Nicholas Gruen

Expertise: Economics, Digtal Disruption, Innovation
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Nicholas Gruen

“A brilliant man who needs to be better known” – Martin Wolf FT

Dr Nicholas Gruen is a widely published policy economist, entrepreneur and thought leader. He is currently CEO of Lateral Economics and Chair of Open Knowledge Foundation (Australia). He is also Visiting Professor at King’s College London Policy Institute and Adjunct Professor at UTS Business School.

He is Patron of the Australian Digital Alliance, which comprises Australia’s libraries, universities, and major providers of digital infrastructure such as Google and Yahoo, and founder and Chair of Peach Home Loans, Australia’s first discount mortgage broker.

Between 2010 and 2016, he chaired The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (Adelaide). He was on the Council of the National Library of Australia until 2016. He also chaired Australia’s internationally acclaimed Government 2.0 Taskforce for the Federal Government. Nicholas was founding Chairman of data analytics crowdsourcing platform, Kaggle, which has recently been purchased by Google.

He is an investor in numerous start-ups in Australia and internationally including: which seeks to revolutionise consumers’ product knowledge,

Breezedocs which is developing semantic document management systems,

Lendable which delivers microloans to fund solar energy in the developing world and

HealthKit which has gone from start-up to leading vendor of medical practice management software since 2012.

Notably, Nicholas sat on Australia’s Productivity Commission in the 1990s and  has had regular columns in The Australian Financial Review, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and has published numerous essays on political, economic and cultural matters, several of which have been published in annual Best Essays anthologies.

Nicholas advised two cabinet ministers in the 1980s and 90s, taught at ANU, and directed the New Directions project at the Business Council from 1997 to 2000.

He was a member of a major review into Australia’s Innovation System in 2008 and a review of pharmaceutical patent extensions in 2013.

Nicholas holds a BA (Hons-First Class) in History (1981), a Graduate Diploma in Economics and a PhD from the ANU (1998), and an LLB (Hons) from the University of Melbourne (1982).

Surrounded by new devices, systems, applications – a world of technological abundance – there is always one resource in scarce supply; not technology, but technological imagination. Nicholas Gruen has that imagination in abundance and he wants government to share it, to be in his words an impresario. I hope this paper is well read, not simply to ponder the many suggestions he makes, but as a reminder that all of us, even public servants, have the ability to open our minds and think beyond the square, do something different, break with tradition.
Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister.

Speaking Topics

How the internet is changing our economy and our lives

While we’ve been reforming our economy in the image of a normal market, something huge has happened. A whole slew of new public goods have been built. And most have been built privately. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all public goods. So too are open source software and Wikipedia. The first group are built for profit, the second for other reasons. But the government had nothing to do with either. This calls for a whole new agenda – in which those in the public, private and NGO sectors come together and build the digital public goods of the 21st century. What do those new goods look like? And how do we start?

Five ways innovation talk is too vague to help anyone: And how the extended technology stack can really promote innovation

Innovation policy costs the Australian budget well over $1 billion or closer to $5 billion a year if you include research budgets. Little of it is evidence based and we have little idea of how effective it is. We subsidise activities that we think are underprovided by the market. But if we focused instead on the extended technology stack – the way in which different organisations, from governments to community groups to individual businesses could all dovetail their activities better together online – together cooperating in the development of a platform, we could make Australia an innovation powerhouse at zero cost to the budget.

 Nudging towards innovation 

Dr Gruen will discuss the myriad ways governments can promote innovation without spending money. This is the “Innovation without money” agenda he championed as Chair of Innovation Australia. Because more and more successful innovation involves collaboration between different actors in the economy, it stands to reason that there are strict limits to the extent to which traditional subsidies to activity – whether that activity is in government, the private sector or in some other sector such as education or the not-for-profit sector – can generate innovation.

How we’re wanting ‘change we can believe in’ before change we need

The young want ‘change’ – as well they might. But not all change is worth having. And change-makers use the tools of marketing to convince us of the value of their causes. In this talk, Nicholas Gruen will interrogate change-making and conclude that some of the causes we’re invited to get caught up in are unlikely to achieve much and might even make things worse. Meanwhile, other changes we need to make are as urgent as ever.

Want your business to be smart? Maybe try not being stupid.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner and co-billionaire, says that’s all they do. “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” There are hundreds of cognitive biases, many of which get stronger in groups, particularly hierarchical groups. That’s pretty much every organisation.

What are these biases and how can you and your business protect yourselves?

Why aren’t business decisions more evidence-based and what can we do to make them so?

Evidence-based policy is a big deal in government. It is important in business too, but business tends to ‘wing it’, paying little attention to the way KPIs are set. Business needs far deeper expertise in monitoring and evaluation, delivered, as it was in the Toyota production system, to help those at the ‘coalface’ optimise their performance. In this talk, Dr Gruen will show how you can revolutionise the performance of your business by using expertise first developed in the not-for-profit sector to measure and track the effectiveness of value creation in the business and report it independently to all stakeholders.

How we blew it in international negotiations: DFAT goes AWOL on IP and the TPP

It’s axiomatic that as we transition towards a progressively more knowledge intensive economy, intellectual property (IP) arrangements become increasingly important. Yet they have never received the attention they deserve from economists or policy makers. IP arrangements are increasing constrained by international agreements, and yet our chief negotiator, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, demonstrates virtually no coherent thought as to what our strategic IP interests are or what kind of framework might be applied when considering and negotiating them. In this presentation, Dr Gruen explores the basic economics of IP and suggests some principles to which we should adhere in negotiating international agreements; principles we’ve ignored so far.

Why have our democracy and our politics turned so toxic and what can we do about it? (Alternative title for talk below).

Detoxing our democracy: a new role for ordinary people in politics 

Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump have humiliated political elites. But Australia led the pack in 2013 when Australia’s Parliament humiliated themselves – abolishing carbon pricing when most of them understood the folly of doing so. Why? Because of the imperatives of political combat in our vox pop democracy. With the political-infotainment complex degrading representative politics, creating space for ordinary people to influence our politics at every level could see our democracy reborn. It could also help young Australians, less educated and lower income Australians fight back against political eclipse by older generations.

Detoxing democracy: Brexit and the considered will of the British people

Though material conditions played their part, the degradation of politics now so evident in the shock and awe of Brexit and Trump also reflect the way in which elections orient politics around political combat, rather than deliberation and problem solving. Yet Britain could use the ancient Athenian idea of selection by lot – choosing a cross-section of the public to deliberate together to complement elections – to turn its slow-motion crisis into the rebirth of democracy, moving it from government according to the will of the people, and towards the richer, safer notion of government according to the considered will of the people. (From a public lecture as Visiting Professor of King’s College London on 6th Nov 2017. More here)

How to protect your organisation from our toxic politics

Polarisation is built into politics. You can’t become a politician without beating other politicians to the job. Political activists feed off all the same things a shock jock feeds off – sensation, indignance, self-righteousness. In this presentation, Dr Gruen shows how self-appointed spokespeople – for consumers, for business, for investors, for women, for any group, are usually hugely unrepresentative of the group they claim to be representing and explores ways your organisation can cut through to deal with the people themselves.

Six ways to tell if your strategy retreats is a waste of time:  And five ways to ensure it isn’t. (Alternative title for talk below)

Six ways to tell if you’re REALLY thinking strategically

It’s crucial for your business to get its strategy right. Often, we go away and agree on some central goal – say, a mission or where you want to be in 10 years’ time, and then work out how you’ll get there working down from high levels to detail. Yet, this is a kind of ‘anti-thinking’. The goals and capabilities you need to get there are interdependent.

Dr Gruen will look at six things you really need to do to get your strategy as good as it can be.

The culture wars. How they’re holding us back and what to do about it.

The whole way ‘culture war’ works is this: People pick sides. They then imagine they’re the good guys and the others are the baddies. Because both sides focus on how the other side is mad, bad or both, each side misses the wood for the trees. What they miss is how the others’ perspective can improve their own and how that can lead them both on a journey of transformation.

Dr Gruen shows how this works in education, in economics, in health and in many other areas before explaining how we can tackle culture war and build a better world.

Is GDP all there is? Better approaches to measuring our well-being

Everyone complains that GDP is a poor measure of human well-being. In this talk, Dr Gruen will explain why GDP isn’t that bad. But not for the reasons you think. He will also explain why many attempts to provide more ‘holistic’ measures of well-being amount to little more than distractions. He’ll show how Lateral Economics built the Herald/Age Lateral Economics index of wellbeing published in the Fairfax dailies every quarter and look at other promising ways we could improve both well-being and GDP.

Economics: What’s it good for?

Economics is a premier discipline – the social science that everyone takes seriously. Economists are asked to predict the future, but while meteorologists have got three times better, economists haven’t got any better in the last 50 years. In this talk, Dr Gruen will show you how poor economics has been at answering the questions many ask of it, but how it could be used to make the world a better place.

Education: Seizing the moment

Not drowning, waving: education and the revolution of web 2.0

Dr Gruen will describe the opportunities and challenges that face formal learning with the unfolding use of web 2 technologies. These technologies support access to learners by new providers delivering additional resources that support, enrich and extend traditional modes of education, new providers who use the technologies in ways that challenge existing providers and for current providers, new possibilities of delivery, interaction and feedback.

Evidence-based policy: Why is progress so slow and what can be done about it? 

The expression ‘Evidence-based policy’ rolls off the tongue easily, but if it was as easily done as said, we’d have it by now. And yet, in all manner of government funded service delivery areas, there’s been literally billions of dollars wasted or worse, from VET to child protection to programs intended to benefit Indigenous people. Evidence-based policy has been agonisingly slow going because to do it effectively, it needs to be done in a way that is integrated into programs, is highly collaborative and generates monitoring and evaluation outputs that are publicly reported in as close to real time as possible

Australia’s foremost public intellectual
Lindsay Tanner, Former Minister for Finance and Deregulation

Nicholas Gruen never fails to intrigue, amuse and, most importantly, to make us think. Truly well informed and with a strong sense of history, Nicholas is one of Australia’s best ideas-people with a gift for making thinking exciting. I never get tired of listening to him weave his words into grand tapestries, well supported with contemporary experience that delivers many an ‘aha’ Moment.
Pru Goward, NSW Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister for Women.

Nicholas was extremely professional and set the scene beautifully for the Congress. Well prepared and stayed back to answer any questions. His presentation was informative, precise and extremely well received
Samira Wadhavkar, Local Government Managers Australia

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