Australian”innovation”: desires and reality

Last night was the Pearcey Awards, which in itself is always a great way to find out about up and coming leaders in the field and achievements in ICT, however they also created a national roundtable event called INNOVATION & ICT IN AUSTRALIA: A NATIONAL DEBATE. It was closely linked with the Federal Government’s National Innovation Review, released just a couple of days ago which has some excellent recommendations in around open publishing, sustainability, Open Source, open standards and patent reform, just to name a few. In fact chapter 7 of that review has many of the recommendations put forward at Senator Kate Lundy’s ‘Foundations of Open’ Local Summit back in March. There were two panels last night, one with entreprenuers (which I participated in) and one with larger organisations. Then there were speeches from Minister Conroy, NSW MP John Della Bosca and Dr Terry Cutler just to name a few. It was really a great evening and it was fascinating to hear many of the concepts we have taken for granted in the FOSS world be brought up as important to Australia’s future economic properity, ideas such as “open innovation”, “services built around shared content”, “searchable publicly available data sets [particularly publicly funded data]” and more.

On the panel I spoke about how we need to educate entreprenuers and small business how to stand on the shoulders of giants and better leverage tools like FOSS to build both cheap and scalable infrastructure (I mentioned an organisation I’m involved in where the ex-Deloitte employee assumed we would need $100k for a website!) as well as the ability to create new value and services by combining existing FOSS components in new and innovative ways. I spoke about the need for more focus on technical skills (every child should learn basic programming) to help all our citizens to better leverage technology in all circumstances. I also spoke about how we need to be not only recognising and encouraging ICT as an “enabler for all industries”, a term thrown around a lot, but we also need to focus on core ICT and being a world leader in bleeding edge technologies. We need to recognise that if we only see ICT as an enabler, then we are actually parroting the much disliked “Australia is a consumer nation” phrase with new buzzwords. The increased awareness of innovation at an organisational and infrastructure level is wonderful, however it can not be at the cost of innovation at an ICT industry or technologies level lest we be left behind in such a competitive global market.

Other panelists spoke about the need for Government to partner more with smaller innovative Australian companies rather than always going to safest road. Apparently the Australian Government already has a requirement to spend something linke 0.5% on piloting innovative solutions, so it would be great to see more work going into this. Several people mentioned how Government will often get a great idea from a small company (or from the many smart and innovative people in Government), which will go to tender and then inevitably be won by a large multinational who isn’t providing the inspirational and innovative solution initially proposed. A massive loss for those smaller companies with big ideas.

I was in the audience when IP came up and luckily had the microphone ready to ask the next question (one panelist said that the dropping number of patents recently was an enormous issue for Australia, argh!), so I spoke briefly about how Government and industry need to look at new IP models, new business models and realise that IP protectionism (patents, proprietary code) is not the means to open innovation nor an openly competitive market (particularly when we follow in the footsteps of the flawed US patent system), and ultimately we need to keep focusing on how to create world leading exportable services, which is where the industry has been heading for some time. This earned an applause which was interesting.

I was quite surprised throughout the evening the number of people who came up to me and said they were really impressed with my comments and observations. I didn’t think that I had said anything particularly incredible, but it made me realise that is because I’m so involved with the Open Source community which is full of people who are innovative, focused on openness and collaboration, aware of the practical implications of different IP approaches, often on the bleeding edge of new ideas and technologies and often successfully making a living with new business and IP models not yet in the mainstream. Our community has world leading innovators and thinkers who are miles ahead of the curve, so my expected level of comparison is quite high :)

Education came up again and again. Education at schools/TAFE/University for students, technology education, entrepreneurial skills, information and training for small businesses, what skills are needed to meet the needs of evolving markets. It was great to have so much attention on this topic because ultimately there is no point having great policies and support around “innovation” if we don’t have any skills in Australia to innovate with.

Many people expressed a desire to enable innovation, but it was said several times that “innovation” is a term that is thrown around a lot without people necessarily being on the same page. I think that is has been overused and abused a lot, and it was Terry Cutlers speech at the end that really brought it together for me. Terry wrote the innovation report that was discussed, and in his speech he pulled no punches when it comes to the laughable reality in Australia at the moment (very, very low OECD rankings when it comes to investment in ICT and education, amongst other things). He spoke about the potential for Australia, about “open innovation” and I think the report has many excellent recommendations that will hopefully pull our public and private policy and practices into sharp evolution. I think in Australia we have the smarts and the desire to be innovative, successful and to be competing in the global ICT market, but achieving this success starts at home. Many Australian businesses and Government agencies want to see success overseas or great success locally before committing to even trialling new solutions and we need to figure out how to better enable local success which will feed into growing local innovation and global competitiveness. The Australian market is extremely risk averse and as such runs the risk of always being behind the ball.

Murali Sagi, who is an extremely clever and successful CIO and a great example of the innovators found in Government, put it most concisely.

Australians are innovative, but Australia isn’t.

Let’s try and fix that :)

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2 Responses to Australian”innovation”: desires and reality

  1. Tony Fisk says:

    Sounds like it was fun.

    A couple of things of relevance:
    I spoke about the need for more focus on technical skills (every child should learn basic programming) to help all our citizens to better leverage technology in all circumstances.

    Stephen Fry, in the guise of reviewing the Sandisk Sansa, observed that houses of the future used to be thought of in terms of masses of gadgets requiring in-depth electronic knowledge to maintain, whereas houses of the present have masses of gadgets that just work.

    One of David Brin’s pet peeves has been the lack of access to a simple hands-on programming experience like the original BASIC: where people could type something in, and see what it really does. (hint: what do you have to do to print ‘hello world’ in a windows environment)

    Australians are innovative, but Australia isn’t.

    I work for a company whose focus is on innovation. It’s former director was heard to comment that Australia is ‘the land of retail, banks, and mining’ and liked to show a picture of the Earth at night, remarking ‘the light is where the action is. We’re in this dark bit here.’

    We *need* to be innovative to survive out there in the dark!

  2. Tel says:

    I read a lot of stuff about boosting innovation. It leaves me wondering what most people actually think innovation is, and wondering what is so great about it. You can look at the concrete example of voting machines in the USA — they found a high-tech, innovative, expensive solution to a problem that never existed and replaced a low-tech but also well tested, well understood and pretty much bulletproof design (hand counted paper ballots) with the most notoriously unreliable machinery in human history (software). Full marks for innovation, but why?

    I wear leather shoes on a regular basis, it’s a technology probably invented during the last Ice Age to wrap animal skins around one’s feet, and has only changed in a few details since then. It’s an old design, but it works for me. Should I maybe feel innovative and wear circuit boards on my feet? Or go for something sustainable and wear banana skins? Hmmm, some really innovative (but useless) ideas coming here.

    We don’t want to be innovative, we want to be usefully innovative. The two things are completely different. You have to identify real problems that are actually worth doing something about, rather than inventing an interesting solution and going round looking for an application.

    Here’s a real-world idea that does address a real problem. Consider taking a small front-wheel drive car, pop off the back wheels, replace those with similar size wheels containing high efficiency rare-earth hub motors, and whack some supercapacitors, a handful of drive MOSFETs and a power management system in the boot. Instant hybrid car. No need for heavy, inefficient expensive batteries. Perfect for stop/start traffic, the electrical system does a bit of regenerative braking, gives extra kick-off from the lights and adds a touch of traction control on corners to beat the annoying front-wheel-drive understeer. Retrofits to existing vehicles, light weight, easy to build. There’s a fortune right there waiting to be made.

    But the development costs.

    You need to design the hub motors from scratch because they don’t exist. Supercapacitors are not easily available either, and the drive and management systems are hugely complex. Get that far and you have generation one, but you can’t drive that on the road yet. Probably a year on the test track tuning it (what? you don’t have a test track?) then you can START going through all the legal red tape of making it street legal. So there’s one cheap idea — amazing innovation! Unfortunately, not a cheap product, all those little practical details. It may turn out that the efficiency gain doesn’t pay back against the cost of the parts and the additional weight, you won’t know that until after a whole lot of real world testing, after which you might be throwing it away.

    That’s pretty much what always happens, big ideas are a dime a dozen, making them work needs teams of experts, years of fine tuning and lots of boring grunt work that no one is in the least bit excited about. And that’s for the good ideas, the bad ideas also involve a lot of development work until you work out that they are bad ideas. Australia needs to get good at taking on that product development and testing grunt work, everything else will get sorted out by itself.

    I agree with the issue of education. But warning! If Australia spends too much money creating highly educated people, most of them will just leave and get jobs in Europe. Since the real dopes at the bottom of the ladder soak up as much money as you throw them, and the bright sparks will go their own way regardless… the paydirt is going to be found in bringing up the median education level. That means a modest improvement over a large number of people. So go for policies that help a bit here and there, but lots of those. Don’t go for big “gee whiz” projects — the sort of projects that attention-seeking career-path politicians favour.

    The best thing about educated people is not that they have wonderful new ideas, but that they keep up to date with what other educated are doing so we are guaranteed to at least stay level with the crowd.

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