Why the debate on innovation has to change

Innovation is the key to a better future for Australians – but we need to take pride in our past achievements to convince people of the benefits, says Professor Mark Dodgson.

The Turnbull government’s emphasis on innovation has been widely criticised for not engaging with voters. Critics say that talking about innovation and agility loses people, and we have to talk about the issues they understand and advance their interests.

As recent political changes around the world have shown, emphasis has to lie with issues that are meaningful for citizens. Innovation is crucial to their interests and how they will be advanced, but its importance needs to be better explained.

Begin talking about how innovation provides our children better, longer and more rewarding lives than our own, and then you start to get people’s interest.

Innovation has been associated with those outside of most people’s experiences: hipsters in coffee shops developing apps, boffins in labs. It is linked with get rich quick entrepreneurs and (tax avoiding) multinational companies. And wasn’t the global financial crisis caused by innovation in banks?

Throw in discussion of the importance of esoteric issues such as multifactor productivity and intellectual property rights, and how we need to resemble Israel and Finland, then no wonder people disengage.

So what makes innovation relevant to the general public? We could start with national pride. It is pretty amazing that a small country like Australia has given the world such important products as the combine harvester, Wi-Fi and polymer bank notes.

We created Cochlear implants that let the deaf hear, Black Box recorders that make flying safer and Atlassian software that allows people to work together more effectively. And what about those everyday products Australians have developed such as Vegemite, Aspro, Kiwi shoe polish, speedos, the Triton workbench, Dynamic Lifter and two-stroke lawn mowers?

When it comes to innovation in our organisations, how about the pride we should take in the Flying Doctor Service, surf clubs or the Higher Education Contribution Scheme?

We’re fond of heroes in Australia, and more needs to be made of our innovation champions. If more were known and celebrated, think of the great pride we could take in Ballarat’s Henry Sutton, who probably developed television amongst numerous other incredible inventions in radio, photography and telephony.

Or in Arthur Bishop, who took on the might of the US auto industry and ended up with his innovation in one-third of the world’s cars.

Imagine the pleasure in learning the story of the development of the Beaufort bomber during the Second World War. These planes were needed for the Pacific campaign, but the British determined their priorities lay elsewhere and decided not to send us the parts we needed. At the time, Australia couldn’t even make cars, but we assembled 8,500 people with backgrounds in the railway and car parts and in short order designed and made 700 aircraft ourselves.

We live longer lives because of innovation. New pharmaceuticals are continually being developed to treat disease. Better medical devices improve the quality of our lives. There are, for example, nearly 100,000 knee and hip replacements annually in Australia, and these get easier and more effective every year.

Our cars are safer and last longer - the idea of a seven-year warranty was fantasy when I bought my first car. We travel more and have more information at our fingertips. We can communicate with family and friends anytime anywhere in the world, cheaply or even for free.

Innovation brings better weather forecasts for farmers, improved seeds and livestock, and improved farming methods. The extraordinary range and quality of the food available to us is supported by innovation.

Nothing builds commitment at work like the satisfaction people get when their suggestions for improvements are put into place: that is innovation. Working in organisations that do the same thing every day can be boring and dispiriting. It is doing something new that is exciting and energizing: that is what innovation does. The list of benefits of innovation is endless.

These are the messages that need to be emphasized, not so much about innovation in and of itself, but of its positive societal and personal benefits. Tell someone listening to the radio when driving to work that they need to be more agile, entrepreneurial and productive, and they might not be overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Tell them that innovation will reduce congestion, improve the safety and reduce the costs of their running their cars, then you’ll have their undivided attention. 

Just as innovation will provide the new jobs and skills of the future, it will also threaten many current occupations. Society’s deep and widening inequalities can be accentuated by new technologies, and one of the most pressing social and political challenges of our time is to mitigate this destructive element of innovation.

We need to think seriously about the virtues of a social wage and funding people to work, without necessarily being employed in a job, in a manner that allows them to help others, practice their skills or develop their knowledge in ways that they find meaningful and rewarding. Innovation has for the first time in history provided sufficient wealth in society to allow us to do this.

Mark Dodgson is Professor of Innovation Studies at UQ Business School. He is an internationally renowned innovation expert who regularly advises companies and governments worldwide (www.markdodgson.org).

Last updated:
25 March 2019