CSIRO: Solving wicked problems by making science real

William Cox & Dr Larry Marshall | 05 November 2020 | 29:04

Podcast Transcript: CSIRO: Solving wicked problems by making science real

Maria Rampa: Hi, I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to Engineering Reimagined – a podcast series exploring how, like engineers, people from all walks of life are reimagining the future and their leadership roles in it.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed how science, technology, engineering, research and industry have come together to innovate in ways we could never have imagined. From turning gin production into the manufacture of hand sanitiser and using 3D printing techniques to create face shields at scale and pace for front-line workers, collaboration, diversity and innovation have been the essential ingredients to transform adversity into opportunity.

The CSIRO, or CSIRO as it is sometimes called, is Australia’s national science research agency. It is a leading example of how, when great minds, diverse skills and real-life challenges merge, innovative solutions can result. The organisation is currently working with government, universities, industry and the community on a program to bolster Australia’s COVID-19 recovery and build long term resilience.

This is just part of the CSIRO’s purpose to solve the greatest challenges using innovative science and technology – collaborating on a missions programme across six major focus areas.

CSIRO’s Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall is no stranger to innovation. With a PhD in physics he is a scientist, technology innovator and business leader, having spent many years in Silicon Valley and now, luckily for Australia, back on his home turf.

While the movement for LGBTI equal rights has made significant progress in recent years, with same-sex marriage now legalised in many countries, the LGBTI community still faces discrimination and marginalisation. What impact does this have on workplaces and how can we better support this community, understanding the importance of embracing diversity to enable innovation?

Aurecon’s CEO, Bill Cox, is an engineer with over 30 years’ experience in design and business, currently leading the firm of 5500 people across 10 countries. In this episode, Bill and Larry discuss the importance of multi-sector collaboration and diversity to foster innovation and create real change in our society, or putting it another way, ‘making science real’. Let’s listen to what they have to say…

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William Cox: Larry thanks again for taking the time, really appreciate that. You’ve obviously had an incredibly eminent career as a scientist. Just tell us a little bit about how you got into science and what really sparked your interest in taking on a career in science and some of the things that have excited you about where it's led you.

Dr Larry Marshall: Yeah, Bill, it's pleasure to be here. And it was really my mum and dad, my mum was an accountant. And she made me learn the 13 times tables very early, and I couldn't see much point in that. So I went looking for a point and I found physics, which uses mathematics but it was really my dad and he let me sit on his lap up late at night watching men go to the moon and walk on the moon. And he also led me to let me pull things apart. vacuum cleaners clocks, like my grandfather's grandfather clock. And then he made me put them back together, which sometimes took a lot longer than pulling them apart did and that just really got me interested in how things worked.

William Cox: That's really interesting, and then to think about the role at the CSIRO played with the, space program, in the 60s, and all of the history that's then flowed from that in terms of the radio telescope program. In terms of those projects, and all of the different innovation that has been developed into research and ultimately into tangible things, what are you most proud about in terms of what the CSIRO has done? Both in your time in leading the organisation, but through its history?

Dr Larry Marshall: Do you want me to pick my favourite child?

William Cox: That’s pretty much it! Yes.

Dr Larry Marshall: A little tricky. You know, when we celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the moon landing, and we sat on the dish, and we re-enacted it with the original recordings from CSIRO and NASA, that felt like coming full circle for me, but actually, if I think back to why CSIRO was created back in 2016, it was created to go solve, in a sense, one of the first national missions, which was to eradicate prickly pear. And, that mission got delivered in 1920. And on the 100-year anniversary of our first mission, I was really proud to announce CSIRO's 12 missions to deal with Australia's future challenges. And I think it's that approach kind of Back to the Future, but using the latest science and technology to really, make science real for every single Australian to navigate us out of the crisis from COVID.

William Cox: And that, in itself is a great, a great reflection on the organisation and the role that the CSIRO plays in what we are facing. And when you look at some of the big issues that we've got, obviously COVID-19 is, is there, but we only think back 12 months ago to when we're in the thick of the bushfires and the drought and now we're confronting a pretty global recession. They're not small issues – how do you lead the organisation to focus on those big issues, and then get people to actually grasp them and add it to come up with meaningful solutions?

Dr Larry Marshall: A few years ago, we turned our science to something we hadn't done before. And that was to try new science and predictive analytics to try and map different scenarios for Australia's future. What are the few really big things that if we do them, we'll set the country up for much stronger success, for the next hundred years? And that really was the genesis of the missions. We have to lead with our strengths as a country. So for example, how do we grow our agri-exports business from 60 billion to 100 billion, is that even possible and what problems would we need to solve to do it? And of course, drought is one of the big problems we have to solve to make that possible, we have to grow twice as much food with half as much water. And what's different about them? CSIRO's first mission back in 1920, we did it collaboratively, but we largely did it ourselves. These missions are very collaborative. It's not just us, it's embracing, 39 great universities, many government departments, many partners in industry, like yourself, to actually deliver the real solution, not just the idea, not just the science, not just the invention, but a real solution to the problem. And we're not going to quit on those missions until we've actually delivered those solutions. So that we can really grow our economy here. Because let's face it, first recession in 30 years is a heck of a wake-up call for us.

William Cox: Yes, it sure is. You use the word mission – tell me in using that sort of language, how does that help to motivate and focus the teams, the partnerships that you put together to really get the get the job done?

Dr Larry Marshall: Yeah, it's, it's really central. If we were a start-up, I'd say market and market disruption but CSIRO is filled with people who are there, because they want to make Australia better, they want to make the world better. And that's very much, your classic scientist, so a mission resonates far more strongly than a market but the idea is the same.

We're trying to figure out what's going to disrupt Australia's markets or industry, what's going to disrupt Australia's environment, and what's going to disrupt Australia's society. And a lot of those disruptions of Science and Technology are based on things like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, geopolitical, and of course, then there's the pandemic, you know, biological. So, our modelling flagged the possibility of a pandemic. And like a good start-up, we invested in the things we thought we might need.

Four years before the pandemic, we invested in a domestic manufacturing capability to scale up proteins for vaccines. And that meant we could take the microscopic quantities of say UQ's vaccine and scale it up to a level where it could be tested for efficacy. And we're doing the same thing now with CSL, as CSL tries to scale up both the UQ and the AstraZeneca vaccines. So, that kind of prediction is really powerful if you get a rise, because you can turn the problem or the disruption into an opportunity for Australia to be a bit more unique.

And that was why we were really on the front foot in being one of the first organisations in the world to successfully do the animal trial for one of the first vaccines and accelerated into phase three clinical trials with humans.

William Cox: So, Larry, you've worked on a number of start-ups over the course of your career, and you've also worked in some very large organisations. What's your view on the whole notion that innovation really sits in the world of start-ups, but it doesn't get the same sort of traction within large organisations? Where are you on that debate? Or have you got a different view on that one?

Dr Larry Marshall: Start-ups have the natural advantage that they don't have anything to lose, whereas big established companies have a lot to lose. And that's an unlevel playing field in terms of risk and willingness to bet the company on a really bold idea. So that's why start-ups can disrupt big companies. It is harder in a culture of a big company to do innovation, it certainly was hard, it's been a hard journey in CSIRO, and we're still on a journey. We're not there yet, but we're headed in the right direction.

I just want to go back to the missions, because one of the things we've seen from industry around the missions is how many companies, particularly Australian companies, who wouldn't normally lean in around innovation, have kind of jumped on some of the missions, and one of them is navigating climate change mission. And the other one is the transition to zero emissions mission. And for very practical reasons, companies have embraced the need to do this, but they don't quite know how, or they don't quite know how to quantify their climate risk, or how to mitigate it once they do quantify it. So I think that's helped us co-create some solutions together to really help industry. And that's innovation at pace. And at scale, with very traditional big companies in Australia, who wouldn't normally do that. So there's something in the missions approach that seems to help unlock innovation in big companies.

The other one is around the SME sector, and particularly in manufacturing, where SMEs get stuck, they don't have the money or they don't quite know how to innovate. And we've seen a number of partnerships formed between us, a small company and a larger company, innovating together on something. And there's a lot of situations where a big company like BHP, for example, wants us to help an SME grow into a manufacturer or supplier for them. And so the innovation gets done in the small company, BHP gets the benefit of the innovation, they don't have to change their internal culture, and they get a supplier. And so it's a win win win kind of solution for an Australian company.

William Cox: The role of scientists and engineers is really coming into its own with the issues that we're confronting. How do you think we as a sector can do more to put ourselves forward as the people who can help solve and get on top of some of these issues, because it's just so critical to saving literally millions of people into the future?

Dr Larry Marshall: Yeah. So I guess my headline would be, we've got to make it real. And what I mean by that is, You ask a simple question. How has climate change affected the frequency of bushfires? Or when will we have a vaccine? And I think that's the challenge for the public, for industry, for government.

You know, scientists and engineers often speak a different language. And the public and the government don't actually care about how interesting the science is, they just want to solve the problem, they just want to know the answer. And so a lot of what we've done the last few years is made CSIRO a lot more clear about why we here and what we're actually going to deliver. We're ecstatic when we actually solve a problem. I'll give you an example that kind of quantifies it.

Cattle farmers have been blamed for causing climate change, because in Australia, about 15% of our emissions comes from agriculture, and about 10% of those come from the cattle industry. So we engaged the cattle industry differently and ask them, can we work with you to come up with a solution that lowers your emissions, but doesn't lower your profitability. We came up with a thing called future feed that almost eliminates the greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. And it slightly improves the speed at which you get a beast ready for market. So, it certainly doesn't lower profitability, if anything, it increases profitability.

And when science can do that, the seemingly impossible, a great environmental outcome and a better business outcome, all the politics, all the ideology goes out the window, and it just makes compelling business sense to adopt it.

William Cox: You touched on collaboration earlier on, and certainly collaboration with government, the private sector. Tell me about the keys for you and for the organisation in terms of successful collaboration.

Dr Larry Marshall: Australia is the lowest collaborating nation in the in the OECD, as far as innovation goes. And that's a real problem. COVID has done amazing good for boosting collaboration. I mean, just about every university in the country has worked on some aspect of dealing with the virus. And many, many industry partners have leaned into repurpose factories, they've let our scientists on the factory floor to work with them to try and figure out how to make critical supplies that Australia can't get from overseas because of the pandemic. And if we could figure out how to bottle it and carry it into good times, I think we'd be much better off as a country. But I'll give you an example.

This target of growing our agri-business to 100 billion a year. One of the impediments with that is Australia loses a lot of agri food exports to counterfeiting. So, an angus beef steak is very valuable in other parts of the world, but it gets counterfeited by other countries and other companies and misrepresented and sold as Australian product. So, the only way to really solve that problem is to work closely with the people who produce the products to understand specifically what their challenges, and then dig into the science of genetics, isotopes of water to try and figure out a way – without adding a mark or a code or something that can be hacked to the product, but actually use the product itself as the unique identifier. So, its DNA. And you'd be amazed what we've been able to do by much deeper collaboration with real businesses and universities with great technology, and us the National Science Agency to really start to crack that problem.

William Cox: That's right. And that really resonates with me because of this whole focus on innovation that's so important – getting comfortable with that concept of failure and iteration. And that's how you ultimately get to the clever solution. And having that mindset and having a culture where that's okay, is important. How do you work on culture within CSIRO to nurture that and make sure that the people embrace it?

Dr Larry Marshall: Yeah, the culture is everything's in it. And it's ironic, but in science, scientists have become a little bit risk averse, which sounds strange, because by definition, they're always doing something that's never been done before. And so the likelihood of failure is quite high.

But globally, the system doesn't reward failure in science, any more than it rewards failure in innovation. So a big part of what we've done in the last five years is to really encourage people to try and do things that they don't think necessarily will be successful, and to take away the penalties for that, at least in our organisation. It took us probably a good 18 months to get in the mindset to do that.

But when we started CSIRO, scientists, everyone in CSIRO did a thing called effort logging, which is the digital equivalent of a timecard. And that was so that we could measure how much time we spent on projects and doing things. We were an organisation that was focused on activity, billable hours almost. And we killed that very quickly in the first six months. Because, obviously, you don't want to measure activity, you want to measure outcomes. And we really matured our systems for measuring delivery, measuring outcomes. It sounds silly, but these are simple changes. But gee, they changed the way we thought about our delivery of science.

William Cox: When you think about the situation that we're in now with COVID. Do you think we've learned, and you think we can capture those learnings for the future around operating in a different way, and just having a having a go at things.

Dr Larry Marshall: Our whole culture in Australia hasn't been one historically, that rewards failure. And there's a bit of a stigma about it. It’s probably when I first went to Silicon Valley to live in in the late 80s it was probably one of the starkest differences, that I noticed was there was this sort of embracing of failure, because, well I did six start-ups, right, I was lucky enough to take two public, but actually, every single one of them failed, and nearing bankruptcy or technically being bankrupt and then recovering. That actually was the catalyst for success. You don't learn that in Australia, you learn that failure is bad, and to be avoided at all costs.

And I think that's a fundamental change that we need to go through as a people, and COVID on the one hand, we're doing much riskier things now to deal with COVID. On the other hand, the penalty for failure in COVID is going to be pretty severe. There's no guidebook or rulebook you can go to tell you how to make a decision. So the only tool you've really got is tapping into other people who have different perspectives.

So, for example, in the first few weeks of the crisis, Australia, we were worried we're going to run out of surgical masks. So we got together as a group of unis and a group of manufacturers that we've worked with for years, to try and brainstorm, “how would you make a top quality surgical mask quickly, assuming you couldn't buy anything from overseas, and you had to do it all from homegrown components?” And it was amazing, we're doing research on the factory floor, trying to build it, failing, learning, iterating, and then trying again, and within just a matter of weeks, we figured out how to make a mask out of wool and some other products. Some of the aspects of that mask were better than some of the best surgical masks around. And both our customers, our manufacturing partners and customers and us, we said, you know what, we need to do this going forward as almost business as usual. Because it's a lot more efficient, it's a lot quicker, and we both learn a lot more.

William Cox: How do you think our sector can get a better voice to bring those things out and capture the imagination of the broader society?

Dr Larry Marshall: Yeah, I kind of like the Australian way of keep your powder dry until you've really done it and delivered it and then you celebrate it. We see a lot of the other in the world where people go out and claim that they've done everything and then turn out to be disappointing. But you're right, when we are successful, we do tend to be a bit shy and self-effacing about it.

And I think we've got good reason to be a bit more on the front foot to celebrate our successes. We're globally in the top 10 for our science excellence. We're also one of the world's best places for, I think innovation in agriculture, innovation in mining, there's some aspects of our health system where we're really, really good. We tend to think that everyone else is better at this stuff. And it's a mistake, because if we don't realize we're better, then we'll drag our feet, and then other people will become better, and it'll be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

William Cox: In a sector and industry, where we know that we see a drain of talent, science and engineers who go off and do other things, when we actually need more of them, that's a real challenge and a real opportunity. We're very lucky in your circumstance of having had such an eminent career overseas to then come back. And then that brings me to the issue of diversity. And more, particularly women coming into the sector is something that we know we've got a huge challenge, but we also see it as a huge opportunity. How have you seen diversity, and diverse thinking help in terms of innovation, collaboration, and us achieving some of the outcomes that you've already talked about today.

Dr Larry Marshall: One of the reasons I wanted to come back was, in my career as a scientist, and then turning into a business person and a CEO, it’s probably a lot like yours. Early on, people said, you're just a scientist, you don't know how to run a company, or you're just an engineer, you don't know about business. And then it's that sort of lack of inclusion, that society does like to put you in a box if you're a scientist or an engineer, or if you're a woman. And obviously, that needs to change because in a future dominated by ambiguity, that is innovation. People are gonna break out of their boxes, because it's the collaboration between different people that really drives innovation.

And so in our strategy at CSIRO, diversity was the foundation of the innovation strategy, it wasn't an add-on, it wasn't a nice to have, it was actually the first step in the strategy. And it's really three elements of diversity - diversity of people and an inclusive leadership style, because it opens your people, your staff, up to feel safe to tell you, you got it wrong. And, as a leader, we all know that it's far better for your own people to tell you, you've got something wrong, rather than wait for the market to tell you with failure. Diversity of people and an inclusive leadership style helps you manage risk, helps you iterate, helps you avoid failing in the market where failure can often be fatal.

And then the second aspect is diversity of perspectives. Because given that you're trying to do something that's never been done before, the key insight that you need to navigate that high-ambiguity environment you're in, is invariably going to come from someone who's not like you. That diversity of perspectives, and the ability to listen to those different perspectives and grab the one that helps you resolve the particular challenge you're dealing with, and iterate again, that really is the key to navigating innovation.

And then the third one is diversity of thought. Technology has made it really easy to tap into the brains trust of your people and that is kind of the realization that you don't have to invent everything yourself anymore, you can actually invent it collectively. Innovation used to be done like invention, you know, a brilliant inventor would invent something. But innovation is too difficult today to do on your own, it's got to be a team sport.

And I guess the final piece of that, in order for that to work, as a leader, you can't own that, the only thing you can really own is failure. Because then you can give the ownership of that success to the team. And if the team feel that they're genuinely going to own the success, and you're genuinely going to own the failure, then their willingness to try things that may fail, goes way up.

William Cox: There's some important insights in what you've just shared there Larry, so thank you. Moving then to digital. We've all seen huge acceleration of embedding digital into the way organisations have operated through the pandemic, but you and the organisation had been on this journey for a long time. How are you seeing the digital future play out? Are we embracing it at the pace that we need to? What do we need to do to change that?

Dr Larry Marshall: I think COVID has accelerated our digital journey dramatically, and things that we thought were gonna take five years we seem to do in five or six months. But I want to give you a slightly contrarian view on digital, just for fun.

So I think a lot of us are dazzled by digital, and in a way that makes us forget our natural unfair advantage in our market, in our businesses. And I was talking to the leader of a US Fortune 50 company, a couple years ago, who had lost literally, maybe $3 billion – not lost, but maybe wasted or could've done better with it in embracing digital – and they hired a team in Silicon Valley, almost 3000 engineers, which if you know what Silicon Valley costs, that's a lot of money to take them into the digital age. And the realization, after it didn't work was that you can't do that, you can't assume digital is going to transform your business. What you actually have to do is transform your people, because your people have an intimate knowledge of both your business and your market, they have that domain expertise that gives the digital context. Otherwise, you end up with a bunch of digital solutions that don't necessarily fit your customers, your culture, and your specific problems.

And so in CSIRO, we really tried to blend the best of digital with the best of domain expertise. Because there's nothing like learning at the coalface. There's a fear that people have in society and CSIRO is no different. We have people who thought our AI and robots are going to take our jobs. And it wasn't until we've been a couple years into our digital transformation journey, where the people who thought their jobs were going to be replaced had realized, no, were using automation and data mining, to enable us to collect 10 times more data. And 10 times more data means you need to focus your energy not on gathering the data, but actually getting the insight from the data, which is far more valuable than the raw data. And so those people we trained them up so doing more important work, higher value work.

William Cox: Just one last question, and I couldn't let you go without asking this is around the vaccine for the virus and without declaring any trade secrets, what's your level of confidence in the work that's happening at the moment? With all of the candidates? And are you feeling positive or otherwise about there being a successful vaccine in a reasonable period of time?

Dr Larry Marshall: I'm actually optimistic about a vaccine. The challenge, of course, once we have it is how do we get it out to 24 or 25 million people in the most effective way? And in particular, how do we get it to the most vulnerable people first, because obviously, the whole world is searching for a vaccine.

We're doing a lot of work with Australian manufacturers to figure out how to make some of the candidates here in Australia. When I say we, not just CSIRO, Department of Health, number of universities, number of industry partners, you know, CSL for example. So the challenge is going to be getting the world vaccinated, because this like climate change, this is a global pandemic. We haven't solved it until we've solved it for the whole world. And that's going to be harder, I think.

William Cox: Yeah, I absolutely couldn't agree with you more, Larry. The best minds in the world hopefully working on that right now. On behalf of Aurecon, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me and for sharing your insights and look forward to our ongoing collaboration with CSIRO, and it's a partnership that has been in place for over 50 years. And I'm always incredibly proud to talk about the work that we continue to do with your organisation and hope that we can collaborate for many, many decades into the future.

Dr Larry Marshall: Great to be here, Bill. And we really value the partnership too because you make it real.

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Maria Rampa: I hope you enjoyed those insights which I think can give us great confidence in the power of diversity and collaboration to create change. If you’re enjoying Engineering Reimagined, tell your friends about it, leave a review and follow us or subscribe on Spotify or Apple podcasts. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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Show notes

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed how science, technology, engineering, research and industry have come together to innovate in ways we could never have imagined.

The CSIRO – Australia’s national science research agency – is a leading example of how, when great minds, diverse skills and real-life challenges merge, innovative solutions can result. The organisation is currently working with government, universities, industry and the community on a program to bolster Australia’s COVID-19 recovery and build long term resilience.

This is just part of the CSIRO’s purpose to solve the greatest challenges using innovative science and technology – collaborating on a missions programme across six major focus areas: Food security and quality; health and wellbeing; resilient and valuable environments; sustainable energy and resources; future industries and a secure Australia and region.

In this episode, Aurecon’s Chief Executive Officer William Cox and CSIRO’s Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall discuss the importance of multi-sector collaboration and diversity to foster innovation and create real change in our society, or putting it another way, ‘making science real’.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Bill Cox and Dr Larry Marshall.
William Cox - Chief Executive Officer, Aurecon

William Cox

Chief Executive Officer, Aurecon

William is a business leader and civil engineer with over 30 years’ experience leading teams across highway, rail and airport planning, and design and construction projects in Australia and the UK. William is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion, acting as Aurecon’s ambassador for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Pay Equity Leadership initiative and Aurecon's representative for the Male Champions of Change in STEM group.

Larry Marshall - Chief Executive, CSIRO

Dr Larry Marshall

Chief Executive, CSIRO

Larry is a scientist, technology innovator and business leader with a wealth of experience in creating new value and impact with science. He has a PhD in Physics and became a global leader in laser research, for which he was honoured as a Federation Fellow and later as an Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering Fellow. He is also a Male Champion of Change committed to tackling gender equality.

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