Dining out on innovation

Politicians often come under fire for fraternising with the private sector, but in this regard I think our MPs could learn a thing or two from US President Barack Obama, who recently dined with Silicon Valley royalty.

Politicians often come under fire for fraternising with the private sector, but in this regard I think our MPs could learn a thing or two from US President Barack Obama, who recently dined with Silicon Valley royalty.

Last week, Obama met with technology industry heavyweights including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Hosted by the chief of infamous venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, the most powerful men in technology and the most powerful man in the world discussed "proposals to invest in research and development and expand incentives for companies to grow and hire", according to the Wall Street Journal.

It was the cherry on top of Obama's savvy political campaign to work with private industry to leverage innovation and new technology to boost the flailing US economy.

Last month, he used his State of the Union to challenge the nation to "out-educate, out-innovate and out-build" its competitors, announcing a US$7 billion initiative to deliver high-speed wireless across the country, constructed in partnership with private industry.

The nation-building sentiment was backed up with a strategy for American innovation and the Startup America Partnership, which hopes to boost innovation by uniting key elements and stakeholders in the start-up ecosystem, again both public and private interests. And then there was the budget that provided for billions in R&D spending.

Detect a theme here?

With an important election looming, the move can be dismissed as some clever politicking on the back of technology — Web 2.0 was widely credited as the secret ingredient to his last campaign — but the government deserves credit for turning to the technology industry to boost the flailing economy.

Contrast this with the efforts of the Australian Government.

The most "innovative" policy to date was announced with much fanfare in 2008 by the then Rudd Government, the innovation review Venturous Australia conducted by former CSIRO strategy advisor Dr Terry Cutler, who worked hard to deliver a raft of recommendations which could boost the innovation capacity of the economy.

Innovation Minister Kim Carr promised it as a way to create a more effective and efficient national innovation system, and it even inspired visions of an Australian Silicon Valley.

Two years on Cutler himself bemoaned the fact that the only thing the review had cultivated was dust, and that the few recommendations that were implemented have added to the red tape rather than remove it.

The innovation credentials of the government now rest on the success of the proposed $35 billion National Broadband Network, which has attracted good and bad attention in equal measure.

While recognised for its vision, the NBN has been lampooned for the lack of a real business case, both when it was first conceived and now. Further, the government's $37.5 billion bet on high-speed fibre internet has at times been used as a proverbial gun to the collective heads of the industry, and provoked an equally hostile response.

A markedly different approach when compared with Obama's $7 billion high-speed wireless network, which was funded by the proceeds of the auction of wireless spectrum and constructed with private industry.

Obama has shown the benefits for the technology industry that can be delivered by working with private industry. Maybe it's time our MPs followed his lead.

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