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Australia’s ambition is catching up with its ability

He has just been anointed as one of the nation’s key digital enablers in the Innovation 100 list. In this post for GEreports, Geoff Culbert, President and CEO of GE Australia, New Zealand and PNG, describes his optimism that the Antipodean attitude toward an ideas-based economy is turning around. Now it’s time for everyone to step up, collaborate and innovate.

I came back to Australia in the middle of last year after seven years working abroad. I was delighted to be back, but I was concerned by what I saw. Over those seven years away I spent a lot of time working in emerging countries—Angola, Nigeria and Algeria—and also in China, India and Brazil.

Soon after I returned I was asked what was different about Australia compared to these places. It was very clear to me. In many of the places I had visited, the ambition of the country outstripped its ability. People were hungry for success and desperate to get ahead, but they didn’t have the talent to match. In Australia, I saw the opposite. I saw a country that was hugely talented, but its ability outstripped its ambition. It was June of 2014 and we were still hanging onto the belief that the mining boom would never end, and the gift of resources would underwrite our economy forever.

We were complacent.

In a world of 7 billion people, a country of 24 million people can’t afford to be complacent. We have to think smarter and run faster than the rest of the world. To stay ahead we need to think exponentially, not incrementally. Australia’s competitiveness in an increasingly competitive world is the single biggest challenge we face for the next generation and the rest of the world has been catching up. Fast. Faster than we knew.

Innovation is easy to say but hard to do.

At the end of 2015, I feel significantly more optimistic than I did 18 months ago. As commodity prices started falling at the end of last year, the conversation about broadening the economy started to emerge. As we entered 2015 the conversation about innovation started to get some oxygen. With the Federal Government’s Innovation Statement last week what started as a trickle has become a flood. The optimism is palpable and the enthusiasm is infectious.

Of course, it’s way too early to declare victory and the hard work is yet to come. Innovation is easy to say but hard to do. Commercialising ideas is harder still. I have been saying for the past 18 months that everyone has a role to play in this effort. Government, universities, research organisations, big companies, small companies, me and you. It has to be from the classroom to the boardroom. The Government’s Innovation Statement is a great start. They have hit all the right issues and there is something in there to motivate everyone.

At GE we will play our role. We will focus our investment on industries that are most critical to our economy and where we have natural depth and capability: oil, gas, mining, healthcare, aviation. The application of technology and software to these industries is critical to help keep our established national champions globally competitive, and create fertile ground for new companies to emerge and grow. Given the contribution these industries make to our GDP, even small breakthroughs in productivity and efficiency will contribute significant wealth to the Australian economy. We will keep investing in Australia because the demand is huge, the potential is enormous and the environment is right.

Australia’s ambition is catching up with its ability, and that’s exciting.

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