Australian innovation experts fear the Government’s $1.1 billion innovation agenda could be reduced to a political “PR exercise” if it fails to turn years of talk into action.
Speaking on the ABC’s Q&A program, Innovation Clearinghouse founder Sandy Plunkett warned that the meaning and benefits of the current national investment in ideas and innovation could easily be lost to politics.
“This is a massive cultural change for Australia that we are embarking on,” Plunkett said.
“We have got to literally turn our thinking towards a different sort of era for Australia.
“In order for this not to become a PR exercise from both [major political] parties … I think … both parties have to resist descending into slogans because most people don't know what innovation means to them.”
Emergent Solutions CEO Holly Ransom said that the past 15 years had seen “60 reports on innovation”.
“So we have done a lot of talk about this,” she said.
“I think the big thing that all Australians are hungry to see is they want to see action.
“They want to see this convert and not just into $1.1 billion worth of activity, but an innovation lens put over every touch point of what we do.”
Quantum physicist and University of Sydney Associate Professor Michael Biercuk said he was “a little nervous that innovation policy will be made in a kind of band-wagoning fashion; that we just jump on the thing that's the most exciting, without stepping back and taking a view of what's really needed to have sustainable innovation.”
“That, to me, is long term investment in science and technology, medium term support for translational research, which is somewhere we can really make a big impact, by improving policy and then also shorter term investment,” he said.
The panellists also addressed a question on whether the $1.1 billion in public money over four years would be enough to help Australia make a dent in the global innovation space.
While appearing to acknowledge that a $250 million a year injection by itself would not help Australia keep pace with leading innovators – some private sector firms like Samsung spent many multiples more on R&D in a year - Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy said the Government wanted to use public money to stimulate market growth and private investment.
“Real success, for me, is when we generate greater private sector involvement in this space,” Roy said.
“I have no doubt, in decades to come, we can be a regional, if not global leader, in innovation. But we have to create something that is uniquely Australian.”
Having recently returned from a US study tour, Ransom believed it was important to establish regional Australian cities and towns as hubs of innovation, rather than concentrating investment in the major cities.
She said the United States has a “lot of cities that aren't your normal traditional excitement capitals of startups and innovation”.
“I think it’s really, really critical that we think about how do we move the focus [on innovation] just away from the capital cities,” Ransom said.
“Most of our benchmarking is based on Sydney. Two thirds of our entrepreneurial activity originates out of one city right now.
“It’s important we grow our other capital cities and we think about how we grow our regions as economic and entrepreneurial hubs too.”
Though the panellists did largely believe Australia was a late starter on the innovation investment front, they were optimistic that the current momentum could be converted into successful outcomes.
“There’s no doubt that we are trying to catch up from a place that we have been very far behind for decades,” Plunkett said.
“But I do think that what is changing for the positive is that we are having this conversation, and not just this one, but a conversation that started within the tech sector and within the research sector and within the science sector a couple of years ago.
“We have now the beginnings of an innovation strategy, which is the first part of an ongoing journey that we have to do.
“We have to learn how to invest and make bold bets on a future that is rapidly globalising and technology driven.”