“Like it or not, innovation is as much about a social and even political event as it is a technology evolution.” This was the closing to last week’s column which touched on the difficulty our government leaders have in finding a comfort zone in innovation discussions.
The column drew on an analogy with the Industrial Revolution and its progenitor, the Age of Enlightenment, as a parallel for our technological revolution.
In preparing the column I had refreshed my perspective on these two historic events, and now some thoughts just won’t quiet down. For most observers – then and now – the idea of enlightenment was the ability of individuals to be released from dogma, to reason for themselves.
The clash of ideas that occurred in the 17th – 18th century coffeehouses that led to this release from dogma was not welcomed by the establishment, whose response was to close the coffeehouses and arrest the patrons.
And so, a thought struck me. Perhaps our leaders find the innovation dialogue challenging because inherently they fear it threatens their dogmas and their identities. And they fear being shown short in their public responses.
This is not necessarily an irrational response. The innovation dialogue is difficult for our political leadership because of a self-imposed standard that they are expected to have all the answers.
The first challenge for them is to view the technological revolution as something that does not easily lend itself to specific and concrete visions. As an example, growing up in the 20th century in the US, the vision of political leadership was articulated as “we will put a car in every driveway”.
This materialistic dialogue was not only a concrete image to communicate to the voters, but also provided those leaders a clear sense of their own purpose and identity. But the technological revolution, with its speed of change, challenges all but the most exceptional of us to provide a concrete description of the world 20 years forward.
The second challenge is that technology is not only disruptive to individual businesses, but to the vested interests within the political and economic establishments. While yet hardly noticed, technology is changing values, and as a result is also changing loyalties to ideas and beliefs.
So the ‘sharing’ economy is based in capitalism but now incorporates elements of social networking. A recent conversation with a former, very experienced, intelligence analyst observed the impact of the net to evolve new ‘tribal’ affiliations (and in the context, he was referring to mainstream society).
The third challenge is frankly that the dialogue is complex. We are now living in a technological world that a few decades ago was the stuff of science fiction. So to engage in the dialogue is to have to be prepared to be wrong, to admit as a leader that one doesn’t have all the answers.
This is not a confession that come easily to those defending old dogmas, but this is a change that is needed if they are to avoid their Kodak moment.
From a policy perspective, we see the impact of these challenges in the innovation dialogue expressed in the formulation of innovation programs. Thoughtful analysis of our innovation system observes that our priority attention should be focussed on mobilising our innovation knowledge and capabilities into productive networks and collaborations, recognising that this then generates arrangements which can attract private investment.
Yet funding programs are preferred as political leadership solutions – because once enacted, political leadership can claim success and remove themselves from responsibility for the outcomes.
So what advice can we offer to our leaders? Well the first step to deal with any problem is to accept that it exists. As members of the innovation community, we too, need to acknowledge in our public dialogues that we are dealing with uncertainties.
But like any startup, we should be having a discussion as a community about our BHAG*s and accept the need to pivot as we move to achieve our ambitions.
*For the political leaders reading this: BHAG, that’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal
Paul Cheever is Chief Executive Officer and Director of the Australian Institute for Innovation. The AII is a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to bring practical experience to inform Australian policy and program discussions on the innovation system and innovation investment.