Innovation face off: Why we need to look outside government for answers

By Anne-Marie Elias

Innovation has been around since time immemorial; it encompasses the creation of fire, the introduction of micro financing, artificial intelligence, and everything in between.

The current narrative around innovation is focused on business, tech and startups.

While this is absolutely necessary we need to think beyond startups so that we do not limit its potential to solve complex problems.

Innovation is not just about STEM. It is about how we collaborate to solve complex problems in new ways, using people with different skill sets and different ways of looking at things

We have a long way to go for innovation to be meaningful and touch the lives of all sectors of our society.

It’s time: We can no longer be optimistic about the rhetoric and platitudes.  We need to see actions and outcomes.

Why bother?

In Australia one in seven adults and one in six children live below the poverty line, despite $250 billion annual expenditure by three levels of government, corporate and fundraising according to work by Associate Prof. Kristy Muir, Centre for Social Impact, 2013.

This is the worst return on anyone’s investment. Something has to shift and innovation is key.

In the business of social change, people’s lives are at stake.

The time has come to shift things radically, there is no time to wait when, despite enormous investment, things just aren’t getting any better.

A little bit of history

For 33 years I have been in the social change ‘business’ because I believed things could be better. I was taught to get involved – my parents were active in the Labor Party and the social services sector.

From the age of 16, I was a youth advocate and from the age of 21 I worked for several cabinet ministers, NGOs and government agencies at the state and Commonwealth level.

I learnt a lot about how things work and most of all I understood how to get around roadblocks.

I moved from the ministerial office to the public service and then to the NGOs, searching for the place where I could make the biggest difference.

I wanted to help those who had the power to change things to see what I could see – the need to do better with the resources we had, to apply innovative thinking to the way we solved problems.

It then occurred to me that I couldn’t change things fast enough from any of those places.

That’s when I discovered the tech and startup sector. I was overwhelmed by the resourcefulness, collaboration and creativity.

A life-changing discovery

My journey led me to GovHack. This is the largest civic hacking competition in Australia and New Zealand.

The annual competition attracts programmers, designers, data scientists, business analysts and entrepreneurs.

What I love about GovHack is the fact that it opens up government data and allows these collaborators to solve problems in 48 hours.

I know right – “what could be achieved in 48 hours?” you ask. Check out previous years winners and see for yourself.

Hackathons encapsulate methods like:

  • lean canvas
  • fail fast attitude
  • learn by doing
  • design thinking

These methodologies or tools achieve a lot more than years of work in any other paradigm.

We tested this with TechFugees Australia – part of a global movement that supports refugee settlement through technology. Annie Parker brought the concept to bear and in her inimitable style enrolled key thought leaders in tech and startup including Nicole Williamson and myself.

We formed a formidable team and got the absolutely best in the business to collaborate – Alan Jones, Phil Morle, Joanne Jacobs, Claudia BL and many more who gave up their time to come out to Liverpool in Sydney’s Western Suburbs.

We ran the first social co-design hackathon that included refugees pitching the story and mentoring the teams. The outcomes were nothing short of brilliant. Solutions that were better than anything offered by the tens of millions of dollars invested in NGOs over decades.

Why? Because it was startups and entrepreneurs that were committed to finding a solution within a limited timeframe, who collaborated with refugees and NGOs to build solutions that were meaningful and profound – beyond our wildest expectations – resulting in networks and friendships being formed around.

Pollenizer generously agreed to incubate the winning team – a goal setting app – Goalify – and the NGOs – Settlement Services International and STARTTS – put up $10,000 for the winning idea to be fully developed.

We’ve spent the last few months taking the promising ideas to government and as we all know it will take a while before they complete their evaluation, which in itself is a problem.

Here we have solutions to a recognised problem developed at a fraction of the cost and in less time than one thinks possible and we’re in a holding pattern.

Old economy review for a new economy solution results in stagnation.

It’s early days. We are patiently taking government on this journey praying they will come through with seed funding and support to bring the many ideas to reality.

Innovation is about a mind shift and culture change on the ground by the people, with the people, otherwise its just fluffy rhetoric with no landing.

There’s still hope

The architects of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, delivered with a bang last December, could learn a thing or two from GovHack and TechFugees Australia.

While the politicians and bureaucrats are off making $28million ads to promote the ideas boom, they are missing a very real opportunity to mobilise the community that is ready, willing and able to get things happening in the blink of an eye.

The innovation ecosystem is broader than who we see being wheeled out in the media. It is rich, diverse and vibrant and busy getting stuff done.

It doesn’t want launches and glitzy campaigns, nor does it need to hear more rhetoric and platitudes. It’s looking for action.                                                                               

A few weeks ago startup mentor and innovator Claudia Barriga-Larriviere invited me to speak to a crew at the ABC about innovation and government, Claudia has been taking the ABC through a startup process and journey to help them innovate and transform from old world to new world thinking – the visionary is CIO Ken Gallacher who had the courage to bring this concept to his team – now that’s major innovation.

Last week,  I was part of a team that delivered the first Conversation – a meetup just for leaders hosted by Swaab Attorneys. We started small, with a limited list and were blown away when 35 of the 50 guests invited took the risk and cleared their diary at short notice to attend an informal BBQ lunch at which we chose to observe The Chatham House Rule.

There were no long speeches at the lunch, nor was there any formality. It was simply an opportunity for leaders to gather, catch up on what was happening across the ecosystem, resolve outstanding issues, swap ideas, offer insight and chew the fat. I know for a fact it also saved people organising 10 meetings, because guests took the opportunity to “catch up at the lunch”.

There was a problem. We came up with a solution. We tested it. It worked. So we’ll do it again.

The ecosystem only works when all the elements work together at the same time. So we can’t rely on just the politicians and bureaucrats. Nor can we leave it to the hubs and their startups, or the VC’s.

It is up to each one of us to lead and show the chutzpah needed to effect the change the nation so desperately needs.

Anne-Marie Elias is a speaker and consultant in innovation and disruption for social change. She is an honorary Associate of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance, UTS. She is on the Board of Western Sydney Women; the Australian OpenKnowledgeFoundation; Autism Advisory Board, and the Settlement Services International Foundation.

This piece was originally published on LinkedIn.

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