John Nichols, Marlene Kanga and Alexandra Meldrum

7 August 2013 — Conference: Australia’s credentials as an innovative nation came into question from Engineers Australia president Marlene Kanga as Engineering Week started on Monday.

In delivering Engineer Australia’s Harricks Address at the Museum of Sydney, Ms Kanga cited the Rudd government’s recent moves to pour more money into propping up the car industry as an example where funding would be better invested into more productive areas of innovation.

“Now more than ever, we need innovation in engineering to solve our great challenges, in areas like energy, food, water, resources,” she said. “We engineers, we’re in the hot seat. It’s all about our problem-solving capacity.”

Ms Kanga – in the first Harricks Address to be delivered from Sydney in 22 years – used references from various international and Australian studies to highlight Australia’s poor performance in terms of the proportion of active innovative businesses and figures that show sliding levels of domestic collaboration.

“We’re doing well in terms of producing PhDs, but most are overseas born students. There is a race on and we need to catch up,” she said.

Ms Kanga was particularly critical of a general failure by Australia’s tertiary institutions to respect and value the IP of student research and innovative enterprises – especially compared to the more nurturing approach taken by institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

Coupled with criticism that too many innovations are sold off just as they begin to show “green shoots”, Ms Kanga commented that “Australian institutions hold on to IP, but they’re not the best people to be doing that”.

Ms Kanga is a fan of design-led innovation – citing examples such as industrial designer James Dyson, innovations from India such as the Aakash tablet and Tata Nano car and 3D printed dresses by Dutch fasion designer Iris van Herpen.

“Australians are fantastic designers…we are coming up with great ideas, but are certainly not letting them bear fruit.”

Looking to the future Ms Kanga said that the four key drivers for improving Australia’s indicators of innovation will be STEM education, infrastructure such as the NBN network, less fragmented government policy settings and encouragement of an “innovation culture”.

Whether Australia will have sufficient engineers in the future was a vexed question at the opening of Engineering Week where a contradiction was raised between shortages in professional engineering positions (being necessarily but unsustainably “topped up” with migrant engineers) against rising concerns at the number of new graduates for whom there is no immediate career pathway.

“Every single engineer is precious, it is ludicrous so many young and, for that matter, overseas-born engineers aren’t finding employment in engineering,” Ms Kanga said.

At the same time as she acknowledged that raising the profile and standing of engineers was an uphill battle, Ms Kanga said that “mega trends” for the future in areas such as robotics and her own company’s expertise in smart analytics and big data should see a steady demand for engineers in all disciplines.

Her advice was to work to achieve a mindset where all Australians hold a level of dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the way things as a prompt to change things. Shifting towards becoming less risk averse would be key, she said.

“Younger people are showing what it means to take on risks. I met a 28-year old engineer recently who was on his third start up, and the venture capitalists behind his ventures were about the same age.

“The Dyson vacuum only happened after thousands of patents. Younger entrepreneurs, including engineering graduates, are showing that if a company doesn’t make it, that doesn’t have to create a sense of failure.”

Ms Kanga closed on an optimistic note. “The innovation opportunities for Sydney and Australia are going to benefit from our highly educated and multicultural society, and a creative workforce. Having a DNA of small companies that are nimble can be an advantage. The sky is the limit.”

Australia’s 2013 Engineering Week runs until Sunday 11 August and features a range of speaking events, site tours and related activities all listed at www.makeitso.org.au/aew

Stephen Olsen is a New Zealand-based journalist.