With the globe's total knowledge doubling every two years, being innovative is not longer simply an economic advantage for nations - it's a vital factor in their survival into the future.
Therefore fostering innovation should be (and fortunately is) high on the agenda for Australian governments.
However tapping creativity is not easy to do. Most organisations and institutions tend to have a love/hate relationship with innovation, seeking to foster it, but also seeking to direct and control it - resisting any potential paradigm-shifting changes that might spoil their plans.
There's an AIM breakfast briefing coming up in Canberra on 26 August featuring Mr Terry Moran AO, Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to discuss fostering innovation in the public sector.
I want to instead explore one way that Australia's governments can tap into the creativity and innovative capacity of all our citizens for the public good.
To achieve this I have to first diverge slightly, to look at what the innovation potential of Australia might be.
Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia in the world.
The English version of Wikipedia, as at July 2008, featured more than 2.4 million articles consisting of a total of over 1 billion words. The full Wikipedia is substantially larger - with figures from April 2008 indicating it had over 10 million articles in 253 languages.
These figures, reported in Wikipedia itself, represent over 100 million hours of human thought and creative effort - all contributed freely.
Australian internet usage
As of March 2008, the average Australian watched 13.3 hours of television and used the internet for 13.7 hours per week, according to Nielsen Online’s 10th Australian Internet and Technology Report (PDF media release) - By the way, this is the first time internet usage has exceeded television usage in Neilsen's research.
Based on a population of 21.5 million Australians, the time spent using the internet equals 15,136,600,000 hours per year - or over 15 billion hours (using American billions).
If Australians decided to spend all of this online time recreating Wikipedia, it would take them the equivalent of three days to create the entire 10 million pages - assuming they started with just the basis Wiki software.
Another way of looking at this is that Australians could in a year create over 150 Wikipedias, simply using the time they are now spending communicating, collaborating, creating and interacting online.
As a contrast - the time Australians spend watching television generates no creative value whatsoever. Television watching is a passive activity that does not involve the creation of any content - it will never result in a Wikipedia or any other creative value.
Fortunately television watching is in decline, while internet usage is climbing quickly.
Tapping Australia's creativity
One way for government to tap the innovation potential of Australians would be to provide the tools and motivation for citizens to interact creatively with government online.
This includes approaches such as
- Collective policy development such as the New Zealand wiki Police Act, as I have previously discussed
- Providing social service forums, where people can share information and collaborate on the development of online and physical products to help others
- Making public data available online in raw forms that citizens can 'mash-up' into useful information and services and share
- eDemocracy initiatives - such as virtual town halls for individuals to interact with their representatives, voting and think-tank forums, where hundreds of thousands of citizens - not just a select 1,000 - can interact, engage and formulate ideas and strategies to enhance Australia's future.
Australia's governments have the ability right now to provide the framework and the opportunity for Australians to meaningfully engage in these, and other, ways.
Other governments are already providing some or all of these services, and are reaping the benefits.
Do Australian governments have the will and culture to step into these areas?
Are they willing to take a risk, allow citizens to share control, open themselves to criticism (which is already out there anyway)?
Assuming Australian governments are willing to take this risk, if, as a result of these initiatives, we capture just one hour per week of Australians' current internet usage, that would be equivalent to Australia creating 11 Wikipedias each year.
That's an enormous amount of creativity unleashed in the public interest.
What do you think?