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.