Towards a connected national innovation ecosystem

Jason Mingo

Many capital-intensive industries are facing unprecedented challenges with increasing costs due to supply chain constraints, labour shortages, and ensuring infrastructure resilience in a time of increasing natural disasters and climate change, coupled with rising cost of living pressures for customers.

These challenges present a significant driver for a radical shift in innovation delivery for Australia as a nation. 

To effectively deliver innovation in response to these challenges, requires the use of an innovation ecosystem approach.

That is, the development of a system of connected cross-sector networks that deliver integrated outcomes. Not only integrating across sectors for an exchange of experience and expertise, but also providing support for innovation implementation all the way from concept, through testing and development to commercialisation. 

The development and experience gained through the support of an innovation ecosystem should allow for and respond to changing incentives and norms.

Creating the right kinds of opportunities that any organisation within or servicing the relevant sector(s) can seize and adapt to their own local conditions. This concept can be developed into a framework that can be adapted at different scales, from an all-encompassing national view down to a state and industry scale. 

In addition to providing options to structure cross-sector innovation, the ecosystem approach needs to build an understanding of the regulatory barriers and enablers. Identifying opportunities and options to address them. 

The current governance and innovation delivery models at play in Australia appear to be ill-equipped to deal with the development and support of an innovation ecosystem. Most are based on individual organisations providing separate and disparate innovation leadership.

While there have been Centres of Excellence and Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), these are typically aimed at the research part of the innovation ecosystem, typically within a sector, and for only part of the innovation value chain.

We propose a more diverse, fit-for-purpose, style of governance that fosters an innovation ecosystem to address the current industry drivers, complexity and uncertainty and cover the full innovation chain. 

A poly-governance model (PGM) for innovation

Each sector has the elements of an effective innovation ecosystem. A significant gap is the capability and capacity to support and connect these networks into
a broader innovation ecosystem.

However, it is vital that each sector is able to make their own choices in terms of the intended innovation outcomes and how they are delivered. 

A draft national innovation ecosystem framework would focus and support the delivery of a PGM. A PGM provides for a system of establishing cross-sector collaborations through an awareness of sector-specific ecosystems, their priorities and capabilities.

The nature of the collaboration then becomes deliberate in terms of shared opportunities or a need-meets-solution cross pollination of ideas and a multitude of other beneficial arrangements.

Such an approach to drive innovation governance enhances the resilience and its impact in the following ways: 

  1. Builds redundancy that can minimise errors and streamline efficiency
  2. Enables broader levels of participation
  3. Provides for a greater diversity of responses
  4. Improves connectivity and trust
  5. Enables learning and experimentation

The PGM ensures sectors have governance over their respective arena and/or location while providing for a clearer view to the external opportunities for cross-sector engagement. The model needs to be aligned to federal priorities yet be sector-led across these priorities to be able to rapidly respond to change.

Federal support for sector-driven innovation ecosystems

Provision of federal government support is required in a manner that assists with the coordination and delivery of innovation ecosystems for innovation outcomes.

The support should include resourcing for secretariats and/or platforms that broker partnership agreements, bear transaction costs, facilitate partner interactions, and safeguard institutional memory. 

Each sector would be the custodian of these secretariats or platforms, with the support of the federal government. This provides ownership by the sector with support based on performance measures decided upon by the sector. The opportunity for the federal government would be to target key levers within a sector that would drive such an approach. Consequently, this will incentivise action by sectors to harness such support by aligning with the innovation ecosystem framework. 

Australia can learn from other jurisdictions practising this approach. In the Netherlands, leveraging national government support to promote an innovation ecosystem has been successful in the approach of the watercampus at Leeuwarden.

This initiative involves government, research, testing facilities, knowledge institutes, public and private companies interested and involved in water technology. 

The nature of this multi-agency collaboration allows for industry-led research with a pathway to market access conceptualised at inception. The WaterCampus has provided growth opportunities and attracted private investment by delivering solutions to achieve innovation outcomes for the water sector.

Innovation is a key solution to help address the growing and competing pressures on infrastructure delivery organisations.

The innovation ecosystem approach and the governance options provided here provide a structure to improve the delivery of innovation outcomes, enhance and better target investment, and fully harness our collective capabilities to unlock a flourishing future for Australia.

Jason Mingo is manager of Environment and Technology Research at the Water Services Association of Australia. Jason has been involved across different levels of policy development, project planning and implementation relating to innovative and sustainable practices for water management at a state and national level. Strongly passionate about the application of design and systems thinking throughout his work, Jason applies innovative and alternative approaches in dealing with future challenges facing the urban water sector. Co-authors: Dr Dale Watson, Research and Innovation Coordinator; Dr Greg Ryan, Director Business Excellence

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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