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31 January 2018

This opinion piece written by Saul Singer was published in the Australian Financial Review.

A few months ago, the prime ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Israel gathered in Beersheba to mark the centenary of the Charge of the Light Horse, in a battle that changed the course of history. The spirit of audacity and innovation shown then is no less relevant now as Australians navigate a world of accelerating change through 2030 and beyond. 

The Light Horse brigade was not equipped for trench warfare, yet they charged for six kilometers over open ground straight into—and over—the entrenched Turkish line. Using tactics invented on the spot, Anzac cavalry overcame a larger force, paving the way for the fall of Jerusalem, the surrender of Turkey, the defeat of Germany, and the end of World War I.

Navigating the future depends on the imagination and daring that Australians summoned back then. With this principle in mind, the Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) board drafted a new report, Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation. As an Israeli on the ISA board, it struck me that Australia, like Israel, began as a start-up that, with just scrappiness and a dream, became a modern, prosperous nation.

Our report includes 30 concrete recommendations to strengthen the Australian innovation system, including start-ups, basic research and the education system. But the report also recognises that incremental improvements alone cannot catapult Australia into the top tier of innovative nations. For this, Australia must aim higher—not just for best practices, but for uncharted territory. But why should Australia aim to innovate faster?

To some, more innovation sounds like a threat, not a promise. Understandably, concerns have been growing over losing jobs to automation. But the advance of technology is not governed by a dial that we can adjust. Technology is a wave gathering speed. Our choice is to let it overwhelm us or put its tremendous force to our advantage.

One way is to aim for a “moonshot,” named after John F. Kennedy’s promise in 1961, to put “a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” Then, that achievement looked laughably impossible. But after billions of dollars and much trial and error, on July 20, 1969, it was done.

Today, we can set other seemingly impossible goals—but without the enormous price tag or the heavy reliance on government budgets. In our report, we suggest embarking on an innovation ‘National Mission’: making Australia the healthiest country in the world.

We believe that Australia can become the healthiest country on earth by changing the way we think about health. Today, health is about treatment. We feel bad, go to the doctor who undertakes tests and tries to diagnose the problem. Too often, we discover conditions like cancer or heart disease too late, when even heroic and expensive treatments won’t work.

Clearly, detecting problems early would be much better. Medicine needs to move from reactive to predictive. While this may sound like science fiction, it can be done with existing technology and techniques already in wide use.

Today it is said that “data is the new gold.” Not just Google and Amazon, but “old-economy” companies like General Electric and Proctor & Gamble, are collecting oceans of data. Computers sift the data to find patterns that predict what people will buy or when a machine will break.

Health can be transformed by doing the same thing for our own bodies. Many cancers, heart, and brain disorders develop for years before we feel them. By collecting and analysing torrents of health data, we can find patterns that flag health threats when they are small and manageable. Pneumonia was a terrifying foe that took the lives of millions, then antibiotics brought it to the level of a bad cold. Early detection and precision medicine can do the same for cancer and other killers—transform them from deadly to treatable.

Because data from multiple sources—such as gene sequencing and wearable sensors—can be easily sent to a doctor anywhere, people in underserved areas or communities can greatly reduce health costs and increase the quality of care, both in Australia and around the world.

Becoming the healthiest country may sound like a bridge too far. But some country will be the first to fully embrace this new paradigm of medicine. Why not Australia?

Developing or obtaining the technology needed is the easy part. The missing ingredients that will distinguish the leading countries from the followers are leadership and imagination. A century ago Australians innovated to win a battle. Today we have other battles, like saving millions of lives and improving the health of all Australians. The battles change but the spirit is the same: set a daunting mission and get it done. Australia can become a global innovation leader by embracing challenges that inspire not just a nation, but the world.

About the author

Saul Singer is co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle and a member of the Innovation and Science Australia board.