Decolonising innovation at ANU: Gandaywarra

Brandon How

Hoping to amplify First Nations voices in the innovation ecosystem, former Cicada Innovations director Michelle Jasper has founded Gandaywarra, the Australian National University’s First Nation’s Innovation Hub.

It will soon administer a multi-million dollar grants fund that connects more Indigenous Australians with the university for an under-utilised approach to innovation impact.

The hub is working to move beyond consultation with First Nations innovators and businesses, and towards co-design and co-decision. It is establishing the Gandaywarra Impact Investment Fund, which will support research translation across three stages: ideation, engagement, and collaboration.

The fund will offer ‘proof of concept grants’ and operate similarly to the Discovery Translation Fund previously managed by ANU Connect Ventures.

Michelle Jasper and Professor Peter Yu. Image: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Indigenous businesses’ contribute at least $4.88 billion to the Australian economy annually according to a study by researchers at the University of Melbourne, with a growth rate of about four per cent a year. However, this lags behind the established New Zealand Indigenous economy of more than $40 billion.

Ms Jasper, a Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngati Porou, Te Arawa woman from Aotearoa (New Zealand), is the head of Gandaywarra Innovation and is devloping the Gandaywarra Impact Investment Fund to connect First Nations enterprises and businesses with intellectual property holders at ANU.

“If a non-Indigenous academic at ANU has a great idea, they can access this fund [too], and we will match them with a First Nations champion that they can collaborate with, because in a way this will actually work toward decolonising the conventional research and innovation system and then hopefully have a ripple effect when it comes to universities, which are post-colonial institutions, and actually decolonising the curriculum that comes out,” Ms Jasper said.

The new impact fund will support reciprocal relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, with a focus on placements within communities.

“We are encouraging these innovations to be placed-based…When you go out and you see that marginalisation, you see the wealth divide, it creates this fire in your belly, you want to contribute to the solution, and so for us it’s incredibly important that our academics and other university academics…actually see what’s happening.”

Also an associate director of the ANU First Nations Portfolio, Ms Jasper previously spent almost two years as a non-executive director at deep tech incubator Cicada Innovations and almost three and a half years as an ANU Connect Ventures investment fund member, which is now closed to new investments.

Without a co-design approach to innovation, Ms Jasper fears the digital divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians will widen, particularly if negative unconscious biases get baked into emerging technologies. She adds that this would exacerbate continuing systemic marginalisation and economic undervaluation of First Nations people in Australia.

Especially in the context of the ongoing climate crisis, Ms Jasper told of the importance of innovation partnerships with First Nations people “who have always lived a very sustainable and circular way of life that cares for country and community”.

According to an Aboriginal Affairs NSW report, co-design entails a “philosophical and practical shift away from practice as usual for both parties, and requires a great deal of trust in the initial stages”. The process hopes to create a space to merge knowledge and find common ground. The report warns against taking key concepts for granted, given the differences in “Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal foundations of knowledge and experience”, which may conflict, even considering that the co-design concept itself “originates from a Western world which historically values ‘development’.

In addition to ANU researchers, the fund is open to professional staff, students, and alumni from all cultural backgrounds. Applications are referred to an all-First Nations committee with the final decision to be made by ANU First Nations portfolio vice-president Professor Peter Yu.

At the time of the hub’s launch, Mr Yu said Gandaywarra would “provide resources toward approved projects that will promote autonomy and activation of the First Nations estate, for First Nations peoples to achieve economic self-determination”.

Gandaywarra will adopt a ‘hub and spoke’ model, with the potential of setting up other bases around the country. Talks are underway to establish another collaboration space at the ANU North Australia Research Unit adjacent to Charles Darwin University Casuarina Campus in Darwin.

Under the first tier of the impact fund, ideation support will be available for Indigenous businesses and community members to improve their understanding of the capabilities being researched at ANU and to identify opportunities to build complimentary relationships.

“It can work in the opposite way as well, if we have an [non-Indigenous] academic who has a brilliant piece of IP, but doesn’t feel they have the cultural authority or is seeking cultural license to actually apply that IP on country, we then match them up with a community member or First Nations enterprise and can pay for them out of the fund to go and visit the enterprise on their country,” Ms Jasper said.

The second engagement tier involves the development of a prototype or a proof of concept for further research and commercialisation.

“All these ideas must meet either community or industry need,” Ms Jasper said. “We’re not just a cash cow giving out money for random projects. Engagement is more so around that co-design, co-decide prototyping activities, and its really about refining those ideas and solutions to help develop and translate the research expertise into impact”.

The final tier is for collaboration projects, which would involve “First Nations peoples, ANU researchers, students and alumni working on large scale interdisciplinary teams”.

“It’s not just us putting funding in, there will be an expectation that the capabilities within the university and the colleges that they sit within will also match the Gandaywarra Impact Investment Fund commitment.

She again reiterates that its important that ANU is able translate its research expertise into impact, addressing community and industry identified challenges.

Gandaywarra is Wiradyuri for “Grow Long”, representing the hub’s long-term impact aspirations. The name was gifted by Ngambri (Walgalu), Wallaballooa (Ngunnawal), Wiradyuri (Erambie) custodian, Paul Girrawah House.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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