Michael Powell

Australia urgently needs to get back on the innovation journey, develop a vision of what it wants to be in 20,30 or 50 years and develop the strategies and big ideas needed to get there. Innovation in Australia is not just another book or report on innovation. It is not an academic treatise. It’s a well-written and strongly argues call for action to protect Australia’s future which will be built not on luck but on innovation. It’s a call to business leaders, politicians and policy advisors, educators, and really to all Australians who want to secure a prosperous future for their children and grandchildren.

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Innovation in Australia by Ben Kehoe (2019) is a must read for anyone interested in, or concerned about, Australia’s future in a volatile and uncertain world. Written by experienced business consultant, management coach and innovation blogger, Ben Kehoe, this is a short, readable, short, and provocative book on what’s happened to innovation in Australia. It holds that innovation is not merely an option but a necessity. It cannot and should not remain a slogan. Australia can’t let that happen or else our future will be much less than our past.

Kehoe poses a challenge to all Australians. Are we happy to drift along to mediocrity, resigned to being a “branch office economy,” self-satisfied because we are in the “Lucky Country”, and consumed with our search for leisure and a nice life style? Or are we willing to take on the challenge of innovating our way to an exciting and fulfilling future in which Australia is known as the “smart” country not just the lucky country dependent on our wonderful natural resources? These are the big questions that Kehoe raises for us all.

Commencing with a brief but informative and comprehensive review of the history of innovation in Australia, Kehoe observes that while we haven’t been short of innovative ideas and new technologies, we have frequently failed to make the most of them. There’s been lots of talk about innovation, multiple reports written and filed away, much lip service paid to it. However, innovative Australian companies with new technologies have been generally sold off to foreign buyers thereby losing the innovative competitive edge, and we’ve been short on action, reluctant to follow up on the reports and their recommendations. In general, we have failed to leverage or build on new ideas and inventions. Indeed, while there have been a plethora of reports and studies we are still muddling along without a vision of a desired future, without direction other more of the same, and without any apparent sense of urgency.

Innovation in Australia has foundered on highly partisan politics, a narrow business focus on the bottom line and short term gains, and a culture that worships the long weekend and that is defined by surf, sand and sun. According to Kehoe, this all needs to change if Australia is to continue to prosper. Australia cannot assume that a housing bubble inside a mining and resources bubble will continue forever, or even for the next few decades. Where is the long-term vision? What sort of Australia do we want to see? How long can we profit from digging up minerals for others to exploit, or growing food and fibre for giant international agribusinesses to add value elsewhere? Where will we be when demand for coal and iron ore tapers off, as it inevitably will, and commodity prices fall?

Kehoe asks where are the big ideas for Australia’s future, the paradigm changing initiatives, such as we see in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative? The NBN was supposed to be one of these initiatives but has been beset by cost blow outs, political squabbling and delivery problems. Others have been floated, such as the Northern Australia possibility, but they have fallen on deaf ears, or remain grand ideas with no foreseeable adoption or implementation strategies. While despairing about the lack of a national commitment to a visionary innovation agenda, Kehoe does not throw in the towel. His provocative missive is not just a critique but both a plea for action and an outline of how we may take the first steps on a national innovation journey.

He calls for “moon shots,” a series of inspirational goals for Australia, which have the potential to energise and capture the imagination of Australians. These could include investing in biotechnology development that leads the world, building a global food and fibre industry that encapsulates the strength of Australian agriculture, a national water plan that creates water resilience for all of Australia, a renewable energy hub world, and, yes, an Australian space program that puts an Australian on the moon!

Kehoe also proposes a national Prosperity (Royal) Commission to focus Australia’s attention on the large-scale initiatives we need, and to drive a long-term prosperity development agenda. It should be followed by a permanent, independent Prosperity Commission which would meet every three years to review progress on our innovation agenda and look to finetune ongoing initiatives and propose new ones. He also suggests regular industry forums in key areas of development to push forward industry -specific initiatives and to garner necessary bi-partisan agreement on major infrastructure projects rather than partisan, negative sniping that currently characterises debate around most new initiatives.

This book is a powerful and persuasive call to action on innovation for the sake of Australia’s future, not just to governments, both federal and state, but also to business. After all, it is business that creates jobs and ultimately builds prosperity. Kehoe argues strongly Australian business must be at the forefront of the innovation journey, driving positive wealth creation. But it doesn’t stop with government and business leaders. We all have our part to play if Australia is not to become the “lifestyle trash” of Asia as Paul Keating once put it. This is a book I recommend to all. To our political and business leaders, to our educators, and to all concerned about the long-term future of Australia.

Michael Powell
Michael Powell, Professor Emeritus Academic Director; Industry Partnerships; Griffith University

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