The Warren Centre took some time this week to interview University of Sydney’s Professor, Ron Johnston as he prepares to wrap up his 26-year career as the Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Innovation. What a wonderfully charismatic and interesting man he is.
Who is Professor Ron Johnston? If you were to sum up your essence on an elevator ride, what would you say?
Well, I’m a country boy from Wagga Wagga, and I bring my country values with me everywhere I go. I was educated as a scientist and whilst I’m very passionate about science I could see from an early age that the world was being thrown upside down by the introduction and evolution of technology. So, I invented a career of analysing and interpreting science, innovation and technology to help make the world a better place.
Tell me a little about your time as the Executive Director of Australian Centre for Innovation? How long have you been leading the organisation, and how has that impacted you over those years?
I established ACIIC in 1992, so it’s been 26 years now since we opened. You might think I’m crazy for staying in a single job for 26 years, but I really had to work hard to reinvent the organisation every three years or so. What was working in 1992 is not reflective of the same challenges of today, and so we worked hard to maintain relevance in the industry. We had to be dynamic.
I loved that ACIIC had all of the benefits of being within a major university but also had the benefits of running as an independent company. The organisation focused on delivering consulting, education, information and understanding to people on the way in which technology impacted them.
You’ve been so highly regarding by those around you for decades, considered a thought leader and impactor of social change in Australia. Tell me about your most humbling project?
The most humbling time in my career, without a shadow of a doubt, was being able to engage closely with brilliant young minds and young people. Pushing them to see what was possible. Watching them take off and do just extraordinary things. A lot of people refer to me as a ‘people grower’, and I’m happy with that.
You and ACIIC recently granted The Warren Centre $700,000 to continue your legacy and support Humanitarian Innovation in Australia. Can you tell me what we can expect to see from that in the coming year?
The Warren Centre came up with a very exciting proposal. The key characteristics and criteria for the awards program were that it had to be national, it should be focused on young people, it should engage them in thinking about humanitarian innovation, and it should visibly seek to present examples strongly into the public understanding of how people are thinking about addressing humanitarian challenges through innovation. The Warren Centre’s proposal did just that by carrying on the message of how understanding technology and innovation, in a broad social and economic context, can enable you to make choices which have the ability to make the world a better place.
They have also aligned with an organisation called RedR which is a practical Australian organisation providing engineering and other professional support in dealing with disasters and major humanitarian issues in our region.
The program will firstly see a national event where students will be asked to submit video pitches of practical ideas they’ve had to address any humanitarian global issue. Winners will then be invited to participate in a two-day hackathon event, to which the aim is to generate substantial ideas about a particular global humanitarian issue. We’re very excited to see this program come to life.
Why the focus on HUMANITARIAN innovation instead of just a celebration of clever entrepreneurs building a new company and selling a new widget? Why go humanitarian?
For me, innovation always has been about making the world a better place. Fundamentally. What really gets these students going is the motivation that they might in fact someday change the world. They are so enthusiastic to put their skills to work. Humanitarian innovation is a focus on innovation that allows us to make the world a better place.
Why are we talking about your legacy? Are you preparing for retirement?
I hate that word “retirement”. Let’s just say it’s time to move on. The Australian Centre of Innovation has been running since 1992, and it’s served its purpose. We think we have achieved a great deal, and we are happy to celebrate it. We may have been boutique, but we’ve worked in over 33 countries all over the world on matters of science and technology innovation. Progressively, and most particularly in Australia, we’ve seen that this consultancy market has suffered from the concentration factor, so it’s now down to the ‘Big Four’ who vacuum up almost all of this work. So, it was definitely time to wrap it up.
In your time engaging with your students on Engineers Without Borders design challenges, what were the problems, the solutions and the student-innovators who surprised you and left an indelible impression on you as their professor?
Engineers Without Borders is an advanced engineering program, and I was given responsibility within the Faculty for developing the professional programs for the most talented students. I put all of my experience to work and developed programs that would be appropriate to them – they’re not very academic at all, given that I’m not an academic. Engineers Without Borders became a delightful vehicle for our first-year program, and we worked with some significantly talented students. Not just bright students, but students who were deeply committed to using their knowledge for wonderful things. My job was to set the bar just beyond what they thought they could achieve, and then to continue to raise it throughout our time together. Then to provide them mentoring and support resources.
It has been said that the Commonwealth Liberal Government has given up on innovation, and the Australian Financial Review has even described the whole innovation topic as ‘politically toxic’. What is the role of a private not-for-profit organisation like The Australian Centre for Innovation or The Warren Centre to promote innovation? How does a small not-for-profit make a difference if innovation is in the ‘too hard’ bucket for governments?
I know now, at this point of my career, that we just cannot rely on government to push an innovation and technology agenda. It’s businesses, education bodies, non-profits alike that will be at the forefront of technology and innovation in this country. I don’t believe that we’ll be terribly affected by that. Innovation is a paradoxical issue. So, you’ve had this innovation today, but will it be an innovation tomorrow? Well, no it won’t because once it’s established, it’s no longer innovative. Governments don’t understand how to deal with this idea.
It is because of people like Ron Johnston that The Warren Centre is able to to make such an impact. We hope you are as humbled as we are to hear about this wonderful career and life. We are honoured to carry on the prestige and legacy of Professor Ron Johnston, starting with our Humanitarian Innovation Program; learn more by clicking below:
This story is featured in the 15 February 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.