Delving into the Innovation Ecosystem

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.


Image result for brainport
TU Eindhoven now markets itself as the centre of the world’s smartest region

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.

Prof Jon McCormack talks on the creative interface

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.




Visualising the beauty of data

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen some inspiring works which highlight the way ahead for data visualisation. While well tabulated, graphed and mapped data in 2D can provide a high level of information for interpretation and decision making – shouldn’t good data also make you feel something?

Co-founders of Sydney based company Code on Canvas,  Lukasz Karluk and René Christen, started by developing interactive projection art for urban environments but have turned to develop a range of other data visualisation applications. They show how data in the hands of artists can become a playful and aesthetic medium in its own right. By taking real-time seismic data they produced ‘Energy Pools’, a generative animated data painting for a major energy organisation. Although this data is an important element of the organisation’s core business, the work by Code on Canvas was commissioned and displayed by the company as a digital art work.


Exxon Energy Pools
Still image from ‘ENERGY POOLS’ Code on Canvas


For over three years Tom Chandler and fellow researchers from the Sensilab team, based at Monash University, have painstakingly reconstructed the Angkor Wat complex to visualise how the sophisticated temple landscape may have appeared in the 13th Century AD. The 3D rendering of the complex is based on architectural information of remnant buildings, archaeological artifacts, and other historical data. The next phase for the team was to populate the environment with ‘actors’ based on current interpretations of how the community and visiting pilgrims may have interacted in and around the temple site. The generated mapping of the population has in itself presented alternative understandings of the site. For the casual viewer the aesthetic beauty of the model alone is a mesmerising insight into this remarkable World Heritage location.


Closer to home an exhibition currently showing at the State Library, “Locus Amoenus” (Place of Delight) by John Power, presents another generative environment. For this work rather than faithfully represent the environment, John has developed a more imagined environment to create a sense of place. John (my clever younger brother) is an artist and animator but has applied his skills to create a digital world based on a series of contrasting Victorian landscapes. The generated visualisation takes us through forests, rivers, coastline and mountains.

When I arrive the AI shuttle programmed into the animation, has just picked up the camera and dropped it off to take us on a gentle walk through the sclerophyll forest environment. For me it’s a recognisable and soothing representation of the familiar foothills of the Dandenongs.

Detail – Indigenous vegetation “Locus Amoenus” by John Power

The landscape is lush with vegetation of faithfully rendered indigenous species from around Victoria and the viewer is offered time to observe and feel the environment.

The immersive work also takes Melbourne’s much loved real-time weather data from the BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) to animate the landscape. Wind speed, temperature, cloud cover, humidity as well as the diurnal changes of light are brought to life in the space, through the movement of water and foliage, recreating the outside world.

While most of us could simply step outside to have this experience, John’s work has also been displayed at Victoria’s Peter McCallum Cancer Centre, allowing people to have some respite from their treatment and care during times when getting outside is difficult.

While I was at the exhibition, the therapeutic value of the ambient work was self-evident – even a small gang of four lively brothers took the chance to chill out in beanbags and take in the atmosphere which had an almost immediate pacifying effect. While most visual animations we experience aim to stimulate and activate us – particularly animations aimed at children through advertising, gaming and film, John’s work aims to engage the senses in a more meditative and personal way.

By the time I leave the Library the sun is setting and the animation is also settling in for the night. If we had been able to stay we would have seen the planets, moon and stars rise in the landscape too.


Screen image of Locus Amoenus – generative ambient environment at the State Library


Locus Amoenus is a free exhibition on at the State Library until 17 June.

Links for more information

Code on Canvas


John Power’s Locus Amoenus


posted by Megan Power 11 June 2017

Monkey Gully Research is pleased to promote community based digital art initiatives





Solution finders are somewhere in the talent pool of most organisations. Supporting and understanding the work specialists take on, capturing their expertise and managing their input are key demands for innovative practices in the workplace. They are willing to passionately search for the source of a stream and pursue its course at the same time.