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Collaborate to innovate

By Anna Campbell

Innovation, the weightless economy and the knowledge wave: yes that is what our country is striving for in terms of our exports and our future. I agree with this as a premise for investment into research and development, but not at the demise of, or in isolation of our agricultural industry. Why would we throw the baby out with the bathwater? In my view, much of our weightless economy should be directly related to our weighted economy, one leveraging off the other, high-end food products beautifully produced with innovative spin-offs in terms of both products and know-how. Sounds glorious, doesn’t it?

Innovation is a word that I hear more and more often, especially in bureaucratic circles, which in itself seems an anathema. But it brings about the question, can innovation be fostered through various schemes, funding and partnerships, or does it just happen if we are allowed to be creative and unimpeded with rules and regulations?

What causes innovation?

A couple of weeks ago, it was with great interest I listened to physics academic and co-author of Get off the Grass*, Professor Shaun Hendy. In this instance, Professor Hendy was presenting his work on determining the causes of innovation on a global and national scale. He quantified innovation by analysing patent registration data. He admitted that measuring patent data is by no means a perfect way to measure innovation; this is especially true when you think that software innovations are largely unpatented. Regardless of this, his findings were still interesting, slightly annoying and a little sobering.

Here is how it panned out:  the number of patents per person, globally and in New Zealand, is correlated with the size of the city; the bigger the city, the greater the number of patents lodged per person. Within New Zealand this pans out as Auckland being our most innovative city. The number of patents at a company level was also related to the size of the company, with bigger companies, like Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, pumping out more patents per person than their smaller equivalents.

Professor Hendy then went on to discuss some of the fundamentals behind successful innovation and lodging of patents. He said the key to successful innovation was collaboration, openness, trust and the ability to work across disciplines and it is here that the big cities and companies have an advantage. In a big company, such as Fonterra, if you are a biologist, you are more likely to work alongside an engineer. You might get talking during smoko, realise how you might work together and then off you go together and innovate. This same behaviour is also more likely to occur in a big city, than a small city, in that you are more likely to casually chat and build collaborations with like-minded people coming from different disciplines because there are just more of them.

Stimulating innovation

None of this bodes particularly well for innovation in small cities like Dunedin, or in agriculture, where many of our innovators are relatively isolated on farms. But I wonder if this has to be our fate. With our small and spread out population, could we be a region that bucks the trend? And if we were to buck the trend, how would we do that?

It seems to me we need to work harder to collaborate in order to innovate. I can’t believe I just wrote that, I am turning into a walking cliché! However, I march on- clichés are clichés for a reason. My first thought is we could create more network events and hope that collaboration springs forth, but the problem with that is that many of us are so busy the thought of attending another event reduces us to tears. Artificial events designed to stimulate collaboration are probably not the way to go and there are some great network organisations in Otago and Southland already which we can spring off. 

Perhaps the most important thing business people, farmers, academics…all of us can do to lift innovation in our lowly populated region (and in doing so prove Professor Hendy wrong) is to be open minded and looking and listening for opportunities with everyone we meet, wherever we are. In my understanding of how great innovators work, it is not usually a bolt of light from the blue which sparks their innovation, rather an open mindset and a steady process of scanning the horizon and never being afraid to ask questions. 

And so I finish my column with no intention of getting off the grass or moving to a larger metropolis, instead I choose to be inspired by the words of Nobel Prize winning author and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960):

Great ideas, it is said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations a faint flutter of wings; the gentle stirrings of life and hope.

*Get off the Grass is about New Zealand not living off the cow's back and instead, creating wealth through innovation.

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