Get smart or come last: lobby group wants Australia to get behind the NBN
AIIA CEO Suzanne Campbell says the NBN is Australia's biggest single opportunity after the mining boom. Photo: Supplied
The boss of Australia's peak IT industry body tells Australians to take our need to innovate seriously or miss a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Let me make this clear: if we don’t smarten up, Australia’s single biggest competitive advantage post the mining boom – high speed, ubiquitous broadband – could soon be our single biggest threat.
As technological progress continues at relentless speed, Australia needs to get serious about leveraging the opportunities ubiquitous broadband offers before the rest of the world starts using our infrastructure to deliver their smart innovations directly to our market.
While less-advanced countries can improve their productivity by adopting existing technologies, or by making incremental improvements in other areas, for countries like Australia that have reached the ‘innovation stage’ of development, this is simply not enough. We need to improve research and development (R&D) capacity and forge stronger links between research and industry.
If the goal is to increase productivity, retain current levels of prosperity and remain globally competitive, our 21st Century hyper-connected digital world requires us to be fundamentally smarter and more agile. This means moving towards higher value-added activities – cutting edge product, service and process developments for which there is not only a growing international hunger but also a high level of expectation from countries like us, with bipartisan commitment to such critical modern infrastructure.
An environment that is conducive to innovation is required, with appropriate levels of investment made in R&D and high-quality scientific research institutions that can both generate the knowledge and technology needed to build and apply new technologies.
NICTA and the CSIRO
Currently there is too little appreciation of the vital role and contribution that Australia’s own National ICT Australia (NICTA) and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) make in this space.
NICTA is critical to Australia’s innovation agenda – both through its own spin-out companies and its numerous collaborations with large and small businesses. NICTA has some of the world’s best research teams in areas such as data-analytics, supply chain optimisation and dependable software systems. These are areas of high demand and world-wide shortage that are critical to technological innovation.
By connecting leading university researchers to industry, and embedding the next generation of skilled ICT researchers across multiple industry sectors, NICTA is taking the lead in emphasising the integral role of ICT in transforming our economy. It has spun out ten times the number of new companies per $100 million invested than the national average of publicly funded research organisations. And it has contributed some $3 billion to Australian's GDP in direct cost savings and revenue generation. NICTA’s success speaks for itself.
However, NICTA remains a short-term government program, making a fresh case to be refunded every few years. Based on the evidence, it is hard to fathom why funding for NICTA has not been committed over the longer term. Given that world-beating research breakthroughs just don't happen overnight, this remains critical.
Building the next generation of Wi-Fi, a more secure internet or a faster way to identify cancer needs time. Unlike new applications, software tools or web businesses that often don't involve deep research, major research-based successes can take years to develop, typically involving expert teams of creative scientists and students working with industry. These relationships simply won’t happen, or the specialist skills made available or developed, unless there is confidence that research bodies such as NICTA have a certain, and ideally, long-term future. Business does not invest in uncertainty.
If Australia doesn't foster such 'home-grown' research capability, we will inevitably end up buying it overseas, effectively handing the economic benefits to our competitors.
It's not just about home-grown capability either – it's also about building our skills base. Unless we skill up the next generation of our PhD students to become ICT leaders and inventors, and embed them in our industry, our best and brightest graduates will choose to go abroad – a further dent to our intellectual capital and significant opportunity cost as we export the critical skills we should be using ourselves to leverage the digital infrastructure we have invested in.
In the case of the CSIRO it is estimated that by 2025 its Digital Productivity and Services National Research Flagship, established last year to drive more efficient and innovative services on the back of ubiquitous broadband, will create an additional $4 billion per annum in added value for the Australian economy.
The research and industry engagement facilitated is key to stimulating the cross business and industry competitive pressures that ultimately drive improved productivity across the board.
Invest and lead by example, use the NBN
On the issue of appropriate investment, including from the public sector, structures are needed that attract direct foreign investment, drive innovative activity and ultimately encourage the diffusion of ideas from other countries – which we can leverage for our national benefit.
Implicit in all this is the need for government to be innovative itself, and for it to drive service innovation from within through its own use of smart digital technologies. Current government ICT operations and procurement processes are out of date. Emerging cloud, big data and open data approaches for example, not only drive much needed efficiency, but provide a platform for unprecedented innovation.
It is incumbent on Australian research institutions, industry and government to take up the innovation challenge.
Gone are the days where being competitive is about having the next big idea. In the increasingly fast paced global economy, being competitive is about getting smart ideas to market quickly – being nimble and having an agile and astute export strategy.
Ubiquitous broadband is shifting the business paradigm. With the potential for businesses to digitally connect to every potential client globally, traditional service models are being replaced with new, instant digital relationships and business and service models. While this provides Australian business the opportunity to lead new digital economy service model developments, and ultimately new export market prospects to drive market growth, new revenues and jobs, the risk is that we are simply too slow to market.
We need to face up to the fact that if we don’t use the investment we have made in broadband to be smarter and more agile, our opportunity will be lost and we will simply be an attractive destination for other markets that are innovating in digital service delivery more quickly.
Ultimately, all industry sectors are the beneficiary of ICT enabled problem solving and innovation. The challenge ahead is how we leverage ICT and ubiquitous broadband to drive the connection between sectors to facilitate and inspire innovation across industry verticals and new, smart service models that we can take to the world.
Now is the time to move to turn the opportunities into an advantage.. As countries emerge from the hangover of the global financial crisis, Australia must invest in ensuring we develop the smart ICT driven innovations that we can take to the global market. Ubiquitous high speed broadband provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australia to both develop the smart products, services and process that will be relevant and competitive in a global digital economy and take them to those markets.
The risk, if we don’t move now, is that Australia will be overtaken by those that have the ‘smarts’ to exploit our ubiquitous broadband investment before we can.
Suzanne Campbell is chief executive of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).