The quest for innovation is everywhere these days. The National Farmers Federation wants to stimulate it with its Sprout initiative.
The Coalition government has an “innovation agenda”. Businesses and governments worldwide are after innovation with the fervor of goldrush diggers for nuggets.
But gold is weighty and has a tangible value. What is innovation? How does it come about, and what value does it have?
For starters, Fiona McKenzie advises, innovation isn’t invention. The policy director with the Australian Futures Project, Dr McKenzie wrote her doctorate around farmer-driven innovation.
“In its purest sense, invention can be defined as the creation of a product or introduction of a process for the first time,” she has written.
“Innovation, on the other hand, occurs if someone improves on or makes a significant contribution to an existing product, process or service.”
Anthony Arundel, professor at the Australian Innovation Research Centre, doesn’t completely exclude invention-as-innovation, but agrees that most innovation builds something new out of something old.
“When the first iPhone came out, all the technology was already available, but shrinking it down to the right size took an incredible amount of work. The innovation was putting those parts together in a way that had never been done before.”
The iPhone is a popular depiction of innovation that Jack Archer would like to put into the background.
The chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), Mr Archer thinks the idea of innovation as blue-sky discovery - “scientists in a lab discovering wifi” - is a notion that could inhibit the growth of innovation in the regions.
In the regional context, he thinks innovation is about “people taking new technologies into their businesses, finding new ways to do things, developing new products”.
Regional infrastructure investment is important and welcome, Mr Archer said, but it’s not enough to power development in the regions. “It’s about how we’re going to transition, develop new jobs, identify new ways to be prosperous” - that is, the work of innovation.
“I’m seeing positive signs there, but we’ve got a long way to go to identify our regional innovation systems and how we can support them. We’re 10-15 years behind the United States in this respect.”
Professor Arundel urges government to “think big” when it comes to fostering innovation.
“Government needs to identify current economic activity which has a large potential payoff, and put money into it - preferably at arms length - over a 10-20 year time scale.”
“You need cross-party political support; it needs to be more than just a few years; the investment needs to be up-front and help decrease the risk and increase the opportunities; and it should be based primarily on existing regional strengths.”
The Australian Innovation Research Centre has learned that a desire to foster innovation doesn’t always mesh well with political expediency. The Centre ran a large research project looking at ways to invest $120 million in government funds to help phase out parts of Tasmania’s forestry industry.
“We strongly recommended that the money shouldn’t be spent on little grants; that it should going into larger scale projects in targeted sectors that had a good future in the State - sectors that had good innovation capability,” Prof. Arundel said.
Government did the opposite, doling out small parcels of money to many electorates. It was popular tactic, “but didn’t create big enough pots of money to be able to something of long-standing ongoing effect”.
The RAI has a similar view about critical mass. Jack Archer urges a focus on regional cities as innovation hubs, and investment to build their capacity. Within those hubs, he hopes for support for high-growth small-medium businesses capable of driving regional change.
The regions themselves need to get out more, Mr Archer said. Representatives need to look to other countries, “to understand the boundaries of their markets”, and to share stories of success and failure with other regions. “That’s one thing we do really badly.”