By Jacyl Shaw
Director, Engagement – Carlton Connect Initiative, University of Melbourne
Location! Location! Despite Australia’s geographical distance ‘Down Under’, requiring several coordinated flights in order to reach innovation hot spots like London, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley or research powerhouses like Germany, it can create “place-based innovation districts” in order to strengthen its contribution to global innovation.
“Innovation Districts are this century’s productive geography”, says Bruce Katz from Washington DC’s Brookings Institution.
With this in mind, the University of Melbourne (with its partners) is creating Australia’s leading innovation district, a technology-enabled, physical place bringing together a powerhouse of talent from research, industry, government and start-ups, to address the global problems that will become increasingly important to the prosperity of cities. Why? We aspire to see a city, a nation, where social, cultural, economic and equitable prosperity is underpinned by knowledge, networking and pioneering ventures.
We call this the ‘Carlton Connect Initiative’, as the former hospital that’s currently on the site, adjacent to the University’s main campus, resides in Carlton and innovation thrives in spaces where people collaborate and connect. The notion of the localised precinct or ‘cluster’ is well-established, especially within academic and industry circles like Harvard professor Michael Porter’s work on competitive advantage in the 1990s, and economist Alfred Marshall’s work a century beforehand. Marshall, in his seminal book Principles of Economics, saw the value of converging human and social capital, with innovation resulting from clustering together to exchange ideas.
At Carlton Connect it’s not an academic theory, but one being developed and enhanced daily. It is innovation in real time! Currently we have created LAB-14 as the first stage – a two-storey, mini innovation hub prototype co-locating under one roof: multinationals, startups, government research labs, a PhD college, artist studio, university offices, a gallery and exhibition space. There are co-working spaces and ways for serendipitous bumps to happen between partners-in-residence, as well as those who visit this thriving ecosystem driven by research themes of energy, water, climate change, sustainability and city resilience.
Current tenants-in-residence that are relevant to the German-Australian relationship include the Commonwealth-funded research lab focused on climate change (C02CRC), co-located next to the Australian-German Climate and Energy College. There are currently 28 PhD students in the college representing multidisciplinary backgrounds (law, science, engineering, economics, arts) and strategic exchange links to German universities including Humboldt, TUB and Potsdam.
Next to the College is an innovation team from Australia Post, which often includes its CTO, as well as a design-led thinking team from IBM’s Bluemix Garage. Both multinationals engage with fellow tenants through activities such as hackathons, research symposia, events, research projects and student internships. Australia Post also supports the student-led, start-up incubator the Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP) in residence, providing funding for two e-commerce-led startups, and a joint pilot project targeting Victorian small business to accelerate e-commerce innovation, especially for regional and rural areas, women and social entrepreneurs. MAP, in its own right, is strengthening Australia’s role in global innovation.
Starting five years ago, it was recently ranked the eighth best university accelerator program globally by Swedish research firm UBI Global. Its 34 alumni teams have created companies that have collectively raised over $10 million in funding, created more than 250 jobs and generated over $10 million in revenue. The cohort includes a company working on genetically guided antidepressants (CNSDose), a mobile, all-terrain buggy board (BajaBoard) and a renewable energy company focused on grid sharing and solar service (Allume Energy). Other companies include Re-lectrify, founded by German-born entrepreneur Val Muenzel, who was recently selected as one of 20 globally leading innovative science-based companies to pitch at Berlin’s prestigious Falling Walls Conference.
German connections continue via other programs, including the EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges – also resident at Carlton Connect – and the University’s strong and sustained commitment to its research relationship with Germany including PhD scholarships, a business faculty student-led program to Germany each summer and a Berlin-based research office.
The Economist defines ‘innovation’ as “fresh thinking that captures value”.
Innovation districts like Carlton Connect are places that enable such thinking to occur and captured value in the form of new jobs, knowledge, research and new ways of working. Organisations don’t innovate; people do. If creating places for human collisions and sharing ideas has always been part of the human psyche, then the strategic intention to create innovation districts such as Carlton Connect will strengthen Australia’s role in the global innovation conversation, alongside German counterparts.
This article was originally written for the Australian-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry Business Council, on the importance of place in innovation. The observations and examples are global despite the bilateral Australian-German lens. You can also read it on LinkedIn.