Across three cities in as many days, the GE CSIRO Digital Industrial Series agenda boasted speakers from established corporates, utilities and industrial companies, startups, to scientists, investors and economists, all focussed on embracing and scaling digital disruption to advance Australia in the post-mining-boom era.
Discussions stretched from smart cities, safe healthcare, smooth agriculture and STEM education to the transformation of industry by machines made brilliant by the power of software, data analytics and connectivity that is the Industrial Internet—and also a dedicated session on the souped-up cybersecurity needed to protect it all.
The partnership between Australia’s century-old publicly funded science and technology agency CSIRO and digital-industrial multinational GE (which sometimes describes itself as a 124-year-old startup) goes back many years. With a common goal to help shape the future, CSIRO and GE have collaborated on building solutions and innovations across resources, energy, healthcare, materials, ICT and data analytics.
With an estimated 50 billion machines coming online by 2020, the Industrial Internet was the talk of the conference series, which attracted hundreds of ideas-sharing speakers and delegates in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. High on the agenda was the urgent need for Australia to close the innovation loop and commercialise its inventions and research for the global market.
“We need our universities and our publicly funded research organisations, like CSIRO, to work more closely with industry ... a forum like this is what [we’re] looking for,” said Marlene Kanga, president-elect of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations. “We really need to work together … and work out how to take this wonderful research to market… This is a critical challenge for us, and many countries ... are achieving this without huge government investment.”
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall, who took the reins last year, described his strategy. “We want to preserve the unique value of the universities in invention, research and amazing capability in education,” he said. “Can CSIRO be the bridge that takes those amazing inventions off the lab bench and gets them at least to a point where they’re derisked enough that industry will ... take them from there and run with them, or traditional investors will invest in them and run with them.”
GE’s regional director of Oil & Gas Mary Hackett, who was on the keynote panel with Marshall and Queensland’s chief scientist and former CSIRO chief executive Geoff Garrett, said leaders must be “in the flow … in the stream of really understanding how rapidly our world is evolving”, even if it’s way outside their field of expertise. A mechanical engineer, Hackett conceded she’d previously handed responsibility for leading digital technology to the younger generation, until she realised that “as a leader, you can’t abdicate that responsibility”. She joked that these days she’s like an ex-smoker being “really preachy about stopping smoking” as she extols the need to lean into new technology. “I'm not a digital expert. I'm not a technology expert, but I'm a leader learning how to lead technology, to lead innovation, to lead change in our workplace.”
Goff Culbert, CEO of GE in Australia, New Zealand and PNG, said GE’s founding inventor Thomas Edison was “the Steve Jobs of his time … a relentless pursuer of innovation”. Culbert said Edison’s legacy lives on in “a company that’s constantly changing and evolving... If you don’t like change, then GE is a really terrible place to work. If you like change, then it’s really fascinating and exciting.”
Here are a few more lean-in soundbites from speakers:
Adrian Turner, CEO Data61-CSIRO on his organisation’s role in the innovation race
“If you’ve got an idea, we can bring intellectual property, we can bring talent and capability to it, we can bring global relationships to it and really accelerate the time to scale... In the world that we’re moving to, time to scale really, really, really matters, and you can’t do it alone.”
Tom Le, VP engineering, Wurldtech, a GE company, on cybersecurity
“We need to create critical systems that function in an untrusted environment. You have to assume that you’re going to operate in an environment where you’re going to be attacked.”
Jeff Sharp, group manager, technology and innovation, Downer, on the swift migration of advanced technology as the cost comes down
“We’re seeing hundreds and hundreds of use cases coming out. Things that probably were affordable 10 or 20 years ago in defence are suddenly affordable on a road or on a train or a tram or in a mine. So we’ve got this whole influx of new opportunities, ways to provide better services to the public, more reliable services.”
Leonie Walsh, director Productive MS (and outgoing lead scientist, Victoria)
“What are the skills required for this 4th Industrial Revolution? … If you extrapolate it out to 2025, the skills and attributes that business will be looking for will move even more towards the ones that require interpersonal skills and empathy and human interaction skills. And given that we are facing a time time of automation and computerisation, jobs that can be automated and computerised, that don’t require human interaction, are the jobs that will be replaced, but the ones that require us to be engaging and to be empathetic will be the ones that continue to stand out. I’m constantly giving this message to students of the future as they’re coming through, that it’s not about your grades anymore, it’s not about being the best in your academic disciplines. You have to be building those interpersonal, teamwork, collaboration skills.”
Dave Dembo, General Manager, Healthcare Solutions, GE Healthcare
“Healthcare is desperate for disruption. It’s the last bastion of industry to properly digitise. There’s no shortage of technology in healthcare—everywhere you look there’s a machine that goes ping. The problem is that those machines don’t share the data with each other, so you have these digital islands of information. And that’s a problem in a sector that’s trying to chase quality. Quality in healthcare drives your costs down and your outcomes to your patients up.”
Shane Arnott, director, Boeing Phantom Works, on commercialising Australian innovation
“There’s a lot of opportunity in Australia to do it better... The research cycle, where you take money, do research, turn it into knowledge ... as a country we punch above our weight. The second piece ... where you take that knowledge and turn it back into money, we’re one of the worst in the OECD world ... doing some great stuff but we’re just not closing the loop… That frankly is on big industry as well … I’d like to see much greater connection between the federally funded groups and the big players, such that we’re working as Australia Pty Ltd.”
Cat Matson, chief digital officer, Brisbane, on where Australia should focus it invention muscle
“We should be focusing heavily on knowledge-based industries ... medicine, consulting, creative and digital sectors. We have extraordinary muscle in this country … we just need to boost it.”
Geoff Garrett, Queensland chief scientist, on the opportunities in creative collaboration and technology sharing
“I’ve just finished a major study on behalf of the government on the Great Barrier Reef water quality .... one of the challenges in water quality is measuring it, particularly on a farm. The gear is quite expensive and the farmers basically say, ‘No. My water quality is fine, it’s those guys up the catchment that are causing the problem.’ So you have to try to measure it on particular paddocks, and the typical water-quality measure for dissolved nitrogen and sediment etc, costs you maybe 1,800 bucks. However, some colleagues ... have been talking to some GE people … and apparently in some of the washing machines that [GE] manufactures have some very interesting water-quality monitors, which cost 40 bucks. So why aren’t we moving across those boundaries?”
As he left the first conference of the series, held on QUT’s beautiful city campus in Brisbane, Larry Marshall reflected on the day. “All of the panel members kind of got energy from each other,” he said. “This happens when you have a diversity of perspectives. As with innovation, things seem to happen at the intersection of different disciplines. When you had those different perspectives, the conversation went in unexpected directions and gave unexpected benefits.”
Over the coming weeks, GE Reports will dive deeper into more of the technology, ideas and challenges discussed over the three days of the Digital Industrial Series. Subscribe here for our weekly email newsletter.