Funding changes and cluster building will shape Australia’s innovation future

Making the transition from a resources-based economy to a knowledge and ideas-focused economy requires changes in collaboration, better recognition of intellectual property and changes in culture that support cluster building, says The Warren Centre’s Executive Director Ashley Brinson.

The economic prosperity that accompanied Australia’s resources boom is cause for celebration, but significant changes are required in the way the public, business and universities view future opportunities to maximise productivity in the global knowledge economy.

Preparing Australia to meet the unique challenges of the new economy is imperative for continued prosperity. Adapting practices and adopting new approaches for the present labour force are only part of the solution: the more significant challenge is in education and preparing the future workforce for the future challenge.

As the resources boom slows and the ‘ideas boom’ commences, it is important that the tertiary sector responds to the government narrative around innovation, commercialisation and value capture with university-specific language around technology creation and leadership.

The industries that will lead to the greatest drivers of change include mobile internet, cloud technology, processing power, new energy supplies, internet of things, sharing economy, artificial intelligence and robotics. Australia plays a significant role in each of these emerging technologies.

Tertiary education is a huge industry, but it’s isolated

Tertiary education is Australia’s largest service export and fourth largest export overall. The economic footprint is valued at $17 billion per year with roughly 600,000 full fee-paying international students. Australia’s value capture as an educational provider is already a vital contribution to our national economy.

However, it will be necessary both to translate the research and productivity benefits realised through student populations and to ensure that educational programs are constantly updated to match future needs, if we are to continue to hold and to extend our comparative advantages.

Despite noted success stories, we recognise serious and previously well-articulated limitations in university-industry partnerships which hinder the ability of universities to innovate. There is a broad cultural disconnection between the current government narrative and academia’s understanding of their role in national innovation. Recognising the intrinsic long-term productivity potential of early-stage research as well as the importance of enterprise linkages with maturing technology creation is imperative.

Common understanding of global value chains is needed to build industry for the future. Awareness and adaptation for the global market of 7 billion consumers is needed, not just 25 million domestic users of high technology products and services. Also in our experience, mismatched expectations related to development of intellectual property is a constant source of frustration for business and academia. Sophistication in Australian IP collaboration is poor.

Clusters build bridges

The benefits of clusters and precincts as places of knowledge agglomeration and spillover are well understood. Universities should be at the centre of these types of clusters because of their ability to incubate new technologies and to develop fundamental understanding and knowledge. Students exposed to this university/industry nexus will emerge from their degrees better acquainted with the role of technology in all areas of life and better prepared to apply their education in creative ways.

University and industry cultures are distinctly different, and barriers can inhibit collaboration. The ‘soft side’ of research collaboration relationships is frequently overlooked, and failure can result from non-technical causes. Clusters, precincts, incubators and accelerators build cultural linkages and soft bridges that can increase success.

Greater collaboration is needed between industry and universities. Funding incentives could be used to drive changes in behaviour that yield greater collaboration between industry and universities. The correct balance of ‘blue sky’ science versus applied technology and programs that enhance university-industry collaboration could build economic outcomes.

Innovation precincts, clusters, incubators and accelerators enhance interaction of personnel, know-how transfer and skills development among universities, research units and commercial entities. Proximity facilitates interaction, and interaction can build the understanding, cultural awareness and collaborative relationships that yield technical success and positive economic outcomes.

This is an edited summary of The Warren Centre’s “Inquiry into innovation and creativity: Workforce for the new economy” submission to House of Representatives Education, Employment and Training Committee, January 2017. Download the full report (PDF).

Image: Professor Salah Sukkarieh of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics with a model Qantas Airbus A380. The ACFR has a strong record for collaboration with companies like Rio Tinto and Qantas. More industry-university partnerships are needed to deliver commercialisations outputs for the knowledge economy.