Rosco McGlashan epitomises innovating with what you have.
Last year, prodded by a businessman I know from the world of online entertainment, I travelled out to a house in Mullaloo to visit a man seeking to break the world land-speed record.
For those who may be ignorant about the high octane world of fast cars, that man is Rosco McGlashan, who is building a rocket on wheels called Aussie Invader that he hopes will propel him past 1,600 kilometres per hour (1,000 miles per hour in the old money) to become the fastest human still attached to the surface of the earth.
I was really taken at the time that this endearing character was doing this project in his backyard, building what looked like a spaceship in a garage that was clearly built in the days before planning bureaucracy had gone mad.
Mr McGlashan is part of that strange amalgam of Australian ingenuity, which is born partly of isolation and partly of wanting to prove we can do anything as well as anyone else, only better.
The former element, isolation, used to be more prevalent before globalisation metaphorically closed the gap between producers and markets.
The culture created by that isolation still exists. It bred an acceptance of innovation, though not necessarily in the way we tend to use the word these days.
The distance and expense of transportation meant Australians had to make do. In that, we innovated in two ways:
• invention – where we designed things from scratch; and
• resilience – we made what we had go further and last longer.
I believe we have become captive to the first definition of this, believing that innovation and the opportunity spawned from it is exclusively the domain of raw intellectual property.
We bemoan the lack of Australian patents and a history of giving our good ideas away for nothing.
Rarely do we look at the other, potentially more valuable, innovation of adapting good ideas to our unique continent and making things work better, longer and harder.
The concept of the bush mechanic who can keep an old Land Rover on the road for decades; the pastoralist who can draw water from an underground aquifer with a few sheets of tin; or the resilient Australian soldier making do on the Kokoda Track against an enemy with overwhelming advantages are what I think of.
We could point to the success of the merino sheep in Australia as an example, but this sector has borne the burden of the ill-fated wool-buying fiasco – a cartel to fix the value of this commodity, which ultimately priced it out of the market.
Thankfully, our innovative wheat farmers managed to throw off the yoke of the single desk before it undermined the success of their adaption of dry-land farming techniques.
I love a story I read recently about the Australian defenders in Tobruk in WWII who fixed bits of captured artillery to old Italian trucks to create a kind of DIY tank in the absence of the real thing.
The British commanders at the time were not just dismissive but actively discouraged the idea because it seemed ill-fitting in a proper army. But when the battle began, these weapons proved effective.
Innovation is something that is spawned by necessity and does not always involve a scientific laboratory and bespectacled people in crisp white coats.
It is what people like Barry Marshall do when they drink a petri dish of nasty bacteria to prove that that is what causes ulcers – even when the scientific consensus around gastroenterology is completely against their theory.
In Australia, I see innovation as something that is driven by individuals who believe in their cause, or their view or their hypothesis.
I struggle to believe that governments or bureaucracies or the community in general have prompted it. Often, innovators seem to succeed despite these things.
Western Australian-based shipbuilder Austal may have used the odd export marketing grant but I’d bet that it was the drive of founder John Rothwell that made it become a leader in building fast ferries.
And what drove him? I suspect it was the rapid development of the local crayfishing industry and public need to get to Rottnest faster – and the pure desire to build a better, quicker boat than anyone else in Perth, then in Australia and, eventually, the world.
In doing so, Austal moved from being an innovator of need to creating something new with intellectual property that went with it. Its ships are bigger and faster than anyone else can build, based on its own designs.
It is interesting that this company is now a major preferred manufacturer to the US military, when so many other subsidised sectors have gone nowhere.
Somehow, the Australian government believes its carbon tax will drive this kind of innovation. I find this spurious. I noted a line I read last week, reportedly from an audience member of a climate change debate in Sydney who said: “We didn’t need a horse tax to develop the motor vehicle or a tax on whale oil to create the light bulb.”
The carbon tax might create innovation but you can be sure most of it will be around tax evasion and hybrid financial products designed to harness the fictional value of carbon, which the government will attempt to price.
By contrast, our much maligned mining sector has gone global on the back of its resilience and the innovation required to survive for long periods of low commodity prices while operating in remote and harsh environments.
Not only have Australian miners learned to hold their own, they have taken this expertise to other parts of the world where most are too timid to tread.
Back in Mullaloo, I wonder about Mr McGlashan and all his efforts to use good, old-fashioned Aussie know-how to beat well-funded and far more professional teams from other countries.
While I am sure he would love to have the resources of the British or Americans, there is something special about doing it yourself.
Not in every difficult situation we encounter will a well-funded and neatly organised group appear to fix the problem. Sometimes, it is up to you – especially in this great continent with its harsh landscapes and wide open spaces.
No matter how much globalisation appears to have made our world smaller – I still see a fast car scooting across a dry lake, churning up dust and proving that innovation is not all about being original, it is also about the best of what you have to work with.