By now, you want to escape from advertisements for PM Malcolm Turnbull’s ideas boom. You can’t. They’re everywhere, pushing their singular conception of how an ideas boom looks: mathsy, nerdy, tech-centric, young.
This ideas boom is very similar to the one pursued in Silicon Valley. Ideas, in this way of thinking, are inventions made by young men with maths degrees.
This is a narrow way of thinking that can set us on the wrong path.
We will continue this piece with an example of innovation that, perhaps, few would think to classify as such. It comes from the non-profit sector. It is not an invention, and definitely not science.
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I’m talking about the Big Bash League.
If you are unwilling to accept this very popular new cricket competition as an important innovation and a major contributor to the Australian economy, ask yourself whether you are trapped in the same Big Bang Theory world as Malcolm Turnbull, where only technologists are allowed to have good ideas.
The Big Bash League is not even a wholly new product. It is just Twenty20 Cricket, which was invented in the UK in 2003. It represents a modest tweak to the domestic cricket competitions that preceded it. But that tweak is enough to make it extremely popular.
TV ratings regularly tipped over a million viewers, and 80,000 people paid to attend a single match at the MCG.
Over summer, the people at Cricket Australia who came up with Twenty20 Cricket probably enticed more people to happily part with their money than almost all the app makers in Australia. But I doubt they think of themselves as innovators and congratulate themselves for shaping the future using only their minds.
Innovation can take many forms. The point of it should be to make the economy better. Either more efficient ways to make the same things, or better products than were available before. We call such changes “productivity-enhancing”.
The ABS says this about innovation:
“The development or introduction of new or significantly improved goods, services, processes or methods is generally considered to be innovation.”
Note that fourth word: “introduction”. That’s really important, as we saw with the cricket. Not everything needs to be invented here.
Inventions are exciting for venture capitalists and investors, because that’s where they make their money. But the really big benefit of innovation goes to the people who use it.
Economically significant innovation is more about regular people adopting ideas than about brainy people coming up with new inventions and patenting them.
Once you realise that you understand innovation can happen in areas that are not technological, not male-dominated, and not for-profit.
Like childcare. A substantial body of recent research shows higher qualified educators create better child outcomes. This is not an idea you can patent. Not an invention. But the need for a qualified educator is being rolled out across Australia under the National Quality Framework and is likely to lead to better child development outcomes.
Childcare is becoming a more productive sector, producing higher value, thanks to this innovation.
Is there room for this sort of thinking in the ideas boom?
When you consider Australia’s size and place in the world, attempting to harness the upsides of innovation mostly via invention of new things is high-risk, modest-return. (If you are a venture capitalist, obviously this route is the only route.)
But if you are trying to actually make Australia a more productive place, worrying about incubating the next Google is far less important than making sure everyone can actually get Google on their computer.
Don’t assume good inventions are adopted automatically. The difference between the rich countries of the world and the poor is not the number of inventions they have made but their ability to adopt technology. Sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t need to invent efficient agriculture, the joint-stock limited-liability company or the internet to get rich; it just needs adopt them. That it has not done so shows this latter step is easy to overlook. An educated workforce is essential.
If we want to make Australia a place that is innovative and productive, we need to place our hope in the many not the few. We need to depend not on a few whizz-kids but on ensuring the education needed to be able to recognise and adopt a good idea is available to everyone.