Startup language is so passe

When politicians start talking about 'agility' and 'disruption' to push their agenda, you know those words are completely without meaning.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Australia is a sparsely populated brown land that has always got rich from flogging commodities to others, whether that be shiny rocks, dirty rocks filled with ancient dinosaurs, sheep, cattle, or sugar.

That adage is the perception, whereas the reality says Australia is actually a services-based economy where financial services contribute more to GDP than the cherished mining or agricultural sectors.

But never mind those facts; the national discussion has shifted to what Australia will do now that foreigners don't want to buy as many dirty rocks as previously, and the answer proposed so far from both sides of politics is a startup-style mentality that embraces buzzwords such as agility, innovation, and disruption.

While the parties fall over themselves to out-innovate each other, and pump ever more money and resources into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in the future, the nation is told that the future is to be agile.

"The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative," Malcolm Turnbull said at his first press conference as prime minister. "We cannot be defensive, we cannot future-proof ourselves. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility and change is our friend ... if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it."

At a motherhood statement level, these sentiments are fine and certainly an improvement on political discourse compared with the past decade or so, but the real question is to what extent a government should model itself on a Silicon Valley unicorn-chasing business.

Successful startups often focus on one problem and solve it in a unique way; governments, on the other hand, deal with wide-ranging, complex, unpredictable systems involving human choice and economics. As a consequence, governments typically behave as incrementalists that are obsessed with measuring the results of decisions made -- a technique that forms of the heart of agile methodology -- but when the target of a policy is something intangible, such as disruption, then the great measurement devices of government fall down.

The Australian government has decided to also adopt the idea of hackathons for policy development. One of the first startup-inspired initiatives run by the Turnbull government was a Policy Hack day, and its recently announced idea to dump physical passports in lieu of a "cloud passport" was the result of one such event.

As Stilgherrian wrote: "Policy hackathons are the Contiki tours of policy development.

"Whether it's 11 countries in 15 days, or 10 policy ideas on a fun-filled Saturday, there's no depth to it -- no real understanding of a society, or of social issues, or of anything, really. It's just loud, pumped-up superficiality, with the resulting mess left for someone else to clean up."

The idea of throwing around a few left-field ideas, trying the best ones out, and abandoning the ones that don't work is fine for coming up with a non-copyright-infringing Angry Birds clone, but probably not the best idea when livelihoods and national economies are on the line.

Do we really want governments failing fast with laws and regulations? People already complain in Australia that the rules around superannuation have changed too much, and this is on a timescale measured in decades, not the years, months, or weeks used in the land of agility.

The idea of failing fast with financial industry regulation, award wages, or national security is not one of the most calming. Nevertheless, Silicon Valley continues to be idolised by governments.

"Most of the companies reinventing our world would still be at school if they were humans," Turnbull said on Thursday.

"Structural shifts in today's global economy are not dissimilar in scale and scope to the transition from the agrarian to an industrial society, but it is the velocity of change that is unprecedented."

But where author and former banker Satyajit Das sees a difference in the latest transition is that it lacks the same productivity gains seen previously.

"Instagram is not quite the internal combustion engine, Facebook is not nuclear fission, and Google is not the Gutenberg press," Das recently told the ABC.

"Disruptive technology is actually very important to understand. What they don't do is create sustainable industries.

"What they do is come in, and it's basically like a bee buzzing around a large cumbersome other animal, so what they do is they come and buzz around, create a lot of noise, and what they are trying to do is pick off by cheaping the cost of the product, finding new people who will buy that product, and who will become an irritant to an industry incumbent."

Das said that the much-lauded sharing economy is built on deceit.

"This does not work unless the people doing the service do it cheaper than everybody else," he said. "All our innovation at the moment is stripping jobs out and lowering living standards."

It seems the wider consequences of the current start up poster-children have been shelved for the desire to simply have one of them begin in Australia, and for those in power to sound like they are future-focused. Thus far, the process for finding this golden child has progressed as far as wanting to have thousands of new software engineers entering the workforce each year.

Some meat is due to appear on these bones when Australia is slated to have the government's innovation ideas fleshed out next month; however, it is likely to be to economic policy what a policy hackathon is to detailed legislative development.

No doubt the speeches and pronouncements will continue, until the words agility, innovation, and disruption have lost all meaning entirely. Perhaps it is fitting, though, considering that even startup seems to be a catch-all now for young businesses.

A friend recently conveyed to me a conversation with someone that had introduced themselves as the CEO of a "coffee startup" -- after a couple of questions, it was revealed the business was simply a new coffee shop.

When the concept of a startup has transitioned into something more general and less meaningful, we can hardly be surprised when the language of startups follows a similar path.

"It is perfectly plain that we have to be more innovative, more technologically advanced, more enterprising, more competitive, and more productive, that much is absolutely clear," Turnbull said last week.

"The next lift in national income we all understand has to come from productivity. And in a sense, innovation is another word for productivity."

So with innovation now a byword for productivity, does that mean we can stop using it? I'd like to think so, but instead we will be subjected to enough innovation and agility talk to make our ears bleed.

And when we take startup culture into the bosom of the nation and people take a risk, and like most new companies ends up failing with the backers going broke trying to be the next unicorn, is there a plan to pick up the pieces?

Of course there isn't, but don't worry about that. Just think about having an Australian Google and how innovative and agile it could be, and how proud it will make you -- it is a lot more pleasant to focus on that than actual economic issues being papered over with buzzword co-opting and aggrandisement.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on the Monday Morning Opener:

Editorial standards