Under the pump: Innovation policy

James Riley
Editorial Director

Having thrown his entire ‘innovation ministry’ out with former Assistant Innovation Minister Wyatt Roy, there’s certainly a sense that the Prime Minister is recasting his National Innovation and Science Agenda somewhat.

Frankly this is a good thing. The rollout of NISA – or even its further development – appeared to be put on hold as election rumblings and then the not-so-brilliant double dissolution were followed by the equally disastrous campaign.

Where it halted was with Wyatt Roy holding court with his posse of startup bros, particularly in the FinTech sector, the first target area that had been nominated by the PM.

Innovation Nation: David Thodey is calling for a broader innovation policy

It was always time to move on from this narrow interpretation of ‘innovation’, and Mr Roy’s unfortunate political demise has inadvertently been the trigger.

Already we have seen two strong new sectoral innovation/technology suits emerge with the appointment of former Industry Minister Christopher Pyne as Minister for Defence Industry, and former Environment Minister Greg Hunt to Pyne’s old job.

While the decision to build the submarines in South Australia was shockingly protectionist and egregiously politically expedient, it’s a done deal. So rather than be bemoaning the spilt milk, let’s consider the upside.

And there is potentially same sort of local flow on effects that that the car industry local suppliers who are capable of building sustainable globally competitive businesses.

In the case of the submarines these will more likely be high tech and design focused with an ability to apply their skills to other industries. This needs to be a key focus for Pyne and his replacement Greg Hunt and his junior ministers.

Then there was Mr Hunt’s rather dramatic – in policy rather than quantitative terms – intervention in the restructuring of CSIRO, forcing the company’s chief Larry Marshall and his chairman David Thodey to employ 15 more climate scientists.

A bit more spare change (when compared to the submarine extravaganza) was also tossed at the research flagship. Climate science, as InnovationAus.com noted last week, is back on the menu.

But more broadly: The NISA is at present, floating around, a worthy policy vessel looking for a decent mooring.

In the absence of any clear direction from the government, who else but Australia’s genuine technology Csar, CSIRO chairman and former Telstra CEO David Thodey, would come up with the goods in a very timely (but barely reported) speech to the University of Technology Sydney two weeks ago.

It’s good news for InnovationAus.com that Mr Thodey’s speech was so thoroughly ignored by the mainstream media. Because it means you will have heard first more detail on what is arguably the landmark explanation of how Australia can become an Innovation Nation (as Mr Thodey likes to call it).

“I think the NISA statement was a welcome addition to the public policy settings – it was a good first step as (UTS Professor) Roy Green said – and there is still much to do to implement the initiatives outlined,” Mr Thodey noted in his speech. This is spot-on.

Prof Green himself had this to say and was quoted on the UTS website the day Thodey delivered his speech.

“Some thought there was too much focus on innovation in the election campaign, some thought there was too little, some thought it just wasn’t conveyed very well,” Prof Green said.

“Our new Minister for Industry and Innovation, Mr Greg Hunt, had his own interpretation yesterday, which may strike a chord with many people, and that is that innovation focused excessively on startups, to the exclusion of a broader industrial transformation of our economy.”

At the core of Mr Thodey’s thesis or roadmap is the definition of ‘innovation’. And frankly, this too, is overdue as the word has been kidnapped by the technorati and conflated by lazy consultants, bankers, politicians with ‘technology’.

“My definition of innovation is that it is the process of developing new products, new technologies or doing things differently. Innovation is the act of executing new ideas to create value. Creativity is about new ideas – innovation is about implementing those ideas (his bolding),” Mr Thodey said.

Innovation, he added, is found in everyday society as he outlined four basic rules to define innovation:

  • Innovation and Digital disruption are not synonymous. Rather, new technologies are creating new innovation opportunities that cause Digital Disruption.
  • Innovation is not exclusively for startups and the research community – innovation, like creativity, can be found everywhere in society from public service, construction, large/medium/small businesses/teaching etc.
  • Innovation requires investment – for either startups or for established organisations – and it has inherent risk that needs to be managed.
  • Innovation requires both an attitude and culture in which it can survive, and also is a disciplined and rigorous process that can be taught and learnt. Some call this the Innovation Ecosystem or Innovation Management!

Mr Thodey skips through his recent (Telstra) and current jobs – in addition to CSIRO he is chairman of SquarePeg a Melbourne based VC group investing in, yes, startups. He is also chairman of the NSW government jobs taskforce.

This essayist remembers talking to Mr Thodey after his predecessor Sol Trujillo nabbed the top job at Telstra suggesting that he, perhaps, could get the job next time.

“What?” he said with a smile (and bear in mind this was 2008) “I am 59!” Eight years later and with that blindingly successful stint at Telstra under his belt, he clearly still has plenty to offer.

What is most important about Mr Thodey’s message is that he is not the only one talking about it. He isn’t. There are plenty of people talking about this including the team here at InnovationAus.com and seasoned industry players-cum-observers like Sandy Plunkett.

The important thing is that that there is someone of his stature talking about this, who commands respect not just in the technology sector, but across the entire business community and in governments across the country.

As such, more power to him, and here’s hoping people inside government and business across Australia are listening it’s time for NISA 2.0.

You can listen to David Thodey’s speech to the UTS Business School here.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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