Once upon a time, Australia was a land of invention and innovation. Sadly, we’re turning into a nation of luddites.
Australia invented the technology underpinning Wi-Fi, along with the ‘black box’ flight recorder, ultrasound scanners and the heart pacemaker – just to mention some of our globally recognised innovations. We have an enviable track record when it comes to technology.
And yet, apparently Prime Minister Scott Morrison just wants us to adopt other country’s technologies these days. This week he told us, “we’re not trying to create the next Silicon Valley here in Australia. That’s not it. We’ve just got to be the best at adopting. Taking it on board. Making it work for us”.
What a short-sighted and inadequate approach from the nation’s leader. Sadly, we are witnessing a trend that does not auger well for our future in an emerging digitally-enabled world. Former PM Malcolm Turnbull talked boldly about an “Innovation Nation”.
However, in an earlier role as communications minister he had masterminded the destruction of a state-of-the-art broadband network – replacing the rollout of fibre with 100 year old copper wires. Millions of us struggle with Internet speeds that are barely acceptable now, but which will prove totally inadequate in years to come.
By way of contrast, a thousand business premises have just been connected to a ten gigabit network built by the City of Adelaide. Other cities and regional centres have similar projects in play. This would not be necessary if we’d just kept building a 21st Century NBN.
As we struggled to deal with the coronavirus, the Digital Transformation Agency launched a contact tracing app – COVIDSafe – they knew wouldn’t work on a significant percentage of smart phones. Despite pleas from people who know better the federal health department, which commissioned the app, continues to tell people to download it even though it has proven to be of little help.
We’ve had the Census debacle. The problematic introduction of My Health Record, with millions of sceptical Australians immediately opting out. In New South Wales it took more than a decade to develop the Opal card – despite other states having had contactless fare collection systems on public transport for many years. And of course, there’s been a gradual reduction in funding for technology-based agencies such as the CSIRO. All up, a raft of examples of our inability to harness the advantages of new technologies.
Once upon a time Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”. When agricultural production was no longer a sufficient bulwark for our growing economy we began ripping minerals out of the ground. Our rural and mining sectors will always be important, but for our future prosperity we need to embrace technology.
Environmentalists have highlighted the fact that we live in a finite world. No, we won’t run out of coal any time soon. Trees will continue to grow, we just need to be selective in how many we cut down. However, if we’re not careful we will do unacceptable damage to the planet.
How do we deal with this new reality? Technology is the key. Artificial intelligence will allow us to make better decisions. It will change the way governments and their agencies operate. The “Internet of Things” will help us create Smart Cities and support new ways of managing farm production.
Telehealth will bridge a huge gap in the provision of health services to people in remote places or those with a disability making attendance at a GP’s surgery difficult. During the current pandemic we’ve seen people embrace working from home and a hint that technology might finally provide the impetus for increased decentralisation.
But, while technology has its plusses it also brings with it a potential for negative consequences. The Internet itself for example. What started out as a breathtaking initiative by a group of incredibly intelligent
self-described ‘geeks’ is now presenting a range of seemingly intractable problems. Cyber-crime, consumer scams and online bullying for starters.
I’m convinced that the very clever people who created the Internet are also clever enough to fix it. Experience tells me that won’t happen unless they are led there by governments determined to maximise the benefits of technology and minimise the downsides.
Australia is well placed to develop solutions. We have the expertise. We’ve proven that time and time again. What we are lacking is leadership. No, prime minister, we cannot just rely on other country’s inventions.