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Snakes & Ladders: A chief scientist’s take on Australian innovation

Queensland chief scientist, Geoff Garrett, was a key speaker at the launch of last month’s GE-CSIRO Digital Industrial Series of conferences. A former chief executive of CSIRO, Garrett is renowned for forthright, well-informed, engagingly expressed views. In 2010, he and Sir Graeme Davies, recently retired chancellor of London University, co-authored Herding Cats—Being advice to aspiring academic and research leaders (Triarchy Press, UK). This is an edited transcript of Garrett’s address—on driving innovation in the digital economy—to delegates at the first day in the GE-CSIRO conference series, in Brisbane.

So we’re talking about disruption. We’re talking about revolution. We’ve heard the word change. And lots of talk about ‘innovation’…

Maybe at home with your kids you play the ‘Snakes & Ladders’ game. You know the board game: you roll the dice, there are some snakes you go down and some ladders you go up.

I just want to talk—in this ‘bad news/good news’ sense—about some snakes and some ladders in the innovation business here in Australia, in this time of technological disruption.

The context is that things are changing very fast. I was talking to some schoolkids the other day about my career and the research I did at Cambridge in the early Seventies. I’m a metallurgist by origin, and worked then in an area called fracture mechanics, which is reasonably mathematical. We had at that stage, at that august institution, one of the world’s fastest and best computers—it had the computing power of an iPhone 4!

 “The Chinese have a supercomputer now, top of the list at 93 petaflops, which does 93 thousand trillion calculations every second.”

Last year, the Chinese outgunned the Yanks by a factor of two with the world’s fastest supercomputer. It operates at 33.86 petaflops. Less than a year later, last month, I read that the Chinese have a supercomputer now, top of the list at 93 petaflops, which does 93 thousand trillion calculations every second. Ray Kurzweil, who’s a senior leader at Google in the strategy/scenarios space, says that by 2050 we’re going to have a supercomputer that exceeds the cumulative calculation processing power of the human race, and costing maybe a thousand bucks.

The human genome project took 13 years. It finished in 2003; it cost $2.7 billion. I’m told you can now get a genome mapped in a day or two for a couple of grand. So things are changing very fast!

The great former chairman and chief executive of General Electric, Jack Welch, wisely said “When things are changing outside faster than they’re changing inside, you know you’ve got a problem.”

The outlook from Queensland University of Technology, scene of the first day of the GE-CSIRO Digital Industrial Series in Brisbane.

The outlook from day one of the GE-CSIRO Digital Industrial Series: the QUT Gardens Point campus in Brisbane.

So what about the change here? I’m still a new Australian boy. I’ve only been here for 15 years. I arrived in 2001 at a time of great fanfare in the innovation stakes. There was a wonderful report, The Chance to Change, led by Robin Batterham, the then federal Chief Scientist. If you read it and fast-forward 15 years to the hoopla around the innovation statement released just before Christmas by the then new Prime Minister, the words are much the same (if you were a high-school student on a project you might get done for plagiarism!). My pal Prof Mark Dodgson who heads up Innovation and Technology Management at UQ’s Business School, said you can actually find similar words back in Paul Keating speeches in 1995, around the importance of growth and innovation and jobs and small business, etcetera, etcetera.

So we’ve lost a lot of time. There has also been excitement about $1 billion of new money announced—actually, “new” in inverted commas because a lot of it as we know is retreaded/pre-committed. And one billion dollars is what Samsung spent on R&D in three-and-a-half weeks. So we’re in a very competitive environment, with maybe too much talk and not enough action—perhaps it’s time for the Nike ad line, “Just Do It!” It is important.

Snake two: There was a GE survey I read awhile back of a whole bunch of chief executives worldwide who were asked, “In the innovation business, what are your top priorities?” Eighty-seven per cent of them put at the top of their list “collaboration and partnering”. We do it badly. When I first arrived to head up CSIRO in 2001, just listening to the troops across the organisation they said, “We need to partner better.” And we pushed hard around the idea that if the old maxim in the academic environment was “publish or perish”, the new maxim must be “partner or perish”.

Yet, as a nation, we’re stuck at the bottom—33rd out of 33—on the OECD league table for collaboration between innovation-active firms in our country and the repository of skills and talent and enthusiasm in our higher-education and research institutions. Not a good place to be.

“A great innovator, Thomas Edison, said, ‘Vision without execution is hallucination.’ Our problem is in the execution space and the communication space.”

Competition is one of the things that seems to dominate in our country. And of course it helps us strive to excel. I have mates who were wearing black armbands after the defeat by the English at the weekend on the rugby field. When I first arrived in Australia, during my first visit to Queensland as a new Australian person the Victorian Government suddenly announced they were putting $200 million into a new synchrotron. And I thought, “Wow. That’s great. If I were a protein chemist needing to use that gear I wouldn’t now have to go off to Tokyo, I wouldn’t have to go to San Francisco; I could go and visit my mates down the road.” That was not at all the common sentiment. It was like World War III had broken out: “Those (expletive) blokes down there—what are they up to?” And I still see that language today around the competition in our country. Inappropriate. So we have this big snake of under collaborating but over competing.

Snake three: 23 million people. The only way we’re going to compete in the future is by bringing the talent through. When you see where we are as a nation in the education stakes around the all-important science, technology, engineering and maths, we’ve got a problem. When you read that a 12-year-old Korean kid has the same ability in maths as a 15-year-old Australian, you surely say, “Hmmm. That’s worrying.” When I’m told that 29% or thereabouts of tech startups are founded from people with a computing, computer-science sort of background, but only 2% of graduates in our country have anything to do with computer science, and over the past decade here in Queensland Year 12 enrolments in information processing and technology have dropped by 50%, there’s something wrong.

So, lots of snakes, but it’s not all doom and gloom by any means. And I should say upfront, before I start talking about a couple of ladders, that I’m more excited than I’ve been for a long time in terms of what’s happening and the mood, led by key leaders, and our country getting a new lease of life in the innovation space.

 “On the menu at the dinner, we had both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten as after-dinner speakers …”

Leadership is critical. Last year, just before Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, I was at a good, focussed conference in Melbourne, the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue. And on the ‘menu’ at the dinner we had both Malcolm and Bill Shorten as after-dinner speakers. And guess what? They were talking very eloquently about the criticality of innovation. And that was really a first for me. I was surprised. In the political environment when you are working well with the government of the day, the opposition tries hard to beat up on you. So working together in harmony is what it’s surely all about, and if we’ve got a leadership cadre agreeing this is important—that’s important!

The job of a chief scientist is maybe as a goad/stone in the shoe of the politicians(!), an educator, a challenger, a helpmate, a connector. And one of the great parts of my job, most days, when I’m out and about, I say, “Wow. I didn’t know we were doing that stuff!” That’s one of our challenges, that we don’t brag enough about the sort of things that are happening. Lots of great ‘lights’ are extremely well hidden under proverbial ‘bushels’.

Here in Queensland, where I’ve been for the past five years, the past few months have been particularly exciting. Some of you who are resident here in Brisbane I’m sure will have come across the World Science Festival back in March—the first time it was held outside New York—and splendidly led by Suzanne Miller and her team at the Queensland Museum.  One-hundred-and-twenty-thousand people over four days, and a smorgasbord of science, technology, innovation and creativity—a wonderful time. Then in April we had the Innovation and Investment Summit—a really brilliant occasion, with thousands of people also live-streaming in, as well as the many hundreds of people attending. And the following day was the Startup Festival, where you got hundreds of entrepreneurs from around the state, from around the country and around the world, rubbing shoulders. And there were presentations from five startups where most people, including myself, said, “I’ve never heard of those guys. Where are they hiding?” So there’s a groundswell of enthusiasm, of things happening.

Also here in Queensland—and this is another good ‘ladder’—the Premier and our Cabinet have said, “Innovation, science and research are front and centre of our agenda.” Front and centre. Last year they committed $180 million to the Advance Queensland program. This year they’re putting their money where their mouth is and doubling that, more than doubling that—$225 million to Accelerating Advance Queensland. And we all know money is critical.

In terms of working together, we were getting a lot of pushback because we were insisting that with every single PhD top-up, every single early-career fellowship, every single mid-career fellowship that we award, our students need to spend at least 50% of that time present physically with the end-users in industry, solving problems in real time, building relationships. The naysayers were saying, “No, you won’t get any applications.” Yet we got a 34% increase in this whole area, producing a cadre of industry-savvy researchers who are building these bridges.

Geoff Garrett, and the slide he showed during his presentation at GE-CSIRO Digital Industrial Series of a work by Ukrainian artist Alexander Milov. “Inside us,” says Garrett, “are these creative beings, these little children who want to hold hands and work together.”

Geoff Garrett talking collaboration: “Inside us are these creative beings, these little children who want to hold hands and work together.”

Now this slide shows a piece by Ukrainian artist Alexander Milov at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, which summarises the point I want to make: We’re not communicating, we’re not collaborating. But inside us are these creative beings, these little children who want to hold hands and work together. One of my favourite books—I would recommend it to you—is by a guy called Robert Fulghum. It’s called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It tells a story of the messages we learned when we were five and six and seven; messages like “Play fair”,  “Put things back where you found them”. For the environmentalists: “Clean up your own mess.” And my academic friends like the one, “Take a nap every afternoon.” But Fulghum reminds us of when the teacher would have taken us to a visit to the chocolate factory or the fire station and what she might have said was, “Hold hands and stick together. There’s a lot of heavy traffic out there.” And there’s certainly a lot of heavy traffic out there….

For the digital practitioners, your business is connecting. Your business is communicating. You’re front and centre of the revolution.

Images: Natalie Filatoff

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