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Australia needs an innovation ‘skunkworks’

John Howland and Dr Mark Bilandzic, winners of the Digital Media mashup award in the Libraryhack 2011 at The Edge, State Library of Queensland. Libraryhack, Author provided

Australia needs an innovation ‘skunkworks’

John Howland and Dr Mark Bilandzic, winners of the Digital Media mashup award in the Libraryhack 2011 at The Edge, State Library of Queensland. Libraryhack, Author provided

Malcolm Turnbull has been heralded as the new “innovation PM”. Expectations are high that he must now translate his rhetoric around agility, disruption, entrepreneurship into concrete economic policies.

Both Glenn Withers, Professor of Economics at Australian National University, and myself have argued that we need not just STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), but also researchers from the social sciences, arts, design and the humanities contributing to innovation.

Withers argues:

The focus on STEM education in recent years is very important. But it must be equally complemented by humanities and social science enhancement. The latter disciplines are necessary to understand ourselves and the cultures and societies in which Australia wants to operate and engage, and to build creative and cultural industries.

Several commentators have called for better support of innovation, such as Mark Dodgson, Director, Technology and Innovation Management Centre, The University of Queensland, Tony Peacock, Chief Executive of the Cooperative Research Centres Association, Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and Jenny Stewart, Professor of Public Policy, UNSW Australia.

Their recommendations centre around three priorities:

  1. tackle the ailing rates of collaboration between researchers and industry in Australia, which are the worst in the OECD

  2. support Universities Australia’s Keep It Clever campaign calling for increased public and private investment into our universities

  3. widen the scope and scale of commercialisation of research intellectual property that will provide fertile ground for start-ups emerging from university-led R&D.

Stand-up before start-up, but where?

However, the Discovery, Incubation and Acceleration (D-I-A) model that underpins many innovation systems is often plagued by the “valley of death”. Institutional forms of discovery tend to be risk-averse compromising the full capacity to innovate. And the strenuous leap from discovery into incubation is currently for the few, not the many.

In addition to better start-up support programs, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August launched the Start-Up India, Stand-Up India campaign. This echoes policy recommendations by the Foundation for Young Australians to first “promote attitudes and skills for mobilizing entrepreneurs”.

Right now, the public debate tends to be narrowly focused on institutionalised innovation in industry and universities. And it is constrained by utopian tech visions trying to import success from abroad in a copy and paste mentality: Silicon Valley in California; Silicon Alley in New York; and Silicon Roundabout in London.

Tan Yigitcanlar, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, Queensland University of Technology, argues:

In Australia, the Australian Technology Park in Sydney, Parkville Knowledge Precinct in Melbourne, and Kelvin Grove Urban Village in Brisbane are certainly emerging urban knowledge precincts.

But Yigitcanlar also rightly asks: “Why confine innovation to a precinct?” The trend is to scale up, from centre to campus to precinct to district to city to region to nation.

Yet, in addition to challenges of growth, Australia should not forget the mechanisms of creativity and innovation at play at and between each scale. This is an ecology.

Highly specialised, secure, white lab coat innovation centres such as the Translational Research Institute in Brisbane, are important. But they don’t help everyday Australians to stand up. This requires sandboxes, tinkering spaces, experimental and messy studios, garages and workshops where people from all walks of life come together to create and innovate.

Australia needs a ‘skunkworks’

The term I like best to describe these open and accessible spaces where creativity and innovation can stand up is Skunkworks. I use it to refer to those types of space that attract, house, support and unleash innovators, makers, thinkers and doers to stand up.

Some of the great examples overseas that we currently study include The Old Truman Brewery in London, which offers a blended experience of hospitality, exhibition and incubator spaces in a heritage precinct. Game developers pop over from Campus London and mix with fashion designers organising an ad hoc catwalk show at night. They are surrounded by the best baristas and food trucks – not casinos.

Perhaps this is what Withers meant when he suggested we use “our liveable cities to attract and retain talent”. Cities are smart when they enable the smart citizens.

In our research of innovation spaces, we found more than just the institutional spaces of discovery and incubation that are currently in the spotlight. Great examples of spaces for experimentation and civic innovation include CityStudio Vancouver, New Urban Mechanics in Boston, and the Urban Innovation Centre in London.

Creativity and innovation are abundant in those “in between spaces” such as coworking spaces, hacker spaces, maker spaces and living labs.

Michael Doneman is the Director of Edgeware Creative Entrepreneurship and one of the master minds behind the revival of The Old Ambulance Station in Nambour as “a creative space for creative businesses”. He sees a convergence of these spaces occurring that he calls Bauhaus 2.0.

In so many ways, it is libraries that are leading the charge, evolving into spaces for incubation and innovation. The Edge at the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) in Brisbane is being complemented by a new Business Studio.

A prime example of the new Bauhaus 2.0, SLQ now offers coworking space and tinkering and experimental programs and workshops that foster connected learning with a clear (but optional) pathway into business incubation.

The skunkworks spaces in Australia’s innovation system should avoid entrepreneurial gatekeepers and one-track tech minds, encourage interdisciplinary contributions from outside STEM, and embrace the experimental messiness of the creative imagination that is the backbone of innovation.

These spaces should be free, open and ubiquitous. And they should recognise and support other forms of innovation that may not lead to a conventional start-up, such as social innovation, civic innovation, and change for good.

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