I’ve often said that Australia’s biggest obstacle to measurable success in the increasingly ruthless 21st century digital era is culture. Specifically, a cultural aversion to big ideas, global ambition and long term strategic thinking.
And, within that cultural milieu, policy makers have little appetite to sell the national innovation imperative and the policies to support it, to a broad cross section of Australians.
So, when ABC presenter Sabra Lane introduced Bill Ferris, the lead architect of the recently launched Innovation Sciences strategic plan: Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation, I again got that sinking feeling. Lane summed it up like this:
“Innovation has become a buzzword used by corporate leaders and politicians to try and gee-up the nation about lifting its productivity. But sometimes the idea seems to just wash over people. They can’t think about being agile or being innovative and they believe that Australia’s been pretty lucky to date and they don’t want to change what they do; she’ll be right mate.”
And then, with the gentle “compliment sandwich” delivery akin to an ever-patient, though world-weary Innovation 101 professor, Mr Ferris tried to explain the innovation imperative again. He was plain speaking.
“Innovation is the key to sustainable prosperity; a prosperity less dependent upon our very efficient commodities exports and those historically favourable terms of trade and more widely driven by the development and commercialisation of our own ideas and our own inventiveness,” he said.
“Innovation drives productivity; productivity drives GDP growth; GDP growth drives living standards. It’s not rocket science. It’s just hard.”
Later he added: “Ultimately, it’s about what sort of country we want in 2030.”
And there’s the rub.
When I asked Mr Ferris when was the last time Australians collectively thought long-term about the sort of country we want, he ummed and erred a bit before saying: “I guess you could consider the early 80’s, when the “Banana Republic” threat loomed.”
In other words, most Australians want the country they have been used to for more than a generation.
And tellingly, we don’t equate losing it with low innovation ambitions. We just don’t seem to be able to make that leap.
And as if to make the “innovate or die” sale so much harder, Mr Ferris and the ISA had the somewhat unfortunate timing of delivering the 2030 strategic plan in a week or so of relatively good economic news: despite the volatility in the stock market, we are told growth is back and employment again on the rise.
Indeed, Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Philip Lowe sounded decidedly upbeat when he addressed the A50 Australian Economic Forum last week and re-committed to an outlook for an above three per cent growth for Australia over the next couple of years.
“For a while now we have been expecting the Australian economy to grow more strongly in 2018 and 2019 than it did, on average, over recent years. There are a number of reasons for this,” Lowe explained.
“We are all but through the decline in mining investment to more normal levels, there is a large pipeline of urban infrastructure work to be done, the global economy is experiencing a solid upswing, commodity prices are up and financial conditions remain accommodative. All this is helping.”
This is no magic pudding economy according to Mr Lowe. We’ve had 26 years of uninterrupted growth – unmatched anywhere else in the world – because we’ve been pretty darn smart about things in a structurally changing world.
“A country doesn’t experience these types of outcomes without some good fortune and, importantly, without sensible policy and strong institutions. In Australia, we have had all three.”
“Partly through sensible and pragmatic policy, the Australian economy has developed the flexibility to adjust to a changing world.”
Mr Lowe of course wasn’t all blue sky. He cautioned against our high levels of household debt, rising interest rates elsewhere and how the global dimension of technology could negatively impact long-awaited wage growth.
But in his assessment, there was no obvious sign of a burning platform or an existential threat to our high quality of life that the ISA and all tech-aware leaders speak about when arguing the urgency for a smarter, bolder, more ambitious Australia.
Within this climate, what’s to become of the ISA 2030 plan? Mr Ferris wants all, not some, of the 30 recommendations of Prosperity through Innovation to be adopted by this and/or successive governments by 2022.
But those that have been in this biz for a generation (including me) don’t hold much hope that will happen.
Even Mr Ferris, in his National Press Club speech conceded he’s “a glass half full on all of this out to 2030.”
He’s being realistic of course. But “glass half full” makes me lose my appetite. And I am hearing the term a lot lately, at every business forum purporting to think critically about Australia’s digital era strengths and weaknesses and the sustainability of Australia’s historically good fortune.
“Glass half full” seems to be the new diplomacy deployed by leaders and practitioners who are publicly passionate about trying to create a broad-based innovation movement in Australia, but who are privately aware how futile that task may be.
As one senior federal government adviser privately commented: “The reality is most Australians really don’t see the need (for innovation policy). As long as they have a job, a place to live and a fairly decent annual holiday, they don’t really feel the need to do much else.”
So while I – like others – believe that the Australian quality of life is highly vulnerable to the unrelenting march of digital era competition globally, and policy and reform complacency domestically, I also believe anyone in the home-grown tech and entrepreneurship space must forge ahead with like-minded outliers and collaborators, but without the net of sound innovation policy.
Globally ambitious, innovation-driven enterprises may not be there in large numbers in Australia and sure the many gaps in the domestic innovation system makes things harder and scarier.
But that has to be better than the massive time and energy suck that comes from a “waiting for government” mindset.