25 February 2016

The problem with "adjusted for population"

| Andrew Snell
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Innovation is the flavour of the month, here in Canberra and at a Federal level. That means two things; lots of photos of people holding prototypes of things that you will never be able to buy, and seemingly endless reports and numbers showing how well one place is doing compared to all the others.

It is the second part that I take issue with. Not the competing side, that’s fine – I like to win too. I like it to mean something though, and the way numbers are presented too often simply means nothing. There is always a way to make numbers talk, but when it comes to innovation I think we shouldn’t be bending the truth.

My biggest issue is with something we are often too quick to do in Canberra, the addition of three innocent words: “Adjusted for population.”

When it comes to certain things, adjusting for population is fine. The way innovation is positioned and spoken about though, saying we’re doing well for how many people we have just doesn’t cut it. The whole point of innovation, especially talking about the start-up and research sectors, is solving problems no one else has been able to. It is about being the best.

Saying “we’re doing the best we can for the number of people we’ve got” is a cop out. We still have a fledgling ecosystem in Canberra, and the Australian ecosystem as a whole is only just starting to come to the fore. We have great people, doing great things, but the minute we feel like we need to justify that against our size, we lose.

It is a competition, too. Money goes where good things happen; and, even more importantly, talent goes where good things happen. When it comes down to it, if we want to become a centre of innovation in Canberra, we need to aim to be the best, bar none, because the most robust innovation ecosystems are the ones with consistent attention and results.

The biggest focus for Canberra’s innovation scene needs to be inclusion and collaboration. We need to lose the association that innovation is all tech start-ups and research institutions. The best innovation is coming from bringing technology to other fields, not just technology on its own.

We’re still an immature ecosystem. There is nothing wrong with that – we just need to acknowledge it. There are far too many innovators, entrepreneurs and start-ups in Canberra who won’t talk about what they’re doing. There needs to be a different mindset amongst the innovation community, a mindset based on sharing. The reaction if you aren’t willing to talk about your business or product in the biggest and most established communities, from Silicon Valley to London to Wellington, is simply to walk away and we need to start doing the same.

The idea is to be working together and creating a successful environment. Not sharing or collaborating shows a lack of confidence, in either ability to deliver or the idea being worked on. It follows that lacking the confidence in the work being done is the very best possible, the resulting products are unlikely to stand up on a global scale.

Which completes the circle, bringing us back to the way numbers are presented. We need to be realistic about what we are achieving for two key reasons. Firstly, if we say we are number one when we aren’t, the challenge isn’t being set to be better than we are. Secondly, by misrepresenting the broader ecosystem it becomes more difficult to play a role in it.

So let’s be honest with ourselves, and give our local innovators the best chance they have. Stop saying “adjusted for population” when giving statistics. While we’re at it, let’s lose “fastest growing” – if we aren’t number one we need to pull together, do great things and catch up.

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Canberra suffers from a short poppy syndrome.

Sticking either your neck out or your head up is a quick way to get either chopped off or kicked in.

You only have to look at the best ofs here. Far from being best of anything they are just aspirational sameness. Who can win the popular vote for lack of effort. There are extra points for repackaging however. The toothpick in the burger award.

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