have cut selected banks from Swift and closed airspace to Russian planes. Further sanctions have been imposed on Russia’s central bank, aimed at preventing it from accessing reserves.

While the crisis might be on the other side of the world, the economic impact will ripple through the global economy and reach NZ shores.

Russia is the world’s second-largest exporter of crude oil and refined petrol, and the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. Global crude oil prices have already reached their highest levels since 2014, and it is expected that prices will go even higher as the conflict persists. This will impact fuel, supply chains, and the cost of goods in general.

Businesses should also brace for cyberattacks, which many predict Russia will use in response to sanctions. NZ’s National Cyber Security Centre (part of the GCSB) recently released an advisory encouraging nationally significant organisations to consider their security, exercise readiness, and monitor for relevant cyber security developments.

Closer to home, the South China Sea and China’s increasing influence in the Pacific continues to cause fractures in the relationship between China and the United States.

Just prior to the Beijing Winter Olympics in a joint statement, President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced interference from the United States in their affairs and opposed further enlargement of Nato.

While New Zealand has so far managed to carefully navigate its relationship with China, we will face increased pressure as Australia, the United States and the UK make stronger statements about China’s behaviour. At last year’s Apec CEO Summit, President Xi warned Asia-Pacific nations to not “relapse into the confrontation and division of the Cold War-era”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted at last year’s China Business Summit that differences between NZ and China were “becoming harder to reconcile” as Beijing’s role in the world grows and changes, and that “managing the relationship is not always going to be easy and there can be no guarantees”.

With geopolitics entering a new era, businesses must walk a geopolitical tightrope and be ready to respond as events occurring elsewhere in the world impact their own operations, relationships, and people.

Increased employee turnover becoming harder to prevent

Since the start of the pandemic, the “Great Resignation” has gained momentum. The pandemic has shifted the mindset of employees, and seen them leave their jobs in search for a better work-life balance, remote work opportunities, increased flexibility or higher pay. In some cases they are moving to organisations that provide a better sense of purpose and meaning, with values that align with their own.

In order to remain competitive and attract and retain workers, companies have to rethink the benefits they offer and clearly articulate their purpose.

This is particularly true for knowledge sectors — those industries significantly reliant on the use of technology and human capital. The tight labour market around the world has seen those workplaces that don’t offer the flexibility and purpose demanded by their employees hindered by increased turnover in a market where good talent is hard to find.

But remote and hybrid has introduced new challenges for business.

The removal of a commute dramatically increases the pool of potential companies for employees. Someone living in Taranaki can now apply for remote working roles in Wellington or Auckland that might have previously been unobtainable to them.

It also limits the social ties that employees make with colleagues.

We have all been to staff farewells where we are told by the departing employee “it is the people here that makes it so hard to leave this job”. These connections that might have once encouraged employees to remain in their job have become weaker and will see the great resignation becoming a sustained challenge for business to grapple with.

Four-day work week gaining momentum

As an alternative to negotiating remuneration with employees and becoming drawn into a bidding war with other workplaces, there has been a rise in companies offering a shorter work week as a bargaining chip.

One example of reduced hours is the four-day work week, which is gaining momentum around the world.

NZ’s Perpetual Guardian trialled a four-day week in 2018 — a world-first for a privately held company.

The eight-week experiment measured productivity, motivation and output, with staff paid the same amount for working fewer hours. It discovered productivity improved 20 per cent, and employees were more creative, committed and less stressed. It has since made the move permanent.

Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes says the four-day working week is “not just having a day off a week — it’s about delivering productivity, and meeting customer service standards, meeting personal and team business goals and objectives”.

More companies are now beginning to trial shorter work weeks.

A four-day week pilot in the United Kingdom begins in June, with 30 companies signed up so far. The pilot is run by 4 Day Week Global, an organisation that advocates for the shorter week. It says similar programmes are set to start in the US and Ireland, with more planned for Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Wellness on the way up

Covid-19 has put significant strain on the workforce. Uncertainty around job security, lockdowns, social isolation and limited social contact all contributed to the mental health crisis and exacerbated stress, anxiety and depression for both employers and employees.

The challenge of retaining good employees has seen businesses and business leaders prioritise health and build a culture of wellbeing in the workplace that openly supports mental health.

Many organisations have introduced wellbeing programmes, which include partnerships with mental health providers, subscriptions to mental health apps, fitness classes and additional days off. Last year, Westpac New Zealand introduced five days a year of wellbeing leave, and NZX-listed Vista Group introduced half-day Fridays for all its staff.

Research conducted by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research last year on behalf of Xero showed investing in employee wellbeing can help to make a business more profitable.

It estimated that for every dollar a small business invests in company-wide wellbeing initiatives for staff, it can expect to see a return of up to 12 times within a year.

The impact of Omicron (and future variants)

Overlaying all these trends, Covid-19 remains present. While the world welcomed the news that the highly transmissible Omicron variant is associated with less severe disease than earlier variants, a pattern of new variants around every six months has emerged.

Since there is a risk of the virus mutating each time it reproduces, the greater transmissibility from Omicron brings with it an even greater chance of new variants emerging.

It was hoped by many that the vaccine rollout would bring an end to the pandemic, but it looks increasingly likely that Covid-19 — in one form or another — is here to stay.

New tools like antivirals, antibody treatments and new vaccines are coming on board this year, which will help us navigate Covid-19 as it becomes an endemic disease.

These will be important as 2022 (hopefully) becomes the year that businesses, employers, employees and government finally reach post-pandemic normality. In a year fraught with challenges of all kinds to navigate, that is something that should bring hope to us all.

The Herald's 2021 front pages: Vaccines, variants and victories (NZ Herald)

The Herald’s 2021 front pages: Vaccines, variants and victories (NZ Herald)

The Herald’s Tim McCready looks back at the stories and headlines that shaped the front pages of the paper this year.

We had every reason to think this year would be better than 2020. The front page of the New Zealand Herald on January 1 shared that optimism: “With a vaccine rollout and travel bubbles looming, there are signs 2021 is looking up.”

And yet here we are, wrapping up another tumultuous year.

So much has happened that it is hard to believe it was early this year that the storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters took place. The Herald led with ‘Democracy under attack’ as its cover story on the insurrection as leaders met to ratify the election victory of Joe Biden.

Despite his exit from the Oval Office this year, Trump’s face featured on the front pages of the Herald five times over the year (many will be thankful this is significantly down from 15 last year). President Biden had a relatively quiet year, appearing just three times on the covers (compared with 10 last year).

Other significant events that shaped the year and the front pages were the death of Prince Philip in April, the prolonged Samoan democracy crisis in May, the freak tornado in Auckland in June, and the New Lynn supermarket terror attack in September.

Topping the count of cover appearances again this year is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who featured 42 times – down from 62 in 2020.

Infrastructure: Auckland's light rail project poised to take a major step (NZ Herald)

Infrastructure: Auckland’s light rail project poised to take a major step (NZ Herald)

Before the end of this year, the Government will decide on the route, mode, and delivery for the project for the light rail project, which will run between Auckland’s city centre and Māngere, connecting major employment hubs in the city and the airport at each end.

Transport Minister Michael Wood acknowledges the decision has been a long time coming. He first launched the promise of light rail during his campaign for the Mount Roskill by-election in 2016 which brought him into Parliament. Labour campaigned on light rail at the 2017 election, but the move was stymied by Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First in the last term of Government.

“It is no secret that it was in a fairly challenging stage at the end of the last term, and it had the political knockback between parties,” Wood says. “We had to have a reset which is effectively what happened this year. But it’s put us in a good position to take it to the next stage.”

The three options under consideration are:

• Light rail, a modern tram on city streets;
• Light metro, underground in a tunnel under the isthmus, and underground in Māngere and Onehunga, and at street level in other areas; and
• Tunnelled light rail, underground from Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill, and then up at street level to Auckland airport.

They were chosen after an assessment by the Auckland Light Rail team from over 50 different options for modes and routes against the project’s three objectives: improving accessibility, reducing Auckland’s carbon footprint, and unlocking urban development in the corridor.

Not a simple decision

APEC CEO Summit 2021: Highlights and insights

The full APEC CEO Summit is now available to watch, free, here.

Over two days in November, the world’s most influential political, business and thought leaders came together for the APEC CEO Summit 2021 to discuss ways the region can learn from each other and work together and to ensure it emerges from the pandemic stronger than ever.

The Summit addressed challenges and opportunities presented by the current situation, with a focus on five themes: the state of the world with, and post Covid; the digital disruption opportunity; the primacy of trust; the future of energy; and the sustainability imperative.

The state of the world with and post-COVID

The Summit was set at a complicated economic period as the world rebuilds in the wake of the pandemic. Just a year prior, the region’s economy saw a record contraction of -5 per cent, with estimates suggesting the Asia-Pacific lost over $2 trillion in potential trade over 2020.

This downturn was both faster and deeper compared to the global financial crisis – although will likely be shorter. Demonstrating this rapid turnaround, the last quarter saw record growth of 10 per cent in the region.

Keynotes from PwC global chair Bob Moritz and OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann, along with Dr Alan Bollard’s panel discussion on the economic state of the world helped to decipher the recovery and set the scene for the Summit. While the tone from speakers was optimistic, they cautioned the economy is still significantly impacted by the ongoing disruption of the pandemic and can be seen reflected in myriad contradictions.

The dramatic increase in trade is predominantly occurring in merchandise, with the region experiencing a chronic shortage of goods to meet demand, yet services trade is still worryingly negative.

  • Domestic investment has been increasing, but foreign direct investment is at a 20-year low.
  • Costs and wages are increasing, but productivity is stagnant.
  • Jobs are being displaced, but skills shortages are being reported widely across the region.
  • Uncertainty and significant downside risks remain, including inflationary pressures and the emergence of new Covid strains, vaccination levels and continued disruption from the pandemic – including the fourth wave beginning to sweep through Europe.

But the recovery is also providing the region tremendous opportunity – particularly for those businesses able to adapt and grow quickly and create supply chains that are robust and scalable.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, this year’s APEC chair, said in her opening address:

“We have a saying in New Zealand. He rau ringa e oti ai – many hands make light work.

“The heavy load of a global pandemic that in equal measure threatens lives and livelihoods has been countered only with an extraordinary commitment to unity, partnership and progress in spite of the challenges.”

Former New Zealand Prime Minister and Administrator of United Nations Development Programme Helen Clark shared a similar sentiment, reminding delegates that they must work together and grab hold of the positives that can come from standing up to a crisis.

“We can strengthen our national systems for pandemic preparedness and response, and we can strengthen the global systems. All of that is good for business,” she said.

“If we are looking at the world we are trying to create, inclusion going forward is critical. But we must also build in resilience. Because if we don’t have resilient systems like with pandemic preparedness and response, we will repeat these lessons over and over.”

Recently elected President of Peru, José Pedro Castillo Terrones, shared a similar view, noting the APEC forum “is an important space for coordinating measures and identifying good public policy practices to face complex health and economic challenges.”

The digital disruption opportunity

While all economies across the APEC region have been impacted by the pandemic, there is clear evidence that those with digital readiness endured the pandemic and rebounded better.

Economies with both physical and digital infrastructure have been faster to deploy digital tools in the fight against Covid-19 – including contact tracing, proof of vaccine and digital trade facilitation – which has enabled them to keep their economies more open.

The pandemic acted as an accelerant and removed hurdles for innovation. Five years’ worth of technology adoption occurred within the first eight weeks of the pandemic, and the importance of its role as an enabler of trade was reiterated in almost every session at the Summit.

“The companies without digitalisation have been hit harder,” said Diane Wang, chair and CEO of DHGate. “They are at a crossroads… the choices we make today will have consequences on gender equality, digital equality and inclusive growth, for decades to come.”

In her keynote address, technology entrepreneur Amber Mac cautioned CEOs that “it may feel like there is a thick line between what you do and what big tech does, but as you embrace a tech-first strategy – an obvious path to succeed in today’s digital world – that line will soon begin to blur.”

Companies, government, and the public sector were urged to continue to seize the opportunities from digitalisation, with a heavy emphasis that the economic recovery post-Covid will continue to be digitally enabled.

Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are particularly vulnerable to the economic impacts of the pandemic. With MSMEs making up over 97 per cent of all enterprises in the region and employing over half the workforce, digital adoption and access to innovation and will be essential for all business.

This was highlighted by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who stressed that most SMEs are not as digitally prepared as large businesses, and risk being left behind. “APEC economies must help SMEs and their workers make the digital transition,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the rapid uptake of digital innovation means that APEC economies need to do more to invest in the digital frameworks of the future, including digital identity, digital payments solutions, data exchange, data authorisation and consent.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison used his address to express his concern over the rise of technology, and the ability for it to be used for bad, as well as good.

Morrison called for stronger rules for the tech sector and suggested it would be better for the sector to work in partnership with governments on regulation – saying that if not, governments will do it anyway, and “will stuff it up because they don’t understand it the same way.”

The primacy of trust

Along with digital adoption, the pandemic has also accelerated the erosion of trust around the world. There is an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.

This extends to business, and as trust expert and public relations leader Richard Edelman told the Summit, earning trust has never been more important – or more challenging.

He described how employees have emerged as the most important stakeholder in business, with people “voting with their feet” and making major decisions – including what they buy and who they work for – based on personal beliefs.

The growing expectation of business to focus on societal engagement with the same rigor, thoughtfulness and energy used to deliver on profit was evident from delegates – the primacy of trust quickly became the most interactive session at the Summit, attracting robust discussion through the conference platform.

Edelman explained how consumers, employees and other broad stakeholders are paying more attention to what businesses say and do, and how they respond to issues including climate change, racial injustice, and other societal issues.

Intrinsically tied into trust is the need for business to apply environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles to their strategy and operations to create value for all of society.

Reiterating Edelman, the ESG panel told the Summit that there is now a much broader group of stakeholders that must be considered, including employees and the community. But beyond this, there is a growing consensus that ESG has become an extremely powerful driver for business success and financial return and is no longer seen as something that only adds costs to business.

The panel called for business leaders across the region to put ESG front and centre, integrating the principles into the purpose and values of an organisation and ensuring their commitment is actionable, verifiable, and transparent.

“The actions required are expensive, substantial, and they have to be core to an organisations strategy,” said McKinsey’s Andrew Grant. “They can’t just be window dressing or a box-ticking exercise.”

The panel said that businesses must lean in and recognise that doing good for society is also good for business.

This call for business to be a force for good in the world was repeated in the highly anticipated keynote address from international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. She told delegates that we no longer live in a world where businesses can say ‘human rights are none of our business’.

“It is increasingly difficult for companies to say ‘we are just here to make a profit’ and bury their heads in the sand,” she said.

“Businesses, big multinational corporations, and tech companies in particular are a key part of our multilateral world of decision-makers, and each one will decide whether to be a force for good or complicit in abuses of power.”

The sustainability imperative

The Summit was unique this year, with a political leader from outside the 21 APEC economies asked to give a perspective from outside the region. The conversation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern traversed the state of the world, Covid-19, digital innovation, sustainability and leadership.

While the discussion gave many fascinating insights, one of the key points raised was the need to take the lessons from Covid-19 and to apply them to other critical areas. The pandemic forced governments and businesses to act with urgency and in partnership with different sectors and communities who know their people best.

This same principle could be applied to manage other world problems, including climate change, scaling the uptake of renewable energy, and dealing with pressing environmental and biodiversity issues.

“Never before have we been able to realise how interconnected we are globally,” said Merkel.

“What is happening here influences what is happening in Africa, in New Zealand and in the United States of America. That sense of how small our globe actually is when it looks to the spread of such a virus should continue to guide us when we tackle issues like biodiversity and climate protection.”

This message was echoed by Canadian environmentalist Dr David Suzuki, who gave a deeply passionate keynote address. He told attendees that the planet is “at code red – and that spells trouble for humans.”

“Nature pays no attention to human laws and borders,” he said. “We are animals. If we don’t have air for three minutes we die and if it is polluted, we get sick. But we use air as a garbage can for toxic waste. We must show reciprocity and responsiveness so nature can continue to be abundant and generous.

“Success as a species is to look ahead, recognise dangers and opportunities and choose a deliberate path to avoid danger.”

Viet Nam President Nguyen Xuan Phuc affirmed the strategic importance of sustainable development and climate change response for the region.

“Our green planet is shaken by cumulative and unprecedented impacts caused by climate change, extreme natural disasters, environmental degradation, and the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

“Time is not on our side, for these challenges continue to worsen with every passing day. Thus, we need to work closely together to overcome such hardships.”

A similar call was echoed by President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.

“APEC economies should make its post-pandemic recovery a green one and take the lead in making a science-based response to climate change,” he told the Summit – just hours after announcing a surprise plan with the US to work together on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the crucial next decade.

The future of energy

The APEC region demands around 60 per cent of the world’s energy consumption, and transitioning to new forms of clean energy production and consumption will be an essential part of meeting our climate change challenges.

In her keynote address on future energy challenges, Tesla chair Robyn Denholm told APEC economies that they must act now to accelerate their transition to renewable energy to power utilities, vehicles, communities and homes.

“We all succeed or fail together in the race to zero emissions,” she said.

Denholm said the growth in electric vehicle sales was encouraging, but it would be a steep climb to eliminate combustion engines. Getting there would require a joint effort between the public and private sector, with significant capital investment and supporting policies that set standards and deadlines on emissions to accelerate the transition.

“Vehicle pollution reduction will be only as fast as our ability to ramp up battery production and EV manufacturing,” she said.

In the panel on future energy solutions, Blackrock managing director for renewable power and sustainable investing Dr Valerie Speth, told delegates that there is no topic ranking higher than climate change and decarbonisation among her colleagues and investors.

“It is the best investment opportunity for the coming decades,” she said.

A similar message was shared by President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in. His administration has closed domestic coal-fired power plants, stopped permits for new ones and cut public funding for new overseas coal power plants.

“Instead, we are expanding the use of safe and clean energy,” he said. “By 2025 we will have more than doubled solar and wind power facilities from 2020 levels.”

South Korean companies are making a $37 billion investment in and exploring partnerships on all aspects of the hydrogen economy from production to distribution to end use.

He said that as an economic forum that represents 61 per cent of world GDP, APEC “will stand at the forefront of cultivating the hydrogen economy ecosystem.”

Looking to the future

The Asia-Pacific region is home to 270 million indigenous people, making up around 70 per cent of the world’s indigenous population. Yet the full potential of the community’s contribution to the region’s economy remains largely untapped and was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The panel on the indigenous economy featured speakers from Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and discussed indigenous leadership and the ethos of putting culture at the centre of decision making.

Rangimarie Hunia, chief executive Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei Whai Māia, told the Summit that indigenous people have values and approaches that are ancient.

“When we start to be in the game of business, we take those values and we apply them to the long-term, not the short,” she said. “When I hear things like planet over profit, that has been our way of doing since time immemorial.”

Continuing the theme of ‘looking to the future’ was a focus on young people, who make up one-third of the region’s population. The Summit had the most ever young people attend as delegates, as well as many younger voices featured in keynotes and panels throughout.

One of the most inspiring keynote addresses came from Jerome Foster II – aged just 19 and the youngest ever adviser to a US President.

Foster was appointed to President Biden’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council after spending every Friday for 58 weeks campaigning for the climate outside the White House during Donald Trump’s presidency.

He encouraged other young people attending the Summit to know that they “have so much potential… this is the perfect time for you to really step into that, and to merge your passion with what you want to do for a living.”

“As a young person it often feels like you’re inheriting an Earth that is completely backwards,” he said. “But it is now our role to figure out how we are going to make that better.”

It is the next generation, after all, that are the biggest stakeholders in the work that APEC is doing.

Watch Tim McCready and panel: Fran O’Sullivan, Brent Wilton and Hannah Pattullo discuss what was learnt at the 2021 APEC CEO Summit.