The Ghost of Innovations Past


You know the feeling. The celebrated colleague, past genius writ large, held up as an icon, their legacy surely written in the stars. And then it happens. The cracks start to show, they drop the ball one too many times, you’re let down at a critical moment, and the sky spells defeat. It’s crueller than disappointment because part of you always knew that it would happen, and yet the timing couldn’t have been worse…

As a nation, Australia has been near-obsessed with innovation, pinning our hopes and dreams on that elusive pot of gold, if only we could convince enough investors and influencers to follow us across the rainbow. Our politicians propel the fantasy, remaining preoccupied with ploughing the fabled fields of a knowledge-based economy, while our research and development investment suggests we’re reaping exactly what we’ve sown.

Australia’s investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP, (Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D, or GERD) has hovered at around 2.2% for at least the past decade, below the OECD average. Based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), we fall to 1.7% – less than half that of R&D investment leader, Israel. It’s not all bad news though, GERD is only one indicator used in a range of global innovation benchmarking endeavours, many of which Australia has been reported to punch well above its weight. So why isn’t our fighting spirit found in our attitude to innovation, and its subsequent need for investment?

One of these reports, from the Milken Institute, went beyond a basic ranking to try to understand our business leaders’ perception of Australian innovation. The insight was illuminating. We simply don’t believe we’re innovators. Our economic performance and stated commitment to future prosperity is just not as convincing as the iPhones and Facebooks shooting down the Silicone Valley innovation conveyor belt.

If our future prosperity is contingent on an effective innovation system, but our key decision-makers believe that our business environment is more becoming more risk averse, where does that leave our opportunity for growth?

We’re not truly committed to innovation because we’re not really innovators. Innovation is widely described across government websites and policy documents as an often intangible benefit of continual improvement to processes and products. Under such a dull definition, innovation loses its allure; its potential quashed like a lukewarm beer on a hot summer day. We value stories of transformative innovation, not of incremental improvement. They come to life in our undying love of the triumphant underdog, our convict history, and our belief that “she’ll be right”.

Rupert Murdoch’s address to the Lowy Institute late last year cited this very sentiment as the ‘unspoken mantra of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur’, and made a strong case for Australian values being conducive to a culture of market making competitiveness. Our values have been built on the same soil that our lifestyles and institutions have thrived on, but it is our belief in the value of invention that will sow the seeds of prosperity in the 21stcentury.

Invention forces us to think beyond what exists for improvement right now, to what doesn’t exist that should. Churchill is quoted as saying that “it is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see”, or to use the Yiddish proverb quoted by Gladwell, “to the worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish”. Being inventive requires making connections between seemingly unrelated facts, objects or needs. The search for exploding black holes unearthing the idea for Wi-Fi, or the combination of glue and loose leaf paper to create the notepad. Our inventions have even saved the lives of inventors, with Lester Ormsby’s surf life-saving reel and the young life of one Charles Kingsford-Smith.

Working in a creative environment, my colleagues and I spend a decent amount of time coming up with ideas. Inevitably we revert to a set of tried and tested techniques, but it’s because they force us to be inventive. You wouldn’t think that a whiteboard marker may have characteristics that could lead you to develop an idea for a new type of chewing gum because your brain just doesn’t work in that way unless you push it to, you have to propel yourself beyond the horseradish.

Few new ideas and inventions are perfect. They require continual improvement, investment and reinvention, in short, they need innovation. There is no doubt that innovation plays a key role in Australia’s future, but our imperative right now must be to rekindle our romance with the girl next door, the faithful friend, the one who never left us as we dreamt of an Oz over the rainbow. The inventiveness that helped us to grow from a fledgling colony to a thriving nation is not only part of our history, but key to our collective spirit, and our culture of optimism.  An Invention Imperative that connects our past to our future, our values to our vision, and turns our experience into expertise, feels like an idea worth believing in.

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