Why Tony Abbott’s Industry Growth Centres initiative is $188m too expensive

5 Nov 2014 by Scott Middleton

This article originally appeared in BRW.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda plans to create “Industry Growth Centres” by putting academics and businesses in the same building or neighbourhood. The aim is to turn research into commercial outcomes for Australia. But even the companies who want to interact with researchers and have taken deliberate steps to do so are struggling to maintain fruitful relationships with research bodies. The issues these pioneers are facing need to be examined and resolved before the potential for industry and research collaboration can be unlocked.

Understanding what researchers are doing requires a regular investment of time and a good deal of communication: meeting with researchers individually, making phone calls, visiting the labs and attending the talks they give. Currently, these are the only ways to keep properly abreast of the latest research developments.

There are shining examples of Australian businesses that have overcome this hurdle to collaborate with researchers successfully. Rio Tinto has a long-running partnership with the University of Sydney through the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR). The ACFR, one of the top two robotics labs globally, has provided Rio with things like advanced automation and driverless cars. The ACFR also worked with Patrick Corp to develop a fully automated shipping container port in Brisbane. The only person involved with the day-to-day operations of the facility is someone stationed in Sydney.

The Commonwealth Bank has been working successfully with NICTA, one of Australia’s leading technology research institutions, for years. Even smaller firms, like Centor, have successfully engaged research institutions for assistance and produced commercial outcomes.

At Terem Technologies we applied technology from NICTA to developing a client’s software platform. We had been having regular conversations with smart folks at NICTA during industry events at about the same time a client put forward an interesting analysis puzzle. Involving NICTA certainly wasn’t planned, it was a fortunate coincidence that the people we were speaking to at NICTA were working on the problem our client had.

Perhaps the Industry Growth Centres will reduce the required investment in time and communication. They will certainly increase the likelihood of chance conversations that produce outcomes like we had a Terem Technologies. But putting people in close proximity alone looks a little too much like leaving our future to chance.

All large specialist organisations have comms challenges

Both NICTA and CSIRO have people under the same organisational umbrella and many in the same location. However, ask anyone at either organisation, and they’ll say it is difficult for them to tell you what research is going on across the entire organisation. Appropriately, the researchers have their heads deep in technical problems and the support staff, such as the account managers, are busy managing enterprise expectations, timelines and contracts. Australia needs its brightest minds solving the hardest problems, not solving internal and external organisational communication problems.

As the problem spans multiple organisations it falls to the government to resolve. Fortunately, the solution need not be complicated. Communication is key and we have the technology.

You can currently download an app that provides the latest stats and irrelevant personal information on every single player in the AFL, but you can’t visit a website that provides information necessary for advancing Australia’s national innovation and competitive ambitions.

Information infrastructure that makes it easy to access Australian research is needed. Simply put, a searchable website that lists what is being done.

Deloitte, for instance, uses Yammer to facilitate communication between all of its employees, across their many global locations. It allows Deloitte’s people to find out who is doing what and talk about it. Luke McCormak, a Senior Analyst at Deloitte, says “Yammer has become an ‘internal Google’ for us. When you have a question, chances are you can search Yammer and find a thread with the answer”. While an investigation would be required to determine if Yammer is a good fit for this particular problem, it is not hard to see how modern technology platforms could make it easy for businesses and researchers to search and access the information they need.

Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be an expensive exercise if the information infrastructure starts with the areas targeted by the Industry Growth Centres initiative. Maintaining the information and keeping it up-to-date with what is happening on the ground will be the most difficult aspect of such an initiative, but nothing a few intelligent administrative staff couldn’t sort out.

And an added bonus: the price tag on the information infrastructure would be far less than the $188.5 million budgeted for the real estate based solution and probably provide more bang for the taxpayer buck.

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