Australia’s lost digital tribes

In a desert of indifference, Australia’s lost digital tribes are looking for leaders. Time though may be running out for a nation stuck in a 1980s mindset.

Last week in Sydney a collection of industry groups, telcos and local councils launched their 2030 Communications Visions initiative; a project intended “to shape a digital vision and set goals for Australia to achieve global digital age leadership”.

Australia’s dilemma in this ‘global digital age’ is that the nation is falling behind the rest of the world on many measures with students spurning STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – degrees, investment in technology lagging other countries and the telecommunications industry charging some of the highest costs in the world.

“We believe there’s an absence of leadership in the broader integrated view of why telecommunications is important to the broader Australian economy;” stated iiNet’s chief regulatory officer, Steve Dalby in opening the discussion. “There is no obvious national objective, no national strategy, to take us forward in the digital economy.”

Dalby’s view was endorsed by Macquarie Telecom chief executive David Tudehope who defined the Communication Vision group’s objective, “the vision we have in mind is to make Australia the most digitally connected and innovative country in the world.”  The main objective being moving the country from the bottom of OECD connectivity rankings to near the top.

“If Australia wants still to enjoy living standards in the top tier of first world nations in the middle of the 21st century, there is no choice but to be at the forefront of technology across all aspects of life and society,” Tudenhope said while noting that achieving this is a task bigger than governments.

“This is not something that the federal government should be expected to do on everyone’s behalf.”

Australia’s lost governments

Waiting for Australian governments to do anything beyond paying lip service to today’s industries would be an exercise in futility. While the Queen hosts British tech companies at Buckingham Palace and President Obama hosts makers’ fairs on the lawns of the White House, Australia’s Federal government restates its commitment to coal as the industry of the future while gutting research bodies like NICTA and the CSIRO.

Even the much vaunted reforms to the taxation of share option plans is little more than a media release with no legislation proposed and little prospect of any being passed by a government struggling to get its budget enacted.

State governments are hardly better; in last weekend’s Victorian election there was little talk of innovation or the digital economy with most of the economic development focus being on building roads and high rise apartment blocks. In New South Wales, successive Liberal and Labor government have neglected the state’s tech communities while pushing ahead with their fantasy of Sydney becoming a financial hub based upon a 1980s vision of red faces blokes in shiny braces yelling into telephones.'

During the recent G20 meetings, Prime Minister Abbot and NSW premier Mike Baird posed with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and declared Sydney’s ambition to be a global financial technology hub. They missed Cameron’s announcement earlier this year of £73 million of funding in Internet of Things research as the British government looks to lock London in as Europe’s tech centre.

While Sydney builds a 1986 copy of London’s Canary Wharf in a cargo cult like belief that this will attract investment, the Brits are working on this century’s technologies.

The regional challenge

Outside the shiny buildings of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra the effects of a global economy are being felt acutely with Mark Byatt, the former mayor of Wodonga and chairman of Northern Victoria’s Hume Regional Development Australia Committee describing how important digital technologies are to the future of regional centres.

“There is a disconnect between the metro focus and the regional development focus,” Byatt stated in describing the challenges facing country communities in adopting modern technologies. “I don’t think really think we can really look at the digital platform without looking at the leadership role.”

Byatt cited Spain’s Barcelona as how communities can derive benefits from smart city technologies, this however, has problems in Australia’s adversarial political culture where partisan political considerations override co-operation between levels of government.

As Barcelona’s deputy mayor Antoni Vives told Business Spectator last year, one of the core advantages the Spanish city has is the co-operation between local and provincial government. Similar co-operation between city authorities and the national UK government is driving London’s renaissance as a global technology centre.

Looking for the business leadership

With no prospect of digital leadership coming from government sectors, except perhaps for pockets of highly motivated local councils and islands of innovation with state government agencies, the onus falls on the private sector to take the leadership role.

Council Of Small Business Of Australia executive director Peter Strong described at how the business community should be pushing the national agenda, “we’ve got a couple of years until the next (Federal) election, let’s get a nation plan out there that makes sense.”

Time however, may be running out for the business sector, in an interview two weeks ago on the Gold Coast Gartner’s senior vice president for Global Research, Peter Sondergaard described how businesses managers have two years to prepare themselves for massive changes to their industries and quite a few organisations have neglected developing the skills required.

“Businesses expect this in every senior leader hired in the organisation but somehow it’s okay to accept those people have their son or daughter do everything technology wise. In the future you can’t have that,” Sondergaard said.

“Digital leadership is at par with all other assumed skills in what is a fully rounded business leader.”

Sondergaard’s warning was emphasised at Gartner’s Gold Coast Symposium during a keynote by MIT researcher and futurist Andrew McAfee who emphasised the rate of technological development is about to accelerate dramatically and that change is going to be abrupt.

Should McAfee’s and Songergaard’s predictions prove to be true, then Australia’s lost digital tribes may need a Noah to build an ark rather than a Moses to lead them out of the wilderness. What’s clear is leadership is unlikely to come from the nation’s existing political or managerial classes.

If we are going to see vision in Australia’s development, it’s up to us to provide it.

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