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SA's economic saviour is in our midst

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We take the world around us for granted but we do so at our peril – and especially in SA – as the local economy struggles to adapt to new economic realities.

Walking past the astounding South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) building – affectionately known as the ‘cheese grater’ by locals – I see a research future for the state.

Our universities and institutes on North Terrace and South Road must also conduct applied research to help businessmen and women build new industries and revenue streams to provide jobs for young people. That’s what universities in Germany and the Nordic states do.

For the last 20 years, SA’s share of national employment has fallen from 8.3 per cent to 7.0 per cent and is trending down. Private investment has fallen from 7.0 per cent in 1990 to 5.0 per cent in 2013. We don’t have enough private enterprises in South Australia to hire those sacked from the manufacturing and automotive sectors, let alone the thousands of school leavers each year.

These trend figures reflect permanent structural changes in our economy. They are caused by the economic might of China, SA’s low export culture, the high Australian dollar and an over-reliance on the government sector to fix business problems.

InDaily readers know about some of the problems associated with our ageing population, water shortages, the youth brain drain, climate change and the fight to create new jobs. Many of the problems we face today are cross-disciplinary – we need people with specialist skills working together to solve them.

It’s pointless having thousands of academics working mainly in organisational ‘silos’ if they don’t reach out to other disciplines and to the society that nourishes them. There will always be a place at universities for specialist research but if the state that hosts those universities is in trouble, then it’s all ‘hands on deck’ at UniSA, the University of Adelaide and Flinders University.

Applied research provides the means for business people to create and market new products and services or repurpose old ones. We invest in our heads to build a new future with our hands.

To Google is not a verb for ‘research’. Much research starts with a question ‘what if…?’

Let me give you just one problem from my field in generational studies. Cities are responsible for about 70 per cent of the world’s GDP. In Adelaide and our rural centres, we want to increase employment, productivity and economic security while ensuring there are no intergenerational inequities.

We don’t want a relatively small cohort of young South Australians supporting a large, older and possibly more conservative generation of Baby Boomers. There are a number of solutions. Having older people work a couple of years longer to save for retirement is one (NOT raising the pension age). Sending our university students offshore for a semester or two is another. They come back full of new business ideas.

Austin, Texas, is a little smaller than Adelaide and had its own problems in the late 1990s when the dot com boom went bust. Now thousands of graduates each year from the engineering and computer science programs at the University of Texas fuel Austin’s technology and defense industry sectors, which are export focused. The city got behind its local music scene too.

Locally, the rebirth of cool in Peel and Leigh streets in the city, with new bars, is a good sign. These digital natives are the new generation of movers and shakers. New businesses employ people and contribute to the tax base.

Many years ago in 1962, President John F Kennedy set America’s research goal high when he said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade … because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

Kennedy said this would be hard – a test of American know-how. South Australians need the same spirit now. There’s no time to lose.

Malcolm King works in organisational generational change. He was an associate director in Labour Market Strategy at the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in Canberra.

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