Innovation is dead: Australia’s attempted innovicide and what to do about it

Sérgio Brodsky deconstructs key causes of a butterfly effect that contributed to Australia’s past, present and future innovation-deprived generations.

Innovation flourishes when critical thinking and the diversity of networks meet. Critical thinking is what allows the definition of existing challenges and potential opportunities. Diversity of networks is what allows such opportunities to come to fruition by recombining ideas and resources.

In light of the recent 457 visa reform and a failed grammar curriculum, has Australia signed the obituary of its innovation efforts?

 

The spelling boo

Back in the 1970s, the curriculum of primary and secondary schools saw grammar being, by and large, replaced by the ‘whole language approach’. Since then, several generations reduced their chances to learn how to think critically.

This is because grammar is more than rules of language. It actually represents rules of thinking.

As said by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. For the grammarless children from the past 40 years, their worlds’ horizons tightened.

Why? Because grammar was deemed too difficult and too marginally valuable to play a role in any standard curriculum. Yet, identifying parts of speech or sentences are core skills to critical thinking, as demonstrated by numerous critical studies’ investigations.

The ‘whole language children’ are experts in guessing and memorising words rather than spelling them out. This seems to work at first, but by their third year of schooling, lack of visual memory (disk full!) means they start to fail. Thus, learning by heart will never replace learning by brains.

Finbar O’Hanlon, innovator, inventor, entrepreneur, musician, educator and host of TV Show Welcome to Finland, recognises expertise as a barrier to innovation, as learned knowledge often restricts the ability to imagine.

“Meditation, hobbies and play, should be encouraged prior to undertaking problem solving. This will help detect whether your ideas are more or less a conceptual rut as opposed to real innovation.

“Usually, adding something to an existing problem is a sign of a conceptual rut. Subtracting something from an existing problem is often the sign of innovation. As we move into the future the value of human capital will shift from intelligence to judgement and innovation.”

Interestingly, in 2015, the Martin Prosperity Institute placed Australia as the most creative nation in the world. But, on the same year, the Global Innovation Index ranked it 17th.

Creativity was mainly assessed from an infrastructural perspective. Indeed, Australians can afford a high standard of extra-curricular activities nurturing creative thinking. But when it comes to using this creativity to solve problems and add value, a clear disparity emerges.

James Bush, creative technology lead at innovation consultancy Fjord, is a mentor at I-Manifest, an NGO using creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration to empower and deliver students with future-ready skills. “The future belongs to businesses who can create the best customer experiences. Amazon, Apple and Google owe their success to imagination and original ideas. We need to nurture those who can envision form, function, and people as something more.”

 

An imbalanced supply and demand

Australia has made numerous innovative contributions to science, the arts, medicine and many other areas of knowledge. From spray-on skin, to the electronic pacemaker, Wi-Fi, permaculture and the cochlear implant. Local innovators have indeed made the world a better place.

But, there are still way too many problems desperately seeking for solutions.

Despite the Ideas Boom program, incentivising research and development of innovative solutions, the recent 457 Visa reform raised a wall against the diversity of perspectives and skills required to enable innovation.

To begin with, the federal government’s proposals for replacing the 457 visa scheme has removed a host of occupations – such as life scientists, civil engineers, microbiologists, archeologists and historians – from the sponsored occupation list.

Innovation can occur in any occupation. For example, ANU archeologist Dr Dougald O’Reilly, used drones and 3D virtual-reality to map one of Asia’s most mysterious sites – the Plain of Jars in Laos. And, Dr O’Reilly is originally Canadian.

Even though Australia is an immigration nation, as acknowledged PM Turnbull, the volume of high-skilled new migrants has not been able to meet current and projected industry demands. And, tightening the requirements to obtaining a work visa will not contribute to addressing our enduring skills shortage.

Elizabeth Kaelin, a Muru-D graduate and founder of foodtech startup Caitre’d is indeed struggling to hire the right people to help grow her business. “This is a fast-moving world and skills are evolving at a faster rate than governments can keep up. Where are the growth hackers, service designers, and chief possibility architects on the list? Innovation cannot be confined to an arbitrary ‘list’ of jobs – most startups make up their own titles and for Australia to continue down this mindset means they will be left behind.”

For Dan Paronetto, Telstra’s Innovation Hacker, this is a sad sign of how fearful the world is right now and businesses have to adapt quickly. “The accentuated challenge to importing talent will make businesses compete for a smaller talent pool, forcing them to create extremely compelling career development opportunities to attract the best professionals and up-skill existing high-potentials.”

 

Skills shortages in Australia developed in the early 2000s. This was due to a spending spike on economic infrastructure and construction projects. And a second wave is about to hit the nation after the recently announced $75 billion infrastructure spending spree part of the 2017-18 Federal Budget.

In the next 30 years the Australian population is likely to almost double. However, out of the expected 46 million people, increasing life expectancy will lift Australia’s median age to 40 years by 2040, with the number of people aged over 85 expected to almost triple to 1.2 million, while the number aged over 65 will double to 6.8 million.

This is by no means an ageist statement. But, it is a lot easier to launch a startup at a younger age, with energy and openness to new ideas and experiences at their peak. And, as shown on the below ABS graph, the Australian working-age population has greatly declined.

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 9.17.26 AM

 

According to Sam Altman, founder of Y Combinator, a US elite business accelerator: “There are seven tech companies valued at over $100 billion since 1970; Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco. The average age of the 17 founders was 25 years old at the time of founding.” Moreover, the average age of entrepreneurs funded by Y Combinator is 26.

Now what?

With generations deprived from core critical-thinking training and new restrictions to absorbing the best, brightest and most diverse talent, what can Australian businesses do to future-proof the delivery of fresh ideas that add value?

Russel Yardley FAICD, ASX chairman and one of Australia’s most influential people in tech believes, that “The most valuable contribution to increasing productivity comes from creating new ways of working, learning and living.

“Australian businesses need to apply all their resources to this challenge by empowering their people to unleash their creativity to innovate and invent.”

Business access to financial resources, however, will be reduced due to the additional bank tax stipulated on the 2017-18 Federal Budget.

For Shaun Briggs, managing director of media communications agency Initiative – ranked as one of the 50 most innovative companies by BRW – structuring corporate tax like personal income tax would’ve been a more effective way to distributing financial resources. “It sure beats the flat rate of 30% that exists today.

“If a bank is faced with an additional 5% tax on that last $1 billion, will they pay the $50 million in tax or will they look to re-invest that $1 billion into servicing their customers? Re-pricing their products? Employing more people? Extending their hours? Taxing an industry for doing well is nonsense. Especially when the onus can be so easily transferred onto consumers, postponing the drive to meaningfully innovate.”

Peter Williams, chief edge officer at Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge prefers not to focus at all about what governments do. “The biggest problem is people point to the government as the cause of whatever innovation problem people want to whinge about this week or next.

“It has never been easier so just get out there and try new ideas. If there is a change one way or another work out how to deal with it. That is what innovation is about. If people really think it is up to the government to be the driver of innovation they can sit and wait until we have nirvana. Personally I will get on and do shit.”

 

For those wanting to innovate, it is fundamental to own any chosen course of action. Yet, acknowledging the roadblocks is a good way to turn those into stepping stones.

Ben Richardson, co-founder of Australia’s premier emerging tech festival Future Assembly admits that there are certainly clear points of reference that make Australia a particularly harsh environment to innovate within. “That said, I believe the challenges faced on the road to successful innovation within our nation enforces a level of resilience that keeps our markets highly competitive and relatively mature.

“But companies do need to invest in self-reformation across a diverse risk portfolio of approaches with inversely proportional expectations on a return of investment.”

The dream of an innovation nation is not over but many of its stakeholders do need to wake up from their risk-aversion trance. Riskier than implementing innovation is not having a strategy to fostering it.

Innovation is dead, long live innovation!

 

Further reading


Image copyright: bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo

Sérgio Brodsky
BY Sérgio Brodsky ON 19 June 2017
Sérgio Brodsky is an internationally experienced brand marketing professional having worked for some of the world's greatest strategic communications agencies. Sérgio is a proven thought-leader, speaking at industry events, lecturing and regularly being published worldwide. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society. Sérgio is multilingual and holds a BA in IP law and an MBA in global brand strategy and innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @brandKzar.