Peter Drucker said something like “innovation is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage”.
Having just re-read his 1985 musings on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, after 20 or so years, the degree of his foresight is truly astonishing. It is great to finally have a Prime Minister who actually understands how to make a buck, and the strategic, commercial and competitive challenges of bringing new products to market. He may be one of the few in Canberra who do, but at least it is a fair start.
With much fanfare the Government on December 3 tabled in parliament a Senate report on ‘Australia’s innovation System‘ However, with the exception of Professor Roy Greens valuable contribution as an appendix, I see little of real value in the report beyond a few worthwhile observations and some useful changes to the tax treatment of entrepreneurial endeavours.
Our venerable Senators have had summarized for them documents (I wonder how much consideration these busy important people actually gave to the detail of the submissions) that may have started with some valuable ideas but which have been sanitised into a document long on rhetoric and disturbingly short on anything of value, which can only be delivered when someone asks the question “What now”?
As someone who has run an agency outsourced from the Federal bureaucracy charged with identifying and delivering innovation to a specific sector, I can attest from first hand just how powerful the cultural forces are against anything with even a hint of risk, change, or long term thinking in the now politicised public sector.
Successful innovation takes all three, plus a clear definition of the problems to be addressed.
There is little evidence of anything in the report that encourages me to think that the status quo will be truly challenged.
It is useful to look to successful models, and there are none more successful than the US since the second war. Most will now assume I am jumping to Google, Apple et al, but no. if you look deep enough you will see the hand of government at a deep level making very long term investments in basic science, building knowledge that the private sector then leverages with innovation into commercial products delivering new value.
A scientist named Vannevar Bush (no relation to the Bush pollies) was commissioned by President Roosevelt just before he died to report on what needed to be done to promote research and development and the commercial innovation it drives, just as this senate inquiry has done. Bush reported to president Truman in 1945, delivering his report, “Science, the Endless Frontier” which laid out the proposition:
“Basic research leads to new technology. It provides scientific capital. It creates a fund from which the practical application of knowledge must be drawn”.
Directly resulting from this report was the National Science Foundation. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency DARPA and several other institutes charged with the charter to do basic science, of discovering new knowledge.
When you look at all the products disrupting industries up to today, and changing our lives, many if not most of them have their roots in the various agencies spawned by Bush’s farsighted ideas, and the ability of the scientific agencies concerned to outlive the political cycle.
Now compare that to Australia’s situation.
CSIRO used to be a great agency, capable of developing technology like the wireless technology in the 90’s now in every mobile phone after years on the shelf until a commercial use with smartphones was found. Scientific Capital at work.
Now CSIRO is a politicised dysfunctional rump of its former self, with a little of the funding ripped out over the last 20 years of hubris restored via this latest in a long line of Innovation “initiatives” to the sounds of grateful clapping. I see few practical remedies for the past 20 years of innovation vandalism being actually addressed, although at least a real start may have been made.
As I always say in workshops, “the best time to start an innovation initiative was 10 years ago, the second best time is now”.
Lets hope it is not too late for Australian manufacturing.