Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the Chief Science Advisor to the New Zealand Prime Minister, gave a talk on Monday, 5th December titled Innovation through science: the pathway to economic prosperity–a conversation with Auckland.
Much of what he has to say about Auckland could very easily be transposed and repeated largely and boldly in capital letters about Sydney.
His talk is about innovation, of the science and knowledge and based variety, and how it can be used to boost the economy of a particular city or region through the creation of a well-developed ecosystem.
He defines innovation as being about using knowledge, research and experimental data to generate a product or service which has impact, generally by way of producing something to sell.
He points out that there are two myths that need to be overcome when discussing and developing a thorough understanding of innovation.
The first myth is that innovation is achieved by individuals working as backyard inventors. He rightly points out that the bulk of innovation emanates from multidisciplinary interactions. The reason for this is that innovation is first and foremost about doing things differently and as such requires a major shift from reductionist linear thinking. Such shifts mostly take place when disciplinary boundaries are crossed.
He points out that one of the attractions of big science projects is that they can become the nucleus and focal point for disparate disciplines to work together, leading to great new ideas. He uses the World Wide Web and wireless broadband as examples of incredible innovations that came out of such big science projects.
The second myth is that innovation takes place within a linear process moving in an orderly fashion from basic research to applied research to development to sales that is predictable in direction and time and readily divisible into these four categories. He very correctly points out that in science-based innovation, at least half the products that are developed and sold originate in research in an area of activity well away from that that started it.
He points out that science-based innovation requires at least two major components–firstly a sufficiency of ideas flow and secondly an ecosystem that’s allows the market and scientist to get close together. Statistically, he states that the Israelis believe that they need to evaluate at least 100 ideas that are thought to be of value in order to see one that actually justifies investment. As he says, this gives you an idea of the ecosystem we have to build.
And this is where we can start transposing because he points out that the Israelis don’t have any more researchers than New Zealand, just a better linked up system. The same can be said about Australia.
There are, of course, other components required to create a complete innovation ecosystem, as he points out these include access to capital, to professional expertise in capital raising, in IP management, experts in dealing with regulatory affairs and skills in managing an innovation company–as these are markedly different to the skills required to run a property investment company or, equally relevant to the Australian context, a mining, professional services or agricultural company.
He pauses for a moment to reflect on how New Zealand came to be in the position that it is in. He feels that their failure to move as far as other small countries in developing a knowledge economy is partly a function of their cultural history. Australia has been called the lucky country and he could very well have been speaking directly about this country, as opposed to New Zealand, when he states: we have been a lucky country, able to live off of farming. Of course, in Australia we would add mining to this picture.
He feels that the lack of a sense of crisis and urgency led to an undervaluation of the role of intellectual activity and science, and contrasts this to countries like Israel and Singapore where a real sense of crisis led them to invest heavily in knowledge and science and science-based innovation. They had to use the only natural resource they really had–the combined intellectual horsepower of their well-educated populations.
We do not yet have a sense of acute crisis but things are starting to change. We cannot get rich by carrying on doing what we do now, and yet there are enormous demands for a better social system, for higher wages, for a cleaner environment. Clearly we have to be richer to achieve these things. And what is our unexploited asset–the very asset other small countries have recognised–we have a good education system and we have clever people, we have a stable society, we are corruption free–we are good place from which to make new knowledge, protect it, exploit it and export it. Even if we were in better shape than we are, there is another reason to invest more in the knowledge economy–we need to diversify, since diversified economies are more robust.
He repeatedly used the term ecosystem in his talk. He did this intentionally. In Australia, as in his country, they have a habit of believing in single interventions rather than integrated systemwide approaches. He notes that in every country that they looked at as a potential comparator and which has done well, that country has both recognised and acted on multiple points across the whole system simultaneously.
This is a point I have repeatedly made about Australia as well. We have had some great programs over the years but these have been provided from the stance of a single intervention strategy rather than viewing the ecosystem as the complex system that it is.
MULTI-LAYERED INNOVATION ECOSYSTEMS
This part of his talk is music to my ears:
Key to all of what I have been saying is a need to have a multi-layered innovation ecosystem. It has many components. It has to have local government committed to promoting, encouraging and if necessary, part-financing an “innovation city”. It needs the development of technology parks clustering academia and entrepreneurs along with support services. It needs institutions–hospitals, universities, technical institutes–to cooperate rather than compete. It needs venture capital. It needs a commitment to work together and to attract the best and brightest to want to live in Auckland (transpose SYDNEY). We cannot leave it all to central government even though their role is critical–the evidence is clear, local government must play a role.
We have several academic precincts and we need to work out how to integrate and use each to maximal advantage without destroying their individuality.
WHAT WILL DRIVE MORE INNOVATION?
Four things matter, according to the Israeli experts he has spoken to, in driving more innovation. These are education, basic research, a holistic approach and a risk-taking attitude.
He goes on to talk about the Israeli model for incubators that are owned jointly between investors and the local authority or between the local authority and the local university. He points out that this model is based on a high ideas flow, and aggressive culling, high levels of investment and international management and technology input from the start. New ventures are supported with loans, not grants, to encourage entrepreneurial activity – written off if the product does not make it. Auckland has to work as “Auckland Inc.” to attract more risk capital to Auckland. It is uniquely placed to create an environment for this type of innovation.
Again, ditto Sydney.
KEEPING IT LOCAL
Much like Sydney, and the rest of Australia for that matter, Auckland suffers from a major brain drain. All too often we/they lose great entrepreneurs and scientists to other parts of the world. Recognizing this he highlights that while it’s one thing to build knowledge-based businesses, it’s quite another to keep them locally. Essential to doing that is to create an environment that keeps the R&D function in our city.
We have to build a city and a country that really values knowledge and science and entrepreneurship. We need technology parks, we need an intertwining of researchers, in the public and private sector, we need a world-class university and a vibrant knowledge-based ecosystem.
Spot on, and ditto Sydney.
The investment needed is partly fiscal, but so much more of it is psychological and motivational. Let us do the things that enable Auckland to brand itself as a city of innovation; a smart city in a smart nation.
Well said, Sir Peter!
At one point Sydney seemed to be heading in the right direction. We had a focus on brand Sydney, but I think we’ve lost the way – let’s focus laser-like on Sydney Inc or we will soon be shown up by our southerly neighbours!