It was one of Julie Bishop’s pet projects as foreign affairs minister: an innovation hub she described as a “gorgeous little funky, hipster, Googly, Facebooky-type place”.
But the “innovationXchange” – established in 2015 to devise new ideas to deliver an increasingly tight foreign aid budget – may well have innovated itself out of existence. It has been scrubbed from the foreign affairs department’s organisational chat and rebranded on the website.
Asked by Guardian Australia about the apparent loss of the standalone initiative, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade explained that innovation had “now been embedded as a practice across the department”.
While it has been a perennial topic for questioning at Senate estimates hearings, innovationXchange attracted perhaps the most attention in 2015 when it was revealed Dfat had spent more than $1,700 on three beanbags.
This was, Dfat said at the time, part of setting up a “collaborative workspace and a new way of working that encourages creativity and innovation”, which also included a convertible conference table that doubled as a table tennis table.
In any case, the beanbags were deemed “cheaper, more practical and adaptable than a three-seat couch, which was valued at approximately $2,300”.
The current location of the beanbags could not be ascertained at time of writing.
Beanbags aside, the innovation scheme – with initial funding of $140m over four years – has spawned more substantive projects.
It has, for example, funded a trial in Fiji of a robust, low-cost robot that could help farmers in developing nations. It has also looked at devising new ways to deliver education in crisis-affected countries.
But there are multiple signs of a shift in emphasis from the Bishop-era project.
Dfat’s recently revamped organisational chart no longer includes any middle manager specifically responsible for innovationXchange.
That is a change from July, when the organisational chart still had an assistant secretary-level position in charge of the initiative.
The next piece in the puzzle is the rebranding of the “innovationXchange” section of Dfat’s website to carry the new banner “Innovation@Dfat”. Archived versions of the website suggest the old brand was still in use as recently as 9 October.
A Dfat spokesperson said innovationXchange had been “established to boost innovation across Dfat, and the aid program in particular, by trialling new technologies and services delivery approaches”.
“This has now been embedded as a practice across the department, reflecting the importance of innovation in Australia’s international development program and response to Covid-19,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added that there had been “no reduction in Dfat’s overall staffing, nor reduction in our efforts to promote innovation, as a consequence”.
The innovation section of the website still says: “We will continue to respond to the increasing demand for support from Australia’s bilateral and regional aid program, incubating ideas and supporting the adoption of innovative approaches in many different contexts.”
But, somewhat ominously, the recent revamp removed the phrase: “Our future promises to be as creative and exciting as our first three years.”
Dfat’s immediate future promises to an appearance before Senate estimates on Wednesday and Thursday next week.