An open letter to the new Australian Government on creating an Innovation Future

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Firstly let me congratulate Kevin Rudd and his campaign team on their victory and welcome them as the government of this fine country, Australia.

As someone who has been in the innovation trenches for the past decade, I am enthused by Senator Kim Carr’s election message regarding creating “An innovation future for Australian industry”.

The purpose of this open letter is to highlight the initiatives set out in Senator Carr’s statement and give my considered views on what can be done to ensure the new government is able to maximise its impact in this area.

I totally agree with the opening statements put forward by Senator Carr that innovation is a key driver of productivity and economic growth. Yes, rolled out correctly, it can both drive the creation of new businesses and sectors and revitalise existing industries.

In terms of new businesses and sectors I support the focus in the paper on leveraging Australia’s depth of knowledge in clean technologies. Not only can we become world leaders in this arena, but we also stand the most to gain by getting it right. Imagine if you will, a terraformed Australian outback acting as the world’s lung and providing a purpose built, rich source of biodiversity.

In addition, there are two industries that can benefit greatly from an innovation boost. Firstly, as identified in the paper, the manufacturing industry which has long been languishing – think of a revitalisation across the current South Australian/Victorian rust belt as a hub for advanced manufacturing and nanotechnology and what this would do for the people’s of these areas as well as for the economy.

Secondly, Australia has been on the cusp of having a world leading games industry for many years. With a boost and some refocusing we are well set to produce global best practice in the broader gaming and virtual worlds arena – an industry that is set to boom over the next decade and one which many multinationals and countries are taking very seriously.

The paper states that Labor will.

Writing down notes on the paper, I incuded in my wishlist the appointment of a high profile Innovation Ambassador, only to turn the page and find that, after stating that Labor will build a culture of innovation and a national innovation system, Senator Carr had already thought along similar lines.

From my point of view the role of Innovation Ambassador should be a position from which to attract into Australia key entrepreneurial talent, tier one venture capital firms and multinational research undertakings.

The ambassador should also be tasked with connecting Australian business to new global technology in such a way as to incentivise rapid take up of innovations from around the world and position Australian business as thought leaders.

The paper makes the point that an innovative, creative economy requires a wide range of people interacting. One of my key criticisms of how innovation has been supported to date in Australia is the lack of recognition that there are other cogs in the wheel than just researchers. Without support for the entrepreneurs and business builders who take new inventions and productise them many potential products never get to market. It is heartening to see that Labor is cognisant of this.

The paper further supports the creation of a stronger research sector. Widening the ambit beyond scientific and technological disciplines into the social arena is a good move. Many of the most lucrative and disruptive products on the market today have emerged from the social media space. Think  Google, Youtube, Facebook and many others. In Australia we have the capabilities to produce similar products and companies.

Senator Carr calls for the replacement of the Research Quality Framework with a metrics-based research quality assurance system. It is expected this will cause the incumbent research institutes to lift their game and get rid of non impact producing research projects. Impact here being measured in means other than short term commercialisation or academic papers.

The paper talks about revitalising CSIRO and removing the barriers to the CRCs working efficiently. It is my supposition that the new Federal Department of Innovation should also look more closely at international models that have worked exceptionally well in producing both long term economic growth coupled with industry engagement. There are a number of examples, such as the Belgian research institute IMEC, that should be added into the mix.

An interesting approach mentioned in the paper is forming a coalition amongst smaller nations to maximise Australia’s innovation impact. Many countries, including the four mentioned (Chile, Ireland, South Africa and South Korea) have aspirations to become strong innovation centres, but not many have succeeded individually. Australia could benefit immensely from being more closely aligned with Ireland and we have many similarities with South Africa in areas like clean technology and communications.

It is heartening to hear of Labor’s recognition of a key stumbling block – high speed broadband and the lack thereof in Australia. We should be benchmarking ourselves against South Korea in this respect and aiming for an even more pervasive and faster network than they have in place. Forming a coalition that included South Korea, would greatly assist us achieving this.

It is promising that the new Federal government aims to work with the States to produce a consolidated innovation system. By focusing more on the customer of such a system, rather than satisfying bureaucratic instincts will ensure we have a system in place that is a significant improvement. Similarly, the creation of a unified Federal department charged with overseeing innovation, industry, science and research will greatly reduce fragmentation, doubling up and lack of transparency.

For example, the paper mentions reducing the red tape and streamlining the Commercial Ready program. Let entrepreneurs build, let innovators invent and the nation can only benefit.

Bringing innovation stakeholders together to bridge the divide between business and research is an excellent idea.

However, there will need to be incentives in place for them to do so. Blindly funding basic research and rewarding researchers for paying lip service to engaging with industry has been a core failure of the innovation system to date. The proposed Researchers in Business internship project is an excellent way to create more industry awareness amongst the nation’s academics.

Up until now much of the commercialisation funding has been provided in an ad hoc, shotgun style approach. One of the best initiatives announced in the paper is the establishment of a Climate Ready program as part of the new, improved Commercial Ready program. This intentional focus on core areas such as clean technologies is an excellent way to ensure the funding provided produces meaningful results.

Similarly the focus on a Clean Energy Innovation Centre and an Energy Innovation Fund will be well received.

I submit though that Senator Carr should also be looking to new ways of incentivising the creation of breakthrough products. I refer in this regard to the model pioneered by the X Prize Foundation. Australia has a fantastic opportunity to choose various breakthrough challenges and open the playing field to anyone to achieve the goals set and win the prizes being put up. This approach would markedly improve the achievement of results from innovation funding and can kickstart whole new industries.

I have been banging on for a while about the failure of the innovation ecosystem and the need for us to think as a nation about life beyond the mining boom. The creation of an Australia 2.0-capable innovation system appears apparent through many of the initiatives mentioned in Senator Carr’s paper.

The cynical amongst us will almost certainly point out that this paper was released as part of an electoral campaign and therefore we should discount the rhetoric in it. However, I am confident that the sheer depth of thinking in the paper, coupled with hard work and focus from all of us in bringing it to fruition will be a journey worthwhile embarking on.

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2.0 Everything: X (PRIZE) marks the spot

Check out this video about the X PRIZE Foundation’s latest endeavor – the Google Lunar X PRIZE.

It’s being seen as the start of Moon 2.0 and totally rocks.

I wonder what an Australia 2.0 PRIZE would entail? I’d imagine it would need to have some environmental component — water desalination, terraforming…

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