Re-inventing ‘innovation’ in Australia Monday, 13 June 2016

News article written by Corbett Communications. The statements made or opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Engineers Australia.


'Innovation' as a term has become a buzzword for politicians in recent years, no less than by Australia’s latest Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In fact, some political commentators have said Turnbull has reinvented the use of the word itself, surrounding it with so much hype until it started to mean something almost entirely the opposite of its standard definition.

However, as no strangers to innovation, engineers play a critical role in its manifestation and in improving society, which in turn leads to economic benefit. Engineers as a combined force are in a position to drive innovation and as ITEE Chairperson Geoff Sizer puts it, "there is more to innovation than startups, web apps and white lab coats". Decisions made followed by actions taken are what underpin innovation and by nature and in practice, engineers are the right people for the job.

Six months ago Turnbull trotted out the Coalition government's National Innovation and Science Agenda that "will help to create a modern, dynamic, 21st century economy for Australia" with a promise of a $1.1 billion investment "to incentivise innovation and entrepreneurship; reward risk taking, and promote science, maths and computing in schools". However the Agenda, which the Turnbull said was, “part of the government’s commitment to establishing Australia as a leading innovation system" is already in mothballs with the government in caretaker mode ahead of the 2 July federal election which depending on its outcome could actually see it scrapped.

On the other side of the electoral fence, the ALP’s Bill Shorten, leader of the Opposition, talked about “powering innovation” in his response to the 2015 budget. He peppered his speech with “accelerating”, “reforming” and “improving” innovation while the Labor Party’s policies include words like “startups”, “transformative”, “nation building” and more, but we’re not sure who’s listening to any of this jargon any more.

In innovation terms, The Greens are promising to boost research funding for the long-term and restore funding to places like the CSIRO and the party has hopes to “increase Australia’s investment in research and innovation to 3% of the GDP”.

Since the Turnbull government’s Agenda was launched just seven months ago, further funding cuts have threatened the viability of the CSIRO, the organisation that brought the world wi-fi. Without including any of its other highly regarded achievements, the innovation of wi-fi has fundamentally changed the working and social lives of the population of this planet.

The original press release for the Agenda was populated with words like "startups", "research" and "collaboration", citing Australian businesses, universities and research organisations like the CSIRO as among the best in the world. But as innovation in Australia goes, the government’s claims don't hold water when the nation’s rankings in the OECD of 34 democracies and other lists are analysed.

The 2015 Global Innovation Index showed Australia ranked 17th overall, across a range of indicators, out of 141 countries, but specifically telling is the country's ranking on communications, computer and information services imports and exports sit at 78 and 79 respectively. For graduates in engineering and science, Australia is rated 77th and government spending on secondary education per pupil is 69th. For total computer software spending Australia is rated 46th while information and communication technology access is 20th. Information and communication technology use is 11th as is government effectiveness. Smaller and larger countries outstrip Australia in the Global Innovation Index and see us sitting way behind the UK and the US at 2nd and 5th places, respectively. In another ranking, the 2015-16 Global Competitiveness Report lists Australia as 21st, up one place after four consecutive years of deterioration.

Without the contribution of engineers, new ideas will not translate into tangible economic benefits to consumers and businesses, according to Engineers Australia's submission to the NSW Innovation Strategy. While acknowledging that scientists and other researchers are critical to discovering the bright ideas that underpin innovation, the submission stated that it is engineers who are essential in developing these new ideas into working prototypes.