Can Australia get its innovation groove back?

10th March, 2017

At the end of 2015, newly minted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the National Science and Innovation Agenda (NSIA), and was full of outspoken enthusiasm for the ‘ideas boom’. Now, not so much.

As Australia transitions from a resources economy to a knowledge economy, getting policy and support structures around innovation right is vital.

Especially if Australia is going to be part of the next wave of global economic growth.

So, how did innovation fall off the agenda and how can it find its way back to prominence?

Where did the groove go?

CEO of The Beanstalk Factory and founding director of startup advocacy body StartupAUS, Peter Bradd, told The Pulse that it had fallen off the agenda mostly because it wasn’t explained well in the first place.

“It could’ve been explained a lot better to everyday Australians,” he said.

“[They needed to explain] what it’s going to mean for them and how can they participate in it?”

A person simply making ends meet in Toowoomba is unlikely to care about landing pads, angel investors, or how to boost venture capital funding.

“If you go to the average person and ask them whether they’re excited by innovation or not they’ll probably say no,” said Bradd.

“But if you then said ‘okay, let’s roll back the car to a horse’, they wouldn’t want you to take their car from them.”

If framed as an issue outside their experience, people simply won’t connect with an idea.

It also didn’t help that innovation has slowly become a byword for automation and the loss of jobs.

Fear and loathing

All around the world, worries about the automation of work and new business creating mass casualisation have wrought havoc.

There will always be people confused and scared by the future, and what it means for their job security and prosperity.

Several political commentators have noted that an uncertain economic outlook has fueled a sense of anxiety among voters all around the world.

“Unfortunately…a lot of people are scared about jobs and change,” said Bradd.

“They need to learn new skills – and that’s a big shift from previously where you had one career for your whole life.”

So how do you fight the fear and demonstrate that the innovation sector is poised to deliver the next big wave in jobs?

Stability needed

While the federal government hasn’t stood still on the innovation front – there has been progress – it might help if Australia had an innovation minister who lasted more than a year. (Since the last federal election, Australia has had three ministers responsible for the innovation portfolio.)

A minister ultimately drives and innovates within that framework – and if a minister is only in the job for a short while it doesn’t leave a lot of time to make an impression on policy.

“It would be nice to have a minister … that would want to keep the portfolio because they think it’s critical rather than just moving off because they want to move to the ‘big’ portfolios,” said Bradd, adding that he had yet to meet new innovation minister Arthur Sinodinos.

More broadly, Australia has had four prime ministers in seven years.

Trying to drive the long-term thinking needed to underpin the innovation agenda while political life remains alarmingly short-term is challenging.

While short-sighted politics are a cause for concern, there are promising signs that Australia can turn it around.

How to get the groove back

Bradd thinks it’s possible to hit the reset button on the innovation discussion, and has been heartened by recent comments from Sinodinos.

At the end of January he gave an interview with Fairfax where he discussed the need to make innovation more relatable.

“Between consenting adults, innovation is still a word that should be used,” he said. “But we have to relate the broad concept to practical things on the ground.”

Sinodinos appears to understand why the initial innovation message failed to resonate, and looks set to re-engage the public on the issue.

It’s a slow process though, and for the innovation message to truly land it can’t just be up to politicians to preach the gospel.

“What we also need is the CEOs of major Australian companies, the heads of universities and heads of research organisations talking about this more so that it stays on the political agenda,” said Bradd.

It’s up to everybody with an interest in fostering the economy of the future to keep talking about it, painting the picture of how every one of us will benefit from the new jobs expected to be created.