Australian innovation is stagnating, because most Australians don’t care about it

Very recently, Dr Jonathan Rosen from Boston University was invited to Melbourne for the third time by the Bionics Institute, and gave a public lecture on “The Role of Societal Engineers in the Innovation Economy”. The event was well attended by many movers and shakers within the Melbourne scientific/biotechnology/medtech sector. Rosen spoke about how Boston University had adopted a number of initiatives, such as the Global App Initiative, and the Technology Innovation Scholars program, in order to foster specific qualities within individuals that had an entrepreneurial mindset to continue to deliver value to communities so that social equity and value could be built in a sustainable manner. Of particular emphasis was the Toyota Incubator project that BU students were involved in, and a video from BU that highlighted what the attributes of a societal engineer would be.

One thing that profoundly struck me was the response Rosen gave to a question from the audience, with regard to why students became so enamoured with the Global App Initiative. In a video about the program, it was clear on the surface that students became involved because “they had heard it from other friends”, but below the surface, Rosen highlighted the fact that many of the students had given many hours to community service when they were in high school, a lot of them actively abided by the ethos that long-term value generation to their community was something worthwhile, and that it was imbued in them so strongly that they should pursue it during their time at university to the point that they actively sought to find ways to deliver tangible value to their communities.

And this got me thinking. Putting aside the many problems in the US, a sense of community service was still something that was valued. Their society educated them in an ethos that promoted the ideals that a strong community led to the development of social equity, where all members of the community stood to benefit and as such, any mechanism by which to build social capital and equity was appreciated and valued. Although this could be seen as highly altruistic, these ideals form the social fabric in certain parts of the US.

This triggered the thought “So what about Australia’s social equity agenda?” Do we, as an Australian society, subscribe to these values?” It turns out that this question, without being an authority/field expert in Australian ethnography, is difficult to answer. However, the outcomes and impact can be hypothesised, based on Australia’s past innovation performance.

The current flavour of conversation around Australia’s innovation ecosystem revolves purely about metrics. It pays almost no regard to the value experienced by our nation if it cannot be captured in a quantitative sense. It does not capture the value gained by our society in the form of cultural narratives and stories. An obvious set of questions is: “Why is it that we don’t value these narratives and stories? Is it because we value other stories, or is it because we don’t care?” We may not care because economically and historically, we have not been put on desperate ground. We may not care about these narratives because it does not conform with our historical narratives that define our sense of national identity that has been fed to us. It may be a case that we do not value innovation as a nation, because we simply do not understand its value, by virtue of the stories we tell, the education we may or may not receive, and because our country’s leaders do not highlight its importance. We have become complacent, because we have been afforded an economy that has performed exceptionally well off the back of our natural resources.

Here’s an interesting hypothetical: “Why does the media continue to focus on the automotive industry every time the word “innovation” is thrown around?” My contention is that the Holden and Ford brands have been so pivotal in defining entire generations with regard to pride, transportation and sense of national identity, to the point that it crowds out other less vocal (but very important) stories and narratives that describe our collective ingenuity and persistence.

Though it is easy to blame our national leaders for our innovation shortcomings, from a purely altruistic perspective, our nation’s leaders reflect the status quo and views/opinions of our society. I am not here to debate whether or not they truly are our representatives, but if we care about a particular narrative so much, our nation’s leaders would not be so quick to willingly ignore these issues or pay it lip-service. The point I’m trying to make is that even though it is easy to blame our government for poor leadership on innovation, we, as a society, still need to foot some of the blame, because we have shown to government that we no longer believe in the value of innovation beyond a short-sighted economic argument. In order for innovation and innovative activities to occur in Australia, we, as Australians, must want it, must understand the value of innovation in building a better society, and care about it. These are the precursor, philosophical issues that must be addressed before dealing with the more applied question of “What Australian innovation should look like?”

My argument is that innovation continues to stagnate in Australia because the vast majority of Australians simply do not understand it collectively, or value it. No matter how individuals or groups push for innovation, we will never take it on board if society continues to a) ignore its role in developing social equity and capital, and b) remain apathetic to the notion that innovation narratives can build meaning around our lives. I assert that before we can solve the issue of Australia’s stagnating innovation ecosystem, we must first educate Australians on its value, and develop a meaningful narrative around its value so that everyone, from the elderly to our youngsters, understand how innovation activities strengthen our communities, and how it delivers long-term social equity. Only then can we progress our conversation around more pressing innovation issues that many people and groups are grappling with today.

Many entrepreneurs that have experienced societies that value the innovation narrative have tried to bring their experiences to Australia, with varying degrees of success. I do not believe that their poor track record is due to competency; they did not succeed because they were importing a narrative that their home country simply did not understand, or care about. Until such time as Australian’s realise the value of how innovation adds value to society, I will continue to pursue career opportunities in societies that value the innovation narrative. Introducing a new narrative around innovation in Australia, in a way that Australians understand, will take a long time, and biologically, I simply do not have enough time on this earth to wait for this to occur. Will I stop pursuing this agenda? Absolutely not, for “I love [my] sunburnt country…”. But can my career afford to stagnate while the rest of the nation decides whether this narrative should form a part of our societal fabric? Certainly not.

Weaving a meaningful innovation narrative into Australia’s national conversation is the first step in creating a unique, well-developed and sophisticated innovation ecosystem. As Australians, we must want innovation, and to want innovation (and as a greater adjunct, science and technology), Australians must understand what value it can deliver, and for that, education within the correct context is what we must achieve. Otherwise, we are destined for a society that has a weak cultural innovation narrative, and are doomed to be haunted by long-term effects of indecision on how we, more broadly, envisage our society, and what we value.

The point of this article is to spark this conversation that we, as a nation, are yet to have. I understand that many people will disagree and be critical of my contention. But I don’t care, because for too long, we have been plagued by armchair critics with a small-world, “protect-my-own-patch” outlook and mentality who have failed to engage with this national conversation in a productive and meaningful fashion; their criticisms do not add value to this desperately-needed conversation. We have failed to address our failures in developing a qualitative narrative of how home-grown innovation adds value to our society.

I am fearful that even in the continued decline of our not-so-competitive industries that we continue to ignore the qualitative aspects of the Australian innovation narrative, in favour of a discussion around innovation metrics, something that is already well-recognised as a difficult area to assess and benchmark.

Though I have portrayed a generally negative picture, it would be unwise of me to discount the efforts and initiatives of far-sighted individuals that have gone before me. In my home city of Melbourne, the Melbourne-Boston Sister Cities relationship is a pivotal link in bringing in a narrative around societally-valued innovation into Melbourne, and there exists many qualitative opportunities for which value can be exchanged. My hope and vision is that we continue to strengthen these relationships and perhaps one day, those who follow in my footsteps will be able to paint a truly meaningful Australian innovation narrative, with the full support of all Australians.

As always, post your thoughts below or tweet me at @ayftan.

UPDATE (25/8/2014): It seems that this article has created a bit of a conversation in certain circles, and I’d like to express a long-form response to some of the discussions I’ve seen (so far):

I think for us (as a nation) to identify why we have found ourselves at this point, we really need to look carefully at how our cultural narratives align with our vision for long-term STEM outputs (research, innovation, etc). I am no expert in Australian history or culture (I am just an every-day punter), but my observations is that the stories we are told to identify with relate to our pre-WW2 stories – the notion of our nation’s birth deriving from the Gallipoli campaign, our resilience in the face of hardship in the outback, and our ability to tell stories that show us in a self-deprecating and (often in tandem) humorous light. Our resilience is built on internal and isolated hardship (think of people exploring and settling in remote Australia) and we don’t show off (c.f. Tall Poppy Syndrome) or talk much unless asked to.

None of these relate easily to an innovation narrative. Innovation requires a global outlook, a willingness to foster meaningful, transparent relationships with others and attitudes/egos that are often misconstrued (in an Australian context) as arrogant and overly ambitious. We put down people that exhibit these traits, and in doing so, close off the narratives for people with an innovative inkling that would otherwise identify with. We kill off innovation because we don’t let those with the entrepreneurial mindset to tell their story, and in doing so, we are left with few stories to inspire like-minded individuals that follow in later generations.

What I would like more people to think about is how we plant a new vine to let future generations reap the benefits from an innovation system that this generation builds. In order for us to be successful, we must forget the notion that we will be able to change the attitudes of those around us, rather, we must focus on building innovation narratives that we can place into the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s Australians. Our track record is poor, and our current performance shows that we are simply repeating the same mistakes and revisiting the same conversations previous generations of innovators have explored. We like to think we are inspiring the next generation – frankly, we are not. We are telling them a lie, because we are telling them the same stories we were told, and continue to tell ourselves. This is just as bad as killing off new narratives, and we need to stop this behaviour. It is better to not tell a story than to pass on a bad one (with no explanation) and taint their attitudes and perspectives.

What we can do is first admit we were wrong, or at least admit we can do better. Admitting to the next generation that we haven’t done things right will be one of the critical ways that they will need to hear about in order to write a new innovation narrative. It is our responsibility that we let them see where we have failed, and most importantly, WHY we failed.

Admitting to this is hard. No-one likes to admit their mistakes and eat humble pie. But until we can be brave and do this, we are projecting the same issues onto our next generation. It’s just as bad as publishing positive-only results in a scientific paper, with no negative results reported; we are dooming others to repeat the same mistakes we’ve made.

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14 thoughts on “Australian innovation is stagnating, because most Australians don’t care about it

  1. Great post. Agree with your view that we need to dig into core beliefs before dealing with innovation. This isn’t something that can change quickly. I’m more and more of the view that, as people interested in doing interesting things, we just need to get on with it as the change we’re looking for won’t arrive in time (if it arrives at all) to assist.

  2. As per Scott, this post is right-on! I have been back in the Australia after 33 years in the US (including Boston and Palo Alto) and Israel, and the question that keeps coming back to me is “whether Australians really want to do it!” It will take a seed change in attitude of the nation’s population for this to happen. I also believe that it is difficult to change this culture from within, as it is the folks “within” who have been living in this atmosphere and to some degree have condoned it. It is vital to have serious partnerships with leading centres of innovation, like Boston for medical technologies, in order to help create the right environment.

  3. Hi Andre, I agree with your sentiments. However I am less pessimistic. I agree that most Australians don’t care about innovation and don’t value it. But some Australians do care. The Internet allows these people to connect, share and co-create. When you create a network of like minded people then almost anything is possible. New Zealand got it’s act together and created the New Zealand Health Innovation Hub in 2012. Seems like it is time we got ourselves organized. Drop me an email some time if you like. david@bdihealth.com

    • Hi David, that’s why I used “most” in the article’s title – there are some highly innovative enclaves in Australia, but they’re constantly squeezed out of our national agenda as “James and Shelly who live in suburban Adelaide and are supporting 2 young kids” don’t understand how our nation’s most innovative people can do things that will transform their lives, and the lives of those around them, and globally. They will never vote for their elected representatives based on things they are not even aware about. I totally agree that the internet facilitates connectivity with like-minded individuals, but sewing the seeds of a new paradigm requires those with the vision to get their hands dirty to plough the soil, plant the seed and water the crop before our next generation can reap the harvest. I am part of some new initiatives that will hopefully form a conversation about how we can convince the farmer to allocate the plot, but this will take time – see http://www.asiforum.net .

  4. Andre thank you for your considered post on this important issue. I don’t think you can excuse or forgive our political and business leaders. After all, the very word “leaders” emphasises that it is their role to guide us onto new paths. The changes you describe cannot happen if our society does not have leaders championing those changes.

    I spend every day immersed in the world of commercialising bleeding edge and leading edge technology and science. Australia has a proud history of delivering world changing technologies and science. Yet all the people I meet in the space are frustrated by facing the common barriers of politicians, mass media and corporate leaders who seem to be both unable and unwilling to recognise the need for change.

    Whether the examples offered are from New Zealand, the UK, Malaysia, Israel, the over-vaunted USA, or elsewhere they all share the common characteristics of seminal leaders driving the change followed by broad community engagement in the process and only then a context that engenders a new life-view among the younger people to create a sustainable shift in culture and attitudes.

    Australia being what we are, super-urbanised, government centric and hero averse (Tall Poppy) we absolutely need senior political leaders to be a pivotal part of the solution. We need senior political leaders who understand, who have relevant experience and who will take the risk of breaking the mold and driving for the required change knowing it will likely take far longer than their term in government, or possibly even their term in parliament. There are a lot of us who are not waiting for the politicians to get their act together and simply accept the embarrassment their behaviour produces for us in our international engagements. These champions of change are building the framework of relationships, the small communities of change agents and the success stories that are the essential building blocks for fixing the narrative but, if the corporate and political leadership take too long to get onboard these efforts will flag and the most skilled, most successful Australian innovators will simply leave as almost anywhere they will be more appreciated and better supported.

    • melbourneangel, I totally agree that our leaders need to form part of this discussion. How we bring them on board is a separate matter, but in keeping in line with the theme of addressing this area at a very high, philosophical level, what we really have is a chicken-vs-egg problem.

      Choosing to tackle the area of political behaviours is difficult, because politicians tend to follow ideology or the popular vote. Tackling voter behaviour is also difficult as they vote for the politician that appeals them the most. It is difficult to consider these 2 behavioural entities as separate, because they are so interlinked. There are 2 approaches I see. First, we change the environment in which both exist – basically immerse Australia in a completely new culture, or force the country onto desperate ground (which I have previously blogged about). This is difficult to achieve because we’re asking ourselves to throw away vast swathes of our culture, and we’re likely to throw out the baby with the bathwater. For desperate ground, there must be a real perceived threat to our national sense of identity, and it’s hard to predict how a nation will react.

      Therefore, the second approach is more realistic. That involves tackling the easier of the 2 interlinked boxes, in this case, the voter – the politician is much harder (though still needs to be addressed). By painting a picture of how the external environment will affect the two interlinked entities (by way of education, shifting narratives we tell), we have a chance to persuade voters to change their perception of what they should look to value in their society and lives. Only then, will politicians can be addressed when we start breaking the armour and targeting the weakest point that bond these two entities, as some of these bonds will start to become less relevant.

      This will take many generations, and as I said, I don’t have enough time on this earth for this to happen, but I believe we can start to sew the seeds. It’s up to us to point our next that these things are possible, and let them continue to execute this vision.

      • In big picture we agree but, on two points I challenge. One, any change needs leadership and in a passive, apathetic context such as Australia it needs sustained, charismatic, assertive leadership. Two, moving the people is the far bigger challenge and while i agree that both need to be pursued concurrently, changing the attitudes and behaviours of a few hundred people is a far more doable thing than changing the attitudes and behaviours of 23 million. So whether it is politicians themselves, the power brokers who stand behind them, the corporate leadership, the public service leadership, or some other leadership elite we cannot afford to ignore the effort/need to change the leadership and focus only on the mass population. The inertia of the mass population will simply defeat such efforts every time.

        The other point we share and which Nathalie has supported is the need to create a sense of urgency. Change management as a discipline often talks of the need to manufacture a sense of impending crisis to drive radical change. In reality Australia is facing a very real crisis in terms of future competitiveness, prosperity and security. So while it is actually here right now, its impact is encroaching very slowly on the “lucky country”. Which is why we need action now, because, as you point out, the change we need will take decades to happen and the impact of the crisis will take decades to become inevitably obvious in everyday terms. If we wait for the blatant need to be apparent to everyone we will be far too late.

      • I gave your comments a bit more thought, and you’ve swayed me somewhat. It opens up further questions about whether or not, as people interested in innovation, we have sufficient resources (lobby/interest groups) to start sitting in the ear of our “leaders” (I use “leaders” in parentheses as we don’t really have “leaders”, we have “professional politicians”). With 3-year election cycles, it’s difficult to sustain a long-term innovation conversation, as our political discourse has degenerated to a point where both parties are unlikely to entertain the notion of bipartisan approach to progress, especially with innovation, and the intellectual infrastructure to support it. As an adjunct, it is understandable that lobby groups are constantly trying to make their voices heard in the different political circles, however, with constantly rotating “leadership” and their powerbrokers, this effort may be better expended in developing ways and means to have conversations with Australians that are more willing to lend an ear to our vision of sustainable, long-term innovation, rather than putting our efforts into low-value and (these days, often) meaningless political debates and lobbying activities (which can be a basket-case). As to how we diversify our efforts, we can discuss this when the players within the ecosystem truly believe that they must put their name in the hat to participate, and commit to it wholeheartedly.

        As I said before, chicken-vs-egg, so we do need to tackle both issues together. In order for us to make progress, all players within the ecosystem, regardless of what we do, need to take ownership of this agenda as a matter of priority. Simply protecting our own “patch” on a day-to-day basis will only serve to seal our demise. All of us, myself included, must make the effort to tell this story, and why it’s important. For this reason, I decided to be part of the Australian Science Innovation Forum, as it’s the first step in building a platform from which we can project this message. I don’t want to be the doom-sayer, but we don’t have much time, and I fear for our future as we are on track to making a big mistake; a mistake we can forsee, but cannot afford to make.

    • Thank you for taking the time to reflect. It seems we are in heated agreement. I had wanted to hold a national summit where people would identify and take accountability for the execution of actions (not another talkfest). Sadly, there was too little support to pull it together. However, there are other avenues such as the ASIF, Australia 3.0, Creative Innovation and more. What we need are a lot more people that share our view working together across the spectrum to start shifting awareness and forging action. Perhaps, in some way, our dialog on this blog will help shift people from pointing fingers to taking action.

      • I totally agree – I too, have wanted to foster this conversation within a forum that would allow for the conversation to be meaningful (see what I did there?) without it degenerating into the finger-pointing, blame-shifting I’ve seen in other conversations I’ve come across with regard to Australian “innovation”. The ASIF is a platform that, I believe, will be able to “host” this conversation from a more “neutral” stance, in the sense that we would not be representative of a specific industry (like VC, medical research, etc) and hence give us the opportunity to hold some higher ground when debates get heated. I know that one of our key agendas is to shift the focus toward the qualitative aspects of the benefits that innovative activities deliver that often gets ignored in our current conversations. So perhaps you’d like to be part of the ASIF is some way? Visit http://www.asiforum.net for details.

  5. There are many innovative people inventors with great ideas in Australia. Most of these people think well into the future and don’t like the fact investors will not talk to them, unless they tick box 1,2,and 3. They are looking for funding from people who think outside the system. That’s the only way they can get their innovation off the ground. What is lacking is; investors who think outside of the box. I have been putting bait out on the internet for years and investors don’t take the hook simlply because they are set in old fashion ways. So I don’t want to partner with people of this ilk as their thinking is too limited.. The actual funding is not the main issue.

    • Michael, your thoughts about investors are certainly valid, and have been echoed by many that I’ve met. I deliberately avoided talking about investor behaviour in my article, as it was my attempt to make people understand my higher-level ideas, and see that in fact, investor behaviour is really only a problem at the mechanism level, and not the guidance level.

      What I think separates my views on investor behaviour to a lot of other commentators is that I see certain types of investor behaviour (i.e., lack of out-of-the-box thinking, poor deal flow) as an output and product of the innovation system, and not so much an input. Investor behaviour appears (to an outsider/observer) to be an input to re-confirm bad behaviours, but this isn’t probably the case. It is more likely a case that it is a combination of both a feed-forward and feed-back series of systems, with too much “gain” on the feed-forward path, the path that positively reinforces previous behaviour.

      If you follow this line of thinking, it can be hypothesised that in order to better control investor performance and encourage good investment behaviours, there are 2 obvious options, either tone down the feed-forward gain, or increase the feed-back gain. Adjusting these parameters will likely cause the system to settle at some point in time (let’s say, another 20 years away from the pre-GFC VC vintage years, as opposed to say, 40 years with our current “gain” parameters), but the system will settle at some equilibrium that we are not satisfied with. Adjusting the gain of our feed-forward and feed-back systems will only affect how quickly or how accurately we reach our desired performance target. The problem is that we have set this desired performance level, by virtue of our cultural narratives in Australia around innovation and the reasons I outlined in the main article, at a really low level.

      What we have failed to see is that there is the third option – enforcing a control signal that allows the controllers to bring the adjust the system so it reaches our desired performance level. There is nothing wrong with our control mechanisms – we have relatively stringent financial regulations, have some very smart investors that know how to adapt to changing environments (when push really comes to shove) and it can be hypothesised that to an extent “market forces” (yes, I know governments prop up VC activity to an extent, so it’s not exactly pure “market forces”) will dictate the number and size of investors that play the game. What is wrong is the targets we have (or more likely, haven’t) set for them. With a poor control signal, they’re bound to deviate away from where we’d like them to be. So as a control engineer would say, we need to stop playing around with our controllers, and fix the control signals.

      If that explanation was a bit too abstract (sorry, engineer here…), there’s a slightly more simplistic saying we have: “Garbage in, garbage out”. How does it apply here? Create a poor narrative around Australian innovation/provide poor investment opportunities, get a resultant system that poorly performs in the eyes of the people that created that narrative, willingly or otherwise. Investors and their behaviour are just one of many cogs in a larger machine, and we need to steer that machine in the right direction. Which is the right direction? I’m not sure, that will be up to us collectively, but I think we should at least buy a map and place ourselves on it to see how far we are away.

  6. Hi Andre
    This is a fantastic post. Brilliant! Your observation and theory about the Australian culture of stagnant innovation is backed up by research that CCCH was involved in for the past few years with the Frameworks Institute. You highlight some of the thinking that exists within Australia’s cultural swamp that’s hindering progress.
    The other thing to consider (and I apologise if you mentioned this and I missed it) is that Australia came through the Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath relatively unscathed. There’s been no push to innovate because the country hasn’t experience limitations that others have, which has resulted in stasis and reluctance to exit the comfort zone. I hear the term innovation used frequently in different circles, including medical research but all I’ve observed is duplication of other examples of innovation and scaling up. This is laziness and feeding the excessive waste in investment dollars. The true innovators here are silent either due to humility or fear of experiencing the effects of Tall Poppy Syndrome.
    As a Canadian expat, this country is my home. There is so much potential here for true innovation but it won’t be realised until we acknowledge our own worth and value to the world.

  7. Good post Andre. Honesty that is well overdue. People who grew up overseas (I was brought up in London) have often commented to me on frustrating Australian characteristics. These include the passive acceptance of a low quality government education system, the production of high cost low quality goods (despite Australia being physically located in the powerhouse of Asia) and the continous putting down of creative entrepreneurs (tall poppy syndrome).

    Australia reminds me of Britain before Margaret Thatcher. Britian used to be called ‘the sick man of Europe’. Industry was outdated and union controlled. British products were poor quality. British people indulged themselves with the Colonial smugness, rather than openly compairing the cost and quality of their labour to Europe, USA and Asia.

    I hope Australia moves on from it’s current smugness and low quality standards. There are plenty of Australians who strive to make a better world, create wealth or improve learning. For them Asia, the USA and Europe is a maximun of 18 hours away. That’s less than a 24 hour flight and less than $2,000 in fares. And there they will stay, until (if ever) the Australian culture changes.

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