Business and Markets

The Future of Business Seen from Down Under

May 14, 2024  • Judy Samuelson

There’s nothing like travelling to a foreign country to wake up your senses and clear your head.

I just spent ten days ‘down under’ visiting New Zealand. I was based in Queenstown on the South Island—a town of about 30,000 year-round residents and strikingly beautiful tourist destination at the bend of Lake Wakatipu, below a mountain range aptly named The Remarkables.

The reason for my visit was to offer a newly crafted Aspen Socrates seminar on the Future of the Corporation. It was hosted by the New Zealand affiliate of the Aspen Institute and attended by 21 leaders and entrepreneurs working across sectors: tourism to beef and dairy to energy, and in services from education to transport.

Queenstown is Sister City to Aspen, Colorado—with which it shares a lot of attributes, from its boom-and-bust history with mining—gold in this case, not silver—and slow recovery through tourism, including the post WW2 development of the skiing industry.  Just like Aspen, today it contends with a housing shortage, downtown traffic, and both the risks and opportunities that come with easy access through an adjacent airport, and fast growth from both Kiwis and foreigners able to work remotely from paradise.

I had some trepidation about whether my own experience working with business and the questions we wrestle with in the US about the role of corporations would resonate. The companies represented were smaller than we typically work with and mostly privately held—led by a highly experienced group, with global credentials. The biggest trading partners are Australia and China and most of the participants had either lived outside of NZ for extended periods of time or were born elsewhere—from Scotland to Samoa to the US.

Some ideas landed, some didn’t. My strong conviction that employees are the crucible of change in public markets didn’t resonate as strongly as it does in the US where employee activism is on the rise among large employers. On the other hand, the desire of Gen Z and Millennials for greater flexibility at work and the general concern for the mental health of employees was familiar.  The memory of covid, which brought down the government in NZ after a two-year restrictive lockdown, is still vivid. And the debate about the purpose of the corporation was rich.

The issues New Zealanders contend with—from climate change to equity and economic opportunity—are all-too familiar.

An idea that hits a nerve is that the solutions to our more complex problems will require collaboration and co-creation to have impact. In the US we are witnessing an explosion in b2b and cross-industry partnerships—through the supply chain, or even among competitors—to make progress on systemic challenges, from conservation of resources to decarbonization.

In New Zealand, a country of five million people, comparable to the size of Houston, and of course an island nation, the connections run deep—through board service, industry alliances and civic responsibilities.

“Collaboration”, one participant noted, “should be our superpower.”

I found it refreshingly easy to engage the participants. In spite of awesome responsibilities, from running the Queenstown airport to meeting the demands of export markets for wine and meat, the participants seemed less distracted than I often experience at home. They listened well to one another, including across generations, and were able to dig into both lofty ideas and practical realities.

With thanks to my amazing hosts at Aspen New Zealand, and to all who took the time to engage—I look forward to learning where this conversation leads.

We ended the text-inspired dialogue with two brief readings—one on pessimism and one on hope.

In “Post-Capitalism Pessimism,” Robert Skidelsky, a Member of the UK House of Lords with an independent streak, suggests that pessimism about the future is rooted in our failure to imagine a ‘redemptive vision’ to move us forward. He calls out the lack of global progress on climate change and the erosion of public trust in technology and democratic systems as only part of the problem.  Neither critics from the right, nor the left, are offering light at the end of the tunnel.

For the hope part, we turned to Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and essayist, who led the peaceful overturn of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and went on to serve as the last President of the country and first President of the Czech Republic. He also served years as a political prisoner; he takes us to a different place.

Hope, he reminds us, is an internal game—”a state of mind, not a state of the world.” Hope doesn’t depend on observation or estimates of progress. Hope is not the same as optimism. Havel considers hope an orientation of the spirit—and the heart.

We work for something, Havel says, because it is good, not just because it has the chance to succeed. It reminds me of Dorothy Day, the non-conforming radical crusader who served the poor through the Depression and was known to say, “There’s no time to feel hopeless; there’s too much work to do.”

This feels right and is closer to the vision that our colleagues in New Zealand embarked on as the seminar ended.

I hope the conversations begun and intentions set by the participants bear fruit. The energy and connections between and among the group are palpable and infectious—and suggests we all will learn from the journey ahead. Watch this space!