The Thinkers float

There is still potential for a future government/private sector/university collaboration without involvement from the Premier’s department.

The Thinkers in Residence program reminds us why Adelaide has an international reputation for policy innovation and creativity. “It is a bold idea,” said cultural revitalisation guru Charles Landry, an early participant in the program.

One of Landry’s propositions for the revitalisation of Adelaide was the appointment of an ‘urban animateur’, whose sole role would be to add value to existing initiatives by identifying opportunities to connect people, organisations and events, and to build Adelaide’s potential as a connected and strategic city. “This would be in contrast to the many roles recently established which control, regulate or adjudicate activities,” he suggested.

It could be argued that the Thinkers program ended up creating such a persona in the form of Gabe Kelly, in the role of program director. It is hard to think of a more effective and dynamic animateur, and yet the recent withdrawal of state government support for her program seems to indicate that the controllers, regulators and adjudicators may have won the day.

Or have they?

In a passionate address to Regional Development Australia’s recent state conference, Kelly sketched out a vision for the continuation of the initiative. She described the challenges facing democratic systems of governance, echoing Churchill’s famous dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Democracy requires people to agree with each other, and this usually results in an unsatisfactory compromise to the weakest solution. Sharper, faster ways of collaborating are required to attain the radical shifts in policy necessary for nations, states and regions to successfully tackle a rapidly changing world. 

“The Thinkers in Residence methodology provides us with just such a systems change model,” Kelly argued. “It introduces rapid innovation in policy, procedures and structure, and is applicable to both government and the private sector.”

Since its inception in 2003, the program has delivered numerous accelerated policy advances in health, water, sustainability, planning and innovation. It has leveraged more than $200 million of local and federal investment into new programs and infrastructure, while costing less than $6 million over 10 years to run it. It has also built private sector investment from nothing at all to 60 percent.

A key instigator of the 2011 Göran Roos residency was peak industry association the Australian Industry Group, who partnered with the (then) Department for Trade and Economic Development, the City of Marion and the three universities to focus on the future of the state’s manufacturing sector. Roos was invited to work with 10 South Australian businesses to deliver an intensive business model innovation program. This assisted participants to recast their businesses for survival and prosperity in a high dollar, high cost and high wage environment. 

According to AIG director Stephen Myatt, it would have been difficult to achieve this without the Thinkers in Residence framework. “It was a timely vehicle that enabled us to bring that proposition to government,” he told The Adelaide Review. “The pilot program was an unqualified success, with clear outcomes and benefits that we will continue to build on.”

For participant Alister Haigh, the program highlighted that innovation is not just about product but also about service.  “We recognised Haigh’s growth will be driven by continuing to delight our loyal customers with outstanding service, new treats and a reliable selection of unique seasonal gifts,” he said. “These are the areas where innovation will bear fruit.”

The Adelaide Review asked Gabe Kelly how the Premier’s proposal to ‘float’ the program might work. “There is no doubt that we have a strong product,” she responded. “We have developed a world leading methodology that could evolve in a number of ways… The Belgian government recently flew someone over to take a look at the model, because they can see it offers a proven systems change mechanism, at a time when the biggest drag on progress is the inertia of systems.”

The Belgians are investigating a structure that would sit outside government, and Kelly believes that a two to three year transition plan could achieve the same here. “What is important is that the thinker is closely positioned to the power group of the issue that needs to be addressed,” she says. “The methodology must involve serious leaders who can instigate and invest in change.” 

At the end of the day the Thinkers program can be viewed as part of a proud tradition of progressive policy making, that dates back to the settlement of South Australia, and whose ultimate success will be realised in the trajectories of the ideas it has generated. So Charles Landry’s and Blast Media’s work on cultural capital will inform the recently announced 2013 music residency, and this will in turn bolster the government’s vibrant city agenda. Similarly Fraser Mustard laid the groundwork for the highly successful Carla Rinaldi residency, which subsequently seeded the Premier’s ‘Every Chance for Every Child’ early childhood platform. “These trajectories confirm the undeniable value of engaging with people who see our region with different eyes,” the animateur concludes.



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