Key insights from the Creative Innovation (Ci2016) Conference.

7–9 November, Sofitel Hotel, Melbourne

Ci2016 is described as a cross-sector program of presentations and conversations for people from industry, academia and government interested in the impact of collaboration, entrepreneurship and innovation on business and leadership success.

This was my first time attending the conference as part of a delegation from the University of Newcastle who were a supporting partner of this year’s program. Although I missed two plenaries due to conflicting commitments, the conference was a great opportunity to gain insight into the complexity of disruptive innovation, particularly within an Australian context. I think the organisers curated a diverse and exciting mix of speakers from whose presentations I was able to tease several themes, or opportunities, repeatedly identified throughout the program.

Robots will change the world

Martin Ford’s introductory explainer of the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics on society and economy provided a forecast with a slightly ominous tone. Ford’s prediction is that a large proportion of the human workforce will be deskilled and replaced by automation which will result in stagnant income growth. The fruits of automation efficiencies will be made available to only a small percentage of people who own the robots, thus heralding a primary driver of economic inequality in the future. Several trends that contribute to this notion include robots with industrial perception and white collar automation.

Robots that learn using improvisational problem-solving at a rate far more superior than humans are already here. They use three-dimensional perception to move boxes of different shapes, sizes and weight at a rate of 1 per second, compared to a human at 6 per second — and they work around the clock without getting injured.

The median number of staffing in corporate finance departments has dropped 40% in the ten years from 2004 due, in part, to the role of computers involved in routine, formulaic jobs. This will only become more apparent as machine learning developments within data-driven industries such as law, health and communications are realised. This automation in white-collar jobs is already impacting the employability of recent college graduates. Further, individuals affected by automation will lack the income necessary to drive consumer demand. Ford proposes that progress in automation will have such a huge, divisive impact on wealth distribution and earning potential for the majority that there will be no alternative than to provide a guaranteed basic income or income will need to be decoupled from jobs an aligned elsewhere.

Hiroshi Ishiguro demonstrated how building and using androids provides the platform to better understand human behaviour with applications in the treatment mental and behavioural illness. One example is the Hugvie which includes a vibrator to mimic a heartbeat that has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in humans and modify behaviour of kindergarteners in the classroom. Plus, you can transport your humanoid replica in your hand luggage!

Human ingenuity has likely never been tested more than in space exploration and it was a delight to see QUT graduate Abigail Allwood ‘dare mighty things’ as NASA’s first female principal investigator for the Mars 2020 Rover Mission. Allwood summed up her team’s mission with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, ‘Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat’.

Moore’s Law goes quantum

I lost count of the number of times Moore’s Law was referenced by presenters throughout the program. A person championing the next generation of Moore’s Law is Michelle Simmons, a Scientia professor of quantum physics at UNSW. Simmons is part of a 170-strong team working to develop the fastest practical, programmable quantum computer which, if realised, will place Australia at the forefront of a revolutionary technology.

The ability to sift through large amounts of complex data to provide solutions within seconds will revolutionise everyday applications including banking, drug design, traffic management and weather forecasting. Simmons argues that quantum computing will impact at least 40% of businesses in four main areas: optimisation; big data learning; quantum simulation (engineering); and prime number factorisation. Simmons has proven to be a formidable lobbyist to ensure Australia is represented when such technology is developed having received $26m over 5 years from the Australian Government in 2015. Realising the potential of this technology Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank have contributed $10m each in support. As an antithesis to Ford’s predictions, Simmons argues that advances in technology, such as building super computers, would provide an abundance of employment opportunities in hardware and software development.

Data-driven technology revolutionises health

Daniel Kraft predicts that data-driven technology will drive continuous and proactive healthcare that keeps people out of hospitals — a movement away from ‘sick care’ to ‘health care’. The reduction in costs for development of novel technology has resulted in the ability to leverage real-time data to detect diseases more quickly and ultimately prevent them before they happen. ‘The internet of (medical) things’ (TIOMT) can optimise behaviours and reduce chronic health issues, but what’s really exciting is the applications TIOMT has for transforming lives in developing countries. A serendipitous coincidence was a similarly themed episode of ‘Between Worlds’ podcast with Ali Parsa that I happened across on my flight back to Newcastle. Parsa paints an equally uplifting perspective on the realities and possibilities of health care innovations- a highly recommended listen.

Exponential change is here

Ramez Naam spoke on Salim Ismail’s idea of exponential organisations (ExO) who scale faster than established organisational structures using technology. Naam outlined how any business can apply the ExO principles (IDEAS and SCALE) to thrive, suggesting ExO is a required business model for all organisations or risk a similar fate as the 89% of top Fortune 500 companies from 1955 that no longer exist.

Naam described the deception of exponential growth where there are long periods of disappointment and lack of growth as ideas and market applications are tested followed by a surge in wonder and amazement when the sweet spot is identified. An example cited was Tesla’s P85D, a relatively affordable car ($80k) with ‘insane’ mode (0 to 60mi/hr in 3.2secs), better than a conventional McLaren which is worth more than 3x as much. The capacity of exponential organisations to evolve was illustrated by the example of Uber who is transforming itself as a transport service business reliant on autonomous vehicles. Naan finished with a quote from Charles Darwin, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change’.

Our fear of failure is holding Australian innovation back.

David Gonski believes that Australia’s culture around fear of failure, which derives from European case law that punishes those who fail in business, has lead to short-term thinking in industry, business and politics. Pradeep Philip added to this point in his subsequent presentation with the argument that the current demand-driven university system also defaults to a short-term focus when long-term commitment to innovation is required. Nevertheless, the academic world has much to teach business with Gonski citing the academic model for innovation success where if a hypothesis is negative this is not indicative of failure, but a step towards success. Further, Gonski believes the educational requirements for children to thrive in a seemingly unpredictable future is: keep subject matter as broad as possible for the longest time; a focus on STEAM subjects; and development of emotional intelligence (especially empathy). Two Gonski quotes worth noting: ‘I don’t fear risk, I fear not understanding risk’ and ‘You haven’t lived unless you have failed’.

Michelle Simmons proffered an idea to encourage acceptance of failure by encouraging a culture of celebrating Australia’s collective brilliance by promoting the unsung entrepreneurs that are testing, failing, succeeding and growing every day.

The truth is Australia is great at ideas, but not so good at connecting into enterprise.

Innovation and Science Australia Chairman Bill Ferris revealed that the 20 findings in ISA’s audit of existing innovation systems fell loosely into three areas: knowledge creation; knowledge transfer; and commercialisation. With only 30% of Australian researchers are employed by business, compared to 60% in our more successful national competitors we have much to do to encourage knowledge transfer and commercialisation of research outcomes. Ferris states that incentives for business and academia to collaborate are vital for innovation to grow, a fact people in academia have known to be true for many, many years. I am very much looking forward to seeing the results of the audit when they are released at the end of this year, as well as the subsequent 2030 strategic plan due in 4Q 2017.

A panel titled ‘Energising our intellectual capacity, turning our ideas into enterprise’ highlighted over and over that while Australia excels at research development and research-research collaboration, it is desperately left wanting when it comes to research-industry collaboration. Pradeep Philip explained how innovation is not a department, such as marketing or finance, but rather a mindset that should be occurring in all areas of business. “There is no single source of innovation, it emerges from systems and is influenced by culture”, said Philip. According to Philip, “the fundamental point about collaboration starts with being nice to each other”, a behaviour not traditionally rewarded in the current singular model that instead imposes rules and structures that stifle innovation. Martin Bean furthered this point by reflecting that the three key requirements for successful industry-university collaboration is the same for a successful marriage: motivation (incentives), communication and persistence.

Overall, Australia needs to cut itself some slack — we slay innovation, as Alan Finkel demonstrated with a history lesson in the developments of Australian currency innovations. From hiring a convicted forger to develop the Holey Dollar, the successful transition to decimal currency in 1966 (that would put this year’s online census to shame), through to the introduction of polymer notes (now with added innovation!), Australia may very well be ahead of the game once again with the development of cashless society. Although Lund University may already be one step ahead by using veins patterns in your hands to verify payment.

Ultimately, ideas are the new currency.