Technology | Innovation

Bigger thinking needed to harness innovation

Innovation is not just about technology and technological development, it’s also about people and ambition, Innovation and Science Australia CEO, Dr Charlie Day said at CEDA’s Chasing moonshots – culture, ambition and innovation event in Sydney.

The concept of a moonshot – also known as mission-based innovation – dates back to the presidency of John F Kennedy and the mission to land a man on the moon. Dr Day said this is evident in the story of Tesla, now chaired by Australian Robyn Denholm. 

He said when Elon Musk developed the Series A investment in Tesla in 2004, electric vehicles were very much a moonshot. 

Despite the apparent death of electric vehicles, foretold in the 2006 documentary Who killed the electric car? Musk laid out his masterplan to attack the electric car market from the top from the luxury end of the market.

“Along the way it’s demonstrated a lot of really interesting things about moonshots and about the pursuit of large-scale ambition,” Dr Day said.

He said Musk opened Tesla’s patent portfolio to competitors to create a marketplace for electric vehicles and create standards on which they could be built. The US Government also played a significant role in the development of Tesla as a company through government loans to help it get off the ground. 

“If you look at Tesla as an example of a moonshot you see a few things,” Dr Day said.

“You certainly see inspirational leadership, you certainly see a long-term time horizon, but you also see interesting efforts to create platforms where different organisations come together and you also see a critical role played by government and the private sector working together.” 

He said while the future of Tesla from an investor point of view may be uncertain, if you consider Musk’s mission to create electric cars and put them on the road then they have absolutely succeeded. 

Dr Day said moonshots are being discussed in Australia and around the world, including in the EU as part of European innovation policy, and in the UK where missions have been identified against some of the country’s grand challenges including ageing and artificial intelligence (AI).

He said there are a number of issues in Australia that could be tackled by mission-oriented thinking. The 2017 Innovation and Science Australia report, Australia 2030: prosperity through innovation, recommended government take on mission-based innovation as a policy framing instrument.

Dr Day said this recommendation was made following discussions held across Australia. 

“One of the recurring comments that we got was a pervasive sense among our practitioners that they wanted to be part of something bigger,” he said.

“They wanted to tackle something bigger, but they felt that Australians were just not really having a go on a big enough scale. They wanted to see efforts to innovate coalesce into something bigger.”

He said the report’s authors also talked to international companies about what it would take for them to invest more in Australia and found there needed to be a long-term commitment as a nation to driving innovation. 
Noting that the word innovation had not appeared in the Treasurer’s recent Budget speech, nor the Opposition Leader’s reply, Dr Day said, “There’s a desperate need for us to be talking about the power of innovation to make positive social change.” 

“If you can articulate a message that says we can actually make Australia a better place, we can solve some of these problems using innovation I think we have an opportunity to rekindle what I think is a very important national conversation.” 

Dr Day cited UK economist Mariana Mazzucato’s five criteria for setting a mission as a guide to how mission-based innovation could be undertaken. A mission should be bold and inspirational with a wide societal relevance; targeted, measurable and time bound; ambitious but realistic; cross-disciplinary, cross-sector and cross-actor; and enable multiple competing and bottom-up solutions. 

Dr Day said he would add a clear governance structure as a sixth criteria to manage selection and ongoing management of missions. 

He said there are plenty of challenges when it comes to undertaking missions starting with how you choose which mission to take up. 

He said it was also important to determine how missions are structured for success, the role of government and how to respond to the community’s low level of trust in institutions. 

Despite the challenges ahead Dr Day said he was optimistic about the future. 

“The future looks very bright if we can harvest innovation to solve some of these big challenges and if we can get innovation back into the national debate,” he said. 

Following his keynote address Dr Day joined a panel discussion with SEEK CEO, Asia Pacific and Americas, Michael Ilczynski; Telstra Group Executive of Products and Technology, Christian von Reventlow; and Allens Partner, Valeska Bloch.

The panel identified education, agriculture, mining, energy, genomics and medicine and saving the Great Barrier Reef as areas in which Australia could launch future moonshot missions.