Alan Finkel: innovation isn't magic — investment and planning are key

By David Donaldson

August 25, 2016

Innovation doesn’t happen simply through force of will, argues Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, but through investment and planning.

Speaking at the National Innovation Summit last week, the former entrepreneur cited the success of the Icelandic football team as an example of this ethos.

The Icelandic team, despite hailing from a tiny island with only 300,000 people, recently managed to knock mighty England out of the Euro 2016. But this wasn’t just a fluke — “Iceland’s success in soccer has been both significant, and sustained. Over the past three years, Iceland has climbed 109 spots in the FIFA rankings,” Finkel explained.

Iceland’s success can be boiled down to four key factors, he thinks: they built indoor pitches (essential to get people to train during the frozen winter months), trained trainers, built popular support and worked as a team.

So what are the lessons for Australia to foster a more innovative economy? Create the infrastructure, invest in education, build the culture and play to a strategy.

We shouldn’t talk ourselves out of believing we can see Silicon Valley-style growth in Australia, he thinks — Australia just needs to ensure it’s putting in the groundwork in the way Iceland did with its football team.

Even Californians complain about the constraints on innovation they endure, Finkel pointed out. Rent is too high, stocks are over-valued, there’s a demagogue in the wings:

“We might scoff, and tell them to keep their problems in perspective.

“As of last week, the five largest companies by market capitalisation on the S&P 500 were all tech firms: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. And all of those companies except Facebook spend more on R&D than the Government of Australia spends across the entire science and innovation portfolio.

“Let me repeat that: individual companies outspend our national government.

“What possible reason have Californians got to complain?

“But ladies and gentlemen — wouldn’t they look at our universities, our banks, our stable regulatory systems, our cultural diversity, our proximity to Asia, and our world-beating quality of life… and wonder why we can’t make a go of it here at home?

“Which is exactly what Vice President Joe Biden did last month, when he challenged Australia to be “the innovation hub of the Southern Hemisphere”.

“So no excuses for low expectations!

“We need to cease our self-criticism because it only destroys our ability to build constructively on what we have. And we do need to build on that foundation: constructively, creatively and continuously.”

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