Three pillars of building a culture of innovation

| November 23, 2016

At the recent GAP Summit Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin, Founder and CEO of BlueChilli, explained how a bold national vision could inspire the young astronauts and entrepreneurs of the future.

BlueChilli supports innovative firms, but we accept that ‘innovation’ itself is an esoteric and abstract concept. It is not a product or service, but it drives a swathe of government policy. It cannot be directly measured in tangible terms, but may be seen as an output controllable by its inputs of human capital and business culture.

An innovative culture relies on three factors – speed of execution, empowerment of people and tolerance of failure. I see this in my work with Club Kidpreneur, which has given 15,000 seven- and eight-year-olds the chance to run their own micro business. I remember this seven-year-old boy who pivoted his plan to sell paper aeroplanes at a market to offering the experience of flying them through a target with the plane as a prize. Given the chance to shape his own destiny in a supportive environment, tolerant of experimentation and failure, the boy generated his own ideas and acted decisively to change his business model as he ran short of merchandise.

Business and government can learn from this boy to move more quickly, given the speed of change in modern technology. Funding is still to follow some of the measures announced in the innovation and science initiative last November, for example, although BlueChilli’s own ‘policy hackathon’ has produced three partly funded schemes over a similar time span.

More people must be empowered to make decisions in organisations, to stop progress being stymied by a sole critical funnel for strategy. This approach will also demand a greater tolerance for failure. Australia’s tall poppy syndrome delights in cutting down successful people when they fail while a more positive attitude would celebrate achievement and praise those who pick themselves up after a setback to start again.

Israel’s vision of becoming the world’s ‘start-up nation’ was supported by its policy of encouraging foreign firms to base research and development centres there. 300 such centres have now been founded, generating 33,000 jobs, 23,720 of which are in the technology or STEM arena. These centres nourish an eco-system of innovation around them, and their owners buy three quarters of the Israeli start-ups which choose to exit. Israeli culture prizes intelligence, drive and activity, allowing a country with the landmass of greater Sydney and the population of New South Wales to become an international economic and technological powerhouse. If one policy to drive innovation in Australia could be adopted without fear of press reaction, then tax free status for such centres would bring the world’s most creative minds to this country in droves. Such a bold strategy may never eventuate because Australia lacks the vision to give it purpose and therefore bolster support.

A bold national vision must be promoted to encourage a culture of change and inspire the young astronauts and entrepreneurs of the future. Every successful start-up has a clear and inspiring vision. Uber envisions transport as reliable as water for everyone, everywhere. WeWork promises a world where people work to have a life, not just a living. SpaceX looks to enable a life on Mars. BlueChilli connects corporates, innovators and investors to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

These are inspirational vision statements that people can rally behind. People work for BlueChilli to realise its goal, rather than pocket their salary. Countries can also have a vision. Israel’s quest to be the world’s start-up nation is an incredible brand which has brought a host of corporates, R&D centres and innovators to its shores. What is Australia’s vision to be?

The USA was inspired by the Apollo programme in the 1960s. John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon within the decade brings goose bumps to people who weren’t even born at the time. It was worth accomplishing not because it was easy but because it was hard.

That courage, conviction and leadership not only accomplished its aim, and outlived its instigator, but inspired an entire generation to study STEM and, seeded by government contracts to develop microprocessors for Apollo, led to the Silicon Valley tech boom. The moon shot transcended political boundaries. It became a populist movement which no politician dare oppose or delay because it represented what their nation stands for.

A fresh and equally ambitious goal for Australia could inspire its young people to achieve their potential. It could drive and unify policy around immigration, funding and grants but above all it would give people a reason to strive.

I challenge you to offer a suitably inspiring vision for Australia and identify the key industries to innovate in. Australia is an inventive nation but lacks the sense of purpose to channel its creativity. Australia can aim to solve the world’s biggest challenges if it chooses to dream.