Mission impossible? Preparing Australia for digital disruption

Neither industry nor governments in Australia are responding adequately to the challenges

Data61’s Strategy and Foresight team advises businesses and government bodies on how to prepare for the future digital economy. Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, a principal scientist in the team, says Australia’s prospects are not good.

“2017 is going to bring a whole lot of disruption,” he told Computerworld. And according to Hajkowicz, neither industry nor governments in Australia are responding adequately to the challenges. “Australia seems to standing on the sidelines and watching this game called digital and being amused by it but not diving in,” he said.

“Australian industry and governments are still by and large bystanders in the digital revolution. They are not jumping into it and putting skin into the game as other countries are… By and large planning authorities in Australia at state and federal level have been too slow to move on digital.”

The key issues facing Australia, and government in particular, according to Hajkowicz, are the inadequacy of digital infrastructure and the need to find alternative sources of employment for the many thousands of workers whose jobs will be replaced by digital technology.

Australia’s digital infrastructure, according to Hajkowicz, is woefully inadequate to meet the growing needs of a digital society, and funding adequate infrastructure will be difficult. “The NBN is only part of it,” he said. “We do not have enough digital infrastructure to meet today’s needs and we are a long way form meeting the needs in 2025.”

He said the only way to fund the necessary digital infrastructure would be to divert funding from other categories where it will be needed less as the use of digital technologies grows.

“If we open up digital infrastructure as a new category of expenditure we won’t be able to afford it. It has to be done in such a way that as we build out digital infrastructure, we decrease expenditure in other parts of the infrastructure,” Hajkowicz said.

“The promise of digital infrastructure is that it allows us to use the road and rail infrastructure more efficiently because we have information. The longer term strategy has to be making use of digital to make better use of our existing infrastructure while we build digital infrastructure.”

On the prospects for workers, Hajkowicz said it was likely that 40 to 50 percent of all today’s jobs will be replaced by robots within 15 years. “Jobs don't all disappear: They change and new jobs open up,” he said.

He was unable to provide much indication as to what those jobs may be, but said government needed to start preparing the workforce for the transition.

“Governments need to take care of the individuals whose jobs are at risk. There are a lot of people who will struggle. We need to be working now and retraining them,” he said, adding: “It is easy for me to say ‘retrain’ but I really don’t know what the solutions are.”

Hajkowicz said the problem was already evident among Australian working age males. While participation of working age females has risen, that of males has decreased.

“Our Future Of Work study early in 2016 showed that the participation of working age males in the workforce has really shrunk,” he said. “They are not showing as unemployed, they have simply disappeared. That is not good for them, their families or the community.”

Adding to the challenge, he said, was the fact that new global digital era companies did not have employee numbers anywhere near historical levels. “Facebook is worth well over $100 billion, but only has about 10,000 employees. That is unheard of historically.”

Hajkowicz said Data61 was working under contract to numerous governments and companies across Australia “to inform them about the changes that lie ahead in the digital economy and then to design policies and strategies to get better outcomes.”

He added “We are also working on building a database of trends relevant to the digital economy that will help governments and companies anticipate what lies ahead and we will issue a report on the digital economy later this year.”

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