What Stops Innovation Dead In Its Tracks?

The CSIRO's Digital Productivity Flagship is essentially a thinktank for innovating new ideas — but what are the barriers to innovation? At yesterday's launch, a panel of experts discussed the problems facing anyone who wants to innovate.

Following on from his keynote address, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was joined on stage by (from left to right) Professor Mary O'Kane, Dr Terry Cutler, Dr Nicholas Gruen and Dr Ian Opperman to discuss the challenges faced when innovating. Here's what they had to say about blocks to innovation:

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the World Wide Web Consortium W3C

Innovation has to do with sharing. But it's really hard to measure the return on sharing. You get anecdotes about it, saying that it's "really, really cool". Really really cool means that 'I have a sense that it works, but we can't measure it." But supposing we did flip it? If all academic journals were online for free; if we bought out the existing stakeholders, then how would it work? What would it cost to go to school if someone lives in a village in Africa. That switch from a mode of operation is very difficult to visualise, then it's really difficult to justify it — what is going to be the return on investment?

Professor Mary O'Kane, NSW Chief Scientist & Scientific Engineer

I think the biggest problem is fear. People don't want to get out of their comfort zone. It's often about posing problems, and being willing to think what if. The wider you can think about it, the better, but you've got to start, and think — what are the first set of steps we want to take?

Dr Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics

We spend a lot of time talking about the NBN. We kind of have an NBN in all sorts of places, we have enough bandwidth to do a whole host of things, but we are not doing them. We're not doing them because large organisations don't do this stuff well. Things are going to start moving faster in education, but where things are heavily institutionalised and regulated — and that doesn't have to be a government regulation; it can be the regulations of a profession, or the regulations of a large organisation then it takes a long time to find new ways of doing things. Finally there is the law of innovation and incumbence. Innovation is invisible and fragile, because it doesn't exist yet. Incumbents are very good at saying something this innovator has in mind will inconvenience them, and how that would be terrible.

Dr Terry Cutler, Industry Consultant and Strategy Advisor, Cutler & Company

Within health systems there are two main blockers; one that we have silos of activity that aren't connected. The other is that we have perverse incentive systems; payment systems that inhibit behavioural change. Then you get our awful human nature tendencies for monopoly and exploitation. You get narrow professional interests in play.

These problems were then presented to the CSIRO's Dr Ian Opperman for comment, relating to how the flagship might operate to meet those challenges.

Dr Ian Opperman, Director, Digital Productivity & Services Flagship

With the flagship we're looking for a larger outcome; we're prepared to put a lot of disciplines on the table and look at it for a number of years. Ultimately it's not just about the technology; it's about how the technology interacts with people. There's a productivity focus immediately. Our medium term goal is doing old things in new ways, then the really exciting thing is looking at doing new things new ways — and we get to have that conversation after we've passed the other two stages. It's an iterative process, it's a multi-phase process going forward to get to that desired outcome.


    There are no 'barriers', there is nothing that 'stops' innovation, so the argument is really only 'hyperthetical', as it doesn't exist in the real world of innovation and innovators, it only exists with people who work in pseudo Government agencies pretenting to do innovation, they only 'research', ie they only tinker, so of course innovating is hard for them because they don't know what real innovation is or how to go about it. Its a pity really. CSIRO consumes over $10 Billion pa on tinkering ....

    Innovation is about coming up with an 'idea' through a dream at night or tinkering (viz the above) then going through the process of 'researching' whether the idea is 'commercially viable', then taking it to market, ie 'commercialising the idea'. The people who do this are 'entrepreneurs' and you wont find them in Government think tanks, Unis, CSIROS and the rest, because these guys are only good at the ' research' part of the equation and occassionally the 'idea' but are useless at the rest and always will be.

      Innovation isn't just about commercialising ideas. Lots of new work, particularly in gov't funded health projects isn't done to make a profit, but rather provide enhancements which improve quality of life.

      Research is all about innovation. Any researching bringing creativity and initiative to their work to generate new knowledge will ultimately be innovating in some sense. It's impossible to attract grants for such work if there aren't foreseeable benefits.

      New technology and improvements in high-tech fields can only come out of resourced institutions. It seems pretty smug to imply that highly skilled researchers don't innovate. Did you use Wi-Fi to post that? That little innovation emerged from a CSIRO lab, not a dream.

    In a flash I'd trade these 5 paragraph from innovators for a single sentence from a scientist who's surveyed the published literature on the question.

    Some literature on the question: http://www.ict-industry-reports.com/2008/09/12/national-innovation-review-cutler-report-released-venturous-australia/


    Getting innovation to its end goal is like Real Estate only instead of Location , Location , Location, it's Money, Money, Money.

    Of itself, I don't think there is an innovation shortage, its about getting that innovation to a suitable market and there are limited resources available to enable that, at least in Australia.

    The first Money is to do the pure or applied research in the first place. (CSIRO, a grant or a corporate). It answers the "how does this science/tech work" question.

    The second Money is "will the science/tech innovation save some-one or some-company money, or be something consumers want to spend their money on". This answers the "will this science/tech make money by solving someone's problem" question.

    The third Money is the start-up capital to get the science/tech innovation to market. This answers the "if someone invests, will it make money" question. This money is a scarce resource and the biggest roadblock to all innovation. How many Australian science/tech innovations have to go offshore to get the necessary funding resource??

    Unfortunately the science can be pure but the money making is not so pure... No money = no innovation!

    Last edited 04/02/13 11:59 pm

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