Prosperity or decline? Liberating ideas can reboot our economy

Like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, Australia must change its way of thinking – or else we face the grim fate of being trapped in an economic rut. Columbia Pictures

The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting wraps up off the piste in the Swiss ski resort this weekend. Two themes are growth and stability; and innovation and industry. Attendees must feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Last year’s meeting, which was addressed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, was not much different.

Australia’s economic forecast is bleak, partly because we have too many eggs in too few baskets. More worryingly, we have not embraced a culture of innovation and collaboration. The G20 global growth target we spearheaded – a 2.1% increase above business as usual by 2018 – is fanciful unless we can foster that culture.

To do so we need to let ideas travel. Only by liberalising the flow of ideas and unlocking a collaborative culture can Australia reboot its economy for the long term.

Australia should aim to be a global solutions hub

Nobody has seen a crisis in the ideas space. But it is happening. Allowing good ideas to travel and fostering collaboration around the best of them is the unfinished business in the liberalisation agenda.

A belief in these two ingredients, liberating ideas and collaboration, could see Australia become a global solutions hub on the core challenges of the 21st century.

To become a solutions hub, Australia must get better at harnessing and sharing knowledge and ideas. These are the wellspring of innovation, understood as new or modified products, processes and organisational systems for commercial or social purposes.

Australia’s innovation system generates only 3% of world’s knowledge, so must necessarily be active in leveraging the remaining 97%. This will not simply be about buying ideas off the shelf. We need to identify those that are pertinent to our and global needs, and which can mesh with our own great ideas at home.

Silos are crippling collaboration

Statistics reveal the worrying lack of collaboration within and across Australian private and public sectors. Australia is ranked in the bottom quarter of OECD countries for business-to-research collaboration.

Put simply: Australian industry, academia and government are too siloed.

If we unlock the power of ideas and a collaborative culture, Australia can be a leader in developing global solutions. With our variable climate, expansive coastline, biodiversity challenges, ageing population and urbanisation, Australia represents a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities confronting the world.

Careful analysis, consultation and engagement of stakeholders can identify areas in which we can lead the world in developing solutions, and also those areas where we may not necessarily lead but can connect into global solutions’ “value chains”.

While Australia has rightly invested heavily in institutions to foster competition (like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the National Competition Council) it has not done so to foster collaboration. A National Collaboration Authority (NCA) is long overdue.

Competition and collaboration can sit well together. Many firms compete and collaborate at the same time. The NCA could develop collaborative priorities around solutions based on strategic foresight; facilitate domestic and international linkages; provide seed funding for trials; drive a whole-of-government view on systems policy; and spur local initiatives.

Apart from the NCA, there are other much-needed initiatives. New funding models for research and technology should incorporate and connect blue-sky research, solutions-specific projects and capacity building to disseminate knowledge across disparate silos and jurisdictions.

New impact metrics for research institutions should complement these funding models. As in other countries, the true impact of research (beyond peer-reviewed books and journals) must be a key focus, measuring the “knowledge footprint” outside the Ivory Tower.

New innovators project visas linked to globally and nationally significant projects should connect our diaspora at home and abroad.

Government can help a culture of ideas flourish

Finally, governments should not be shy in using their “soft power” role to enlarge the space for winning ideas. This is not about picking winners or losers: it is about enlarging the space for winning ideas on critical global and national challenges to thrive, in concert with stakeholders and constituents.

Recall the crisis of the 1980s. There was a consensus that opening up the economy – trade flows, financial flows and exchange rates – was overdue. Politicians from both sides got on with it. Businesses and civil society leaders looking beyond the next reporting cycle supported them.

Australia now needs to unlock a collaborative culture around the ideas that can equip the nation for the long term and re-orient our democracy, economy and society. Only then can we generate tangible improvements in individual and collective well-being, sustainability, fairness and prosperity.

This is the agenda of the liberalisation of ideas. The Australian contingent at Davos should be considering how best to realise this agenda to reboot our economy for the 21st century.

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