David Thodey on Australia’s innovation urgency and ambition

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

A better articulated industry policy, more cooperation between states and the Commonwealth, and a “national ambition” are urgently needed, according to David Thodey, who wants the Prime Minister to lead a new, wider innovation charge.

The former CSIRO chair and Telstra chief says there is much to celebrate in Australia’s current innovation ecosystem, but stronger leadership and coordination could get even more out of it at a time of changing geopolitics, emerging technologies and the climate crisis.

“We do need a sense of urgency in tackling these challenges,” he told InnovationAus.com.

“I think about Australia, and I still think ‘the lucky country’. I don’t think that’s a good reflection of who we are. We’re not lucky. We are hardworking, diligent, creative, innovative, and very capable nation that has done well and can do even better.”

InnovationAus Awards for Excellence patron David Thodey

A patron of the InnovationAus Awards for a second year, Mr Thodey will join Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley, Federal Industry and Science minister Ed Husic, and NSW Digital minister Victor Dominello next week to celebrate the companies and individuals at the forefront of Australia’s innovation ecosystem.

The nominees are part of an Australian innovation ecosystem Mr Thodey remains very positive about. But he wants more for the nation through better articulated policies and coordination.

Mr Thodey called for a new federal government-led innovation framework developed with a coalition of state governments, the education and research sector, and industry. He said it needs to go beyond the “techy and VC flavour” of the Turnbull-era National Innovation and Science Agenda to address the wider ecosystem and talent pool.

“Innovation can sometimes too easily get interpreted as those technology people and those venture capital people. Yet the truth is entrepreneurialism and innovation comes from everywhere. You don’t have to have a degree to be an innovator and an entrepreneur,” Mr Thodey said.

As part of the framework, better articulated national industry strategies would clearly outline the opportunities Australia has to grow and create new jobs – and to direct research and investment. It should be based on innovative industry and environmental policy, and identify a national focus on innovation, including celebrating success to create “national ambition”

“Australia does have ambition,” Mr Thodey said. “If I look across mining, agriculture and there is ambition in the sense of making a difference. What I worry about is that as a nation, we have not articulated that as clearly as we could. And I don’t want to lay this completely at the feet of government, but they do play a lead role.”

The scale of the opportunity and the challenge – after Australia’s fall in digital, economic complexity and research output rankings – means the new push should be led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Industry and Science minister Ed Husic.

“We need the bigger umbrella of this being important to the nation and I think that the Prime Minister should really be driving there. By the way, it could be innovation in labour law reform, it could be innovation in health care outcomes, it’s not a tech thing. This is an attitude, a way of thinking about things and a way of engaging every Australian.”

Key to success is coordination with state and territory governments, which Mr Thodey said may never reach complete consensus but coordination could easily be improved with something similar to the regular Digital and Health Ministers Meetings.

“I can’t remember a time in recent history when the head of Industry and Science at the federal level has bought all state ministers and bureaucrats together, and from what I see on the ground, the interactions between a Canberra department and a department of the state level is erratic at best. So I think some better communication is needed.”

Mr Thodey said while there are areas for improvement on leadership and coordination, many of the components of Australia’s innovation system continue to be world class.

“I remain optimistic that we can make a positive difference for our nation and I am continually inspired by the innovative people that I meet across Australia,” he said. “Their commitment and ambition – and their willingness to take risks – are what will make a difference.”

David Thodey is chair of Xero and Tyro Payments and is on the board of the Ramsay Health Care. He has been Patron for the InnovationAus Awards for Excellence since 2021. At InnovationAus.com, we are grateful for his support and for the positive role he continues to play across the innovation ecosystem.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. Anyone have an idea what is going on with the latest Female Founders program? Decisions meant to be announced by now. Women startups are sitting on matched funding. Incredibly vulnerable time for startups. Delays are disastrous at this stage. These women have stepped up and sought investors- yet they are being frigged around by the department- not realising the impact of sitting on matched funding. Action needed on this!

  2. Carl E Germanos 2 years ago

    Reports like this have raised the alarm for a decade at least, and the messages to achieve the desired impact are not heard. Perhaps a Summit is needed to get all the loosely fragmented components of the system together and have a yarn about what needs to be done. Not a day goes by without a report on the lagging innovation system in this country, that’s not matched with an economic development and industry strategy. Whilst there is good research output from universities, there seems to be less of an appetite for it than ever. Listening to researchers from Europe speak on Monday at Swinburne there is a disconnect between what capabilities we have with emerging new technologies, the skills needed and the physical locations across Australia for smart and effective collaboration between researchers and businesses to take place. Unlike the Europe and US context where this happens in the SME environment that includes up to 500 staff, Australian businesses are under 200 staff and predominantly under 100 or less. It is alarming reading and a state of affairs. I don’t think anyone specific is taking it seriously, and certainly not the people that should be. Leaving these ongoing reports falling on deaf ears and without an audience.

  3. Janus 2 years ago

    I hope David Thodey’s report gets some traction. However “innovation” is not the problem. Nor will yet another policy fix it. We have enormous creativity and entrepreneurial people. But the bureaucrats see only universities et al as the sources of innovation. But bureaucrats can’t innovate – their role generally is to stifle innovation.

  4. Wayne Chamley 2 years ago

    David Thodey’s insights are refreshing. In 2011 the ABC was still presenting Its program “The Inventors”. Viewers saw a diversity of innovation and new products. Much of it was being developed, “in the garage or the back shed”.That same year, manufacture of two important products ceased in Australia – solar panels & vitreous china toilet bowls! Is there a message here?

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