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Innovation rules

By Thomas Barlow - posted Thursday, 18 May 2006

The global innovation system did not favour Australia in the 20th century.

The successful countries tended to be those close to big, homogenous markets. The companies that flourished most from new ideas were largely concentrated in high-tech mass-scale manufacturing. There was relatively limited opportunity for innovators who lacked scale to break into the vertically integrated value chains of the big innovating firms.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the history of technological advancement through the 20th century does not reflect the trends that we should expect to see in the 21st. Technology isn’t what it used to be. The world is changing in some surprising ways, and the rules of innovation are changing with it.


In my new book, The Australian Miracle, I identify two new trends that are emerging to influence the fortunes of nations. Both stand out for their special relevance to Australian circumstances.

The first trend is that our traditional “low-tech” industries are increasingly becoming high-tech. It is well known that Australians over the past decade have been especially talented at extracting productivity gains through the clever adoption of information and communications technologies (ICT).

But something broader is happening in our society, extending well beyond the use of the mobile phones and the Internet. Australian mining companies now hire maths PhDs and use chaos theory to develop lifetime plans for their mines. The Australian wine industry uses sophisticated forensic DNA typing of grape cultivars.

Only last month, Australian researchers in Queensland announced a genetically modified sugarcane that improves bioethanol production efficiency for use in green fuels.

In short, industries that we denigrated 30 years ago for not being sufficiently knowledge-based are becoming intrinsically technological - and the good news is that these are technologies where Australians are placed to lead the world.

The second trend, which is equally exciting, is the opening up of innovation value chains.


What does this mean? In the 20th century few Australian innovators had the scale to handle all aspects of the product cycle from basic research through to mass distribution. This was significant because the closed nature of global innovation meant there was often no other way to succeed.

Now though, big firms across all areas of the global economy are unlocking their business processes. Instead of trying to do everything themselves, they are increasingly outsourcing globally to find the best suppliers and the best ideas.

This model provides Australians with an entry point to innovation chains that were previously closed, and new opportunities to stake out strong niche positions in global industries.

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First published in Science Alert.

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About the Author

Dr Thomas Barlow is a technology and research strategy consultant and a former advisor to the Australian Government. His book about Australian ideas and identity, The Australian Miracle, was published by Picador in April 2006.

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Related Links
Book review: 'The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited' - On Line Opinion

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