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Public Affairs Insights from the Centre

9 Aug 2011

In need of ‘sparks’

George Onisiforou

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and author, describes himself as a ‘frustrated optimist’.

So it is fitting that during a discussion last week in a packed Sydney Opera House he presented his frustratingly optimistic view of his country’s economic status. Mr Friedman acknowledged that the world and particularly the United States face significant challenges ahead – the IT revolution, globalisation, issues with entitlements and deficit spending, and energy and climate change issues.

Mr Friedman lamented his country’s past successes that were rooted in strong and innovative public/private partnerships and policies that encouraged universal education, immigration, infrastructure, risk and capital management and scientific research.

These policies created an environment were ‘sparks’ of innovation and ideas initiated economic and social progress.

However, these pillars are now in decline, and the new political status quo is unable to find sensible solutions to address them.

Mr Friedman’s optimism stems from his belief that these ‘sparks’ of ideas and innovation can be revived under the right policies and strategies.

It’s interesting how this optimism can be applied also to businesses struggling to sustain their edge.

At a time when many businesses are wondering how to make sure their future is sustainable, Mr Friedman’s success formula contains a few key elements to focus on – investing in employee education and training, creating conditions to attract the best and brightest in the workforce, and investing in research and development.

Although these activities may seem obvious their practice in Australian businesses is surprisingly unimpressive. As the recently launched Australian Innovation System Report 2011 shows, collaboration between businesses and universities remains low, and business expenditure on research and development is below the top 5 OECD average.

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