God bless Dr Arthur Farnworth. If it wasn’t for the good doctor many a bloke would be a rumpled mess, particularly after a long flight or a round of tedious meetings. In 1957 Dr Farnworth of the CSIRO developed the process of producing permanent creases in fabric by adding a special resin to wool fibres to change their chemical structure.
We also nurse soft spots for Lewis Brandt who, at the Ford Motor Company in Geelong, Victoria in 1933, designed the ute, source of joy to macho men and essential accessory for plumbers etc; for Sydney inventor Gordon Withnall, who in 1974 designed the Super Sopper and thus saved countless cricket matches from oblivion; and for Dr David Warren, inventor in 1958 of the first black box flight memory recorder, although we are left waiting for the next innovation in which they make the rest of the aircraft out of the apparently indestructible stuff that goes into the black box.
These Australian inventions are listed with many others on the Federal Department of Education, Science and Training’s National Science and Technology Centre’s Questacon website (PDF 4.52MB).
From the wine cask to the Hills Hoist, from plastic banknotes to the bionic ear, Australian ingenuity is proudly on display, providing testament to our capacity to invent and innovate. Trouble is, lots of other countries produce brilliant devices and create stunning breakthroughs in technology, science and medicine, and many other fields. They may well be better at it too, not out of any innate superiority of intelligence but because their economies and national mindsets are more closely geared to supporting and encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.
As the Questacon list illustrates, Australians have been good - and still are good - at invention. But as the Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration (PDF 489KB), conducted in the UK a few years ago, puts it, innovation processes are complex and non-linear. “It is not simply a question of researchers coming up with clever ideas which are passed down a production line to commercial engineers and marketing experts who turn them into winning products.” Instead, great ideas emerge out of all kinds of feedback loops, development activities and sheer chance which, for Lambert, was a reason why it was critical to build dynamic networks between academic researchers and their business counterparts.
We would go further and say that it is critical to facilitate such networks between all kinds of disparate groups and individuals - academics, students, entrepreneurs, business and industry, venture capitalists, men and women, young and old. In other words, Australia needs to build a culture of innovation and enterprise from the ground up, balanced by complimentary efforts from the top down.
As globalisation spreads apace, we must continue our efforts to build a competitive economy geared to innovation and enterprise. Countries such as India, China and Russia - with populations amounting to many millions - have joined the fray. America and Western Europe are still strong, but the new kids on the block are making their presence felt in the global economy.
In the future, as John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, puts it: “The jobs are going to go where the best-educated workforce is with the most competitive infrastructure and environment for creativity and supportive government” (The World Is Flat. The Globalised World in the 21st Century, Thomas L. Friedman).
Put simply, innovation means taking a good idea and bringing it to market, either as products or with new processes and services. The Business Council of Australia (in “New Pathways To Prosperity. A National Innovation Framework for Australia”) has defined it as the application of knowledge to create additional value and wealth.
Entrepreneurship can be defined as recognising an opportunity and marshalling the resources to go after it (Entrepreneurship: Theory. Process, Practice, D. F. Kuratko & R.M. Hodgetts 2004). Taken together, innovation and entrepreneurship form a powerful force, one with the capacity to enrich economic and social life through the creation of meaningful work and prosperity.
In the globalised economy, it is imperative that economies harness entrepreneurship because “whatever can be done will be done - and much faster than you think. The only question is whether it will done by you, or to you” (Friedman).
Australia has done well in recent years in developing policies aimed at encouraging innovation. The Federal Government’s Backing Australia’s Ability - Building our Future through Science and Innovation package commits to $5.3 billion over seven years from 2004-05. This builds on the initial 2001 Backing Australia’s Ability investment of $3 billion over five years to 2005-06. These represent a 10-year, $8.3 billion funding commitment stretching from 2001-02 to 2010-11.