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    Innovation is about taking risks and being agile

    Deborah Singerman

    I hope you are all having a restful break. 2016 promises to be busy with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urging us all to take risks and embrace failure as we strive to make this an innovation nation.

    As the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised (December 17), “Mr Turnbull says volatility and change are our friends if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of them”.

    “Ideas are the new black” noted the newspaper’s chief political correspondent, Mark Kenny, and “nothing was automatically ‘off the table’”.

    This is mostly due to the groundswell of optimism arising from the Prime Minister’s December 7 Innovation Statement announcing $1.1 billion for education and research, focusing on funding for collaborative work between science and industry, re-energising the CSIRO, and activating start-up pioneers and developers of new technologies.

    The building, construction, engineering, architecture and design professions generally welcomed the mood-changing list of four priority areas: culture and capital, collaboration, talent and skills, in particular the study of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, and government becoming an exemplary investment leader and using technology and data. Nothing here is completely new but a Federal Government imprimatur provides extra credence.  

    Engineers Australia CEO Stephen Durkin said it was a strong first step towards a high-tech, knowledge-based future, adding, “It is time for Australia to move from an economy based on mines, to one based on minds”. But, he warned, “To redefine Australia as a culture which values STEM and cultivates ideas from concept through to customer, will take a sustained effort across all areas of government and industry”.

    The Warren Centre's Executive Director Ashley Brinson pointed out that “without a clear, funded and secure strategy to accelerate business in Asia, along with the necessary IP management, Australia will fail to retain value from these investments ...  it’s like taking all of our bait and throwing it into the ocean without a hook and line to reel in the catch”.

    The Australian Institute of Architects National President Jon Clements hoped that research, “intrinsic” to the work of architects, might broaden from the mostly practice-based research focused on the requirements of individual building projects. “... commercialisation of research and greater collaboration between universities and industry should increase the level of research and development in the architectural space,” he said.

    With Australia’s collaboration on innovation between industry and the research/higher education sector consistently ranking last or second last among OECD countries for business-research collaboration, there is plenty of room for improvement.

    The industry is looking into building information management, smart, sustainable materials, robotics, augmented reality and 3D printing among other things. A team led by Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman is building on research by the SBEnrc (Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre) into what hinders the acceleration of building manufacture in Australia, namely: perceptions of performance and barriers to finance. It will compare as-constructed manufactured buildings in Australia to provide a third-party comparison to onsite methods, and will review financial barriers, how they are overcome and options for enabling faster construction and greater returns on investment.

    Thinking further afield, Richard Grainger, a management expert who has worked and lived in Asia, argues that we need to expand our approach to Asia “towards a mindset that acknowledges the value of reaching out to Asian ethnic communities and leverages their cultural and linguistic heritage, market knowledge, networks and business expertise, thereby maximising the commercial development and export potential of Australian innovation”.  

    Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, also praises the government’s choice of start-up heavy Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley as the two first “innovation pads” for Australian start-ups wanting insight into (and opportunities from) the local business communities, especially as in Tel Aviv’s case anyway, they offer the chance to “leverage opportunities in the growing economies of the Asia /Pacific region”.

    The potential is there. How far will industry and education grasp it within our transitioning economy?  

    Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community. @deborahsingerma

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