Hacking into challenges we face to create a more innovative nation

Let's face it, sometimes the approach to policy in the past has been to call meetings in secret rooms, where nobody outside those walls knows what's said, let alone the outcome of what's said.

But the wealth of our country's knowledge does not reside solely in Canberra. It's important that as the government works to embrace the future, we bring with us the vast pool of talent already pushing new frontiers.

That means all elements of our innovation spectrum - from the startup community to science, higher education, research and the ICT multinationals, as well as traditional segments such as resources and finance - incorporating innovation in their existing structure.

If we can lay the groundwork to link this cutting-edge sector with our elected parliamentary representatives - and the public service - we have a strong launching point for a national discussion around innovation and its corollary of economic opportunity.

That's what we'll be attempting to achieve with the government's all-day policy "hackathon" at startup incubator BlueChilli in Sydney tomorrow.

It's the beginning of a vital conversation for our country, predicated on disrupting traditional processes.

It makes perfect sense to pack out a space like BlueChilli with some of Australia's best problemsolvers and most creative thinkers.

For Policy Hack, we'll be adopting the successful "hackathon" methodology from the global startup community where people from different backgrounds converge, form teams and set about solving a problem or challenge by creating a new business, product or service.

The only difference is that instead of producing, for example, a new app, our teams - featuring business people, venture capitalists, angel investors, entrepreneurs, scientists, academics and other influential thinkers - will be probing the challenges and opportunities we face in creating a more innovative and entrepreneurial Australia.

The building blocks for these discussions will come from ideas crowdsourced on a purpose-built web page.

Hundreds have contributed in the lead-up to the event, with the top initiatives voted on by another 5000-plus Australians.

Our "hack" will conclude with the teams pitching new innovation policy suggestions aimed squarely at national economic growth.

On the broad themes, we'll be looking at how we change a riskaverse culture; how we lure more investment capital to Australian innovation; how we grow our talent pool and attract the best and brightest from around the globe; and how we achieve greater cooperation between higher education, science, research and the private sector on the commercialisation of our great ideas.

I could not imagine a more open or transparent consultation - and dare I say it, nor could the across-government departmental officials who will act as mentors to the teams as they develop their policy proposals.

And yet I cannot emphasise enough that the most successful aspect of a typical "hackathon" is not the actual outcome.

It's not the new business or product raised.

It's the educational experience that permeates every single participant. It's the networks and connections made.

In other words, Policy Hack's measure of success will not be merely the ideas promoted, important as they are.

The real yardstick will be the degree to which relationships are forged between our entrepreneurs, innovators, educators, scientists, researchers - and public servants.

Many of the participants would just not normally engage with government - they are not industry bodies with big government relations divisions.

Malcolm Turnbull has said governments should not fear adopting and adapting in the vein of our innovators. If our Policy Hack model for engagement works - and we take away some solid lessons from our first experiment - this is something we can do more of.

Indeed, our primary hope is for an exceptionally open dialogue to put us in good stead for the next round of discussions.

Surely it's a good thing for the Canberra public service to be spending time talking directly with our nation's innovators, entrepreneurs and science and research experts.

What is there to be afraid of?

Published in The Australian, 16 October 2015