Time to redefine 'Australian made'

The mining boom is shifting phases. Digital is flattening the world. But are we ready to create the next natural resources boom – one that unlocks the potential of what’s in our heads as well as what’s in the ground.

It’s the 1956 Olympic Games. Dawn Fraser is preparing to swim one of the greatest races of her life in front of a home crowd. The starter’s gun fires. Just over a minute later, she had won gold and set a new world record in the 100 metre women’s freestyle. Fast forward 56 years to London 2012. Ranomi Kromowidjojo from the Netherlands wins in a time of just over 53 seconds. The difference between first and last place was just one second.

Dawn’s feat was amazing and her legacy remains inspirational for all Australians. But it’s clear the competition has changed. The field is much tighter and the competitors are different too. What was a gold medal performance 56 years ago, is no longer a gold medal performance today.

There are parallels in this story for Australia. Australia has done remarkably well over the last 50 years. Today, we’re one of the wealthiest nations in the world and by many measures, the best to live in. We’ve achieved a gold medal performance. But if we apply the lessons from the pool, it’s clear that the competition is changing for Australia as well.

The mining boom is shifting phases. Digital is flattening the world. Yesterday, we looked to Europe and the US. Today, our lens is north to Asia. Tomorrow, it could be Africa and market opportunities that are yet to be imagined.

We are in a global race and what got us here today won’t get us to where we need to be in the next 50 years. Half a century from now, we could perform at the same level and come last.

I’ve been at Microsoft for 18 years and the races we have competed in over time have changed too. The vision that we had 30 years ago - to put a PC on every desk - is very different to our vision today: a world of devices seamlessly connected to continuous services.

To survive and prosper, Microsoft has had to constantly reinvent and re-imagine itself. We have had to be prepared to compete with ourselves, to let go of our past and to create the future.

In Australia, I feel we’re struggling with this very question – letting go of the past, creating the future.

We worry - quite validly - that we won’t be a nation that makes things. It’s deeply saddening to watch the situation in the car industry right now.  Nobody wants to see people lose their jobs. However, it begs the question – if ‘Australian Made’ doesn’t represent mass produced goods anymore, then what does it represent?

I am confident that we will still makes things, it’s just that those things will be different. In 50 years’ time, when you see the ‘Australian Made’ symbol, in addition to the ugg boot, perhaps you will be reminded of the bionic eye. Alternatively, you might think about how Australia has transformed itself into a global hub of education services. Today, for example, the education sector earns about $14.5 billion in export revenue -- almost as much as gold exports at $15.5 billion. It is a national treasure. What if we had an ambition for the education sector to earn as much as iron ore does? If we had a truly bold ambition to develop our mind sector as well as the mining sector? 

Already, our economic make-up is about 80 per cent services, yet the national conversation seems overly dominated by the other 20 per cent. As one natural resources boom moves into a different phase, it’s time to create the next natural resources boom – the one that unlocks the potential of what’s in our heads as well as what’s in the ground.

To get there, we’ll need an education system that provides Australians with the skills, competencies and behaviours that enables us to not just to compete in our own neighbourhood, but in a world economy, in a digital economy. Today, when I interview someone for a job, I’m not testing for reading, writing and numeracy. These should be a given. The attributes at the top of my list are the ability to problem solve, to collaborate and engage in innovative thinking.

We’ll need a culture that enables creativity, celebrates entrepreneurialism and does everything it can to support a great idea. If Australia was a business, there is no way it would let its best ideas and talent walk out the door to a competitor. Yet, too often that is exactly what happens today.

To get there, we will need to live and breathe innovation. We’ll explode accessibility to services and opportunity through ultra-fast broadband and cloud computing. We’ll recognise that the NBN is the digital equivalent of the tariff wall coming down, and we’ll adapt our industries to become world class or be outclassed. We’ll create in the cloud and not just consume through it.

If the mining boom was all about maximising what we took out of the ground then the new Australian Made is about maximising what we’re putting in the ground, the NBN.

Have no doubt – we are in a race and the competition is changing rapidly. Our competitors are running hard and they’re not just training for the race tomorrow, they’re training for the race in 50 years’ time. It’s clear we need a plan as well. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Pip Marlow is the managing director of Microsoft Australia.

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