Capital still an ideas leader

My Chronicle column this week is on innovation.
Capital still an ideas leader, The Chronicle, 1 April 2014

Ask a non-Canberran what words they associate with ‘Canberra’, and it’s likely they’ll come back with ‘politics’ or ‘government’. Yet as those of us who live here know, ours is a city that’s considerably more than the seat of government. If I had to devise a single notion that sums up smart bureaucrats, connected academics and innovative start-ups, it would be that Canberra is an ‘ideas city’.

Recently, I had the pleasure of launching a new book by Peter Dawson, titled Creative Capital. It tells the tale of a city that is informed, modest and connected. Peter Dawson discusses the Australian National University’s role in dating rocks from Apollo 11, Vikram Sharma’s work on quantum cryptography and Alex Zelinsky’s machines that prevent drivers from falling asleep. He reminds us of about Chris Parish’s cancer research, Peter Gage’s HIV research, Charmaine Simeonovic’s work on diabetes and Tim Hirst’s breakthroughs on influenza. And he describes Canberra scientists who’ve delivered environmental breakthroughs: Andrew Blakers on solar photovoltaic cells; Stephen Kaneff, Peter Carden and others on concentrating solar.

The typical Canberran might well know about CSIRO’s success in developing wi-fi, a bestselling diet book, printable solar cells and a vaccine for the Hendra virus. But Peter Dawson goes beyond this to tell the stories of commercial entrepreneurs Adrian Faccioni, who developed GPS devices for sportspeople; and Glenn Keys, who created a medical practice that helped save the life of former Timorese President José Ramos-Horta. He describes Scott Rashleigh’s development of optical fibre, Ben Greene’s work on tracking space junk, and Marcus Daw’s work on carbon capture. In the military arena, he tells the stories of Peter Moran (wearable computers), David Gaul and Ian Croser (radar) and Canberra firm X-Tek (body armour).

Peter Dawson’s book made me proud to be a Canberran. But it isn’t just a puff-piece for the city. The book also raises the question of how policymakers should seek to foster innovation. There are valuable lessons in Peter Dawson’s accounts of the early days the Australian National University: for example the focus on personnel over architectural blueprints. And as the stories of Howard Florey, H.C. Coombs, W.K. Hancock and Mark Oliphant illustrate, Canberra’s universities – at their best – can perfect the balance between theory and practice; between policy work and pure research.

Improving the linkages between universities and business is a tough nut to crack. To the credit of the Gallagher Government, it has trialled a variety of solutions to boost entrepreneurship, including the newly formed innovation space Entry 29. Like a good private sector start-up company, it’s wise for governments not to think they have all the answers. Experiment, experiment, experiment.

Peter Dawson – and his wife Liz – are immersed in Canberra’s social and intellectual life. They know as much as anyone that while Canberra isn’t perfect, we’re lucky to live here. And as Creative Capital teaches us, Canberra has produced not just clever bureaucrats, but innovative boffins and creative businesspeople too.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser. Creative Capital is available from Halstead Press, www.halsteadpress.com.au.

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