Ian Taylor: We’re from a long line of risk takers

by Dale Husband
Sun 5 Mar 2017
10 min read
5

You may have had much more to do with Ian Taylor than you realise. You could easily have missed his rock’n’roll  years (three of them) as the lead singer for Kal-Q-Lated Risk because that role started in the late 1960s.

And perhaps you didn’t catch him, soon after, when he was fronting Play School and Spot On in the course of his 12 years in television as a presenter, writer, director and producer.

But his work with sports graphics (and TV adverts) has been a part of our world as TV viewers for much of the last 30 years — mostly through the genius of Ian’s company, Animation Research Ltd in Dunedin.

ARL’s developments have played a significant part in the coverage of the America’s Cup and cricket worldwide. Other sports, too. So Ian and ARL have had all sorts of awards and accolades, internationally and in New Zealand. Not that he spends any time talking about that here with Dale.

 

Kia ora, Ian. For some years now, you’ve been making a name for yourself as an innovator, here and overseas, especially in computer animation. And that’s set me wondering if you think that a lot of us haven’t really cottoned on to our history, our Māori and Pasifika history, as innovators.

I think that’s the real story. We are, and we always have been, innovators. Our ancestors were among the most innovative, risk-taking people on the planet. They were sailing around the Pacific ocean in state-of-the-art waka that carried up to a hundred people. They navigated by the stars and by the waves and the currents. You had to be innovative to design the systems to do that. You had to be engineers, sailors, astronomers. It’s incredible.

Then they arrived here in Aotearoa. They were in a place that was nothing like the islands they had left. They had six months to a year to reinvent themselves, to live in this place that had freezing cold winters. So that was innovation as well.

When I was a kid, in our education system back in the 1950s and ‘60s, no one ever shared those stories with us. So it’s no wonder that Māori and Pacific kids had no role models to live up to. And we need to start changing that. Innovation is in our DNA and we have to dig it back out.

The new film Moana explores the kōrero about double-hulled waka and their capabilities. What did you make of the film, and what do you think it’s done to lift the spirits of our Māori and Pasifika people?

I was terrified when I heard Disney was going to make it. I thought: What will they do? But it’s fabulous. In a smaller way, my company has tried to do something similar to tell the story of Māui of Aoraki. That’s what we’re doing in a project at MOTAT in Auckland. Our stories are really rich and deep. And now we have the technology to tell them, so we’re really enjoying doing that.

Let’s talk about MOTAT — the Museum of Transport and Technology. It’s been around for a long time in Tāmaki Makaurau, but it’s inspiring a new generation of potential innovators, isn’t it? Through an exhibition.

My involvement with MOTAT started well away from the Māori story. I was looking at the technology angle. We started talking about what we could do to celebrate technology stories a little more.

I picked up on the idea that, in the Māori view, it’s our past that is the light in front of us. The footsteps of the past lay down the paving stones of the future. And, when you’re in a museum, that’s the perfect place to be looking forward. We usually look at museums as places about a past that’s behind us. But if you take a Māori worldview, you look at the past in a different light. 

Many of the things that you and your team at Animation Research have been responsible for have no precedent. You’ve been willing to go where no one else has gone before. But where, in your case, has this penchant for innovation come from? You’ve got both Māori and non-Māori genes — have they somehow merged and created a guy who’s prepared to take a risk?

We talk about risk taking as if it’s a modern thing.  But our ancestors were the ultimate risk takers. They take this waka. They get in it. They push it off the shore of Hawaiki or wherever it was. Aim it out over the ocean and say: “We’re going that way, and we’re going to find something.” That’s in our DNA. In the DNA of all our Māori kids.  

There’s a great story in one of James Belich’s books about two boats that set sail roughly 450 years after the death of Christ. Two boats with sailors, navigators, children, sailing through these rough seas. One of them is the Vikings, sailing to Great Britain. The other is the Polynesians, sailing, eventually, to Aotearoa.

I have ancestors who were in both of those waka. And a lot of us do. The ones that went to Great Britain and the ones that came here. Over time, they met up. So there is this wonderful mix.

Can you tell us a bit about your family and upbringing? You’re from Raupunga, on the East Coast, aren’t you?

Mum was Māori. Mangu Rose Kaimoana. She’s Kahungunu. Dad was Pākehā. Bernie John Taylor. So he was from that Viking ship up north, and Mum was from the Polynesian one down south.

I was born in Kaeo but brought up in Raupunga with a sister and three brothers. Although it must’ve been a big sacrifice for Mum, she thought it was really important that I learned English and that I went off to a Pākehā boarding school — which is what happened. I went to St Joseph’s in Masterton. I was like a lot of kids where our parents had to make this decision about where our futures lay.

As I say, the past lies in front of you. I can look out now and still see the day that the man from the Hawke’s Bay Power Board came and wired up electricity into our house and flicked on the light switch.

Seeing that light bulb turned on was probably what sparked what I’m doing today. A seven-year-old kid sees that and thinks: Gee, that’s incredible — anything must be possible. And I think that’s probably where the whole thing started.

If there’s a message in your kōrero, Ian, it seems to be one of encouraging our kids to have a go. To think of themselves as coming from a tradition of innovators. And that they carry that gene. But how do we help our young people to see themselves in that way?

Here are a couple of ways. I’m involved in the NZ Hi-Tech Awards, the biggest technology awards in the country. Last year we introduced a Māori innovation section. We had the most applications for any new category in the history of the awards.

That was incredible. And the quality of the entries was staggering. That’s one pointer. The other is that I’m on the ICT (Information, Communications and Technology) trust, where there’s about $5 million set aside for Māori ICT.

Last year, we had our first round of applications. The feeling was that we’d get about 15 or 20 applicants. But we got about 180, for funds totalling $80m.

What that tells me is that there are Māori who do understand that innovation is in their DNA, and they’re doing something about that already.

Should we also try and encourage our iwi leaders to look carefully at this area of youth innovation? What do you make of their attitude to this issue?

I’m seeing a change in it. The Māori economic engine, they reckon, is worth about $40 billion. Most of the investment to date has been in the primary industries, and the primary industries have traditionally not created many high-value jobs. But they can.

And instead of young Māori hosing dung out of the cowsheds, they could be designing the drones and writing the software for the next phase of controlling and running farms. Same with fisheries, forestry and tourism. We need to be creating high-value jobs for our young people. And we should be supporting these amazing technology companies that are coming through now.

I think there’s an awakening of that idea in Māori investment. It’s just that they’re being a bit cautious. Maybe they need to look in their DNA and say: “If our ancestors had been as cautious as we are now, they would never have pushed those waka out and they would never have got here.”

Today, of course, Raupunga is part of cyberspace, and we see improved fibre optic cabling coming into our small communities around the motu. I think it was in Hawera that someone said: “Let’s set up an after-school coding workshop for kids and see if anyone’s interested.” They got swamped by kids who were interested, and they’ve ended up going on a trip to Silicon Valley. Geography is not the barrier it used to be, now that we’re in the digital age.

Well, when Steve Jobs designed the iPad and the iPhone touchscreen, he was designing a fabulous tool for Māori kids. It’s in our DNA to tell stories orally. And use our hands to carve and to weave. And that’s what touchscreens allow. And where our kids have been given the opportunity, they’re taking to this like ducks to water.

I sometimes talk about the electronic highway. Dunedin is an example. Dunedin was where the first refrigeration ship, called Dunedin, carried the first shipment of frozen meat to Britain. That opened up an economic highway to the world that changed the economy of the entire country.

The internet is the new highway now, and it’s getting faster and wider. And again the opportunity is for us to bundle up the assets that we have — the bright minds of young people — and turn those assets into software and code and things that can be transported over this highway. This can regenerate the regions, because it shouldn’t matter where you live.

Even so, should we have reservations or cautions about this new highway?

I guess so. But you can get silly people driving along the normal highways as well. I remember that, when my two boys were growing up, I was opposed to all this social media stuff. And I’d say: “Why don’t you get real friends?”

But through this inter-connectivity, they have much better knowledge of their friends. And they’re engaged with friends all over the world — far more than we ever were. That’s a huge plus.

This new world of connectivity is stunning. For instance, some days ago, Fox emailed me a video that they were putting in the Emmy Awards for the technology we developed for the US Open. They finished it that morning and I got it that afternoon. It was that quick.

In the old days it would’ve been months before I saw it. And, if we come back to just the ability of connecting our whānau through this and getting them back to their roots, back to their whenua — well, that’s undeniably a good thing.

Your company seems to be built on a merging of minds and cultures, with a mutual respect for people’s abilities and backgrounds. How did that come about?

I think it may have happened by accident — I don’t know. We have an animation that we made on Māori culture. That’s been created by some white kids from Dunedin. And one reason it looks so good and tells the story so well is that they’ve taken these stories on as their own. That sort of thing is a really stunning promise for our country.

There’s a new project that I’m trying to push now. In 2019 we celebrate the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first visit to Aotearoa. Last year I was asked to go up to Waitangi and talk about how we could use technology to celebrate Cook’s arrival. I’m on the plane on the way up there and I’m thinking: Why are we, Māori, celebrating Captain Cook? He brought diseases. He brought guns. Who are we celebrating?

Then I thought, if we take the Māori worldview again and we look forward, we have 250 years of footsteps that have been laid since Cook sailed over the horizon the first time. Sure, some of those steps have been a bit wobbly.

But, if you look at those 250 years of footsteps and see where those paving stones are today, you have to ask yourself, as an indigenous people, is there any other indigenous race in the world, who saw that big white colonial cloud come over the horizon and who’re in a better position than we are? I challenge you to find one anywhere.

So, in 2019, why don’t we look at that sail coming over the horizon and ask ourselves: With 250 years of footsteps — both Captain Cook on his boat and us in our waka going out to meet him — can we sail out and make this country move forward from the basis of those footsteps? I think that would be the way to celebrate 2019.

You’ve led a very colourful and productive life, Ian. Of all of these things you’ve been involved in, what gives you the most sense of pride?

Well, I’ve got these two fabulous kids. In the end, I guess that’s what it’s about — it’s about family. He always kills me for talking about this, but one of my sons, Sam, was born profoundly deaf. He never ever accepted that that was a handicap, and he’s now training to be a surgeon because nothing was going to stop him.

My other son, Ben, is working with me. And, for me, one of the proudest things started this week: Ben and I are learning Māori together. We’ve just had our first two-hour session locked in the boardroom, with him teaching me because he’s learning it faster than I am. My old brain is a bit slow. But just sitting at that table this morning with my son, learning the reo — there’s nothing to match that, really.

 

© e-tangata, 2017

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