One of the most talked about topics right now is innovation. Hardly a day goes by without some prominent publication featuring comments from consultants, academics, and now politicians about how the key to breakaway success is to out-innovate the competition.
"The government that I lead is committed to building a culture of innovation at every level of our economy and society, whether in terms of our industries, small business, educational institutions, or the public service. Innovation is central to Australia's future economic performance," commented Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his introduction to the official publication of the 2008 Australian Innovation Festival.
In the same publication Senator Kim Carr, Minister in charge of the new Department of Innovation, Industry, Science, and Research, wrote: "We have created a new Department of Innovation, Industry, Science, and Research to ensure that policy in these areas is tightly integrated. In a world where the survival of every business depends on its capacity to innovate, industry policy and innovation policy are one in the same thing."
Innovation has become a new business obsession. But really what is innovation? And what does it mean for Australia? An important issue for the Australian IT industry is the need in policy-making for someone to provide expert analysis and broad-based education on technology issues, and the need to launch a policy think tank focused exclusively on innovation, productivity, and digital economy issues.
One might ask why is there such a need for a technology policy think tank, especially in Canberra -- much less another one! Indeed, there is now a common view in the Australian technology community that Canberra (and for that matter, state governments as well) doesn't get technology and that the best thing government can do is leave technology alone.
In a host of areas, though, government can and should be a key partner with industry to help advance innovation. Indeed, there are a number of areas in which public policy can boost IT innovation, from trade policies to funding for start-ups and research, and smart policies to promote the wider use of IT. Just look at the host of other countries that have leapfrogged Australia in the race to develop an appropriate technology environment, whether in supporting R&D or boosting education and skills.
We need high-tech leaders who are willing to help establish a forward-looking technology policy agenda and not just suddenly drop programs without warning, such as the Commercial Ready program without announcing an alternative. Many small businesses, as well as companies controlled by universities and research organisations, have now been left in the lurch over that sudden action.
The effects of globalisation are now clearly evident as more and more R&D money moves to countries like India and China. And locally the aging demographic is creating change in areas of retiring executives, scientists, and engineers, as well as our country's ability to backfill these positions with competent new hires. For the Australian technology industry to maintain a stronger global position, the government needs to create a series of policy decisions quickly to organise the playing field -- and this must be done this season not next.
Without the government's blessing, emerging industries can only aspire to a small percentage of their true potential. We must not, though, confuse innovation with invention. Australia's wellbeing also depends on the deployment of technology across all our industry sectors, including the Australian government.
Len Rust is publisher of The Rust Report