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Leadership & Communication | Technology

A mission approach to lifting innovation performance – Adrian Turner

17 Nov 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

When former CSIRO’s Data61 CEO, Adrian Turner, found himself hosing down bushfires during last year’s ‘Black Summer’, he didn’t know the experience would spark his interest in an initiative that could redefine national problem solving.

Shortly after saving his family’s land from the blaze, Turner set his eyes on a loftier goal: helping Australia become a global leader in fire and flood resilience by 2025.

With his team, he broke the goal down into three audacious missions. Firstly, to tackle any dangerous fire within one hour of ignition. Secondly, to instrument and measure landscapes in new ways. And thirdly, develop national resilience plans customised to each neighbourhood.

Turner and his network collaborated with the Minderoo Fire and Flood Resilience initiative to consider what – and who – it would take to achieve the missions, and by when they could happen.

In doing so, they drew a blueprint for innovation methodology that could help solve some of Australia’s toughest systemic problems and lift its innovation performance in the face of a new world order.

“Tackling any dangerous fire within one hour sounds like an absurd target. But really, when you break it down into work streams and individual projects – it suddenly seems more viable,” Turner said ahead of the Australian Financial Review Innovation Summit.

“The first stream is rapid detection, which can be achieved with advances in on-the-ground and satellite technology. The second is sharing information in real time so the right people get alerted.

“The third stream is fire mapping with next generation simulation modelling. Through this, fire fighters can help predict the direction and nature of the fire spread, identify high-risk areas based on moisture landscapes, and get ahead of where the blaze is going next.

“The fourth stream is enhanced response. Pre -positioning fire-fighting assets and deploying new aerial firefighting tools to high risk areas of fires based on data predictions can enhance our ability to contain them, ensuring they don’t get out of hand.”

Whole is greater than the sum of its parts

An army of fifty government and industry partners stepped up for the exercise – including The Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Council (AFAC), a number of ASX top ten companies, and The Australian Academy of Science. The partners have been meeting fortnightly to track progress, refresh the evidence base, and revise their approach accordingly.

“It’s a truly national initiative,” Turner said.

“Each mission is a series of interlocked projects – none of them achievable by a single person or organisation; nor without a collective vision. There are 75 projects in all, across the three missions.

“This is how all innovation endeavours should look: utilising all the levers available – economic, policy, technology and research – to achieve tangible outcomes, fast and at scale.”

Obsoleting fragmentation

Innovation-active businesses in Australia have below average likelihood of collaborating on innovation endeavours, and this fragmented approach has seen the country lag behind global peers in terms of innovation output.

Today only 2 percent of Australia’s innovations are new to the world; and intangibles are only beginning to elevate in our national priorities, despite making up 90 percent of the value of the S&P500.

This belies our nation’s strong track record in scientific discovery, having made history with technologies like WiFi and the aeroplane black box. More recently, with breakthroughs in machine learning, data management, quantum computing, hypersonics, advanced materials and neuro-modulation, to name a few.

The results are also in spite of our impressive research progress. In recent years, Australian universities have moved up the ranks in terms of research metrics, with above average contribution to the top 1 percent of highly-cited publications.

The upshot of low innovation output is a threatened economy, with innovation needed to re-establish Australia’s value in the global area, in the face of rising domestic labour costs and a decline in commodities.

Global advantage

Turner believes the answer to lifting Australia’s innovation ranking is to use the mission-based approach as a blueprint – not just for disaster resilience, but for any public good initiative with an economic spill-over.

“We need to rethink our national innovation system and the way we drive the commercialisation of deep technology and science, moving towards recasting systems, rather than focusing on individual firms,” he said.

“What’s currently missing is the overarching frameworks to align all the national and global levers – not just research -with larger scale, higher value, and higher impact outcomes.”

To this end, Turner and his network have sought to make the learnings from the Minderoo Foundation mission public.

“We have been radically transparent as we make progress, so that others can learn from our approach, including the areas that haven’t worked. Everything we do is data-driven, including impact measurement,” he said.

“The methodology we are honing is an intangible asset of enormous value to Australia and with wide-reaching applications. Whilst it may sound farfetched to put out any dangerous fire within an hour, we think, based on this approach, we can get there by 2025.

“In leading by example, we could show Australia there is a new and better innovation model to leapfrog other countries. This could help ease the COVID debt burden on our kids and ensure our future independence and prosperity.” he concluded.

Adrian Turner is the Founder and former CEO of CSIRO’s data science and digital technologies arm, Data61, and the current CEO of the Fire and Flood Resilience initiative at Minderoo Foundation.

Join him for a broader discussion on this topic at the Australian Financial Review Innovation Summit – held as a virtual event on December 7 2020.

Learn more and register.

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