Reimagine a Better Hawaii After COVID

Economic Growth Suggestions for a Better-Than-New Normal Hawaii

Bill Spencer

Residents of Hawaii need to define our “new normal” rather than become a victim of it.

We need to imagine a Hawaii where all sectors cooperate, rather than allowing one sector to suck what is best about Hawaii out of it. All sectors, including agriculture, energy, the military, state and city government, and even tourism benefit from technology and innovation.

What benefit does tourism bring? An opportunity to have plentiful low paying jobs? More cases of COVID?

I am a 30-year resident and I have been part of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association for 25 years. I have always supported and promoted ways to diversify Hawaii’s economy, with a focus on innovation industries that can create quality and modern, high paying jobs. I have worked with all manner of organizations impacting Hawaii’s ability to become economically self reliant. The organizations include Blue Startups, Hawaii Angels, Pacific Asia Center for Entrepreneurship, Chaminade, the HUB, and a long list of others that have come and gone.

As a keen observer of Hawaii’s missed opportunities to become sustainably self-reliant (Desert Storm, 9/11 and now COVID), I want to suggest some things we can do to transition to a “new normal” without 11 million tourists tromping around our special islands. Many of these suggestions can be done right now.

We are in a time where all of us must make changes in the way we live our lives and operate our businesses.

It is time to re-imagine a better-than-new normal Hawaii and align this vision with prospective leaders. And we can start by acknowledging that in fact we have already diversified our economy with innovation businesses. The seeds were planted during the Ariyoshi administration and have grown into a significant cluster of locally spawned businesses and support groups. Those who want to rely on tourism seem to ignore this fact and pretend that diversification is impossible. Diversification has come a lot further than the politicians ever imagined, but they are blind to it. Let’s open their eyes.

Re-Imagining the Economic Future of Hawaii


Over the last 30 years we have developed world-class knowledge workers with the skills needed to create and work in innovation businesses. Designers, engineers, software architects, and biotech researchers, would love to live here, we just need to show them how to make it happen and incentivize them further if needed. Continuing to build our talent base on island needs to be a priority and we should be supplementing education opportunities for our young people. Spend HTA ad dollars on a Kama’aina Come Home campaign that can attract our best and brightest home instead of telling the world what a great place Hawaii is to visit.


Leadership has long been wrong-headed by seeking to attract huge companies like Apple or Microsoft to move here instead of entrepreneurs and talented people who can live anywhere in the world, so called Digital Nomads. Chenoa Farnsworth who leads BlueStartups, suggests the need to strongly recruit entrepreneurs and digital nomads fleeing places like Silicon Valley, New York, Seattle as remote work becomes the norm. We have an amazing lifestyle to offer those fleeing Silicon Valley and elsewhere.


The HUB in Kakaako

Knowledge workers, tech workers, coders, customer service and a long list of others already know about co-working online, but companies still think there are benefits in physically being at work. This is not sustainable in a virus-woke world. Google’s announcement that its employees will work at home until summer 2021 is a huge shift, but opens up a world of changes in our economy geared toward keeping people at the office.

Commercial real estate and essentially any non-consumer facing business will be impacted. We need to re-think how to support home workers and face the reality that the office is on the way out. Home based work will also have the benefit of reducing pressure on the need to spend money we don’t have on a rail system that goes beyond the Middle Street hub.


Make Hawaii the highest end tourism and eco-tourism spot in the world commensurate with what makes us special. Hawaii does not have to be the Disneyland of the Pacific. We need to be the Switzerland of the Pacific. Charge higher fees for access to attractions, trails and parks. Hotel workers at all levels are undervalued despite their “essential worker” status. It is time to start paying such workers enough money to live in Hawaii without having to have two jobs.

The impact of an average of 320,000 extra people crowding our streets should be clear to all of us by now. Clear skies, clear ocean water, clear trails and a clear desire to change. It is time to take ownership of our islands away from foreign owned hotel companies, banks and airlines. High end travelers are buying the condos and properties locals cannot afford. They are shopping in Dolce Gabana, Tiffany’s and Chanel. They can afford the higher freight.

Though dependent on mostly Federal dollars it is time to stop the rail at Middle St. Do we want tourists that can only afford to take public transportation from the airport to Waikiki, or who can afford limos and private jets?



Hawaii must first become aware that it needs to be economically reliant on what we can do ourselves, without the burden imposed on our resources and environment by mass quantities of tourists. We know we can buy locally grown vegetables and fruits. We need to buy more local technology products and services. Local companies lose out on millions of dollars in contracts given by State Government and private industry to mainland tech companies that are no better and in many cases not as well equipped as local tech companies. Lowest bidder does not benefit Hawaii’s tech industry.

We can farm the ocean rather than relying on under-paid third world workers to fish for an ever-dwindling resource. Pineapple fields can be turned into smaller patches of farm land to smaller farming companies instead of waiting for big agribusiness to come in. Coops and shared ag processing facilities can reduce costs.


We can continue to ignore Hawaii’s unique opportunity to provide enough energy to power the islands for the next 1000 years, geothermal, or we can continue to develop the capacity for other alternative energy sources to meet the 2040 goal. But it will take leadership and political will, as yet not evidenced, to meet this goal. One of the best review of options comes from Blue Planet which can be found here:


No question Hawaii needs affordable housing and this need will expand dramatically as kama’aina come home and if we are to attract digital nomads. People who cannot pay their rent or mortgage will either leave Hawaii or be forced into other options. We have to pay people a living wage and give them a reason to come home or stay, and that starts with having an affordable place to live. Office building and bankrupt boutique hotels could be converted into affordable condos.


We need to be able to feed ourselves. Entrepreneurial efforts like Mao Organic Farms, Pono Pork, and farmers markets must be supported. Mainland grocery stores need to stop gouging locals along with tourists who won’t be back for a long time if ever. Stores shouldn’t be telling us to buy local then charging more for something shipped from Maui than the mainland. They should be buying as much as possible from local sources who will expand to meet growing demand. There is a lot of farm land to be made available to farmers instead of waiting for conglomerates to figure out a way to make agriculture something that produces food sold elsewhere. Landowners could get their ground rent from a share of proceeds. Hawaii exports 85-90% of the seafood it lands here, so no lack of seafood from fishing.


Clearly there is a disconnect when technology and progress meet Hawaiian Cultural practices and concerns. Even the TMT, that offered benefits to native Hawaiians beyond money and jobs, has been spurned, and leadership seems trapped into inertia. Instead of facing protests and lawsuits for every project that involves technology or innovation, industry leaders and Hawaii’s cultural leaders need to figure out how to proceed. It is the 21st century and all of us cannot escape the opportunity and benefits of moving beyond our differences and making Hawaii better for all of us who have the opportunity to live here.

Hawaii needs leadership focused on re-touristing and fixing our broken economy. We need to re-focus our priorities on assuring self-reliance first. We need residents who can actually afford to live here without working the proverbial 2-3 jobs. We know according to recent Aloha United Way studies a shocking 42 percent of Hawaii residents have limited assets and are living paycheck to paycheck, despite being hardworking and employed. This is NOT sustainable.


Hawaii needs a “Hawaii Service Corps (HSC)” modeled after the very successful National Health Service Corps which reimbursed physician education costs in exchange for year-for-year work in underserved areas. Imagine the quality experiences and life changing possibilities that would come from such a plan that would allow new graduates and the otherwise under employed the opportunity for meaningful work. Maybe the homeless population could be served by those who’ve made it out of this situation and are getting public assistance. A service plan could pay a living wage to the folks in exchange for helping current homeless people out of their situation. Many jobs in underserved areas go unfilled.

About the Author:

Bill has more than 30 years of experience as a technology entrepreneur, mentor and coach to Hawaii startups as President of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association, board member of Hawaii Angels and mentor at Blue Startups. He is presently an angel investor advising entrepreneurs who want to start a businesses or seek investment capital. Particular focus on social entrepreneurship, technology, innovation, mariculture and software.


  1. Aloha Bill. Thanks for the well thought out article and for the shout out! I agree with much of what you have said. I would like to add that Hawaii is in a unique situation right now. For years, maybe decades, we have been trying to get innovators to come to Hawaii. In the past year, I can tell you that they are coming…in droves. We see them here at the Hub Coworking and we wish we could keep many of them. I think the challenge today is how do we keep people that have come here for a month or two. Yes we might need some incentives, but from my conversations it more about community and a sense of belonging. I can’t tell you how many times someone new has asked me where the meet ups are and I could not answer them. Of course right now this is difficult, but after all of this, where are the meetups? Where is the community gathering to exchange ideas and find potential collaborators? People need collaborators, colleagues and yes, friends. They need to feel a part of the community and that Hawaii is a place they can settle down in and raise their families. People have lamented to me that they miss being able to walk down a street and just pop into a meeting because they saw a sign out front that sounded interesting. We are trying as hard as we can to create these opportunities, but I think this is something the city or state could provide some help with. We have a venue, we have space, we’ll collaborate to build the community. What we need is time, human resources and some funding. It doesn’t even have to be us, but someone should put some intentionality into this.

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