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The Impossible Dream – Real Innovation in our Lifetime!

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The Impossible Dream – Real Innovation in our Lifetime!
don quijote illustration cartoon silhouette


It might surprise most Australians to know that our nation has had 11 Nobel Prize winners.


1915William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence BraggPhysics
1945Howard Walter FloreyPhysiology or medicine
1960Frank Macfarlane BurnettPhysiology or medicine
1963John Carew EcclesPhysiology or Medicine
1964Aleksandr Mikhailovich ProkhorovPhysics
1970Bernard KatzPhysiology or Medicine
1973Patrick WhiteLiterature
1975John Warcup CornforthChemistry
1996Peter Charles DohertyPhysiology or medicine
2005J Robin Warren and Barry James MarshallPhysiology or Medicine
2009Elizabeth Helen BlackburnPhysiology or Medicine
2011Brian P SchmidtPhysics

In this window of time when Innovation is the subject of some attention, it is worth remembering that we have a history of leading the world in research, especially in Physiology and Medicine. (7 of 11).

This is a great record and Australia can take some pride in these achievements.

There is no doubt, humankind has benefited substantially BUT in terms of tangible benefits to the average Australian? They are very hard to quantify. Australia is a relatively small country with a relatively short history and in so many areas we pride ourselves on punching above our weight. Scientific innovation is one. But are there others?

In my primary schooling, I learnt that Australia was the largest island and the driest continent in the world. By osmosis, international travel was for rich old people and sporting teams.  Many of the cricket books I read talked about trips by boat to England.

There is no doubt that Great Britain and England and Ireland were a long-distance away. No one seemed to visit Asia other than as a transit point. Odd isn’t it! We are geographically an Asian nation.

Using today’s business language I learnt Australia had at least two major competitive disadvantages:

  • Lack of Water
  • Geography

There may well be others but it seems these two have been allowed to constrain us for a long time. The population of Australia has a limit partially because of water.

Given that these disadvantages were evident to everyone (even small children) in the 1950s, how is it, little has been done about one of Australia’s most critical issues?

Our major research achievements focus on Medicine and Physiology.

There’s been no Nobel Prize for Water-related research.   Water shortage is also a Global issue.

Australia could have led the world, if not for ourselves, for those nations who are less well off than we are!

To my knowledge:

  • Australia does not lead the world in Water management or storage or in any water-related area.
  • If we lead the world in transport and logistics it is a very well kept secret. It appears Australians travel more than other nations in the pursuit of ‘more holidays’ which is in keeping with our cultural pursuit of lifestyle.
  • Consider another story…ISRAEL!  Israel was established in 1948 with far fewer people than Australia under less than optimum conditions.  It is suggested that they had two major competitive disadvantages.
    • Threat of Annihilation
    • Lack of Water

    Over the last 50 years, with a serious effort, Israel has a Defence security system which is World Class.  Not only that, the technology that has emerged as a result of their defence investments has spawned a Technology Industry which is beyond extraordinary.

    Israel with its two competitive disadvantages:

    From Start-Up Nation: Dan Senor and Saul Singer; The story of Israel’s economic miracle 

    Defence – Technology

  • Israel “has the highest density of start-ups in the world, a total of 3850 start-ups, one for every 1844 Israelis, more Israeli companies listed on NASDAQ exchange than all companies from the entire European continent.”Pg 11
  • Lack of Water
  • In the area of water, their research and a range of innovative policies have enabled them to lead the world in:
  •  The fields of Desert Agriculture, Drip Irrigation and Desalination. Pg 110
  • Recycling (“over 70% is recycled which is three times the percentage recycled in Spain, the country in second place”.) Pg 111
  • In 2008 a conference was held in Israel on combating desertification. Experts from forty countries came, interested to see with their own eyes why Israel is the only country in the world where the desert is receding.”Pg113.
  • Australia with our two competitive disadvantages:
    The Impossible Dream – Real Innovation in our Lifetime!
    submerged trees in a lake, at sunset. lake Menindee, outback new south wales, Australia.

    Lack of Water:

    Australia is a land of extremes – the driest continent in the world but we have many floods. In the North of Australia, we have an abundance of water – the rest of Australia is sparse. My colleagues on the land tell me over a 10-year cycle it averages out?

    Water is used as an excuse for the way the population has settled. So the major population centres are in South Eastern Australia with outposts in Adelaide (SA) and Perth (WA).  There has been a minimal effort in the last 50 years to decentralize the development in Australia.

    The recent paper on the development of Northern Australia is seen as a milestone.  It is now 2016!! How long has that taken?

    We appear to have lurched from drought to drought.  In our most recent crises, we introduced water rationing in Brisbane and built desalination plants at huge expense – none of which were ready to use. And then it rained. They are symbolic of a history of Governments without BIG IDEAS.


    Our geography has been used as an excuse for everything. Logistics is a major cost of doing business. Exporting is too difficult and costly. So Australian business has historically sat on its hands. We are very comfortable with our lifestyle and our market. There is a reference in the literature to ‘lifestyle entrepreneurs’.  It appears very little positive effort has been made to position Australia as a serious exporter of value-added product.

    Just getting an additional airport built in Sydney has taken over 30 years to warm up to making a decision and the Very Fast Train has been canned because it is not a good economic proposition!  Of course, it’s not, but if we leave it 30 years to make a decision it will then take 20 years to build it!

    (The Wagner family in Toowoomba took two years to build an International airport.)

    Given the Israel achievement, two reasonable questions to ask might be:

    Over the last 50 years:

    What has the Australian Government been doing?

    What has business been doing?

    Currently, there is much ‘hype’ about Innovation but only a limited focus on the real direction for Innovation.  (The decision about submarines:  an indicator of  direction for industry?)

    There is some ‘hype’ on Big ideas BUT… there is an absence of them.

    A National Infrastructure Plan was published early this year and the majority of projects seem to be upgrades or enhancements to existing infrastructure – important and needed.

    I may be wrong but there were very few BIG NEW IDEAS programmed.  Help me if I am wrong?

    A review of the last 60 years – 100 defining moments in Australian History moments, shows a dearth of BIG IDEAS in terms of projects which define Australia.

    1. The Snowy Mountains Scheme commenced in 1949 seems to be the iconic project.
    2. The Sydney Opera House
    1. The current NBN has been identified as a Nation Building Project but it appears it was ill-conceived and both parties have muddled through.

    Surely the role of leadership both in Government and Business is to create an environment where issues such as the ones mentioned get promoted and resolved.

    It appears nothing has been done about Water in the whole 60 years.

    What about a MOONSHOT like:

    Australia is water abundant for a population of 70 million.

    We can then focus a major research effort on addressing the challenge.

    Australia is geographically situated in Asia. Why not position Australia so our geographic position is a competitive advantage?

    Key elements might be:

    1. Connectivity
    2. Physical Infrastructure (ports; airports; land transport systems)
    3. Abundant Water

    What about a MOONSHOT like:

    Food source to Plate in 24 hours (Globally)

     Major Transport HUBS (Townsville, Darwin, Pilbara) as gateways to Asia – our major market.

    These centres all have world-class Road, Rail, and Air systems established, enabling them to distribute to major cities in Asia?

    There have been times in Australia’s history where big ideas have driven the debate – mostly in Social Innovations.

    • Federation
    • The Social Innovation 0f the Whitlam era (1972)
    • The Economic Restructuring of the Hawke-Keating era (1983-1996) BUT what else is there.

    In my lifetime, the debate about the future of Australia as a viable prosperous Nation which is focused on Creating Wealth has been sparse.  Every debate that I can remember has focused on the redistribution of wealth. This election continues the Mirage!

    It seems extraordinary to me that the NBN on a good day is a political joke.

    Conceived in a random process, as a Nation Building project, it should have had bipartisan support BUT it appears the Labor Party had little idea about the nature and scale of the project and the Liberal Opposition just wanted to politicize it by deconstructing it in a way that positioned them politically.

    The Liberal party came to power in 2013 and made the changes it deemed appropriate.  Now we have a ‘second-grade’ Broadband system and Australia has dropped from 30th to 60th in the world,  in terms of Broadband speed. Given it is the technology which is changing the world, surely a country such as Australia should be leading the World not playing 60th fiddle in a game of TIT for TAT!

    Instead of talking about MOONSHOTS I am proposing a Don Quixote-like IMPOSSIBLE DREAM:

    Australia agrees on 10 Nation Building MOONSHOTS focusing on National Prosperity – both parties sign off and we get on and do them over a thirty-year time frame.

    One must be initiated in each 3-year term of Parliament.




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