Mitchell Pham is a man on a mission – a mission to see New Zealand more deeply connected to our friends and neighbours in the Asia Pacific. Last week, Pham - who escaped post-war Vietnam aged 12, arriving in New Zealand as a refugee - was appointed to the Asia Society Global Council. He’s only the second New Zealander to have ever won a seat at the table. Pham’s appointment builds on a longstanding legacy of doing business in Asia (his company, Augen Software Group, has been active in Vietnam since 2004) while diligently building and engaging with networks. He believes New Zealand is in a unique position to leverage our Kiwi ingenuity and creativity and solve many of the problems Asia faces – or will face – in the digital space. Umbrellar Connect sat down for a chat with Mitchell Pham.

Congratulations on your new role! How do you see New Zealand benefiting from your appointment to the Asia Society Global Council?

This is a real opportunity to share New Zealand’s story and participate in discussions regarding the challenges faced by countries in Asia around digital transformation. The Asia-Pacific region is the new centre of focus in terms of geopolitical dynamics, economic opportunities, social change and environmental impact. New Zealand should be part of this focus.

You’re passionate about digital inclusion – how does New Zealand measure up in this area?

Generally the stats are not particularly flash. One in five New Zealanders lacks access to digital in some way, whether that’s around internet connectivity, speed, devices, or the right knowledge to use the technology. For some, there are issues with the ability of the user to understand what it is they are using, having trust in the technology, or trust in the way the government, for instance, is using their data. There’s a whole range of things that might prevent a Kiwi from being fully digitally connected and comfortable participating.

What does ‘fully digitally connected’ mean?

In principal, it means being able to work, play, live, engage, connect with others, be part of a whanau, a company or a community through digital means when necessary.

Mitchell Pham

Mitchell Pham

Where does New Zealand sit, relative to other countries in the Asia Pacific, when it comes to digital transformation?

Our government has been investing in infrastructure, particularly with fibre, in recent years so we’re quite well set up comparative to some other countries. Even Australia, I believe, isn’t quite as well enabled by digital infrastructure as we are. However, in Asia the digital connectivity has really leap-frogged from having a wired connection right through to having a really strong foundation of mobile connectivity. It’s much stronger there than it is here, because there’s much more competition in that sector and many more providers. Asia has been able to move forward with digital transformation really quickly. I saw a statistic out of Vietnam a year or so ago showing that there is 122% mobile penetration in that country – that is something that we don’t see back home.

What does 122% penetration mean in real terms?

I’ll take my parents, in their mid-70s, as an example. They have two smartphones each. And they each have three SIMs to use in those smartphones. So both my mother and father are running three mobile connections, and that’s not uncommon in Asia. Each SIM is with a different mobile provider which means you’re accessing different rates and different plans. There’s also a huge population in Asia who don’t have traditional bank accounts, but engage with banking services through their mobile providers.

In what areas will the New Zealand experience be relevant to Asian countries?

When it comes to digital inclusion, people and businesses can be left behind for a range of reasons, and this is a space where lots of countries are experiencing similar challenges. So that’s one aspect where New Zealand’s experiences and learnings are relevant to the Global Council. Another dimension is that for our industries and businesses here in New Zealand, being able to access stronger connections into Asia represents opportunities for us when it comes to the innovation that comes out of our country.

Can you give an example of an industry that night benefit?

Asia has a huge appetite for all kinds of digital solutions because of the level of digital penetration and engagement. And in New Zealand, almost every industry is starting to innovate with digital, which gives us new ways to engage with Asia economies that we didn’t before. Take fintech for example. While it might be difficult for a Kiwi financial services provider to expand its offering into Asia, if it’s innovating with a digital offering, there could be an opportunity to take that aspect into Asia and engage using local partners. Education is another industry that could engage with Asian customers via digital means. Particularly now with travel restrictions in place, it’s not about selling our traditional services, but approaching Asia with solutions to their problems that leverage off digital technology.

We might think of Asia as miles ahead in terms of digital transformation and technology, but you’re saying it’s New Zealand that may have an edge?

We certainly do have a real edge. This is a generalisation, but Kiwis are much more free and innovative in our thinking, due to the different ecosystem and education system that produces people who think differently. We’re very well suited to problem solving, innovative thinking and creativity. We’re good at finding new solutions to challenges around the world. We also have very strong value sets around sustainability and stewardship of the environment, which are more and more important to people around the world. New Zealand has a great brand, and when you combine all of these factors, we’re in a good position to innovate. It’s not just about solving our own problems here in New Zealand – it’s about making the world a better place.

What one thing would you like to see New Zealand do in the next five years to really propel us forward in the digital space?

What I feel passionate about is collaboration – between government, industry and community. I’d like to see New Zealanders working together to really assimilate our digital transformation without leaving any Kiwis or Kiwi businesses behind.

Fiona Fraser

Fiona Fraser

Fiona Fraser spent 18 years as a journalist and editor before founding Contentment Agency, her content and public relations business. From first getting behind a radio sound desk as a teenager, to thrashing podcasts as an adult, she appreciates the myriad ways tech can enhance communication and connection.

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