Opportunities for a more inclusive physical activity system

Diverse NZers’ stories

With Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created widespread challenges across Aotearoa and the globe. A silver lining of the pandemic is the opportunity it presents for us to pause and reflect on how we could create a better future together.

As kaitiaki (guardian) of the play, active recreation and sport system, Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa embarked on a journey to imagine what the future of physical activity in Aotearoa might look like, and what role the organisation could play in bringing that future to life.

We created:


Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa was looking to understand New Zealanders’ current experiences of being active, and how active opportunities, spaces, and organisations could change to better serve the needs of all New Zealanders.

They commissioned Innovation Unit to talk to a diverse range of New Zealanders about their experiences of physical activity, as well as people in the system who have an influence over others’ access to physical activity opportunities. Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa was particularly interested in hearing from people within their key priority groups: Māori, women and girls, and those with a disability.

The very idea of exercise is loaded with concepts like ‘normalness’… it represents so much of what’s difficult about being disabled in a world that’s not set up for youJames


We started by holding a system mapping workshop with Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa staff in Wellington and Auckland, as well as an informal kōrero (conversation) with the Rautaki Māori team, to understand internal views of the system and the role of Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa within it. By ‘system’ we mean the people, organisations, spaces and relationships that influence how people are active in Aotearoa.

Ihi is far more than just activity. It goes way deeper, right into your core. It’s the place where passion, drive and energy comes from – all of those really
powerful things that get you moving…it’s way more than, ‘we’re going to play sports’ or ‘we’re going to do some fitness activity’. For Māori, Ihi is un-tapped potential, a source of energy that requires igniting.”
Moana-Lee Raihania, Toihautū – Principal Advisor Māori Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa

Photo of a Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa staff member drawing some of the places New Zealanders are active

We then reviewed relevant literature to help us clarify questions and topics to guide our conversations with people outside the organisation.

Finally, we spoke with nine New Zealanders with diverse backgrounds (across age, ethnicity, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation) about their experiences and perceptions of being active. Instead of trying to represent the diversity of all of New Zealands’ experiences, the purpose was to talk with people who would have different perspectives from those internally to help challenge preconceived assumptions and help the organisation think about the future differently.

Trail running to me is freedom and happiness…getting up to a hill and seeing the views…For once it wasn’t about gender or the shape of anything…it became a sort of escape.”’Taylor’, interviewee

We also spoke with 11 sector stakeholders from local and central government, Regional Sports Trusts, schools, a rugby club and a university, about their experiences of working with other organisations to support New Zealanders to be active.

Finally, we worked with a talented illustrator to bring these stories to life, along with seven key opportunities to create a more inclusive physical activity system.  We then  shared these back with Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa staff at an all-staff hui.

Starting out the focus was very much on the system-level view, but as is often the case, people engaged so strongly with the human stories. It was a good reminder that systems work needs to be made human for people to understand and relate to it.Rachel Knight, Project Lead, Innovation Unit


This marked the start of many conversations between Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa, New Zealanders and the wider system about the future of physical activity in Aotearoa. Although they were only one piece of the puzzle, the stories and opportunities have already sparked new thinking, challenged biases, and for some staff, reinforced what they were already hearing from the communities they work with.

The stories were really powerful, and a highlight of the staff conference. Some were new stories to us, and they really resonated with me.Dave Adams, Head of Government Relations and Strategic Foresight

Photo of Sport New Zealand Ihi Aotearoa staff watching a short video of three interviewees sharing their stories of what being active means to them.


In the coming months, Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa will share the journeys and opportunities with their partners and the wider physical activity system. By inspiring and challenging what the future could look like, these tools and conversations will help guide the sector to work in different ways to better meet the needs of all New Zealanders.

The system is currently designed for people like us, and these stories help us to challenge assumptions and walk in other people’s shoes. I’d love to see everyone with those names at the top of their minds – how will this affect James? Or Rahera? But change does take time, and this collateral is a step – not an end-point.Barbara Grieve, Strategist & Advisor, Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa

It’s helped us think about what we’ll have to do to make this real. It’s something in our kete to go forward with, and think more about the challenges they’ve articulated.Hamish McEwen, Intelligence team manager, Sport NZ Ihi Aotearoa