What would a New Zealand CTO do?

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When Elon Musk presented his idea for using a rocket to travel between cities – no destination on Earth would take longer than one hour to travel to – did anyone spot the Auckland reference in the video?

Musk made the announcement at the International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide last week. After updating the audience on Space X plans to transport humans to the Moon and Mars by 2024, he then suggested that the same rockets could be used on Earth to transport people between cities.

Somewhere in that sped-up list of city-to-city timings towards the end of Musk’s video is ‘Doha to Auckland in 45 minutes’. This is probably because the route made headlines earlier this year for being the world’s longest commercial flight at 14,535 kms.

But what if Auckland, and indeed New Zealand, got a mention because it was known as the world’s most advanced country in terms of transport technology? After all, if anyone has a greater need to overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’, it would be surely be the inhabitants of Aotearoa.

Then there is Musk’s other challenge to the world in 2013 – the Hyperloop, a kind of supersonic tube-based transportation system, a ‘fifth mode of transport’ after planes, trains, boats and cars. The company formed to realise the idea, Hyperloop One, has raised $245 million in venture capital and has recently announced 10 routes it is considering, following a competition which attracted 2600 entries.

There were no New Zealand routes in the short-list, and while I don’t know if a team from this country entered, the Hyperloop doesn’t seem to be an idea that has attracted much interest here. Enquiries about building a Hyperloop between Auckland and Wellington – even just the concept – at the engineering departments of Auckland University, AUT and Canterbury University, as well as the Ministry of Transport have not, to date, yielded anyone willing to speak on the topic.

Given the recent chaos caused by the damaged pipeline supplying jet fuel to Auckland Airport, you might think this would be an interesting idea to at least discuss. (If you are interested in basic statistics on the route, you can check out Hyperloop One’s route calculator here).

Which brings me to the idea of a New Zealand Chief Technology Officer – a role promised by Labour and National before the general election. Should the idea survive the coalition talks what do we want this person to do?

Do we think he or she should trudge from meeting to meeting advocating for funding for better digital technology education in schools, or encourage the telcos that have been paid to build rural broadband infrastructure to get on with it? Both interesting and worthy causes. Or do we want this person to give Elon Musk a call and start planning how far from Auckland we could feasibly build that rocket launch pad? (New Zealand even has a space engineering company that could help out!).

It isn’t that the Hyperloop and inter-city rocket travel are necessarily the right ideas to pursue, it’s the excitement of them, the innovation, the belief that if we thought differently we could come up with more interesting solutions that would benefit New Zealand and lead the world. That’s maybe what we most want a New Zealand CTO to do – inspire.

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