On desperate ground

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – John F Kennedy, 1962

I confess, I really love war documentaries, esp. World War II and Cold War documentaries. A fascinating window into our recent past – both the failures and successes of humans in finding new and better ways to kill each other, but also, providing lessons in why we shouldn’t repeat such things again.

A recent dramatised documentary I watched done by the BBC called “Space Race” really stood out in my mind – it highlighted the struggle that key innovators in rocket design faced, the technical challenges that were overcome which resulted in man being able to send satellites into orbit, man into orbit and eventually man to the moon. All in all, a fascinating look at the process of technical innovation on a massive scale that had never been seen before.

All of this reminded me of a teaching I had learned about from Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”  – specifically Chapter 11: “The Nine Situations“. Sun states:

For it is the soldier’s disposition to offer an obstinate resistance when surrounded, to fight hard when he cannot help himself, and to obey promptly when he has fallen into danger.

In essence, a soldier is likely to fight most fiercely when he is in a desperate situation, and where his life hangs in the balance.

And it got me thinking – is this the reason why Australia’s innovation system feels so sluggish?

In Space Race, the United States was left wondering why it was unable to put a satellite into orbit first, after the USSR put Sputnik 1 into orbit on October 4, 1957. Both sides of the Iron Curtain were only interested in the rocket system as a means of nuclear warhead delivery to the opposing side, and not for other purposes. However, the Russians were first to realise the psychological impact a technical showcase such as an artificial satellite launch would have on the Russian and American psyche, as well as realise future military and non-military applications of such a platform. This jolted the Americans to start listening to their chief rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (who had been arguing for an America space program for years) and kick start the Space Race of the 60’s. The demands of the American public had forced politicians to listen to their innovators – for too long had they sat on their laurels and failed to see their innovators’ visions and recognise space as the next frontier, a frontier where the Eagle would wrestle with the Bear. By that stage, the US were 10 years behind the USSR. It took a mammoth amount of resources (and the unfortunate death of the von Braun’s Russian counterpart Sergei Korolev in 1966) for the US to beat the USSR to the moon.

But when Apollo 11 did launch, 1 million people showed up at Cape Canaveral to see the launch of the Saturn 5 rocket to the moon. Another 500 million more around the world took interest in one of the most innovative technical projects of the 20th century on TV.

The United States had been forced into standing on desperate ground – it could not afford to lose to the Russians. The military prestige and the nation’s ability to defend itself was at stake. The lives of Americans were perceived to be at stake, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was. The fear lingered on right through to the end of the Cold War. Failure was not an option, no matter the cost.

Australia’s innovation system has not been forced onto desperate ground in a disruptive manner for a very long time. We have ridden out some economic major hurdles in the last few years due to our ability to export natural resources, our innovation system has really just been picking at the so-called “low-hanging fruit” – and even when we did with such this as the development of Wifi, we chose not to enforce our patent rights when they were infringed upon until many years later.

I feel like von Braun but in a modern Australian context, screaming out that we need to start a large overhaul of our innovation system and priorities. I have a suspicion that like him, innovative thinkers such as myself will also be blamed for our failures to catalyse our nation’s innovation system, even though we’re trying to show something positive.

So this begs some further questions: What will it take to move Australia onto desperate ground? When will such an event happen? How many decades behind in our innovative thinking, infrastructure and resources will we be compared to our current and future competitors? What will be the societal and economic cost? What will happen to the quality of life that Australian’s enjoy now – the quality of life attributed to technological developments over the last 50 years?

I hate to be the prophet of doom but my feeling is that if we, as a nation, do not take action now, continue to go down the path of complacency and fail to force our leaders to truly lead Australia in this area, we are setting ourselves up for failure. And not failure in the sense of generating minimum viable products and services where you can easily and quickly remedy mistakes, but unecessary failure on a national scale. The type of failure that shouldn’t happen as the lessons have already been learnt by others, and been showcased for us to heed. The sorts of failure that nations took decades to learn from and fix.

Maybe the battle that shifts our country to desperate ground may be an epidemic for a poorly understood disease? Maybe a disruption occurs in the commodities market that means our minerals export drop so sharply that the industry becomes unviable? I don’t know any better than other punters, but in the event that we suffer major disruption, I want to know that my country has the innovation systems in place to respond to the changing landscape, whatever that change may be.

Otherwise, I don’t plan on being around when the fallout starts to settle. It has a nasty habit of lingering around for many future generations. Australia needs to kick itself forward, and start tackling the hard problems faced by and within its innovation system, because the easy ones aren’t going to be around forever. A ranking of 103rd on the INSEAD global innovation efficiency index just isn’t good enough.

I’ve been writing this blog since April and it’s now well beyond 10 posts – do you guys have any comments? I’d love to hear from people that can challenge my thinking and the thoughts expressed here. Comment below or tweet me @ayftan .

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