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Opinion: Not even a federal budget can stop digital disruption

by Marie Johnson •
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In black and white, numbers and narrative – the Australian Federal Budget is a stark illustration of the dynamics of digital disruption on the Australian economy and society.

The Budget has sent shockwaves through the information technology and innovation sectors.  Eight programs will be terminated from January 2015:  covering the Innovation Investment Fund (IIF) and Commercialisation Australia. 

From these cuts, the Budget claims a projected saving of $845.6 million over 5 years.  But at what cost? 

The Budget could be seen to be an “industrial age” Budget, with a heavy emphasis on infrastructure and taxes.

The Budget could be seen to lack an awareness or a narrative of the role of technology and innovation in the economy and on the health and well-being of society.

The Budget speaks of “transformation” but we could and should ask, “transformation to what?”  What is the connected transformation story across the various Budget dimensions? 

In my opinion, the game has changed – and it is digital that is the game changer.  It’s not that easy or straightforward an effort to craft the connected story of transformation in the digital age.   We see this challenge in the retail and media sectors.

Government is not immune from the dynamics of digital disruption.

I see the Budget presenting a call to action for the ICT and innovation engines of the economy, to propose a “connected” story about Australia in the 21st century - how society is enhanced and the whole economy fuelled by technology innovation, commercialisation, and adoption.

Here’s my take:

The Government unveiled an $11.6 billion infrastructure package to be spent on rail and roads over the next five years.  This is the second biggest budget investment item after the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund. 

What the Budget doesn’t talk about is how a connected vision of the Roads of the 21st Century might be realised. 

Surely these Roads to the 21st Century will be far more than tar, built by shovels and earth movers.  The Roads of the 21st Century will not be built by the jobs of yesterday or today.  The Roads of the 21st Century will require new thinking, new approaches to policy, new technologies and understanding connectedness.

The Roads of the 21st Century must be smart interactive infrastructure – with sensors connecting to the Internet of Things.  Sensors that generate data about usage, traffic flow and contextual data such as the environment.  Roads of the 21st Century to carry electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles.  All the “roads” of the 21st century will need to connect and be interoperable with the networks of physical roads, rail, electricity, telecommunications, Internet and payments.

There will need to be an unfailing commitment by all governments to release Government data – as public assets – essential to fuel R&D and innovation in location based and contextually aware services in this $11.6 billion investment in roads of the 21st century.  Australia has been falling behind global progress in the release of public government data, and this is an opportunity cost to the Australian economy. 

The Roads of the 21st Century will be highways of data.

As with the Roads of the 21st Century, the momentum of the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund to explore and drive solutions to the diseases of the 21 century will require and give rise to new technologies and capabilities. 

As with the Roads of the 21st Century, big data, powerful analytics, visualisation and the pervasive use of sensors and connection to Internet of Things will generate new insights.  Wearable devices will generate data previously unobtainable and unimagined, providing innovative treatment options and new insight into health and disease.  And as with the Roads of the 21st Century, there will be new policy options as well as challenges not the least of which will be privacy. 

The health of Australians into the future will depend on data, not bureaucracies.

So that we don’t squander this historic and phenomenal investment opportunity - a pivot is required. 

That is, for the government and the ICT and innovation sectors is to do a re-frame of the AU$845.6 million cut to commercialization and innovation support – against the combined $31.6 billion investment in Roads of the 21st Century and the Medical Research Future Fund.

This is a call to action for the ICT and innovation sectors to be actively involved in shaping the agendas and policies for the Roads of the 21st Century and the Medical Research Future Fund.

This is not a calling for a re-visit of the Budget numbers.  This is calling for a compelling connected story and an executable strategy to deliver the capabilities needed across the economy to achieve the 21st century digital transformation agenda.

If cutting $845.6 million is seen to be an opportunity cost and lost, just imagine the lost opportunity to Australia’s future if the combined $31.6 billion investment in Roads of the 21st Century and the Medical Research Future Fund delivers “dumb” infrastructure, and a research effort not able to leverage the intellectual horse power of NICTA.

This is not the time to be passive…


Marie Johnson is the Managing Director and Chief Digital Officer of the Centre for Digital Business. She has extensive public and private sector technology and innovation experience both in Australia and internationally.  Marie established the Centre for Digital Business to continue her advocacy and thought leadership as a trusted strategic advisor to government leaders and businesses globally in innovation and digital transformation.


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