Capability must now meet ambition

James Riley
Editorial Director

Innovation and Science Australia’s vision for Australia just twelve years from now is a nation that will be counted within the top tier of innovator countries globally.

Its long awaited strategic plan for the Federal Government, Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation, launched today, articulately steps through the rationale for 30 policy recommendations across five “imperative” component areas of the country’s innovation system: culture, education, research and development, industry and government.

“This investment in innovation is timely,” writes Innovation Science Australia (ISA) board chair, Bill Ferris in the forward to the 125-page plan.

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“Australia has moved from a once-in-a-century mining boom to a global innovation race, where intellectual property (IP) is at least as valuable a resource as iron ore. This is a big shift for our country. At the same time, we are navigating a set of social and technological shifts that are reshaping our economy, jobs and quality of life.”

Can’t argue with any of that. Except that the “investment” in culture, skills and scale ambition the ISA argues will shift us from an innovation under-achiever to a winner in the $1.6 trillion global innovation race requires a huge leap of faith in a kind of “tortoise versus many hares” outcome.

While many global and regional competitor countries from the US, China, Singapore, the UK, Sweden and Israel to name just a few, have forged ahead and embraced the digital age with varying degrees of long term planning and winner-takes-all pragmatism, Australia has been a relative outsider, watching passively from the sidelines.

And if past policy and cultural behaviour is an indication of future behaviour, sadly, the ISA strategic plan will just be another well researched and beautifully written fantasy.

To be a viable contender in the increasingly crowded and ruthless global innovation race, this government and others after it must do what no other previous and successive Australian policy leadership, at least since the commercialisation of the Internet in the early 1990’s, has been able to do.

It must demonstrate it has the smarts to embrace the innovation imperative as a whole-of government reform initiative, and the long term political will to execute on the many moving and interconnected parts that make an innovation system thrive.

Can we get there from here?

To answer that means asking what is different, not just about the ISA plan itself, but also the political and cultural environment in which this plan is delivered.

In the context of an Australian political leadership that has proved reluctant to think bigger about its strategic future, what makes this plan more viable and actionable than the ambitions of previous innovation-centric reviews?

Those reviews include, but are not limited to The Chance to Change in 2000, and the comprehensive Venturous Australia, which had the unfortunate timing of being launched just before the 2008 global financial crisis?

Is it timing? I don’t mean in the sense of a possible election year. For a variety of reasons, an election year could be an excuse for further implementation delays of the plan. We will get some sense of how the plan resonates with its primary policy audience in the 2018 Budget.

But I’m thinking more about that serendipitous combination of “just enough” identifiable strengths in the innovation ecosystem to showcase and scale rapidly; and the realisation of an existential threat to our continued economic success and high quality of life in the cutthroat, but opportunity-laden digital age?

It’s true, as the ISA’s performance review of the Australian innovation, science and research system published a year ago pointed out, that Australia has world class researchers, a few home-grown and globally successful 21st century outlier companies such as Cochlear, ResMed and Atlassian and a reasonably diverse industrial base in need of a good dose of digital-era modernisation.

But we’ve identified those and other strengths for more than two decades and still keep slipping down the global rankings for innovation activity and commercial output.

And If our strengths have long been identifiable, so too are our critical gaps and weaknesses such as Australia’s lagging performance relative to its peers in commercialising and exporting ideas, our shallow investment in R&D activity; and a tendency towards incremental rather than new-to-world innovation in business. If it were otherwise, we wouldn’t need this plan.

Is it the language of the ISA plan and the specifics of the recommendations? In other words, does this plan excite and ignite the collective policy and business consciousness enough to shift our cultural milieu from “she’ll be right” to “yes we can”?

It is here that I am most sceptical about the potential impact and successful implementation of the ISA strategic plan. From an initial reading – and will be delving further into the specifics of the plan in days and weeks to come – the language of the document seems mixed and inconsistent.

And that’s even considering we overlook some of the more predictable “atta boy” statements such as “Successive governments have demonstrated a long-term commitment to promoting innovation and science in Australia”, and “Australian governments are already making good progress in innovating service delivery.”

(If they were true-ish, we wouldn’t need this plan and we wouldn’t be reeling from recent digital transformation misses within agencies like Social Security and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.)

Much of the inconsistency lies in the difference between the strongly worded, well researched and globally aware “rationale” behind virtually every strategic imperative articulated in the plan, and the more diluted language of the 30 policy recommendations punctuating that rationale.

Several of the plan’s recommendations are very specific, such as “Establish a small and medium enterprise (SME) procurement target of 33 per cent of contracts (by dollar value) being awarded to Australian SMEs by 2022”; or, “Direct Innovation and Science Australia to monitor emerging sectors of high growth in the economy and report annually to the Australian Government on the adequacy of risk capital supply”. There is also specific recommendations in terms of flows and caps on R&D expenditure

But too many other recommendations seem a bit “woolly” like, for instance, “Establish protocols (including consumer data rights) for maintaining healthy levels of competition in knowledge-intensive industry sectors,” or “Build on strength in accessing overseas talent through continuing and targeted updates to skilled immigration rules and improved marketing to suitable talent, especially through Austrade (with a focus on key target markets).”

More insidious is the reality that many of the recommendations are highly dependent on further system reviews in critically connected policy arenas from education to workplace relations and competition policy.

This is not a “shoot-the-messenger” critique. The ISA is right to focus on the importance of sector-wide reform.

But it is limited in how it can influence positive outcomes. Time and time again in Australia, tech sector insiders and innovation conscious business leaders, economists and commentators have identified a lack of political will and cultural ambition as the main handbrakes to iterative and sustained economic and social success in the post Internet knowledge-based global village.

The ISA 2030 strategic plan enunciates that complex reality yet again. Of its five “imperatives” detailed in the report, the final concluding imperative is to foster a culture of 21st century ambition.

The ISA plan advocates the government identifies and rallies behind various “national mission” initiatives, and specifically suggests making Australia the healthiest nation on the planet by backing new-to-the-world research and commercialisation of genomics and precision medicine.

It’s an interesting choice of mission and one that may have legs.

But as the ISA plan states the real challenge for Australia in any innovation-driven mission is to deeply understand the “system” and that no one part of the system works as an island.

ISA states: “The recommendations in the previous four imperatives focused on specific aspects of the innovation system. Although these are important, they do not operate in a vacuum. Each will play out against the backdrop of the national innovation culture. And for the whole 2030 Plan to be successful, that culture needs to evolve.”

I think they buried the lead.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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