We must disrupt ourselves before somebody else does

By Dr Larry Marshall, CSIRO Chief Executive

29 July 2019

4 minute read

CSIRO Chief Executive, Larry Marshall standing in front of a staircase

It is time for the risk takers to step up again.

Risk takers, collaborators and entrepreneurs please step forward, Australia needs you. If we are going to harness the benefits of global disruption and protect our way of life, then Australia needs leaders who are willing to think radically and see what others cannot, who are ready to create bold new visions and who can turn challenges into opportunities.

Innovation takes courage to bet on a better future and to harness science to make that vision real. Having the courage to try and fail – but when we succeed everybody wins.

Australia has become too comfortable – three decades of economic growth has made us complacent. At the heart of it, we lack entrepreneurial spirit – that desire and drive to think and act bigger, to take on challenges and to change the world. But we haven’t always been this way.

As a nation we’ve carved boomerangs for hunting, bred cotton that’s grown around the world, invented fast Wi-Fi for connecting us all – and even received the first images of humans landing on the Moon. We’ve taken on challenges and shown the world what Aussie ingenuity looks like. But what are we showing the world today?

The challenges we face as a nation are spelt out in the Australian National Outlook 2019 report. A report CSIRO produced in consultation with 50 leaders across more than 20 leading Australian organisations.

The report shows two contrasting outcomes. The first shows a prosperous model of growth if we start taking decisive action to address the challenges in front of us; the second outcome shows a long slow decline into the sunset if we take the “do nothing” approach.

The gulf between those who are already taking action around the world and those who are waiting to see what happens is growing exponentially. We can choose to disrupt ourselves, or we can wait until someone else does it to us. Our future will be defined by the decisions and risks we take today and will be invented by the science we back. As former GE CEO Jack Welch said, “change before you have to”. If we wait for others to solve the challenges for us, we can kiss goodbye our high standard of living, high wages and future prosperity.

For too long, we have been a nation of innovation adopters, not innovators. Although this is starting to change, we must put our foot on the accelerator. When we run out of commodities to dig up, what will the next unique industries and products we sell to the world be?

It’s clear we must become a nation of risk takers. We must back ourselves. Right now, we have 11 million Australians with chronic disease, we know there will be 3 billion more mouths to feed globally, we know the world is shifting towards zero emission energy sources and 40 per cent of jobs will be disrupted by digital technologies such as artificial intelligence.

At CSIRO, we see our role as Australia’s innovation catalyst. We run programs like the national sci-tech accelerator, ON, which is teaching Australia’s scientists to be entrepreneurs and creates a pathway to turn science into real world solutions.

Our $240 million CSIRO Innovation Fund is managed by Main Sequence Ventures and has so far invested in about 20 deep tech founders, from an e-health spinout from CSIRO called Coviu, through to a space start-up for digital agriculture called Flurosat. These science-driven innovations create new markets, new industries and new jobs for the future.

After the release of the Australian National Outlook report, our corporate partners involved in the report have also started to step up to effect the change they want to see in the world, like NAB committing $2 billion to support new tech companies over the next five years.

At CSIRO we are not new to big challenges, it’s what we have been doing for the nation for more than 100 years. But this isn’t something we can do alone. Australia continues to score incredibly well on research but very poorly on collaboration between research and industry. Reuters ranks CSIRO in the top 20 organisations globally for innovation – putting Australia in sixth place on that list – but translating our innovation into opportunities to secure Australia’s future will require bold new leadership that embraces collaboration.

We need to let go of trying to do things alone to build an ivory tower for our ego, or worse blaming others for our problems, and instead take a “team Australia” approach for our children. The time is now to up our innovation game, to create those bold, groundbreaking visions and create the future we wish to see.

We’ve been here before – and used science and innovation to end up on top. Food security and quality. Clean energy and resources. Health and wellbeing. Resilient and valuable environments. Future industries. And a secure Australia and region. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the land we live on and the life we live, depends on us. All of these are within our grasp, but only if we rise to the challenge and start taking decisive action, together, today.

This article was originally posted in the Australian Financial Review. View the original article.