There’s something fundamentally wrong with a nation that takes little interest in a brighter future.
Yet, it seems that’s the reality in Australia, the land of opportunity for anyone who thinks inside the box.
The government’s recently-announced cuts to research and development (R&D) are another step backward for our local technology industry and for innovation more broadly.
As a nation, our investment in R&D has fallen consistently since the mid 2000s, and now represents 1.87 per cent of our GDP – far below the 2.4 per cent average among global OECD countries.
Today we rank 76th for our innovation efficiency ratio, which measures how efficiently countries translate research into commercial outcomes.
Despite this, we see a reduction in focus and public investment every year, and a continued prioritisation of mediocrity over innovation.
Perhaps it’s time we move on from the R&D conversation obsession.
Perhaps we start asking other questions that will help to move the needle in a more meaningful way.
Thinking bigger and bolder
Without doubt, R&D is critical to driving new ideas and ingenuity, particularly in the technology sphere where failing fast and learning faster is a must.
However, the processes to securing R&D tax incentives remain constrained by a real burden of proof and are too cumbersome for most start-ups and small businesses, in spite of them arguably being the biggest intended beneficiaries of R&D rebates.
It is for this reason that our nation’s largest companies have benefited most to date – a truth which highlights an inherent irony and flaw that we, as a nation, need to learn from and stop perpetuating.
Investments in the realm of $9 billion have been pledged across tech and science, to support R&D as well as space infrastructure, ‘innovation games’ and digital transformation.
However, with Australia facing economic headwinds, it is apt we demand a change in political mindset that focuses less on the short-term and more on creating the products, services and technologies that will enhance our lives long into the future.
The R&D cuts are certainly a further disappointment to Australia’s technologists and innovators, but they are only one piece of an already unnecessarily-complex puzzle.
There is an immense opportunity for the government to support genuine innovation by investing in how they can effectively support homegrown businesses, especially those with international expansion in their sights.
How can the government do this?
There are practical ways to achieve this, among them:
1. Provide support to technology businesses looking to go global
Securing VC funding has, in recent years, become less of an obstacle than the challenge of building truly global success stories from this part of the world.
Businesses in the US, which remains the heartland for technology and innovation, has a market 10 times the size of ours to tap into and to build scale.
However, in spite of Australia’s market being too limited for homegrown businesses to scale as quickly as their overseas competition, a framework does not exist to support those businesses to set up their base of operations in new markets.
There are significant challenges to scaling successfully and organically beyond our borders that we are not addressing.
We need a government structure that helps these businesses as early as possible in their growth journey, beyond financial incentives.
This structure could include creating overseas-based government agencies and support networks in international hubs like London, providing businesses with intelligence on other markets and how to access them, and helping to deal with foreign jurisdictions.
2. Relax visa policies
The latest budget included another cut in permanent visas, in spite of a number of industries, including tech, struggling to access the necessary talent to thrive.
While the government has allowed greater flexibility for software developers to work here, as with the R&D program the red tape and onerous process to prove the need as an Accredited Sponsor renders few organisations truly eligible.
This benefit needs to be made more accessible to tech companies of every size and budget, at least in the short term.
We have to face the reality: our nation isn’t producing tech talent fast enough to compete in the global innovation race, and the constant tightening of visa requirements is hurting us even more.
Developers are among this year’s list of the most in-demand jobs in Australia and yet companies are putting their development on hold while they recruit, while global competitors continue moving forward.
Immigration is a proven source of thriving tech communities around the world, including Silicon Valley. Constraints in sourcing talent is paralysing us from fostering this community in Australia.
3. Lift our education system
Our STEM education and training systems need to be reassessed regularly to ensure Australia is incubating and launching global technology businesses.
We need to focus on enabling greater industry collaboration and supporting innovation through coworking parks and incubators, grassroots programs through high school and universities to support the next generation of tech talent, and scholarship and residency programs to attract the top minds from around the world.
Where to from here?
This list is not exhaustive but tackling these issues, as a start, would make a real difference.
Our homegrown technology enterprises have proven they can pave the path forward and put Australia on the map, but the framework to support them needs attention if we want our nation to earn its rightful place as the emerging global heartland of innovation, not mediocrity.
Sankar Narayan is the CEO at SiteMinder, a fast-growing Australian tech business.