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Ambition on the agenda at D61+LIVE

It had all the wonder of the Royal Easter Show, but with science and technology taking the place of animals and rides. There were robots, drones, models, modelling, a mammoth mobile emergency-services integrated-communications truck and, on the main stage, a grand parade of inspiring minds and ambitious ideas. (Oh, and there were food stations serving pulled-pork tacos, steamed dumplings, noodle boxes and mini Wagyu beef burgers—streets ahead of the usual sideshow fare.)

It was Data61’s inaugural D61+ LIVE event, held at Sydney’s Australian Technology Park, with five zones for delegates to dive deeper into research and innovations with exhibitors, plus a science and tech dream-team speaker lineup, including CSIRO chief exec Larry Marshall. It was mind-expanding, inspirational and fun—and the data showed that precisely 1,139 registered attendees came to explore on the afternoon of March 30.

Data61 was born last year, the result of merging CSIRO’s Digital Productivity Flagship and National ICT Australia (NICTA) to accelerate data-driven and commercially focussed innovation, in partnership with industry, universities, government and the startup scene. As Data61 CEO Adrian Turner told the D61+LIVE audience: “We’re talking about new economic structures and new industries growing exponentially, underpinned by data, and we need to learn how to build these platform businesses fast.”

The digital disruption that has turned other business models upside down threatens to do the same to Australia’s entire economy if we don’t move swiftly.

Turner warned that the digital disruption that has turned other business models upside down threatens to do the same to Australia’s entire economy if we don’t move swiftly. “So far the industries that have been impacted are the ones that are more information-centric,” he said, adding that “sensors and actuators” are the next disruption initiators. As the industrial internet transforms industries such as agriculture, mining and transportation, he predicted, those industries will “take on the economic characteristics of an Uber or a Facebook … If we don’t take the jump in learning how to build these industries, other people will, in other parts of the world … and commodities won’t carry us.”

Referring to Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce, a recent Data61 report which predicts that 40% of today’s jobs in Australia won’t exist in 10-15 years, Turner spoke passionately about science and technology as the drivers of the new industries that will be critical to the nation’s economic future. He and others lamented Australia’s ranking—last!—on an OECD scoreboard of nations whose universities and public institutions are successfully collaborating with large firms and SMEs.

Along with the essential change to drive real collaboration between government, universities and industry, Turner and many other D61+LIVE speakers called for STEM education in Australia, from primary school on, to be urgently improved. The need to encourage more women in STEM education and the jobs that spring from it was another dominant theme among panellists.

Geoff Culbert at D61+ Live

GE’s Geoff Culbert has the talking stick (with fellow panel members, left to right, WorleyParsons’ John Grill, CSIRO’s Cathy Foley and the Business Council of Australia’s Angus Armour).

But the overall mood of the event was optimistic. Even the panel entitled “Is Australia Missing Out on Industry 4.0?” came to the consensus that the answer is no—or, at least, not yet. The panel, including CSIRO’s Catherine Foley, the Business Council of Australia’s Angus Armour and Geoff Culbert, president and CEO of GE Australia, NZ and PNG, discussed the challenges and opportunities of the 4th Industrial Revolution. “We can’t be thinking of markets of 24 million, we have think of markets of 7 billion if we’re going to be relevant,” said Culbert. “We’ve got to be thinking about the industries where we have a comparative advantage: oil and gas, mining, agri-business, fintech, healthcare. If we direct investment into those areas, and come up with technological breakthroughs that we can scale and export to the rest of the world, we’ll create wealth and growth and jobs in the Australian market… As the leader of GE in Australia, I focus on those industries … I try to put Australia as a pilot market where we can develop applications connected to our technology that we can export to the rest of the world.”

The government’s Innovation Statement and policies are helping, said scientist and deputy director of CSIRO Manufacturing Cathy Foley, adding that she believes Australia has been on a “bad pathway of missing out on Industry 4.0”. Foley said she’s encouraged by the fact that the government is talking about taking more risk to “invest and procure locally and be willing to buy something that fails …”, and that she was especially excited by the recent Defence White Paper’s plan to fund development support for Australian SMEs to become part of the global supply chain.

Startups won’t create jobs unless they’re able to scale globally.

Larry Marshall’s “fireside chat” (accessorised by armchairs, red wine and a candle) with Bill Ferris, chair of the government’s independent advisory body Innovation Australia and renowned venture capitalist, drew a crowd. Ferris’s first startup was in 1970, and he spoke frankly of those days when there was no startup ecosystem. Today, there’s a community but, echoing many others, Ferris said it’s critical to reinforce the fact that the resulting “startups won’t create jobs unless they’re able to scale globally”. Marshall said that’s why CSIRO believes Data61 is a “critical piece of Australia’s strategy … How do we navigate that … the fundamental divergence between jobs and productivity? We’ve had 100 years of them being in lockstep, but in the last decade, they’ve diverged where jobs is now 25% lower than productivity … a trend that we need to turn into an advantage.”

Bill Ferris and Dr. Larry Marshall at D61+ Live

Bill Ferris and Larry Marshall conducted a thought-provoking and entertaining fireside chat.

Both agreed that collaboration between government, investors and companies—startups, SMEs and multinationals—is essential for the 4th Industrial Revolution transition. Ferris said startups show the way on “flexibility, the get-on-with-it and fearless-of-failure aspect”, adding that big business needs to learn from that “because if they don’t … they won’t be around”. He also tipped his hat to GE’s “corporate venturing”, noting that GE has “over 100 minority VC portfolio positions in smaller businesses … in technologies that either could disrupt what GE’s got, or add to, or take them to new places”.

Data61’s Turner, who spent 18 years in the US before returning to Australia, said that Australia has “incredible capability and amazing institutions, but we need to think globally and aim higher”. He drew applause from the crowd when he revealed that he’d spoken with four multinationals who don’t currently do primary R&D in Australia, and who have now “committed to do primary R&D in Australia with Data61”. So far, Data61 has relationships with 22 universities with more coming on board all the time. With more than $US1.6 trillion spent globally on R&D each year, Turner said his goal is to direct the flow of 0.01% of that research and development funding  into the Data61 network.

“Our vision is to create Australia’s data-driven future,” said Turner, asking his audience to look at the Data61 logo which has one side of its hexagon missing. That missing side, he explained, throwing down the collaboration gauntlet, “is you”.

Ferris and Marshall photo courtesy of Data61. All other images by Jane Nicholls.

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