Blog - So what's with this so-called Ideas Boom?

Blog - So what's with this so-called Ideas Boom?

We’re all waiting and asking: What has happened to the ‘ideas boom’ as announced by the Turnbull Government with the National Innovation and Science Agenda in December 2015. Two years on, and we’re still waiting for something to… explode.

In a recent Fairfax article, ‘We need to significantly lift our game’: Australia is not the innovation nation we think it is, journalist Catherine Armitage questions the inaugural chair of Innovation and Science Australia (ISA), Bill Ferris, about the state of innovation in this country.

Ferris says, our innovation story is yet to be properly told, as exemplified by the numbers in a 200-page report delivered by ISA stating only nine percent of Australian firms introduce products that are truly new to market, among a number of other alarming statistics.

For those of us working at the coalface of Australian innovation and manufacturing, ISA’s findings are all-too strikingly apparent. We have the ideas, we want to put them into action but we are stuck.

As Armitage’s article surmises, the so-called 'ideas boom' is just empty rhetoric. There was never any way of determining what it meant or how to make it a commercial reality. But that’s not to say we don’t have the potential to slingshot forward, and having Bill Ferris as chair of Innovation and Science Australia is definitely an excellent resource to help us do that.

In my view, the key point in Armitage’s article hinges on jobs. In general, we have a tendency to laziness in Australia, which means opting for the easy way out. This results in a false-economy approach of clinging to the past and expecting Government to bolster dying models beyond their used-by date in the name of ‘job security’, even if they’re going to die out soon anyway.

Ferris makes the following key observation: "Yes, there are some jobs to be at risk, but also a whole pile of jobs to be created. One thing is certain, if we don't embrace and be in front of the bus of new technologies, there will be less jobs than there would be otherwise."

In manufacturing, the future lies in smart operations, clever ideas, high variety and low volume. The fully resolved products that are in full production, and in high volume, are already heading offshore. And there is nothing we can do about that fact, except to compete on a lower cost basis through automation.

Basically, in terms of the workplace in general, we all need to accept that automation is a fait accompli. If we don't do it, we are doomed anyway so we need to remove the hysteria around automation ‘robbing us of jobs’ and look at re-skilling, up-skilling and re-directing resources. This should be a key focus for Government, and this is my bugbear with the withdrawal of the Industry Skills Fund.

Additionally, strategic advice should be a focus for Government too. The funding of CAPEX to stimulate jobs is not the answer, as this will come by natural attrition if the business strategy is right and commercialisation is executed correctly.

In Armitage’s article, she states that we have the fourth highest proportion of innovative small and medium enterprises among the advanced nations but Ferris believes: “The vast majority of innovation introduced by Australian businesses has a low degree of novelty". In other words, we are "failing to capitalise on above average performance in knowledge creation.”

This is where I think Bill Ferris is looking at it the wrong way.

In my view, the Government needs to focus on supporting businesses with the commercialisation of new product ideas and product enhancements – and, that means, not just the ground-breaking ones.

There are three ‘Horizons’ of design and innovation: Horizon 1 is re-works and refinement (one-month to 12-month view), Horizon 2 is product enhancements and re-engineering (12-month to three-year view) and Horizon 3 is breakthrough design (three-year to five-year view).

Horizon 3 very quickly slots into Horizon 1. In other words, low novelty ideas are just as important for commercialisation as novelty ones, as these often lead to unexpected breakthroughs. We cannot overlook what is deemed low novelty, otherwise, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. Innovation – and commercialisation of that innovation – comes in weird and wonderful ways.

I think we [Integra Systems and Integra TransForm] would be considered one of the innovative SMEs in the ‘innovative’ category discussed by Ferris. However, being a leader and innovator is very expensive – the rewards are long-term, and require patience, so not everyone is prepared to take on this risk. Even then, we are not what you would call ‘ground breaking inventors’ i.e. coming up with inventions that change the world. So I'm not sure where Bill Ferris is hoping to position Australia in his aforementioned statement to Fairfax.

We are transformative innovators that break ground in new and different ways, bringing our client's ideas to life quickly or making their products different or better, and this is ground-breaking for them in their markets. And we are ground-breaking in that we execute the manufacturing in ways that no one else in our market can or are willing to do. Our BioSmart desk converter could be considered ground-breaking and a game changer, but commercialising it is proving to be more difficult than expected.

Innovation comes in many varied forms but it’s not a boom in Australia in the way it was pitched by the Turnbull Government in December 2015, and it never will be if we don’t sense the urgency and rise to the occasion.

Paul Hughes is the Managing Director of Integra Systems, an award-winning industrial design and manufacturing company based in Australia – www.integrasystems.com.au

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Published in Blog
K2_WRITTEN_ON February 15 2017
Written by Erika Hughes