How Australia’s innovation system actively deters innovation

My career has been spent at the interface between industry and academia, developing and commercialising technology, creating new innovations that drive economic growth and social progress. Sometimes those endeavours have succeeded, sometimes not.

The experiences, however, have taught me that Australia has the ingredients and capacity to create a world leading innovation ecosystem that would drive our economy for decades, possibly generations – but we must address fundamental obstacles to enable that outcome.

Australia’s current innovation system actively discourages and disincentivises true innovation:

  • The vast majority of Commonwealth spend on (so-called) “innovation” is actually spent supporting invention and a relatively lesser portion supports true innovation.
  • Invention is the realm of research and discovery, basic science and the development of new ideas and knowledge. Innovation on the other hand is the new and successful application of those ideas to address issues. The distinction between invention and innovation is important because the blurred lines in popular/vernacular usage creates structural flaws in our innovation systems.
  • Australia’s academics are a significant intellectual resource. As a national priority we need them to actively drive, facilitate or contribute to true innovation at all levels of society. Australia’s innovation systems however, squander this resource.  Through incentives policies we explicitly encourage and manage our academics to deprioritise commercialisation of their work and to pursue instead a model governed almost exclusively by publication and citation.
  • Australian industry has a very poor record of collaboration (with suppliers, customers and especially with academia) and, as a broad generalisation, consequently fails to recognise, develop or implement many progressive innovations that could otherwise result.
  • Significant and frequent changes to government-driven innovation support systems available to industry greatly complicate the landscape for companies, particularly SMEs, and make it hard for them to embrace that support.
  • Widespread technology literacy greatly enhances efforts to encourage innovation.  We don’t have this literacy in Australia – the issue arises in our primary schools and is entrenched through the secondary system. Unfortunately our schooling systems operate without a nationally coordinated strategy for the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  A knock-on effect is a lack of school leavers emerging from that system with a passion for technology, which in turn for instance leaves Australia near the bottom of the OECD rankings for the number of engineers per head of population – a metric that correlates strongly with economic growth.

These issues are not unrelated. They are heavily interconnected and in many cases represent direct cause and effect.  The measures to address these issues are equally interconnected.

Australians have a long a successful record of inventing.  Despite significant ingenuity and capacity for innovation, we have by contrast a poor record of implementing and delivering sustained innovation.

Historically there are many fine examples of excellent Australian innovations, however they stand alone as isolated examples. Typically our national system and institutions strongly support and encourage invention, and we hope (and sometimes I think we merely pray) that innovations will magically arise from that.  Sometimes they do.

But we are yet to successfully systematise or institutionalise the transition from invention to innovation, rather we seem to rely on a presumed good fortune here in The Lucky Country to carry the day.

Innovation is not invention, and it doesn’t happen by accident.

Dr Nick Cerneaz is General Manager at pathology start-up MyHealthTest, and was previously Executive Director at The Warren Centre. Dr Cerneaz has a D.Phil from the University of Oxford and bachelor degrees in Engineering and Science, and over 25 years of experience in the technology business in Australia and the UK.

Read Dr Nick Cerneaz’s full submission to the Australian Senate Innovation System Inquiry

Find out more about The Warren Centre’s work in STEM education and advocacy