National Challenges – or Moonshots!

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Australia has many National challenges and they have been challenges for a long time! They are possible Moonshots in our future!

A shot of the moon!
There are footprints on the moon. Buzz Aldrin

 National Challenges:

  • Water
  • High Labour Costs
  • Energy
  • A Mediocre transport system
  • The commercialisation of Intellectual property
  • There are many

We choose to leave as ‘running sores” in our national conversation. Because they are too hard to address or excuses for not doing things!

Human beings are problem-solving creatures and much of our innovation comes from solving an immediate problem or in meeting an immediate need.

There is no better example than the COVID vaccine. In late 2019 early 2020, the world became aware of the COVID virus. It emerged as a virus and evolved into a pandemic. There was global anxiety, fear, panic – borders were closed, lockdowns introduced – there was debate about lives v livelihoods. The virus was exploding everywhere – China, Europe, US – some countries struggled and managed well.

Nothing like this had happened in our lifetime.

As it was happening the scientists of the world were galvanising – a vaccine was needed urgently.Over 60 groups marshalled resources and started work. There was one in Queensland. Nothing of this scale had ever been done -certainly not quickly! Until now a developing a vaccine previously has taken 5-15 years. It was a serious Everest. Nevertheless, the climb was on!

Towards the end of 2020, there were signs that a vaccine was imminent – clinical trials were proving positive, and a couple of candidates emerged as likely vaccines. Pfizer – Moderna in the US – Astra Zeneca in UK with others to come (J&J). China, it appears also had at least one and Russia.

All had fulfilled the requirements for release to the public by early 2021. It is a feat of mind-blowing scale.

It might be called moon-shot, and it happened in front of our eyes!  It appears they are working. Now we are managing the logistics of the actual vaccination and that is another story.

In simple terms what used to take many years was achieved by multiple groups in less than 12 months. What was the catalyst?

FEAR!

The actual threat to human life – a massive death toll! The human instinct for survival kicked in. Human life is paramount! There was a maniacal focus on creating the vaccine to help eliminate/manage the virus. So, what are we learning?

Human beings can achieve amazing things when their backs are against the wall and fear is a major motivator!

In my early career, I discovered there were many theories of motivation – Maslow, Hertzberg, Vroom, McClelland and a range of others. I remember being very excited when I discovered a theory of Job design – what made a job “worth” doing? What motivated people at work? I was discussing this with an older colleague with whom I was working, he listened to me and said – “it was all bullshit” there were only two real motivators for anything – Fear and Greed – everything else was irrelevant.  It was early learning!

So far, I have named three clear motivators for  innovation

  • Problem-solving
  • Fear
  • Greed

All of these address very basic human needs so there is little surprise. There is one however which I suspect drives them all – human aspiration and/ or survival. It starts with “the need to survive and then the need to explore -what’s out there? – where are the limits? What are the possibilities? We all have these basic questions and where do they lead?  In history there are some amazing examples of innovators, explorers, pioneers:

  • Galileo stands out! Newton,Einstein
  • Early explorers: Magellan, Columbus, Cook.
  • The US landing a man on the moon

People are remembered for being the first to

  • Climb Mt Everest -Edmund Hilary
  • Swimming the English Channel
  • The 4-minute mile -Roger Bannister

There have been multiple scientific discoveries by Australians:

  • Alexander Fleming – Penicillin
  • Ian Fraser -Gardasil
  • Graham Clark – Cochlear Implant

Australia has a great record in Nobel prizes in the science and the medical field. (13)

What drives these ideas: A problem to be solved, curiosity, competition, human aspiration!

In all of these examples, there was a yearning to know and be more, to know if we could learn about it; if we could actually do it. It is an instinct so great it has driven the development of the world as we know it!

There is evidence now that this same instinct is driving the world beyond its natural limits. There are now threats named as existential threats:

  • Global warming and the ensuing issues and challenges
  • Overpopulation
  • Pollution
  • Food insecurity
  • Water
  • Weapons of mass destruction

These are challenges (problems) all “created by humans”.

The explorers in a way self-created challenges and problems.

This brings us back to humans as a problem-solving species.

JFK in his speech announcing the Moon shot said

We do these things because they are hard!  Aspiration is a major factor in human progress.

So, at the simplest level we have:

It is too easy to use fear and greed as motivators

A book on Great Australian Speeches edited by Pamela Robson highlights:

“If speeches are a ready way of explaining historical events, they also throw light on a nation’s character. Australians are famously distrustful of flowery phrases and unnecessary verbosity, preferring instead language that is lean, direct and to the point-probably a reflection of a people more preoccupied with staying alive than comfortably developing mission or vision statements.”

So a perspective of this editor having reviewed many great speeches of Australian leaders is, we are  “more preoccupied with staying alive” and “we are famously distrustful of flowery phrase and unnecessary verbosity.”

In the history of Australia which was a bold vision (or a problem to be solved?)– there is a profound lack of National aspiration. It appears our imagination and foresight are limited by small problems. The big problems?

In the time since I published my book, I have given a number of presentations and asked the question: Name a national infrastructure project completed in Australia. Only one is really mentioned – the Snowy Mountains scheme – and it was completed in the mid-1950s. The NBN receives a very tentative mention. Of course, there are many national achievements, and we take them for granted.  They were not constructed as Nation-building projects: They were projects initiated by States formed as a result of Federation –

  • A major Airport in each capital city (driven by each State)
  • A national University system (driven by each State)
  • A national airline (QANTAS)
  • Five of the top ten companies on the ASX were started by the government (mostly banks)
  • The ABC
  • SBS

No one mentions Canberra! Building the National Capital is a major achievement! (some might challenge that!)

(Note: Maha Sinnathamby is current building Springfield in Queensland – the first privately built city in the world as I understand it. It is a Moonshot on its own!)

It might be they were not conceived as nation-building projects – they were responses to local needs and problems of the time.  There was no great national aspiration! But they are great achievements.

I am sure there are many others – I find it interesting that we don’t celebrate them. We take them for granted.

In my book Innovation in Australia -Creating prosperity for future Generations (first published in December 2019) I propose a number of Moonshots for Australia to challenge the existing thinking! I define a Moonshot as:

A Transformative nation-building project with a 30–50-year time frame that has bipartisan support and focuses on:

  • Developing our contribution to humanity, and or
  • Building a major physical infrastructure project that creates (or provide the vehicle for the creation of) national prosperity.

GREAT ASPIRATIONS (Moonshots) require an innovative boldness which is uncommon in Australia. What is your proposal for an Australian Moonshot?

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