Last week took me a fair bit deeper into the innovation ecosystem concept from both the macro and micro perspective.
On Wednesday I participated in the LH Martin Institute Innovation Ecosystems seminar, which is one of a series which brings together educators and industry representatives to ask, ‘what can we do to effectively lead on and build innovation?’
With a much-needed focus on the role of higher education in regional innovation in Victoria, Assoc Professor Ruth Schubert shared the positive experience and learnings gained with her fellow delegates following a recent whirlwind visit to some of Europe’s innovation hotspots.
Ruth’s takeaway message was that innovation often happens when communities are in crisis and, in many cases, continuity and stability for redeveloping communities emerge from the leadership of local higher education institutions.
In Eindhoven and Enschade in the Netherlands, the regional Technical Universtities; TU Eindhoven and the University of Twente have reinvented themselves to lead an economic recovery after the slump of key industries. These included the major Philips Industries downturn and the demise of the regional textiles industry in Enschade.
Ruth highlighted how, in just a few years, the Brainport innovation centre initiative of TU Eindhoven, which now hosts the Philips Research Centre and other key innovation labs, is recognised as the third economic engine of the Dutch economy after Schipol Airport and the Rotterdam Port.
While these initiatives need legislative and policy frameworks, as well as investment and local leadership, the case studies also demonstrated the neutral brokerage role of Higher Education Institutions in bringing partners together to make change happen.
CEO of GOTAFE, Shepparton, Paul Culpin described how he was determined to ‘just get on with it’ after returning from the visit to Europe. By reconfiguring their current workshops, investing in new manufacturing technologies and integrating practical teaching and community access, GOTAFE is now setting up a FABLAB as part of the international network which originated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001. Paul said, ‘We can’t wait for the right funding and the right environment, we have to do this now.’
HE Sector leaders at the seminar spoke openly about how tangible issues related to the regional economies are, particularly in the Latrobe Valley with the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels, but also with changes seen through the downsizing of other major regional employers such as SPC in Shepparton and Ford in Geelong. But Paul also outlined how the HE Sector is not only well placed to build co-operation, co-location and collaboration across sectors but is trusted to nurture innovation and ultimately fuel a healthy economic future for regional communities.
The seminar participants also questioned whether the ‘Innovation Ecosystem’ was a real opportunity or a transient fad, along the lines of Autio and Thomas (2014), who also tested whether the term was simply co-opted as management-speak without being actionable. There was no doubt that the delegation had seen the ecosystem in action in Europe but also recognised that innovation could only be attained in a systematic sense through a focussed and situated imperative rather than via randomly dispersing funding or applying fuzzy policy concepts.
Closer to home this potential is made evident by the Tonsley experiment taking shape in Adelaide with Flinders University and TAFE SA as key partners. This major urban renewal is set to demonstrate how whole communities can transition from the industrial and business models of the 19th and 20th Centuries, into a cleaner, digitally fuelled economy. The reinvigoration of the once major car manufacturing site at Tonsley promises great opportunities for existing companies and insitutions but also offers the start-up community space in a vast ‘pod park’ alongside the big players. Tonsley’s Precinct Director, Philipp Dautel, described how the site’s development will also fold in residential spaces for a highly located workforce and offer integrated public transport links to the city and the main University campus and Medical Centre at Flinders.
I came away from the seminar realising that my own idea of what a new innovation landscape might look like is also vague, since (at best) I’ve walked past a FABLAB and nodded knowingly while 3D printers made interesting objects or wandered randomly through a shared workspace without any idea of where this could lead. While I’ve been lucky to work on some large cross-sector partnerships, working with researchers through different stages of the innovation pathway provides a challenging balance.
Luckily Prof Jon McCormack and his team at Sensilab were running a play day on Friday and kindly let a few random PhD candidates loose in their space so I could at least get some actual experience of how rapid prototyping can work. The slightly more serious object was to think about the computer and the creative / innovative interface. Jon kicked off the day with the example of the pencil as the exemplary interface, in his terms as being both ‘immediately accessible and infinitely masterable‘. So far so good.
Jon then challenged us to think about sound and drawing as creative elements for interface creation and asked us to explore how other forms of intuitive interfaces could be developed, in particular, to move the computer beyond being a tool which often ‘got in the way of innovation.’
Despite Jon’s reassurance that I couldn’t break any of the fun LittleBits plug and play electronic ‘lego-like’ kit, it took me a few hours to really start testing out all the bits in earnest. Toby also helped set up a camera on a Raspberry Pi which was quite exciting – one idea we had was to look at how feeding an image back to the robot could alter the drawing tool response. While a team of 5 year olds would surely do in an hour what took me a day, this didn’t overtake the sense of satisfaction of making a prototype drawing machine by day’s end. Although I didn’t quite manage to connect the loop between the prototype robot and what the mini computer could do, my first iteration of a cirulating drawing table triggered by sound was quite a fun moment.
As my understanding over the week also clarified that the ‘Innovation Ecosystem’ can be more than a fluffy concept, I also took on board the message that to be successful and meaningful the ‘ecosystem’ has to be grasped as a broad coordinated endeavour which enables an open system of ideas to flourish. This means – Open Source, Open Space, Open IP and Open to Operate.
For the highly competitive Higher Education sector in Victoria, fully engaging in this opportunity, rather than testing innovation and enterprise in the sidelines, might take time. Evidence from elsewhere suggests that for innovation to become evident as an ‘ecosystem’ adequate critical mass is needed and the HE Sector is ideally placed to provide that platform. While I’m confident that the region that leads this initiative will be far better off, the worst outcome would be for the HE Sector to cling to an old-world competitiveness, only to look around in a few years time and find that the rest of the world has moved on without us.
The LH Martin Institute’s next Innovation Seminar will include presenters from Newcastle, Australia telling the story of regional transition from Steel City to Smart City
Sensilab’s hosts events on a rolling basis – visit the website for updates. There will be another drawing machines workshop later in the year.