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Innovation: Key to a 21st Century Alliance

Over 200 years ago, one of our founding fathers Benjamin Franklin urged us to innovate, with the warning: “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” One of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was not only a talented statesman, he was an inventor and tinkerer extraordinaire.

Innovation lies at the very heart of what it means to be an American. From the beginning, our country was a grand experiment. We believed then—and now—that freedom plus hard work equals progress. Innovation, invention, and creativity help turn progress into success.

We know what innovation means.

But, what does innovation really look like? And, how do we apply it to 21st century statecraft?

From my vantage point as US Ambassador to Australia, innovation looks like what the US Mission to Australia is doing to put science, technology, entrepreneurship, invest­ment, re­search, and above all else, possibility, center stage in every engagement with the Australian government and public.

Our approach has highlighted President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation as well as Secretary Kerry’s Shared Prosperity Agenda, and earned Mission Australia the “Gold Standard Award for Diplomatic Engagement,” an award bestowed by the corporate-focused network Public Affairs Asia. But, most importantly, our efforts have helped re-define the US-Australia alliance as an alliance for the 21st century and beyond.

Convening the Ambassador’s Innovation Roundtables

We began our push on innovation with three straightforward goals: (1) boost productivity and economic growth in both countries, including providing greater opportunity for the US private sector; (2) promote people-to-people exchanges on science and technology cooperation, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) edu­cation, and entrepreneurship; and (3) broadcast a positive, futuristic, and cutting-edge vision for the bilateral relationship, particularly with respect to youth audiences.

To meet these goals, we set out on a quest to highlight and build on existing innovation engagement involving US research institutions, businesses, and centers of education and their Australian counterparts.

One high profile, successful result was a series of “Ambassador’s Innovation Roundtables” in state capitals across Australia that involved over a thousand participants.  Between July 2014 and December 2015, our Mission hosted six Innovation Roundtables in Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and Perth. Each event emphasized US-Australia innovation success stories, challenges to improving bilateral cooperation and commercialization, and future opportunities, with a focus on local or regional trends.  For example, in Melbourne, we examined the future of advanced manufacturing; in Adelaide, biomedical research and biotechnology; in Perth, entrepreneurship and start-ups.

Our Embassy and our three consulates used their considerable convening power to bring together hundreds of business leaders, academics, scientists, researchers, government officials, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and students to discuss best practices and proposals to expand cooperation across a wide variety of fields.

The beauty of the innovation approach is that it united diverse communities in a nearly apolitical way. The roundtables attracted robust participation despite the political or economic issues of the day, including from high-level government officials and top US and Australian companies.

Participating companies included some of the biggest iconic US brands—Boeing, Cisco, ConocoPhillips, GE, Google, HP, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Raytheon—as well as popular US and Australian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing Chandra Brown took part in the Melbourne roundtable. The roundtables also drew enthusiastic participation from Australian state government officials, the Federal Minister for Small Business, as well as the Australian Chief Scientist. 

If any initiative can be both top-down and bottom-up, then this was it. While a few leaders served as featured speakers, discussion was open to all, and all viewpoints were given a hearing. Our partners—universities, government bodies, private sector companies—contributed to the local flavor of each event and ensured wide participation, especially by students and young people. More than 330 students, both from local high schools and universities, took part in the roundtables, where they were encouraged to pursue STEM careers and their dreams.

Championing Cooperation

The roundtables drew attention to the existing outstanding cooperation across a broad spectrum of endeavor. The United States and Australia are engaged in valuable collaboration that helps us respond to global challenges. Together, the United States and Australia are building next generation technology—from aircraft to medical equipment. Our energy companies are pioneering the forward-thinking technology required to keep costs low, improve efficiency, and minimize environmental impact. NASA’s investments in Australian deep space communication facilities, and collaboration with its Australian counterpart, will make possible the Journey to Mars. US and Australian researchers are ex­ploring the frontiers of biomedicine, the human brain, and cancer. And, our entrepreneurs are creating the jobs and the industries of the future.

Our roundtables complemented events such as the annual OzApp awards and WestTechFest in Perth, Western Australia. American venture capitalist Bill Tai, a kite surfer, came to the western shores of Australia looking for the perfect wave.  He found it, and he also found a hub of innovators and entrepreneurs looking for capital and part­nerships. By joining forces with his WestTechFest—now in its third year—the Mission brought additional American voices—and resources—to the Innovation Roundtable conversation. In Perth, we also added a youth entrepreneurship boot camp. I was lucky enough to help judge the competition and was blown away by the talent on display.

Taking Social Media by Storm

The innovation conversation is tailor-made for social media. We leveraged the roundtables for maximum exposure and reach—in traditional media, but even more so on our website, on Facebook, and on Twitter. We promoted and profiled the events themselves, as well as our partners and individual participants, who in turn expanded our social media reach. What emerged was a story of US-Australia innovation partnerships that got people talking, and using the hashtags #AmbInnovRT and #USandAusInnovate. At one point during the Sydney roundtable, the hashtag #AmbInnovRT was trending on Twitter throughout Australia. The reach for social media material on our innovation roundtables exceeded a quarter of a million people. Furthermore, #USandAusInnovate lives on as the Mission continues to engage with Australia’s leading innovators daily—online and in person and via programs like President Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

Building on Success

In 2014, very few people in Australia were talking about innovation, but by the end of 2015 everyone was talking about it—a welcome development for which the US Embassy rightfully shares credit with the Australian government, businesses, and uni­versities. Our Mission’s roundtables created a perfect environment for connecting the players and developing a bigger picture of the future of innovation in Australia, and the key role played by the United States. The picture that emerged was one of US competitive advantage in the innovation sector, an advantage that is already producing dividends for both countries.

The roundtables grew Mission Australia’s contacts in the innovation space exponentially and have opened doors to engagement with an ever-increasing community of leaders, creators, and shapers. Nine Australians traveled to California in June 2016 for President Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit; many of them alumni of the roundtables—including 11-year-old app developer Hamish Finlayson who stole the show and proved that innovative talent comes in all shapes and sizes.

Vice President Biden’s visit to Australia in July 2016 highlighted many of the areas explored through the roundtables and the broader US-Australia innovation conversation—biomedical research, advanced manufacturing, entrepreneurship. We have signed agree­ments that put the US-Australia partnership center stage when it comes to the Cancer Moonshot and private-public investments in 21st century transportation infrastructure. As the Vice President himself said: “Australia and America are charging forward together to the next frontiers.”

The American Chamber of Commerce in Australia credited the innovation roundtables with sparking a discussion within AmCham on how to best address innovation.  In response, AmCham inaugurated an innovation working group and launched an incred­ibly successful innovation mission to Silicon Valley in November 2015, with a similar 2016 mission in the works. 

In December 2015, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched with great fanfare his National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA)—labeled “the Ideas Boom.” NISA will provide nearly $1 billion US dollars over four years to incentivize innovation and entrepreneurship, reward risk taking, and promote science, math, and computing in schools. NISA includes several policy recommendations that featured in the roundtable discussions—on bankruptcy laws, tax breaks for start-ups, and visas.  We would like to believe that this is not a coincidence.

Defining our Alliance

NISA is a reflection of Australia’s need to promote a more diverse economy in light of the end of a boom in mining investment and the ongoing slowdown in China, its largest trade partner. It also reflects Prime Minister Turnbull’s personal passion for inno­vation. The US Mission in Australia is widely recognized as helping shape the national discourse.

This shared affinity for innovation is fast becoming the hallmark of the 21st century alliance between the United States and Australia. Ours is an alliance that is providing global leadership across the board—in global security, in trade and investment, and in climate policy. Innovation is feeding a hungry world, making our militaries more interop­erable, our businesses more competitive, and our energy cleaner.

By investing in innovation, we contribute to regional prosperity, and promote a shared US-Australia vision of the world; a rules-based, principled world built upon foun­dational values of freedom and individual creativity, democracy, fairness and the pursuit of happiness. 

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United States Ambassador to Australia