What is Australia’s unique culture of innovation?

Recently, the Australian Assistant Minister for Innovation, Wyatt Roy,  received some airtime (and with that scrutiny) on the Australian Government’s Innovation Agenda. The major points of contention lobbed at the minister were the inadequacy of the funding ($1.1BN over 4 years) compared to private sector investment and that the funding has been tied to university grants rather than private institutions – start ups and incubators. Both criticisms have led to the comment that the government is investing in ‘slow lane innovation’.

Outside of the criticism, in both forums – ABC’s Q&A and at an event put on by the Australian Start up/Investor community organiser Innvation Bay – the minister talked about Australia creating a unique culture of innovation:

“We can’t just perfectly replicate what’s happening in Israel or Singapore we have to create a uniquely Australian innovation ecosystem…” 

This culture, according to the minister, could be based on the ‘bright talented people’ Australia produces (of which 20,000 are currently working in Silicon Valley), the lifestyle (e.g. beach, outdoors) we offer and Australia’s proximity to 1BN new consumers in the Asian middle class. Here, each of these aspects will no doubt play a role in the culture Australia creates around innovation. However, hearing the minister speak I was left wondering – what is truly unique about Australia’s innovation culture – the way Australian’s innovate?  

Exactly replicating other innovation eco-systems is difficult, however it is worth pausing to reflect on what fosters the culture of innovation in a place like Israel – There are a few major drivers. Firstly, Israel has a small population (7 million) and few natural resources which necessitates an emphasis on the country’s ‘human capital’. Israel has an ‘innovate to grow’ mentality with investment  supporting education in technology innovation in particular, as opposed to relying on economic growth from agriculture, mining and manufacturing. Secondly, the geo-political situation in the Middle East inspires an ‘innovate or perish’ culture in the population. Being at conflict with neighboring states drives the need to ‘anticipate, defend and out-think’ in high pressure. Life or death situations have often been shown to be the most effective environments for innovation. Thirdly, being at conflict means that Israel enforces 18-30 months of national service (something in common with Singapore) for citizens aged 18+. The shared experience of national service and exposure to cutting edge technology, forms lasting bonds, communities and collaboration in a slice of the population most likely to innovate.  This is the culture that with support from the government, private investment and collaboration with the global Jewish diaspora that has developed innovations like flash drives, cardiac stents, instant messaging and shopping.com.

A good starting point for a discussion on what could be Australia’s unique culture of innovation is a definition. Innovating according to innovation think-tank Doblin is defined in this way:

“Innovating requires identifying the complicated problems that matter and working through them to deliver elegant solutions” 

Breaking this definition down surfaces some elements that could be considered uniquely Australian.

“Identifying the complicated problems that matter…”

This part of innovating is about identifying the needs of humans (met and unmet) – the problems that currently have no solutions. Australians have a relatively wide-problem set to choose from. The traditional industries of energy and resources, agriculture, tourism and education all have complex problems that need solving be that developing renewable energy sources, sustainable mining techniques, preservation of environment or new forms of tourism. Australians are well-placed given the current expertise in these areas. Beyond the problem set, a unique culture of innovation requires Australian’s to have a unique way of identifying the ‘complicated problems that matter’. Here our best cultural asset is diversity.

Australia is a country where First Nation cultures and the cultures of immigrants (over the last 200 years) meet. The lifestyle and environment of the country also play an important part in continuing to attract immigrants from around the world. Deliberately investing in and encouraging continued diversity (e.g. through First Nation support, better ‘innovation immigration’ policies, education support, collaboration in the APAC region) and therefore the ‘diversity of thought’ which is crucial to breakthrough innovations may well form the backbone of our unique innovation culture.

To compliment diversity, a culture of openness (something that is counter-cultural in Australia’s history) needs to be encouraged. Where Israel draws upon its connections globally through religious affinity, Australia’s culture of innovation could uniquely draw upon the connections of our immigrants. Case in point, if you believe the rhetoric that Australia is well positioned to be an ‘innovation powerhouse’ for Asia, then fundamental to this is understanding the complicated problems that matter for people in Asian countries. This requires focused investment in onshore and offshore ‘innovation capabilities’ (e.g. universities, incubators, collaborations) that put diversity at the centre of the way problems are identified.

“…working through them…”

Australian’s have a rich history of doing more with less, exploring and pioneering – culturally, this is how Australian’s work through and solve the problems that matter. For example, Australia’s First Nation ancestors have used innovative techniques for to hunt, cook and survive for thousands of years – they are an exemplar of frugal or ‘Jugaad Innovation‘. Equally, the early colonialists (many who were British convicts) had to innovate to come to terms with life on a land completely different to that in their homeland. This included pioneering new farming techniques, investing in Spanish Merino sheep to meet the demand for wool, or creating low-tech ‘hacks’ like the Coolgardie safe (the prototype of the refrigerator) to cope with the conditions. Australia’s modern day innovators also show these traits –  people like Barry Marshall  – who proved a causal link between bacteria and peptic ulcers by digesting the H. pylori bacteria, monitoring his symptoms and performing endoscopy’s to understand the culture in his stomach. There is something unique in this cultural combination of frugal pioneering that mixed with diversity could lead to very practical solutions to the world’s most complex problems.

“…to deliver elegant solutions.”

Possibly the hardest part of innovation for Australians culturally is ‘the elegant solution’. Australia has a firm love of the ‘underdog’ and a dislike of ‘tall-poppies’. Elegant solutions are not ‘underdog’ solutions (e.g. ‘me too’ solutions) but if they are too good they could be considered ‘tall poppies’. Australia’s unique culture of innovation needs to overcome these social mores. Part of this is about more readily embracing failure but for the main it is about not being satisfied with copying other’s innovations (e.g. another Uber or Airbnb) and celebrating the truly original innovations in a way that Australian’s have not previously (e.g. perhaps innovation awards or grants for the most ‘elegant’, ‘breakthrough’ or ‘original’ solutions).

The above gives some pointers to where our unique culture of innovation may come from. Yet, culture is a very difficult thing to define and even harder to shape. What is clear from the current discourse on Australian Innovation is that Australia has clean slate on innovation culture – if nothing else this is exciting! This means there is an opportunity to create a culture around innovation that is Australia’s own. This may take 5 years or maybe 20, whatever the time scale success will sound like – “that could only be an Australian innovation“.


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