By Rick Baker
In 1964, Donald Horne wrote that Australia was the “Lucky Country”. He didn’t mean it literally. He concluded that we got so lucky in our abundance of natural resources that we forgot to innovate and our leaders forgot to lead us towards innovation and creativity.
We’re still suffering from this in 2022.
It’s easier to buy technology from other countries than to invent it here.
It’s easier to dig up coal and burn it to create electricity, than to develop better alternatives.
It’s easier to dig up lithium and send it to other countries, than to make it into batteries ourselves.
As an economy we’ve managed to live nicely off the world’s insatiable hunger for iron ore, copper, and coal.
But luck has a habit of coming and going, and if we don’t watch out, the challenges of climate change, de-globalisation, political unrest, slowing world growth, and wealth inequality are coming to rip our luck away.
So it’s time for us to make a new kind of luck … and to do this we’re going to have to learn how to make things. We’re going to have to turn into a nation of creators.
In 1994, Paul Keating coined the term a “Creative Nation”. Thirty years later, we now need a New Creative Nation.
A nation of people who imagine, design, make and build things.
It’s time for us to make a new kind of luck … and to do this we’re going to have to learn how to make things.
Things that have global scale and play a part in shaping our nation and the whole world. Things that solve the great challenges of our time. Things that generate jobs and wealth for our nation – just as mining and agriculture and banking have done for more than a century.
A New Creative Nation is a nice vision, but it’s not just a vision. In less than a decade, the Australian start-up community has developed into our own mini creative nation. In 2014, Canva was just a start-up, in its first year after launching its first product. Today it’s a global phenomenon generating well over one and a half-billion dollars in revenue – and it’s profitable.
Vince Allen and David Hu lead a small team just south of Sydney, which has recently achieved the world record for solar-cell efficiency. The company is called SunDrive and it’s Aussie tech that is set to change the way the world builds solar cells.
In Canberra, Syenta, a small team out of ANU led by Jekaterina Viktorova and Professor Luke Connal of the Australian National University, has developed a new way of 3D printing micro-scale computer chips.
We all know that the first generation of Wi-Fi was invented in Australia at the CSIRO. Today at an office in Surry Hills, the next generation of Wi-Fi that can connect thousands of devices over kilometres of distance is being brought to the world by Morse Micro.
In Adelaide, the team at Fleet has developed new radio beam-forming technology that forms the heart of its seven satellites already in space. These satellites are empowering new sensing technologies in some of the most remote corners of the planet.
And in the Gold Coast, a team of rocket scientists at Gilmour Space is building the first Australian designed and built rocket that will attempt to launch into orbit next year. Next year Australia might join the handful of countries that are space nations.
In Sydney, brothers Dr Aengus and Dimitry Tran lead a team of doctors and artificial intelligence experts at Harrison.ai. They have built a platform that reads chest X-rays and can diagnose 124 different problems with more accuracy than a doctor – it’s already saved lives.
Led by companies like these, and by many great people, we have proven Australians are creative. We solve ambitious problems. We think globally. And we build beautiful things.
We build big businesses and along the way have created tens of thousands of jobs.
We’re doing it our own way. We haven’t copied Silicon Valley like many others have tried to do. Australia’s start-up community is friendlier, more helpful, less wasteful. It’s still small, but we’ve achieved so much in a short amount of time.
The start-up community has set the example, and now we can be a lighthouse for the rest of Australia to see. And I think we’re at a tipping point. If we’ve proven we can do it, what’s holding Australia back from becoming a creative nation?
I put to you that the only barrier to being innovative on a national scale is our mindset.
Many Australians still don’t get technology, they’re scared of it – scared it will take their jobs, change their lifestyle and erode some of the institutions that are so important to them. I acknowledge that risk, but better we have a say in these risks than just get swept along.
So how do we change the mindset of a nation?
Lots of people ask me what the government needs to do to drive innovation. My answer is simple: be the chief cheerleader for creativity and innovation in all its different forms.
We’re not asking for handouts – we have wonderful incentive programs and we have a thriving venture capital industry. We need our leaders to be bold in helping change the rhetoric that technology is to be feared.
To Ed Husic, Minister for Industry and Science, thank you for stepping up and being innovation’s cheerleader. I’m confident we have someone who gets it.
But, the nationwide change that we seek needs more than government leadership. It can only occur from the bottom up and that means you – every one of you.
So I rephrase my prior question. How can we, the start-up community – currently a small corner of Australian society – go about changing the mindset of a nation?
Here’s what we are calling on you to do: passionately tell your story.
I know many of you out there work in tech and in start-ups. How many of your parents don’t understand what you do? How many of your friends don’t get why you love what you do?
Change that. Take the time to explain to your family and friends what you do and why it’s important. Share your passion and what it means if you succeed. Tell them what you’ve made, but also tell them what it feels like to make something new. The people it’s helped, the change you are making.
By sharing millions of stories of creativity and innovation, we can humanise technology, drive away the fear and inspire the next generation of Australians.
Be ambitious. There’s no reason why the next Amazon or Google won’t be created right here.
Be confident. It’s OK to talk about your success.
Be fault-tolerant. We’re not going to succeed if we expect success every time.
And along the way, let’s discard the jealousy and pettiness of the tall poppy syndrome. It’s the scourge of our lucky country. The delight we sometimes take when something goes wrong, the mock outrage, the alarming headlines to create clickbait.
Tell it as it is – this journey will bring lots of bad news as well as good news, but don’t use it to belittle people or cut off the heads of people who try new things. Don’t get too exuberant in the good times, and definitely don’t get too sad in the tough times.
Our mini creative nation has proven Australians are creative and inventive, proven that it’s possible to create world-class things from Australia.
If we tell our stories over and over again, we might just be the spark that ignites the whole nation. That sends it over the tipping point.
Where every young person in Australia can grow up believing they too can shape the world they live in. When the top 10 companies in Australia are tech companies.
All of us today have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the structure of Australian business, culture and society.
To change the way we see ourselves and shape a new Australian identity by telling our stories and shining a light on the success of our start-up ecosystem.
This is an edited version of the speech Rick Baker, co-founder of Blackbird Ventures, presented at Sunrise Australia in November.
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