Why ‘how to’ guides on innovation are of limited use: An ‘untheory’ of innovation

Looking for a graphic for this blogpost, it was amazing how many of the pictures were of besuited men looking anything but innovative. Not a woman or unbesuited person for miles around. But I digress …

Thinking about how to write a fairly substantial review of knowledge and innovation in the urban water industry, I listed all the things that need to go well for innovation to thrive. What began as a kind of memo to self turned into a kind of unmanifesto, which is to say an explanation for why theorising about innovation can’t be taken very far (or, to be more circumspect, perhaps it can, but I’ve never found it very useful.) In fact there’s lots of writing about innovation – far too much – but most of it – including the best of it – is incredibly light on theory and is in fact storytelling. This is a complement to it, not a criticism. If there’s not much point to theory, The thing is, so many things have to work well together that that is the secret of innovation. And this challenge of ‘alignment’ – of purposes, of people of populations (I meant systems, but it didn’t start with ‘P’ and I’m going for memorability here!) – will be particular to particular projects. There’s little of a general nature that can be said about them. Anyway, what began as a memo to self is now an important part of the way I think about this stuff. A theory of the non-theorisable. The things that must be finessed for innovation – doing things in new and better ways – to thrive in an industry or wider system are many and varied. Just listing them gives an indication of the difficulty of the task owing to its complexity and many faceted nature.

From creation to implementation
  • Innovation must be initiated either by those with a problem to solve or an opportunity to seize or elsewhere within the system. Where this is not spontaneous, it may require careful cultivation and the application of financial and other resources.
  • Once innovations are generated, they must become known to those who can use them beneficially including in some situations, those who are unaware of any specific problems, but who nevertheless can use such innovations to advantage.
  • Those who become aware of new knowledge must understand how to implement it to advantage.
Governance of innovation
  • A specific innovation may solve problems for some levels of a system but it may involve new routines, higher costs, inconvenience or disruption elsewhere. There will often (generally?) be no well-accepted means of determining priorities between the various considerations arising. Continue reading

Time for the ‘reform’ mantra to be modernised: My AFR column of yesterday

The Hawke LegacyBy the time economic reform matured as a political project – let’s date it from Paul Keating’s announcement about its popularity with the resident galah in every pet shop – it was already on the slide into the kind of ideological formula of mercantilism that Ken Henry so powerfully critiqued earlier this week.

Australia was a standard-bearer in areas like trade and agricultural protection, the two airline policy and shopping hours. There, with the stroke of a pen, we swept away the detritus of a century’s ad hoc political favouritism. And unlike our peers in the Anglosphere, we also expanded funding for the safety net – bolstering equity.

But beyond that, as we’ve learned (or have we?), considering policy alternatives against a criterion as crude as how ‘free market’ they are doesn’t work so well. In infrastructure, utility and financial reform, where monopoly and asymmetric information problems abound, regulation remains inevitable and new rent seeking political pathologies lie in wait for those unpicking the old ones. Here our reform efforts brought forth excessively priced toll-ways, desalination plants and airports with the political and official insiders championing the changes parachuting into lucrative careers with the corporate beneficiaries of their reforms to lobby their successors. We’ve seen massive over-investment in electricity transmission and under-investment in other infrastructure.

And yet our policy elite speak as if ‘reform’ is well articulated and will take us back to the glory days of the 1990s Australian ‘reform boom’ that preceded the subsequent resources boom. “Gary Banks’ List” assembled by the former Productivity Commission (PC) chairman – is a canonical PC endorsed reform ‘to do’ list. It was – tellingly enough – cobbled together some months after Glenn Stevens assured a Parliamentary Committee of its existence. John Edwards recently suggested, only slightly exaggerating, that its adoption wouldn’t make a measureable difference to growth.

With national income falling in the most recent national accounts, here are some contemporary challenges and opportunities absent from the list – all of which escape prevailing reform formulas: Continue reading

On the cost of foreign exchange: Scottish independence edition

artiste_207Well gentle readers, it’s come to this. Scottish independence is going down to the wire. It is hanging by a thread, though if you are concerned that I am mixing my metaphors, I think you’re flogging a dead horse after it’s bolted.

In any event, in the question of Scottish independence the question of what currency it will use is the elephant in the room – the sporran on the kilt. If you’ve not been paying attention, the Scottish separatists have been insisting that they can pick up someone else’s currency – the Euro or the Pound – and otherwise enjoy independence.

Paul Krugman is horrified that so soon after the debacle of the Euro the Scots could contemplate this. He’s studiedly agnostic as to whether it might be worthwhile if they had their own currency and focuses on the prospect that they might repeat the disaster of the Euro, or imaging that a monetary union might be a Good Idea outside of a political union. I’m in broad agreement though I think he might be overdoing it a bit.

Meanwhile Joe Stiglitz fancies the idea of Scottish independence if it can help carve out of the British Isles a more egalitarian nation leading him to rather downplay the significance of leaving a political union without also leaving its monetary union. I’m sympathetic to his deprecation of economies of scale as being a big part of the decision. Firstly if you want to be a nation, if you incur a few costs in doing so, that shouldn’t be a big deal in your decision. Further, quite a lot of Scottish governance is already different to British governance so the costs are already there. (As Adam Smith thought in the area of education, some Scottish governance may well be superior. When I was in law school my Evidence teacher was very much enamoured of the Scottish legal institution of the Procurator Fiscal [which is nothing to do with fiscal policy by the way]. But I digress.)

Anyway, one thought that seems largely absent from the debate is that, in this age of the internet, it might well be possible to run a separate currency at a tiny fraction of its current economic cost at least as far as access to foreign exchange (FX) in the spot market is concerned. Continue reading

Queensland as impresario

ChangemakersOn Tuesday I gave a talk to a Queensland Public Service Conference. The Conference is quite a production. It’s a regular annual fixture and makes a good profit. Over 500 people attend and they take the opportunity to fund some excellent speakers. Dominic Campbell who founded FutureGov and is doing great things in the UK – and now here – spoke on the second day as did Gary Sturgess who was his thoughtful, and conservative best even if I didn’t agree with him on a number of points. International authorities were beamed in by telepresence.

In any event I gave a talk entitled ”Impresarios for public and social innovation: Why and How” in which I put some major themes of my ‘innovation without money’ message which I’ve been peddling around Canberra and elsewhere. There are, in short, all sorts of ways in which governments can drive innovation and better outcomes without spending lots of money. I gave lots of examples of public-private partnerships in the above linked talk and in my Brisbane talk to the conference I gave my 23andMe example and some of the design work of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation to illustrate the idea that there are lots of ways in which governments can do great things using instruments at its disposal other than funds or regulation. Governments have substantial convening power and convening power matters more and more as the world becomes more complex and less amenable to coercive solutions. It is also often the case that the architecture of the way systems work matters hugely and yet is often not something that is top of policy makers’ minds.

This was well received but my one regret was that in meeting my agreed allotment of time for my presentation, I truncated the end of my speech in which I was going to make two suggestions – offering two ways in which the Queensland Government Public Service might like to play the impresario. Continue reading

A special new service from Optus

Bad Customer Service

Delivered for your amusement – if not necessarily mine: :)

This conversation took around 15 minutes as I was working on other things.

Hi! You are now chatting with Sebastian

You:I’m buying your $45 mobile package – and porting my number

You:How will it be handled – will my existing service continue until I put in the new SIM?

You:Yoo hoo

Sebastian:I’ll be right with you.

Sebastian:Thank you for waiting. I’ll be with you in just a moment.

You:This isn’t much of a ‘live chat’ is it?

Sebastian:I’m sorry for the delay. I’ll be right with you.

You:Sure you will

We value your business. Unfortunately none of our Representatives are available at this time OR you have reached us outside our normal hours of business. Please continue to browse our site and feel free to use our self-serve options. Thank you!

My Trip . . .

In case anyone’s interested I did an interview on ‘my trip’ overseas recently which if you fancy a bit of light and slightly educational entertainment is here.

Anyway, the main burden of my remarks is that we’re losing ground within the leaders group on eGov and Government 2.0 (which I see as somewhat different things). The UK have been stepping up the pace and are now way ahead of us on the digital agenda including the PIMS agenda – personal information management services - which we’ve barely begun to work on.

This year every student studying at MIT will be given their own bitcoin wallet and $100 in bitcoin. Sounds like a fantastic way to kick off an ecosystem to build the internet of money!

We’re not distinguishing ourselves in this area. The UK has had three PMs pushing the digital agenda – Blair, Brown and Cameron. The US has had Silicon Valley pushing things along and Obama driving things with all sorts of highly talented people brought into the administration.

Us? Not so much, from either party.

How patents block innovation: just where you’d expect they would

Patents and Cumulative Innovation: Causal Evidence from the Courts
by Alberto Galasso, Mark Schankerman – #20269 (IO PR)

Cumulative innovation is central to economic growth. Do patent rights facilitate or impede follow-on innovation? We study the causal effect of removing patent rights by court invalidation on subsequent research related to the focal patent, as measured by later citations. We exploit random allocation of judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to control for endogeneity of patent invalidation. Patent invalidation leads to a 50 percent increase in citations to the focal patent, on average, but the impact is heterogeneous and depends on characteristics of the bargaining environment. Patent rights block downstream innovation in computers, electronics and medical instruments, but not in drugs, chemicals or mechanical technologies. Moreover, the effect is entirely driven by invalidation of patents owned by large patentees that triggers more follow-on innovation by small firms.