Battle of ideas is on as election-year innovation debate starts to make up for lost time




We’re now in a race to the top on innovation. Better late than never.

Liberating ideas could reboot Australia’s economy, as we argued a year ago.

Now it seems there are more ideas about how to generate ideas than ever before in Australian policymaking. Both the Liberal-National government (“Welcome to the Ideas Boom” and the National Innovation and Science Agenda) and Labor opposition (“Powering Innovation” and “Getting Australia Started”) have put down markers around innovation in the lead-up to this year’s federal election.

The Coalition and Labor pronouncements have much in common:

  • growing awareness that our innovation future lies beyond national boundaries – for example, “launching” and “landing pads” linked to innovation hubs abroad, connecting the Aussie diaspora overseas, and new visas for entrepreneurs;
  • support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies, which includes reducing gender disparities;
  • facilitating access to finance for start-ups and innovative enterprises through tax breaks and the like;
  • enhancing digital capabilities, which includes teaching kids to code;
  • fostering greater collaboration, especially between industry and research bodies;
  • new bodies to oversee innovation, science and technology: Innovate Australia (Labor) and Innovation and Science Australia (Coalition); and
  • action on government procurement.

A common goal, but key policy differences

Yet within this apparent new spirit of bipartisanship are some key differences. Some are subtle, others are not so. That is before one starts haggling over whose purse is bigger than the other’s.

The Turnbull government’s package is pitched further down the value chain, notwithstanding measures to promote STEM studies. It presumes a core capability in the economy: the assumption is that what’s missing is the key to unlock and leverage this capability. Coalition policy includes, for example, reforming Australian Research Council linkage projects and connecting industry to innovation infrastructure.

Labor seeks to build foundational capabilities from the ground up. It puts more emphasis on teaching computer coding in schools, preparing small to medium-sized enterprises to access government procurement, developing a national digital workforce plan and incentives for graduates to start businesses.

Interestingly, in a political role reversal, the Coalition’s plan has more of a selective orientation by technology and institution. This is reflected in the Biomedical Translation Fund, the Cyber-security Growth Centre and the CSIRO Innovation Fund.

Labor is more about generic capabilities across the board. This distinction, however, is not black and white.

Labor emphasises the innovation ecosystems view of the world. It plans to create regional hubs, with university-based accelerators at the core of this approach, and a national entrepreneurship support network. It speaks of an Innovation Investment Partnership to bring together venture capital, superannuation funds and start-up stakeholders to promote new business.

A distinguishing feature of the government’s package is its emphasis on an innovation culture. Reforming insolvency laws to reduce the stigma of failure is its centrepiece.

Also noteworthy is a revised approach to measuring research impact. That includes engagement with industry metrics. This is in the spirit of breaking out of research silos.

Both parties have a “challenges program”.

The Coalition has nominated five national policy and service delivery challenges. Businesses are invited to submit proposals to address them, with winning ideas to receive grants. The most successful could be accelerated to prototype or proof of concept.

Labor’s approach is more grassroots-oriented, like in the US. It proposes a portal for government agencies to propose challenges for the public to respond to.

What more can be done?

There is strength in diversity and much to commend in both plans. Yet more could be done in the following areas:

  • explicitly linking domestic challenges to corresponding global problems, thereby positioning Australia as a “solutions hub” and a leader in scaleable open-source projects and the internationalisation of ideas;
  • promoting community-driven innovation – greater intergovernmental co-ordination could scale up local solutions to local problems to a regional or national level where appropriate;
  • stronger emphasis on spreading knowledge through the economy, with university “impact” measurement expanded beyond excessive reliance on books and journals, or even commercialisation;
  • a “beyond STEM” approach to innovation, recognising the interdependencies of scientific research and non-research forms of innovation such as design and organisational systems, together with the social sciences’ pivotal role in driving prosperity within innovation ecosystems;
  • defining a stronger role for particular agents and locations – not least cities, women and girls – in the process and outcomes of innovation; and
  • a stronger ”lifecycle” view of innovation and entrepreneurship, going beyond the traditional emphasis on start-ups to include later growth stages in a seamless approach to innovation and wealth creation.

We need a transforming, global vision

Finally, to be credible, innovation policymaking must be located within a long-term vision of the structure of the Australian economy we should aspire to. It also demands honesty about the scale of the transformation required.

So the glass is half-full and rising. There are international precedents more like pints than pots.

China’s innovation hub, Chengdu, has partnered with European Union companies and organisations to share innovations among small and medium businesses and universities. The US has launched next-generation manufacturing hubs. Even one of the world’s oldest universities, Oxford, wants to be more agile in developing and translating ideas conceived in the dreaming spires.

Ideas have started to travel the world over. Australia has barely reached base camp in the race to the top.

Still, it’s encouraging to see Australian policy proposals breaking free of archaic and stifling debates about protectionism and picking winners. The world of ideas knows no boundaries.


This article was originally published in The Conversation on the 18 January 2016. Photo courtesy of AAP/Dan Himbrechts.

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