Why the government’s innovation agenda failed and how it can be rebooted

The innovation agenda was launched by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015 and promised to be the answer to reinvigorating a nation – it wasn’t.

Sure it was the most exciting time to be an Australian said the prime minister, but was it? Perhaps for the startup community it was – a number of announcements that brought us into the fold of political and public dialogue.

After the sparkle dust settled it was back to reality and that meant realising that the big announcements positioned Turnbull well, but lacked the execution required to land the agenda squarely in the public arena.

Innovation nation

It didn’t take long for Turnbull to seem out of touch with reality, pitching to the exclusive club of business rather than to the majority of the voting population. While the innovation agenda set by Turnbull was well received – it only spoke to a section of the population.

Turnbull and his merry innovation ministers failed to take the people with them. Their slogans didn’t mean anything and in the end seemed too opaque to deliver anything concrete.

Despite all the Coalition talk about Western Sydney, the love was not returned at the election.

A good lesson here for others: no amount of charisma will keep you in government. The electorate has had enough and it demands genuine engagement and action – or it will show you the door.

The Coalition’s ‘plan’ of jobs and growth and innovation didn’t land with the punters. Talking tax cuts to big business to create more jobs didn’t add up.

While ministers spruiked the idea of innovation, they had little throw down when it came to showing their electorates how that would raise jobs, transform local economies or solve tipping point problems like generational unemployment or dying industries.

This frustrated me and others to no end as what I see is the absolute potential to apply innovation to solve big problems

A disconnected narrative

There was a real disconnect in the narrative of innovation and how it was going to help shift Australia – just saying it doesn’t make it so.

The pomp and ceremony around announcements engaged a small section of the community – the new lobbyists on the block – startups, VCs and the rest of the ecosystem.

Many of the elite tech startup club will be saddened that Wyatt Roy, who spearheaded Policy Hack and showed such promise, lost his seat because people there were concerned with real things like unemployment – didn’t he see that he could have done a whole lot more with that than host a hack, did he not understand that innovation is about reskilling and preparing people for the jobs of the future?

Innovating for social change

Ultimately the coalition were unable to communicate how this innovation agenda could improve lives.

That is such a waste because there are a number of people in the startup and innovation ecosystem that are working hard to bring the agenda to solve social issues.

Initiatives like WorkVentures, TechFugees Australia, YoungChangeAgents, RefugeeIntern, AgriHack, PharmacyHack, Chronic Pain Hack, Remarkables, VibeWire are bringing the innovation agenda to young people, disadvantaged communities, refugees, people lining in regional areas and even people living with chronic pain.

These people are not waiting for government to get on board, rather old fashioned style they are getting on with it and doing it anyway with the help of community and business. They tried talking to government but it seems they were supportive but didn’t deliver on any meaningful assistance.

I believe it’s the right way, in any case government funding comes with strings attached –understandably, so it is frankly easier to just do it. That’s what true believers do – they just make things happen because they are compelled to do so.

It’s how successful startups work – they believe in themselves more than anyone else does.

Opportunity ahead

A new ministry for innovation has been announced with Greg Hunt as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Assistant Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, the Craig Laundy, and remaining Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor.

To be fair when there is a change in portfolio there is renewed listening and a desire to engage with stakeholders.

Now is the time we start the procession of meeting the new ministers, there is a real opportunity with Hunt, Laundy and Taylor to broaden out how innovation can support industry and solve problems affecting communities. This is good – Taylor provides the consistency within the trio.

Laundy will be very interested in how innovation can solve problems like unemployment and refugee settlement. He will be interested to know that Techfugees Australia is on to its third hackathon this time focused in refugee young people in Parramatta later this year.

I think Angus Taylor will provide the continuity and be interested in AgriHack in Wagga in September 2016 and how Dianna Sommerville plans to ignite entrepreneurship in the region.

I believe that the innovation agenda must reach across all portfolios – innovation is a state of mind not a discrete contained portfolio.

Hopefully it’s a time to reboot and restart the innovation nation agenda and create more meaningful expressions of how innovation can improve our systems and ultimately how they can improve people’s lives.

I hope to work with others to hack for suicide, domestic violence, child protection, recidivism and many other social issues that we clearly aren’t cracking with traditional methods.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

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