Lillian Grace is something of a big-thinker. From a chic studio in Auckland’s High Street, her conversation glides between the environment, economy, innovation ecosystem and youth disadvantage, and how they all interweave.
At 30, she was one of the three authors of the ex-New Zealand Institute’s 2012 report Navigating an Uncertain Future, placing talk about the future of our entwined economy and environment firmly on the table. She now works with the former director of the Institute, Dr Rick Boven, consulting for government, commercial and not-for-profit organisation.
After two years deep inside the Institute’s research zone, she can’t stop. Grace is now launching her own venture: Wiki New Zealand, a collaborative website making data about New Zealand accessible to everyone.
“I don’t care what decisions people make, as much as I care that they make informed [ones]. There’s so much great data collected, by organisations such as Statistics New Zealand, but if you’re not used to working with databases and spreadsheets, it can be difficult to access.”
By using infographics and graphs, the former teacher hopes to make the data more accessible, sparking quality discussion and informed decisions, in all places and at all levels – about everything from jobs and healthcare to innovation and the environment.
Grace hopes Wiki New Zealand, which launched this weekend, will become a charitable trust and get discussion going at all walks of life. A Herculean task, Grace is going it alone for the most part, although she will draw on the expertise of her cohort of eight trustees aboard – some from her post-teaching days at Massive Software – and from many others who have jumped on.
Much of the inspiration for the project arose from researching for Navigating an Uncertain Future. The report pointed to discussions the authors reckon New Zealanders urgently need to have. Spanning alarming statistics concerning the global climate, energy, food, land and water, and ecosystems, it looks at potential obstacles and strategies not just for coping, but also for using the changes to our advantage.
“The message is: understand the global stats and trends, and don’t focus on just one piece of information,” Grace says.
“And on balance, what does that mean for possible and probable future outcomes? And given that, what do we need to do to be on the best trajectory we can possibly be? If all the scientists are wrong and all the data is wrong, then we may be fine, but if it’s not, if even only part of the things are true, then we have some serious decisions to make.
“In my experience, with going round talking to people about [various] issues, everyone seems to care – they just don’t know very much about them.”
She’s the first to admit a naive past; her small-town Waipukurau childhood meant there was a lot she wasn’t exposed to.
“My world was very small. I had a wonderful upbringing, but I just didn’t know much. Terms like socialism, capitalism, what it meant to be on the left or the right – I had no idea what they meant.
“But probably because of that, I thought, I need to be able to ask. I’ve never been afraid to say ‘I don’t know what that is’. I think a lot of people think that New Zealanders don’t care [about issues facing society], but I now think that most people care, they just don’t know much about them.”
She found working at the think-tank something of a personal awakening.
“I remember being in shock for a week,” she says of her first month. “For one, growing up I had always assumed that if all countries shared, then we’d all have enough to eat – but that’s not where the problems stem from.
All those things you are exposed to early on, like the 40-Hour Famine, lead you to believe that, by sacrificing and sending money to other countries, you could solve the problem.”
But Grace is far from doom and gloom; as much as the report was worrying, she believes there are ways forward.
“I don’t think the world’s going to implode, we just have to change our mindset and understanding and alter some of our behaviours.
“It’s about realising what you don’t know, and learning what you don’t know.”
A life-changing realisation for Grace was the fact that our future is not going to be an extension of our past.
“I’m not advocating for any specific outcome, but I do think the conversation and discussion are important to very consciously have to decide on something. What do we value as a country? What are our personal values? And what does that mean for how we behave?”
Originally published in Idealog #42, page 25