Innovation is for everyone

| October 15, 2019

There is a common narrative that can be heard at conferences and seminars across Australia when the topic turns to our track record on innovation, and it goes like this: “Australia is falling behind in terms of how innovative we are, and someone needs to do something about it”.

If you are from the industry sector, replace the word ‘someone’ with ‘government’. If you are an academic researcher, sub in the word ‘industry’. And if you are an entrepreneur, sub in both.

As for ‘something’, the list of possible remedies is seemingly endless.

If you accept that Australia could be doing more to lift its rate of innovation, then it is logical that an actor is required to step in. But assigning responsibility to one group alone is unlikely to solve the problem and may be the reason we find ourselves in our current malaise.

There are many reasons why Australia finds itself questioning its innovation credentials. High amongst these is the fact that for much of the 200-odd years since Europeans settled here, the land has given us much of what we have needed to thrive.

While the early days of settlement required significant innovation to adapt farming techniques to an unforgiving climate, the subsequent discovery of gold and further mining riches set Australia on a path where our natural advantages could provide the basis for a relatively high standard of living across society.

Compare this then to other innovative nations, such as Israel, Singapore and Sweden, which have relatively little in terms of natural resources. These nations are known for their innovation programs in part because they have had to harness the minds of their people to create new sources of wealth.

In Australia however our mineral wealth and high immigration rates have combined to deliver close to 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth with only a smattering of innovative new ideas here and there. Success, it seems, is the enemy of innovation.

When Peter Fritz and I first sat down to write a book on innovation some three years ago, we had already noted the intensity of the debate regarding Australia’s track record on government innovation policy.

But this debate masked another, bigger question – why do we need an innovation policy in the first place? Surely if it is in everyone’s interest that Australia should be an innovative nation, then isn’t it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that outcome?

The very fact that Australia has had a series of innovation policies stretching back at least into the 1980s indicates the importance of innovation in the minds of government decision makers. But if you consider that one of the principle roles of government is to step in to places where the commercial sector can’t or won’t (or perhaps shouldn’t), then why does the heavy lifting of stimulating innovation activity fall on to government?

The benefits of innovation are numerous and can be seen around the world. Innovation leads to new products and services which improve how people live. It creates the basis for new markets and new wealth. When wielded appropriately, innovation improves the world around it. And that is to everyone’s benefit.

Perhaps the American actor Lily Tomlin summed the situation up best when she said: “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realised I am somebody.”

So we decided to name our book Innovation is for Everyone, to reflect our finding that no one group can shoulder the burden of lifting Australia’s innovation performance alone. Everyone benefits from living in a more innovative society, so therefor it is in everyone ‘s interest to work together to achieve that outcome.

Or as Peter likes to say, let’s get on with it!