March Director’s message

2022 represents the fourth year since the launch of CEAT in 2018, and two years since CEAT was elevated to the status of an ANU Innovation Institute in 2020.  Much has happened over those years, with CEAT having gone from a concept to a funded-initiative that harnesses the potential of the ANU community to address some of the most complex challenges facing the agri-sector.  While ANU will never be a traditional agricultural research institution, there is extraordinary potential for ANU to “do ag differently”, particularly in areas that require interdisciplinary teams to work with industry on some of the most difficult, long-term problems facing the agri-sector. 

It is with this opportunity in mind that, over the past four years, CEAT has initiated programs that: broker novel relationships between the ANU and the wider agri-sector; develop a deeper culture of industry awareness, engagement and innovation among the ANU community; and scope future challenges facing the sector, and to work with industry to co-design responses to those challenges.   A key aspect of this strategy has been ensuring that we engage with industry leaders to get their views on what they see as the most pressing near- and long-term challenges facing the agri-sector, and what reforms – if any – are needed in the innovation ecosystem to address those challenges. 

An example is the ‘Future Ag-Innovation Panel Discussion’ that we hosted and filmed on March 7th 2022.  The format combined elements of the panel discussion events at evokeAG with aspects of the ABC’s Q&A program, with journalist and Australian Studies Institute professor, Mark Kenny, being the discussion facilitator/moderator.  Joining Mark were six panellists: Christine Mulhearn (Assistant Secretary, Dept Agriculture, Water & Environment), Pip Grant (Senior Manager, evokeAG, AgriFutures), Dave Moore (Consultant, former GM Hort Innovation), Richard Dickmann (Consultant, Apical Advisory), Tracey Martin (CEO, Australian Agritech Association) and Johanna Weaver (Director, ANU Tech Policy Centre).  Over two hours, the panel outlined their views on future challenges, whether we have the right initiatives and settings to address those challenges, and where there are opportunities for Australian to lead global innovation in the agri-sector.  My thanks to the CEAT team for putting on such a professional event. 

Topics covered included: a focus on tech-inspired improvements to supply chains (particularly with respect to proving provenance of exported produce); adding value to the primary products we produce; the importance of the private sector (particularly growth of start-ups) and government (e.g. getting the right regulatory and policy settings) to help drive innovation in the agri-sector; and growth of a globally-relevant agri-tech industry, in part through using Australia’s harsh environments as a test-bed for developing technology to improve agricultural sustainability and profitability. 

The question of whether Australia’s innovation ecosystem is capable of addressing the inter-generational challenges facing the agri-sector led to some interesting discussion.  While some on the panel felt that the current ecosystem was capable of addressing many  pressing challenges, others felt that there was too much focus on near-term, transactional investments and too little focus on higher risk, long-term projects that address inter-generational challenges.  Of note was a question from an ANU-CSIRO Digital Ag Scholar, Michael Wellington, that asked the panel their views on whether Australia’s reliance on labour and immigration policies to address production needs of the agri-sector is impeding technology innovation.  The subsequent discussion with the panel highlighted how policy, regulation and tech development are intrinsically linked to people in a myriad of ways. 

In the coming weeks, an edited video of the ‘Future Ag-Innovation Panel Discussion’ will be made publicly available.   You can also read more about the event from the perspective of an ANU undergraduate student, Pia Cunningham, in this month’s newsletter.

2022 is also the year that CEAT begins a process of internal review and planning for the future. As part of that process, CEAT will explore its scope and remit.  Understanding the nature of the ‘big hairy’ challenges facing the agri-sector, and where there are opportunities for the wider ANU community to help address those challenges, will be key.  The above-mentioned panel discussion was one of several initiatives to help define our scope and remit. Others include: a workshop we are running next month with Oceania 2035 and ACIAR looking at the impact research can have on reducing the carbon footprint of the agrifood sector; work we are doing with CEAT Fellow Nadeem Samnakay and associates on strengths and weaknesses of Australia’s agricultural innovation ecosystem (with a focus on drought resilience); future work with the Australian Agritech Association on the policy/regulatory environment needed to support development of an export-focused, domestic agri-tech industry; and exploring opportunities for emergence of novel food/fibre/pharma-related bioprocessing industries in Australia.  These discussions will help define what areas CEAT should play, and how we should go about maximising the impact of our work. 

In addition to thinking about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of our work, a member of the CEAT Governance Committee – Sally-Ann Williams (CEO of CICADA Innovations) – challenged us to articulate our ‘why’.   Most organisations know ‘what’ they do (e.g. research they undertake, services they provide, or outputs they produce). Some organisations are clear on ‘how’ they do it. However, many organisations find it difficult to clearly articulate ‘why’ they do what they do.  As Simon Sinek says, knowing your ‘why’ – the reason you do what you do – provides a filter to make better decisions. He also says that when people outside your organisation are clear about why you do what you do, they are more likely to engage and interact with your organisation. The ‘why’ needs to be inspiring and provide a way for emotional connection.   Having struggled to answer Sally-Ann on what our ‘why’ was, we invited leaders from a range of institutes at the ANU to a discussion where each institute discussed their what, how and why they do what they do.  Attending the discussion were Anna Moore (Director of the Institute for Space), Mark Howden (Director of the Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions), Lorrae van Kerkhoff (Director, Institute for Water Futures) and Alex Zafiroglu (Deputy Director, School of Cybernetics, that was previously the 3Ai Institute). 

What was striking from the conversation with the institute leaders was the diversity of responses on their ‘why’.  For some, it referred to existential threats/challenges, such as the need to help address the challenges of global climate change and shifting availability of water. For others, it referred to the need for decision makers to adopt a more holistic, systems approach to mapping pathways for technology development and use in society, and the need to help develop an Australian space industry.  For CEAT, our ‘why’ needs to encompass issues such as  securing global food supply in the face of shifting climates, geopolitical instability and changing consumer needs.  And how changing the culture within the ANU community – including how it interacts with industry and government – can help address those challenges. But alone that is not enough.  For me, much of the ‘why’ CEAT was formed, was more personal and local.  For example, we exist in part to help diversify the career opportunities of students and early career researchers in our community.  Our ‘why’ also needs to acknowledge how the development and use of technology depends on people, and how the choices we make in technology will affect communities in rural regions.  In the coming weeks, the CEAT team will continue to ponder these issues as response to Sally-Ann’s challenge.  

Thinking about the issues above is what makes working for CEAT such an enjoyable job.  If you agree, then perhaps reach out to us and become part of our community?

Best wishes. And make sure you read our CEAT newsletter!

Thank you.

Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT

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