Innovation and ideas

"We are entering a digital renaissance, an era where ideas and inventions will be the most valued assets that a corporation has"

Carly Fiorina, Chairman, President CEO Hewlett Packard at the Davos World Economic Forum 2001

Over the past half century, computer technology has evolved in three large lumps followed by an explosion of new companies, a period of rapid change and then the gradual emergence of a few dominant species that rule until the next digital disturbance.

Although there is an easy consensus about the need to develop a common information technology vision in Australia, there has been much less of a consensus on how to get there and what that vision would entail in terms of practical policies.

Innovation and technologically-based innovation in Australia have crucial roles to play in bringing about a more internationally competitive industry. Increasing international competitiveness also involves improvements in the areas of soft technology innovations.

The Prime Minister in his speech this week unveiled what he described as "the greatest commitment to innovation ever by an Australia government". He also commented that "we are a creative and determined people and when confronted with the challenges and opportunities, we rise to the occasion".

The press headlines ran hot the next day covering a diverse array of opinions, ranging from "there's a long way to catch up", to "huge funding boost aims to stem brain drain" and even "$3 billion jolt to get Australia thinking again".

Behind the times

Today almost all OECD countries have well-developed and clearly enunciated strategies and action plans for IT and a broad concept of the information society. These usually cover framework conditions and regulatory rules to encourage the development and use of IT by the business sector, government and citizens, and give considerable attention to the quality and reach of the network infrastructure.

They also increasingly include specific strategies to bring government online. The NSW Premier Mr Carr, when in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, said: "Within two years NSW would be the first state to put medical records on line. We plan to file all medical records electronically". This raised the concern of the Australian Medical Association regarding unauthorised access.

Almost all OECD governments at all levels are using electronic means to co-ordinate their various activities and to provide increasing amounts of information online. Countries are also increasingly turning to electronic means and the Internet to deliver educational and health services.

In some cases, these changes also provide opportunities for administrative reform, improved co-ordination, rethinking and simplification of government functions and services to make them more efficient and responsive to new needs, thereby converting many traditional government activities into customer-oriented service provision.

Back in the winter of 1993, my old mate Trevor Robinson, the former CEO of Control Data and special advisor to John Button, presented a paper to the then, Information Industries Roundtable with a strong plea for Australia to use IT better to secure its future.

Trevor commented that "all advanced countries recognise that information technology and a healthy economy are closely related". In his well known, forthright manner Trevor noted that on the other hand, Australia, which has significant capability and experience in technology, has not handled this issue well. "Indeed" he said, "Australia lacks both direction and a sense of urgency".

Today's key technology success factors are totally different from what they were in past decades. And because markets have turned global and competitiveness is getting so intense, taking advantage of IT's enabling effect (through all its levels) has become mandatory for corporations, even nations, to evolve let alone survive.

A tough ask

To reproduce California's Silicon Valley in Australia seems a Herculean task, but the goal of Sydney becoming the region's IT hub is more achievable. But every place is unique. What made Silicon Valley successful was a combination of factors -- historical, cultural, and geographical, including the culture of creativity, individuality and access to venture capital.

By contrast, factors that would propel Australia's claim to IT research and development leadership include: focused areas of R&D, a conducive environment, financial support, and talented and capable IT engineers. Australia now has some strong factors, like government support and an excellent educational system that produces high quality technical graduates; an open society and global connections.

It is still very difficult to read the tea leaves regarding technology in Canberra, but the Prime Minister has now started his election run by getting his innovation action plan for The Future onto the front pages. Perhaps this is a great leap forward.

However, a good deal still has to be done. The full impact of the new initiatives will take some years to be realised. Australia must now take up the challenge quickly, it has no shortage of know-how, industrial structures and technological and entrepreneurial capabilities.

The window of opportunity is short as nations around the globe all grapple with how they can take a disproportionate slice of the fastest growing and most competitive pie in the world economy.

In the world of IT, being prepared means having a good sense of what is going on. Now we have a chance for Australia to become a serious global player, let's hope we are prepared.

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