When it comes to innovation, the Queensland government is on the right track, but heading in the wrong direction.
Economist and historian Dierdre McCloskey has made a career pointing out that innovation is more productive of wealth than all the micro- and macro-economic fine-tuning combined.
So the government is right to concentrate on it.
But their $180m Advance Queensland program is the wrong way.
It makes all the basic mistakes. It assumes we are not an innovative economy, innovation consists in advances in science and technology alone, and is something out there.
It also assumes that government investment, consultants and conferences can make a substantial contribution to the increase of innovation. And that innovation occurs in startups rather than established companies.
In reality we are already a highly innovative society.
Innovation is all around us, and most of it occurs in areas where we have a competitive advantage. As Adam Smith discovered, competitive advantage is where the wealth of nations resides.
Innovation that needs government seed capital will probably never pay its own way detracts from national wealth, as well as being least likely to be in an area of competitive advantage.
We instituted the Sir Thomas McIlwraith lecture this year to celebrate progress in this state, and its inaugural lecturer, John Wagner, demonstrates all of these points.
Wagners built the Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport last year. Conceiving a second major Brisbane airport capable of taking international passenger planes is a major innovation in itself.
But there’s more.
The airport was built for a half to a third what a comparable airport could be built for anywhere else.
Cost was contained laying the runway in continuous runs using Wagners own “green” concrete, which is lightweight and strong, not really concrete at all, and emits far less CO2 in its production than the conventional kind.
The airport was built in 18 months, largely because government got out of the way. As no one had built an airport of this scale for 50 years there were no set guidelines. Wagners was instrumental in working with the government to implement proper processes. More innovation, this time in governance.
Wagners might be quarrymen, and there are few industries more basic than that, but they have used skills learned in that business and their own brains, finances and aptitudes to transform Toowoomba, airport construction, building materials production, bureaucratic structures, and the logistics network of south east Queensland.
On top of that, while they talk in terms of it being a 100 year project, in fact Wagner claims it is breaking even at the moment, and he should have a return on capital in another 18 months.
This is worthwhile innovation. No government funding, no government conferences, and no government consultants. Contributing, not taking.
In fact, at $200m construction cost, the airport is 11% larger than the entire government innovation program.
Wagner’s story is repeated all over our continent and our history. The elements are always the same. Individual initiative in an industry we already know well, returning a profit from the get-go.
Whether it is the stump jump plough, the combine harvester, merino sheep, or the flotation separation method that turned BHP from a useless hill of ore into one of our few major multi-nationals.
If you were looking for areas for innovation in Queensland it wouldn’t be specifically in science and technology. It would be in industries like mining, construction, tourism, and agriculture; the industries we already do well, and where we already have a lead.
Science and technology would play their part, but what is much more important is a population of people who can spot an opportunity and who are prepared to take a risk.
A key to this is an education system that imparts foundational skills and knowledge, in which case, this year’s NAPLAN results are the best news innovation has got in Queensland for quite some time.
But the education system must do much more. It must inculcate and inspire an innovative frame of mind.
To which end the government would be better off using most of the $180m simplifying government legislation and regulations, and reducing taxation, to encourage and accommodate the new and the novel.
The balance could be spent producing a book on our hero(in)es of innovation, distributing it to Queensland shools, and making it part of the history/studies of society curriculum.
Government has a role in innovation, but it is only a supporting role. The real role is done by culture, and for that we need to celebrate the stories of those who have already achieved, then copy them.