The tech sector goes missing in action

Deloitte's latest 'Positioning for Prosperity' report makes an obvious and painful point for anyone who has an interest in the local tech industry. The ICT sector is going nowhere in this country.

The Deloitte 'Positioning for Prosperity' report released this week makes an obvious and painful point for anyone who has an interest in the Australian tech sector.

The report identifies five “super-growth industry sectors” that will, combined, contribute an additional $250 billion to the national economy over the next 20 years. These five industries would form the backbone of a powerful new diversified Australian economy no longer reliant on the resources sector.

Which is all good news for Australians. Especially for those Australians working in the “super-growth” industries of Agribusiness, Gas, Tourism, International Education, and Wealth Management.

But for the ICT sector – or more specifically the tech start-up sector – not so much. This is the obvious and painful point: The technology industry is going nowhere in this country.

The Deloitte report puts forward an interesting and defensible argument about the growth markets of the next 20 years. And of course I have exaggerated. The ICT industry does make an appearance – as a tiny, tiny dot positioned in the low-growth, low-comparable advantage, small-opportunity portion of its explanatory graphic. (It is identified as one of 14 sectors important to continued prosperity of the nation.)

It doesn’t matter whether you agree that ICT is a low-growth, small-opportunity sector. The reality is that’s the business community perception – as evidenced by a serious report from serious economists from a tier one consulting house.

ICT sector interests in Australia are badly organised and disenfranchised, fragmented and poorly articulated, hamstrung by the puffed-up self-importance of its leadership and drowning in the self-interest of its calls to action.

So the Deloitte report paints a genuinely optimistic picture for the Australian economy for the next 20 years, an economy diversified beyond its current reliance on the resources sector. And it paints a particularly optimistic future for Australia’s ability to capitalise on the next phase of economic growth in Asia, where some three billion more people will join the middle class by the middle of the century.

It is simply jarring to see such high profile economists so dismissive of the tech sector, because it is damaging to an indigenous ICT industry that struggles to get any profile with government and business leaders.

Still, Deloitte provides a good window into the markets where Australian companies can look for opportunities, and how engagement with Asia will deliver for the economy. This is where Australian tech companies can reap rewards.

These same fast-growing and maturing markets to our north identified by Deloitte present huge opportunities for Australian technology companies, whether Deloitte cares to identify this or not. But addressing these markets needs fresh thinking.

Maybe the Deloitte study should be read in conjunction with the painfully delusional PricewaterhouseCoopers 'The Startup Economy' report from earlier this year. Where Deloitte sees not much of interest from the tech sector, PwC, in its Google-commissioned study, said the Australian start-up sector could grow to become comparable in size to the mining sector by 2033.

Yep – in 20 years, PwC reckons the start-up sector could be worth $109 billion to the economy and employ 540,000 people.

Hey, anything’s possible, right? I mean, Google’s about to 'solve death', so surely a ridiculous turnaround in the ICT sector fortunes in Australia is possible?

Maybe the real story will be somewhere in between these two very different outlooks.

In the meantime, though, neither of these reports suggests this industry is in anyway taken seriously. And it needs to be taken seriously – by government and by top-tier business – if the sector is to achieve the vast ambitions of its protagonists.

The sector needs to get better organised. 

James Riley has covered technology and innovation issues in Australia and Asia as a writer and commentator for 25 years.

He has a special interest in public policy as it affects the tech sector and has written for newspapers and trade magazines, including The Australian, The South China Morning Post, InformationWeek and PC Week.

Contact James at james@innovationaus.com.

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