Australia has lost its “cutting edge” in digital technology and innovation and is consequently missing out on hundreds of billions of dollars of economic growth and 200,000 jobs, according to the CSIRO. 

The national science agency says to reclaim it the country needs to nearly double the digital innovation industries’ share of GDP, currently at 6.6 per cent and well behind comparable OECD countries’ rate of 11 per cent.

“We look at that, we think we’re under indexing but I just see it as opportunity,” CSIRO chairman, David Thodey AO, said at Data61 Live in Sydney this week, the annual event for the CSIRO’s digital arm Data61.

“And there’s been a number of reports come out … that says that we can grow this industry by about $350 billion a year. Now, I don’t really know what the number is but all I know is that we have an incredible skill set that we can really capitalise on and we need to do it.”

Thodey said the CSIRO can drive that growth.

“Science research underpins any great economy. Especially in a developed nation [because] it is where you create differentiation and value. And for that you need technology as well.” 

According to Thodey, Australia does not need outside help either. He argues the country has the talent but needs to refocus its efforts. He sees software as a focus point rather than hardware, for example, notwithstanding local universities’ excellence in quantum computing.

CSIRO Chairman David Thodey.

“I like the hardware but software is where the world is going … I think we have tremendous skills in Australia that we need to leverage and encouraged and develop, so that we can truly be and continue to be competitive going forward.”

But for now Australia is “lagging behind” OECD countries in capturing the full economic potential of science and innovation, according to CSIRO research which pegs the dollar potential at $315 billion in gross economic terms and 200,000 jobs over the next decade.

“Our greatest opportunity lies in leveraging our existing areas of competitive advantage, including mining, agriculture, healthcare, and manufacturing,” said Data61 director Dr Sue Keay.

Keay agrees Australia can be at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution. While it has slipped in terms of commercialisation, the foundational research expertise is in place, she said.

“Australia has world class research expertise in artificial intelligence, housed within our universities and research sector. As Australia’s national science agency the CSIRO’s work in artificial intelligence is 89 per cent  more cited than the global average.”

 Transforming the CSIRO

Thodey said the institution is going through its own transformation, which has been dubbed D+D (Domain + Data). The CSIRO has seven divisions – Agrifood, Manufacturing, Astronomy, Health and Biosecurity, Lands and Water, Minerals, Oceans and Atmosphere, and Data61 – and each is under review for how it can be improved for a digital future.

“We’re going through everyone of those [eight] divisions and seeing what does that mean in a digital world,” Thodey said. “What will our future look like in this digital age?”

The CSIRO chairman says the analysis has revealed a need to focus on Australia’s “big challenges” and to leverage its existing strengths.

He gave an unofficial list of where the CSIRO is looking for the future growth, including food security and provenance, clean energy; particularly hydrogen, waste management and marine pollution, healthcare and medtech, and resilient environments like the Great Barrier Reef and the Murray Basin.

“We need innovative solutions to real problems that we face. And this is all around driving jobs, productivity, and economic growth.”

One area highlighted for improvement by Thodey was Australia’s historically poor performance on collaboration between industry and research.

“Australia scores incredibly poorly on collaboration [compared to OECD nations]… For some reason in all of us, and I include myself here, we don’t reach out enough and actually celebrate [the] success of each other.”

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