Good luck, Callaghan Innovation. You'll need it

Good luck, Callaghan Innovation. You'll need it
If this is how we become the new Finland, I’ll eat my hat.

The idea behind Callaghan Innovation is good but the way it has burst forth has been slow, bureaucratic, and  politically compromised.

pattrick smellie idealog callaghan innovationAccording to prime minister John Key, Steven Joyce is “meticulous” and that’s why Talent2, the hapless Aussies responsible for Novopay, should quake in their boots.

The Minister of Business, Innovation and Employment has just presided over the creation of a new government invention, inelegantly dubbed Callaghan Innovation after the late Sir Paul Callaghan, who became a beacon before his untimely death for the idea of clever New Zealand making our economic future.

It is a process that, viewed from the outside, has been inexplicably hostile to the core cluster of high-tech innovation in New Zealand’s science system, the once moribund Crown Research Institute known as Industrial Research Ltd. IRL was a basketcase that went through a credible turnaround over the past seven years under the leadership of a slightly eccentric Australian, Shaun Coffey. A veteran of similar processes of reform in the innovation system in Queensland, he looked on with both a dispassionate professional eye and some despair.

The idea for Callaghan Innovation is good. The person it’s named after typifies what it should try to achieve. The trouble is that one of the poster- boys for the whole high-value, high-tech manufacturing smarts, Jeff Tallon at IRL, has been quoted as saying Sir Paul Callaghan would turn in his grave if he saw the process being enacted on the fragile, high-value manufacturing elements of New Zealand’s technological capability.

Of course, IRL has its detractors. Those who watch it closely can run a line against its turnaround performance, but the fact of the turnaround remains.

In addition, IRL had come up with a proposal, largely adopted as National Party policy in the 2011 election, to create a new entity, an Advanced Technology Institute, which would add campuses in the Auckland and Canterbury University engineering schools to IRL’s Gracefield, Wellington campaus, and be the place New Zealand technologists would seek help in product development.

The ATI proposal was the product of a previous battle. It was a proposal to save IRL’s unique and real science capabilities in the face of indifference and scepticism at the hands of the previous Science and Innovation Minister, Wayne Mapp, who formally reviewed the 20-year-old CRI model in the last term of Parliament before retiring.

Joyce took the role in 2011, along with Tertiary Education, and was allowed to create the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which has yet to find its feet. Under Mapp’s watch, IRL survived a CRI review led by a successful Kiwi high-value tech entrepreneur Neville Jordan, which saw two separate government agencies with virtually the same name: the Foundation and the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology become a single entity: the Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Sniping ensued and the MSI didn’t last, folded into MBIE, creating who knows what bonanza for the designers of logos and printers of stationery last year.

IRL wondered what the future held. It held Callaghan Innovation, a combination of trade outreach and intelligence- gathering agencies intended to identify where pockets of demand lie for products playing to our greatest known strength. That its head office is in central Wellington, in the same building as the export agency NZTE, rather than at one its science campuses, speaks volumes. The idea is that CI will put together exporter demand, science capability and identifiable markets and allow support for technologies the government should back when clever Kiwi firms come to them with ideas.

An agricultural technology bias is evident, since the Auckland FoodBowl initiative is a partner, but no other such industry cluster is so clearly identified as a priority.

So much for leveraging Auckland and Christchurch engineering schools, or will this set-up be smart enough to join the dots between food technology needs and manufacturing process imperatives, where engineers come in handy? Perhaps that’s the plan.

But don’t ask the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Peter Gluckman, how it all fits together. During CI’s set-up phase, launched on Feb 1 with an acting CEO, he heard more or less nothing from the chair of the establishment board, respected businesswoman Sue Suckling.

Nor did Neville Jordan hear much from Suckling. Jordan conducted Mapp’s CRI review to useful effect and was on the establishment board for CI himself. Joyce himself says IRL never did anything wrong, but the new structure just wasn’t their decision to make. Them’s the breaks in politics. Shaun Coffey gets this and is leaving quietly.

Yet truly great innovation tends to work in environments of experimentation and trust, rather than top-down processes that are neither inclusive nor collaborative.

The way Callaghan Innovation has burst forth has been slow, bureaucratic, politically compromised, and has demoralised some of the most important players on the way through.

If this is how we become the new Finland, I’ll eat my hat.

Pattrick Smellie is a Wellington journalist and founder of the BusinessDesk news service