Dr Alan Bollard on APEC 2021's move to digital platforms

The news that New Zealand has decided its 2020 hosting of APEC will go completely digital was not a surprise, writes Dr Alan Bollard, Chair for Pacific Region Business at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

The news that New Zealand has decided its 2020 hosting of APEC will go completely digital was not a surprise. There is a long lead-in time to plan for such a huge event in order to get the 21 economies engaged and logistically prepared.

Contrary to some media reports, this goes much wider than just cancelling the November Leaders Summit in Auckland. New Zealand may host over 200 APEC meetings during the year, ‘attended’ by up to 20,000 people. The way APEC operates is that ministers and leaders set the agenda, then the real detailed work is done in meetings by 50 technical working groups. That is how this huge body (comprising over half the world’s economies) moves regional integration forward.

In practical terms, New Zealand’s decision means we will have few actual visitors and we will lose some of the practical engagement with business and other groups. On the positive side it will save a lot of taxpayer money and a considerable amount of carbon emissions.

International institutions have been slow to embrace distance meeting technologies. During my six years running the APEC Secretariat in Singapore I was not very successful in encouraging APEC to do this. Now COVID has achieved what I failed to do, and ironically this may turn out to be the new way that major international organisations look to carry out many of their meetings in future.

That is why New Zealand will have a big job on its hands, proving that we make the digital technologies work well. We know from our COVID experience that distance meetings can be very productive, but they do need particular preparation, timing, chairing, seating, presentation, speaking and follow-up arrangements, which may differ from the traditional round-the-table meetings.

The APEC economies are currently looking at setting standards for 5G digital platforms, and that makes it a good time to showcase new digital possibilities. There is room for us to be very innovative in our approach, and other host economies will be watching this. Parts of meetings could be broadcast live; the whole APEC year could be linked to social media channels; and there is much wider scope for community engagement. We will need to find creative ways to share our country with digital visitors. Can we find immersive on-line experiences to deepen relationships and give them a taste of New Zealand people and business?

International institutions have been struggling to show relevance in the post-COVID era, and this is a chance for New Zealand to show its leadership.

Dr Alan Bollard is Chair for Pacific Region Business in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

This article was originally published on the Asia Media Centre.