Article on Innovation by Ian Chubb and Jennifer Westacott in the AFR

This opinion article by the Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb and Business Council of Australia Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Australian Financial Review on 26 August 2013 under the title ‘National Drive for More Innovation’.

Politicians are forever reminding us our economy is in transition. The trouble is, they never describe what that really means, or give us a vision of what Australia could transition itself into if we start to make more far-sighted choices.

This country can be the knowledge economy of the Asian growth centre.

But there’s no magic pudding to transform us into what we could be. We’re talking about a 50-year agenda founded on Australia’s capacity to innovate, adapt and value-add in traditional sectors, and it starts with a change of mindset.

Increasingly, it will be people, ideas and innovation that underpin a successful Australian economy. So, in preparing for the future, the most important thing we can do is to put in place the systems and structures that encourage every individual to realise their potential. This means equipping all Australians with the right skills and education, and maximising their capacity to participate and thrive in a modern workforce and workplace.

Maintaining our quality of life long term requires Australia to be particularly good at what we do to compete. We need to align our effort with some of the challenges we face and focus on areas of comparative advantage; in particular, our people and their capacity to innovate.

This starts by ensuring school students have the world’s best literacy and numeracy skills. It also means starting to equip students early in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as so called “soft skills” like adaptability, design thinking and problem solving. We believe state governments should be required to provide primary-level specialist teachers, particularly in science and mathematics.

And we need to support teachers better so they can inspire the coming generations of innovators with contemporary skills that relate to the world around them. Throughout a person’s life, we need to continue to invest in their education and equip them with technical skills in STEM and ensure managers have the skills to drive innovation across work teams and organisations.

Australia has recognised this imperative for some time but now it’s time for action. The type of action outlined by Australia’s chief scientist and the Business Council of Australia; working on separate projects but coming to many of the same conclusions.

Recently released position papers by the chief scientist, Top Breakthrough Actions for Innovation and the need for a National Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Strategy, and the BCA’s Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity all outline a way forward that’s consistent with what many nations are already doing.

The position paper outlines the need for long-term support to deliver a whole-of-government approach to STEM policies, the prioritising of our public investment and an incentive structure that encourages growth in business investment.

The BCA action plan provides a blueprint to navigate economic transition to a destination of enduring national prosperity. Among its recommendations on creating the right environment and systems for innovation, the BCA’s action plan supports the position paper as a way of ensuring that creative people and businesses in Australia are allowed to thrive and create value from new ways of doing things.

We need to confirm where Australia has comparative advantages and identify where else we might have them.
The establishment of a National Innovation Council to replace all existing bodies will help us make those assessments, as well as identify what our national priorities are. It would review existing innovation policies and develop new ones where appropriate.

For its part, the BCA is undertaking work to identify the drivers of competitiveness for all sectors of the economy, including the capacity of businesses to be more responsive to customer demands and provide greater value-add.

Together, we need to work harder to encourage potential partnerships between researchers and industry. It will be collaboration that allows us to create the systems and the environment that foster and drive innovation, and help us to diversify our economy and play to our strengths. Innovation can only flourish when people and organisations have the requisite skills and abilities, and when they operate in an environment that provides them with the scope and incentive to collaborate and innovate.