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Calling all bridge-builders

Updated: Apr 24

Narelle Kennedy, The Kennedy Company

April 12, 2024

Australia's industry policy is at a tipping point. From decades of minimalist government to taking the lead on co-creating strategic industries and markets that serve Australia's national interest.

This revitalised approach to industry policy is designed to create jobs and opportunities in a productive, resilient economy by addressing big societal challenges, such as the transition to clean energy and advanced manufacturing.

Is Australia up to the challenge? Can the critics' fears of a new protectionism be allayed? How to ensure businesses invest in their capabilities to innovate and compete globally, rather than rent-seeking?

Coherence and collaboration are often underestimated hidden elements for successful industry and innovation policy.

A common critique of Australia's efforts is that they are fragmented over a myriad of Ministerial responsibilities, programs and agencies, with no unifying logic or purpose. Further, their effectiveness is diminished by modest resources spread too thinly.

The Future Made in Australia Act, recently announced by the Prime Minister as the centrepiece of the upcoming Budget, is likely to pull together existing and new policies and targeted industry incentives into one legislative framework. Hence, a more coherent industry policy can be expected.

This is a welcome development, but it can be made more potent by practical and sustained action to ensure collaboration between all those involved in or benefiting from Australia's industry and innovation policies.

Australia is in danger from an abundance of advocates. An array of special interest groups and single-solution prescriptions to advance Australia's standing in industry and innovation rankings abound.

Variously, there are calls for more business investment in new-to-the-world inventions; better business links to universities; greater investment and recruitment in STEM disciplines; more funds for R&D and commercialisation; Silicon Valley-like tech parks and precincts; access to capital for scaling up high-growth firms; smart specialisation in future technologies and industries; and more.

Such advocates are partisan warriors who make a compelling case for their individual cause. The missing link is how these disparate answers are knitted together to generate imaginative new insights and impactful action, enhancing both Australia's economic performance and social fabric.

Deliberate and dedicated mechanisms for collaboration are essential. Sometimes known as intermediary organisations, brokers, integrators or boundary spanners -- each with slightly different characteristics. The all-purpose term used here is bridge-builders.

The importance of bridge-building is often underrated, being seen as a set of soft skills like making connections and networking. To the contrary, bridge-building is a hard-headed intangible asset, better described as purposeful and sustained collaboration. It encompasses skills in negotiation, knowledge synthesis and translation, relationship management, collective problem-solving, and ability to appreciate different and contrary views and to broker acceptable ideas and compromises.

Proficiency in collaboration is increasingly highlighted by innovation researchers and analysts as fundamental to successful economic and industry development. (Green,2023a; Forbes,2024; Merchant and Kastelle,2023).

Canadian policy analyst, Nick Scott, stresses the importance of intermediary organisations, our bridge-builders. He describes their skill sets as having “the potential to drive meaningful change by uniting diverse stakeholders around shared long-term goals……intermediaries can pool resources, leverage diverse expertise, (utilize collective intelligence), and forge connections between government and across sectors to tackle problems from multiple angles.”

This type of collaboration sets a high bar; it does not happen by accident, by periodic joint work between enterprises, or through online matchmaking services and the like. Collaboration that impacts industry policy outcomes is relational, not transactional. It presupposes shared interests, mutual learning and trust. It operates on multiple levels with diverse but related parties. Collaboration of this calibre is a mutually reinforcing eco-system of interactions and interrelationships between those with a common cause.

Specific intervention is required to make this type of collaboration a reality for Australian industry policy.

One immediate and practical step is to fund collaboration infrastructure. Specifically, approval of collaboration mechanisms as eligible for funding in both the National Reconstruction Fund and the Industry Growth Program. This would allow for investment in specialist bodies tasked with creating, nurturing and implementing industry or technology-specific collaborative clusters, districts or eco-systems,

Collaboration, however, is not an end in itself. It is an essential element to make industry and innovation policy fit for purpose. The end goal is to ensure Australia is home to a critical mass of innovative competitive enterprises, providing good jobs and opportunities for a skilled and adaptable workforce, benefiting families and communities. This drives sustained economic prosperity and enhances living standards, quality of life and a sense of social cohesion for all Australians.

For this purpose, we are calling all bridge builders!

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1 Comment

Apr 19

Well-articulated and bringing out some of the crucial gaps in our innovation and innovation-policy context. Bridge building and networking of course, is a major function of the Innovation System that needs to be recognised and nurtured. However, while aspiring for 'businesses to invest in their own capabilities to innovate and compete globally', we should not forget to value what we already have: the high levels of social capital, a reasonably high standard of living and above all 'happiness' in the population (we rank 10th globally). Here we might anticipate a Trade-off triangle between being innovative (= more manufacturing?), being sustainable and being happy. Hence directionality of innovation and how much to innovate appear to be important questions.


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