How can engineers help make innovation more than just a buzzword?

Where are the real opportunities to make a difference? What are the things that we can do that have never been done before? These are the questions engineers should be asking themselves.

If you’re planning to talk about innovation with Admiral Chris Barrie, you’d better know what it actually means. The former Australian Defence Force Chief says the term has been added to an ever-growing pile of business and political buzzwords. Innovation, he believes, has become heavy on talk and light on action.

Barrie will go beyond buzzwords at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney when he joins a panel of speakers to discuss some of the big ideas that could pave the way for our prosperous nation.

“Most people I speak to who use the word ‘innovation’ have no real understanding of what that means,” he said.

Chris Barrie Australian Defence Force

Admiral Chris Barrie AC, RAM.

“I’ve quizzed bureaucrats and I’ve quizzed ministers and others, and nearly everybody has said that, in this country, it’s about a building with ‘innovation’ over the front door. When you go to Silicon Valley, though, or to other places in the United States, it’s about what people are doing in the garage. They’re building things; they’re trying new things because they had a bright idea and they got a little bit of money together, so they’re giving it a go. That’s what innovation really means.”

Australia is not short of big ideas, said Barrie. However, he believes our innovative thinkers can be stymied by restrictive laws that prevent them from putting ideas into action.

“I think Australia needs to change its bankruptcy law,” said Barrie, citing US bankruptcy legislation as a better alternative for encouraging entrepreneurship.

“I think one of the consequences of our bankruptcy law is the government has to fund everything,” he said.

“I do think a fundamental building block of our society would change if bankruptcy law changed and there would be more encouragement for venture capital to seed new ideas. Industry and even governments would be more accepting of risk and trying new things. We’re so risk-averse that we won’t try anything that hasn’t been done somewhere else before.

“There’s much less likelihood we would ever have a Silicon Valley in this country, because we don’t have the capital to take the risk of experimentation,” adds Barrie. “I think there’s a real case for us to change because, frankly, at the moment, brain drain means all our best and most talented people go to the United States. I’d love to keep them here.”

Barrie also said more big ideas should be directed to the north of the country.

“We need to look at the possibilities in Northern Australia, as I think there is a lot on offer in terms of new agriculture and new research,” he said.

Barrie believes engineers play a vital role in the future of an “innovation nation”.

“When I think about innovation and about kids in their garages building all sorts of things, I think of engineers,” he said.

“I think of people that can look at technology, look at materials and solve some of the rather persistent causes of problems. I would like to think that their imaginations would be lit up by questions such as, ‘Where are the real opportunities to make a difference here? What are the things that we can do that have never been done before?’. That’s the kind of society I think we should be trying to aim for in the 21st century.” 

Admiral Chris barrie AC, RAN, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, will be speaking about Australia’s grand plan for the future and how engineers fit in at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To register, click here