A tech letter from the Daintree

James Riley
Editorial Director

Sitting in a beautiful three bedroom Airbnb in the middle of a Daintree rainforest is not the best place in the world to ponder Australian innovation policy.

You’d much rather not think about it all, frankly. There are three separate natural pools in the backyard, after all, sculpted into the creek that runs through it.

Surely this time would be better spent admiring the clever, off-grid hydro-electric set-up that is driving all the electronics? (including the DVD that is keeping the kids quiet.)

My backyard: Happy to be disrupted when it allows me to spend a few quiet days here

But that’s the problem with short holidays. You have too much time to think about work, and not enough time to forget all that you tried to leave behind.

And I did think about work, and I spent some time reading about industry policy.

There are plenty of Chicken Little’s around to tell us we’re all stuffed, that our governments are hopeless, and that we are so far behind the rest of the world that we might as well give up breathing right now for all the good it will do us.

To my mind, the industry development policies – the roadmap to building a better tech sector in this country – is both more comprehensive and more targeted now than at any time since I began reporting.

I’ve always been interested in this stuff. From John Button’s corporate citizenship programs of the late eighties to the incubator support programs of the early to 2000s to Kevin Rudd’s build-it-and-they-will-come NBN and beyond.

There is a blueprint is in place that should make anyone who works in the industry formerly known as IT smile.

It is easy to chuck rocks at government. But for a reality check, anyone with rocks in their hands should build a time machine and travel back two years. Or five years. Or twenty. Because at any point back then, no-one who mattered gave a shit.

Which brings us to now. Our national industry is energised and mobilised. Hooray for us. We are awesome.

Our challenge now is to diligently MEASURE OUTCOMES. We need to better understand whether we are successfully building capability – and jobs and wealth – rather than simply creating a lot of froth and bubble.

This is something my mate Sandy Plunkett talks about a lot. Ms Plunkett is one of our best thinkers on these things. She consults to a bunch of ecosystem players as Innovation Clearinghouse and she is right in asking; what are our metrics for measuring success?

When we look at the government investments – State or Federal – in incubators and accelerators and co-working spaces, how do we measure success? Because right now, creating activity without measureable outcomes does not work.

How many companies are succeeding? How many people are they employing? What revenues are they earning? And how much money are they bringing into the economy?

If we don’t understand these simple metrics, Ms Plunkett says, it is impossible to know whether our policies are building new companies and capabilities and industries, or simply building a giant crutch.

This is easy to say but much harder to do, of course. We will have a better idea about how the Federal Government is thinking about these metrics at the end of the year, when the newly-created Innovation and Science Australia delivers its audit of the innovation system.

ISA chairman Bill Ferris says the audit will provide a baseline, and will have identified all the moving parts. From there, ISA will build its long-term, 2030 strategic plan for the innovation system. This is expected to be delivered next year.

There needs to be a change of thinking within the bureaucracies about how we measure the success of programs.

Mr Ferris is pushing government agencies to forget the measurement of public sector ‘outputs’ – like how much or how many incubators were invested in – and find a way to understand ‘outcomes’. Like how many jobs were created, or how much IP, how much new capability and new wealth.

There has been a huge amount of commentary about the National Innovation and Science Agenda and the heavy startup focus having nearly cost this government the election. That somehow there should be a rethink, that we should change course.

OMG. Is there honestly anyone who really believes this? Please. Get real. I don’t think even the early rhetorical flourishes were about startups alone, but rather were a motivational treatise on creative thinking. The first tranche of NISA was only ever a starting point.

But it is certainly worth taking stock. Things seem to be moving very quickly and in the right direction. But we need to measure it to make sure.

Do these policies work, or is everyone just getting juiced on all the talk? Bill Ferris’ audit of the innovation system will be an incredibly important document.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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