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Innovation drives growth

By Tom Bentley - posted Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Mohamed Yunus is hardly a household name in Australia, but this year he hit the big time by winning the Nobel peace prize.

He did not negotiate a truce, end nuclear proliferation or lead a people out of oppression, but his particular brand of innovation may have more profound long-term consequences.

When Yunus returned from an American postgraduate education to his native Bangladesh 30 years ago, he looked for new ways to tackle the grinding poverty that millions of its people still suffer.


He tackled the fact people who most need credit - those who start with literally nothing - are the least likely to get it, because the measures of risk that banks use to lend automatically exclude them for consideration.

His solution - micro-credit - has grown into a system now being used in scores of countries, and is beginning to change the way banks serve even rich customers in wealthy countries such as the UK and Australia.

The innovation is brilliantly simple; rather than trying to make independent assessments for small loans, micro-credit relies on referrals and recommendations from others - friends, neighbours, colleagues.

Yunus's Grameen Bank has given millions of people access to opportunities that otherwise would have passed them by. But why is a Bangladeshi banker relevant to Australia? Because Yunus's scheme typifies the innovation even wealthy, industrialised societies need to meet the big challenges of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Australians are familiar with the idea that globalisation will put new competitive pressure on jobs and livelihoods. Australia, like many others, is also becoming an older and more diverse society as it grows wealthier. And anyone paying attention to current water shortages knows that investing in new ways to protect and manage the environment is a growing priority. But where should we look for solutions?

The first source is economic innovation. As global competition intensifies, we know that the big emerging economies, especially China, India, Brazil and Russia, will change the game for existing industrialised players. Increasingly, wealth and jobs will flow from the ability to add value to goods and materials through knowledge, services and design.


This puts a new premium on education, research and patents, and is leading to a growing emphasis on innovation policies around the world. But the innovation that matters is not just in the science lab and the university precinct.

Service-based innovation, for example, in which innovations like coffee shops and car sharing transform the way we think about very familiar activities, can have a powerful effect.

Equally important is social innovation, of the kind that Grameen Bank represents. Many of our changing social needs are not automatically met by private or by government services, because lifestyles and social values change continuously, and new solutions often emerge on a small scale.

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First published in The Courier Mail November 23, 2006 and in Eidos on November 29, 2006.

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About the Author

Tom Bentley, immediate past director of the London think tank Demos, is a part-time director at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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