MINDS RUBBING ON MINDS: WHY PEOPLE ARE AT THE HEART OF INNOVATION

The following is an edited version of Catherine Livingstone’s UTS Chancellor welcome speech (April 2017).

16 May 2017


I’ve spent two decades talking about innovation, and often it feels like Groundhog Day.

A few years ago Professor Mark Dodgson, from the University of Queensland analysed 75 reports on innovation in Australia over a 12 year period and found the mode number of cross citations was zero.

This was, of course, before Professor Roy Green’s excellent 2015 paper on the Innovation System, prepared for the Senate Economics References Committee.

Seventy-five reports in 12 years is alarming enough, but the absence of cross-citations suggests that something fundamental is wrong.

Perhaps it’s the fact that when it comes to the concept of innovation in Australia, we started from the wrong place.

Let’s go back to the Innovation Summit in 2000, the point in the national conversation when we moved from a focus on invention to one on innovation. My enduring memory from that Summit was the declaration, in the opening session, that there should be no expectation that the government was going to put more money on the table, including for R&D.

There were two concerns with this: the first was the implication that innovation is a government responsibility, to be delivered through a government program; the second was that innovation can be equated with the rate of expenditure on R&D.

Even today, the concepts of innovation and research are tightly coupled in Australia. We have the 2015 National Innovation and Science Agenda or NISA announcement, which led to the creation of Innovation and Science Australia, as the body providing advice to government on science and research and innovation matters.

Without in any way diminishing the significance of either NISA or ISA, or the critical importance of investment in research and infrastructure, the starting point for any discussion of innovation must always be people.

It’s people who innovate, not governments, not institutions, not businesses, but the people inside them. It’s an intensely human activity: minds rubbing on minds.

That is what is so compelling about the UTS philosophy: it’s all about enabling people to people connections.

Whether it’s the core commitment to the importance of the university as a physical place, with a vibrant on campus experience; whether it’s the way of learning, with fewer large lectures, and many more small group and collaborative learning spaces; whether it’s the aspiration to enable all students to have an internship during their degree, or the fostering of the Ultimo Precinct, which includes TAFE, the Sydney School of Entrepreneurship, a dynamic start up community, and the Goods Line all the way through to the Powerhouse Museum.

The essence of innovation is people interacting in unpredictable ways and often producing unexpected outcomes. And that’s where we should have started the national conversation.

We have a unique opportunity, now, to move the conversation to a focus on people as innovators.
And we do need a circuit breaker, because innovation is key to Australia’s future prosperity, yet currently the community is both suspicious of, and sceptical about, innovation as a force for good.

They see it as something that is done to them rather than by them, and this runs the risk of having a community with an unconscious bias tending towards anxiety and pessimism.

Without wishing to compound the unconscious bias to anxiety, I will go to my second theme: technology.
Nick Bostram, author of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies and who has been referred to as the “philosopher of doomsday”, argues that true artificial intelligence could gain the ability to improve itself, and very quickly exceed the intellectual necessity of the human brain.

I am not proposing to debate the merits of this argument, save to say that it is incumbent on us to consider our responsibility for the technologies we are creating and facilitating. To ensure that we do not lose control of our relationship with technology.

I spent my executive career in the technology-intense field of implantable medical devices, and part of the regulatory process was a requirement to conduct a hazard analysis on the product.

That is, after proving that the product, as designed, was safe and effective, the team then had to test the ways in which it could inadvertently be misused, resulting in danger, damage or, in the worst case, death. The design was then modified as appropriate.

In the same vein, I was interested to read a recent account of Tristan Harris, formerly with Google and based in Silicon Valley, who has co-founded Time Well Spent, an advocacy group trying to bring moral integrity to software design, in the wake of social media software being designed based on addiction, and exploiting people’s psychological vulnerabilities.

Harris is collaborating in developing a code of conduct for software designers to underpin a more respectful approach to software design – effectively a Hippocratic Oath for software designers.

Similarly, a university, particularly one focused on technology like UTS, has a clear role in understanding and anticipating the application of technologies, and providing a place for open and informed debate about respective benefits and hazards at the societal level and the potential interaction effects between technologies.

After all, one technology can provide a platform for another to be unleashed – such as the internet enabling social media.

A more current example is the use of insights from the application of sophisticated data analytics capability to huge data sets of seemingly benign data.

To the extent that this debate highlights the need for regulation, it should enable it to be anticipatory, rather than the current situation, wherein much regulation serves only to solve yesterday’s problem.

These are complex issues and may require challenging policy responses. Again, at UTS we should be ready to contribute to the possible design of those responses.

In this context, there is a salutary lesson from the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer for Australia which found that the voice of academic experts has the highest score for credibility in the community – significantly higher than CEOs, Board Directors, NGO representatives and Government officials.

We must, therefore, use that voice wisely in the so-called post-truth, alternative facts environment – and equip our students with the capacity to make sense of knowledge from wherever it is sourced.

It is an incredible honour to be Chancellor at UTS, and to have the opportunity to build on the huge achievements of those who have come before.

To the extent that we can provide an approach to learning, through combining teaching and research, which maximises the people-to-people connections, we will not only be doing the best for our students and staff, but also for the innovative capacity of Australia.