A new plan and new urgency for industry

Dr Sarah Pearson

‘Future Industries’ are alive and kicking in the here and now, and on the rise in countries you may not expect to be leading.

Countries traditionally reliant on low cost manufacturing. Countries with a hunger to act, and to reach out to collaborate. The competition is on, as more mature economies see opportunities to onshore manufacturing, utilising technological advances.

The COVID-19 crisis has heightened our awareness of the fragility of our supply chains, and is seeing unprecedented agility in our manufacturing capability.

But are we doing enough, urgently, strategically and collaboratively, to ensure we compete globally, as well as shore up sovereign access to goods and services? And are we bringing everyone along?

A couple of years ago at an Industry 4.0 conference in Hanoi, led by the Prime Minister of Vietnam, the plenary speech was made by a robot.

Sarah Pearson
Sarah Pearson: Now is the time to push forward on innovation policy

A quick trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min and you meet companies delivering computer design for kitchen manufacture in Australia, meet young people who have taught themselves to code, see companies that provide Big Data and AI support services globally, and witness an innovation ecosystem building itself to support new companies.

A year ago the same Prime Minister led a conference on the socio-economic impact of innovation, including the need for diversity and social impact. A Prime Minister that has stated they intend to leapfrog countries like Australia. By mid-day the video speeches were available to the public and that night it was all over the news.

In India they are building the world’s largest startup co-working space. Their ecosystem is fuelled by the large number of multinationals originally domiciled in India to access cheap labour, but increasingly reaching out to the Indian startup sector for innovative ideas.

This is also one of the centralities of Israel’s industrial innovation success.

India and Vietnam are investing in female startups through startup hubs focused on women founders, with an eye to global collaboration. And, when it comes to the research needed to fuel these new industries countries such as China dominate key areas – for instance some reports state that around 60 per cent of global AI spending is concentrated in China.

In Australia, we have been building the infrastructure to get us in the race. Entities such as Main Sequence Ventures, investing to build new deep tech industries, inventing tomorrow and solving global challenges such as feeding billions, and ensuring Australia benefits from the growing space sector; a plethora of innovation hubs such as Canberra Innovation Network, Gold Coast Hub and Queensland’s The Precinct, Lot 14 in Adelaide, Melbourne’s biosciences precinct, and Sydney’s Innovation & Technology Precinct; innovation policies to encourage female founders and support commercialisation; and attracting and connecting fabulous researchers capable of traversing the deep-tech research-industry divide such as Genevieve Bell at ANU’s 3Ai Institute and the AI Hub in Queensland.

And everywhere researchers giving their all to help us get out of the COVID-19 crisis, such as the team at UQ attempting to develop a vaccine so the world can open its borders to global traffic again.

We have much to be proud of. Many great research institutes, many experienced and committed people trying to drive us into the new industrial era.

Now is the time to accelerate and co-ordinate our efforts collaboratively.

In our ‘bounce back’ we must make the most of this moment – an opportunity to really shine on the global stage, to lead these new industries in areas we excel at – an opportunity to make sure we don’t get left behind by countries hungrier than us.

A time when the public have seen the way science and tech has helped us through, as we work and educate from home using technology, when we visit our doctors using telehealth apps, when scientists develop treatments and vaccines, when manufacturers turn their mind and assets to provide us with PPE equipment using modern technology such as 3D printing.

A time when it is clear the world faces serious global challenges – challenges that are only just beginning. This needs to be done with urgency, strategy and collaboration.

In the UK, over 10 years ago, a new government agency, the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK), was set up to build industries of the future, as well as inject technology into well established industry.

They developed roadmaps that covered R&D, skills development and legislation and government policy; all based on global commercial opportunity.

The development engaged industry, the research base, government, and industry bodies, with the end result that industry sectors connected to agree on the vision and the actions. The actions were owned by the sector ecosystem, with support from government where government had an obvious role to play, but in the main, depended on industry action.

Australia needs to utilise this approach – in a cohesive manner, addressing Australian industry as a whole, current and emerging industries. Professor Roy Green’s National Industrial Strategy Commission could take this role on.

Collaboration is key – between industry and the research base, extending in a more impactful way to SMEs; between whole industry sector ecosystems (the point of the original Precincts, now Industry Growth Centres); between Australian ideas and global routes to market; between education and industry; and importantly across the entire nation’s startup ecosystem.

In April 2016, I attended an Australia Week in China mission and sat on a panel with the head of a $25bn Chinese venture capital firm, at a time when Australia had $1bn in VC.

His comment has stuck with me – “Australia is of great interest to overseas investors, but way too fractured to be attractive.”

We need to tell a cohesive story about our startup opportunities, and an entity such as Prof Roy’s could take that on too.

In all of this, no one can be left behind. Including the planet. We must ensure everyone has the chance to be part of these new industry opportunities. I am proud of the Yarning Circle we started in Canberra, and Deadly Innovations in Queensland, working with our Indigenous innovators – a culture that made breakthroughs in astronomy and agriculture way before western countries.

I’m proud of the programmes I have been involved in encouraging women into STEM and entrepreneurship, both in Australia and overseas. And I am thrilled to see the circular economy activity in Queensland – great companies spinning up using tech such as AI in recycling for instance.

We must remember that these new industries will also touch us socially. Innovation can be used to help us change our social systems – from how we deliver health services to how we engage with an ageing population.

And government – in this new era what is the role of government – what new structures and approaches do we need to ensure we continue to adapt, as we have been doing in this crisis. Why are we so good at being agile in a crisis but not in BAU?

I’m a advocate for the UK’s NESTA, an organisation supporting the growth of social and government innovation. A combination of the NESTA and Innovate UK model in Prof Green’s new commission would be great.

The connection between this and a new industrial strategy may not be obvious, but we cannot just change our industries – we need to change our governments and societies to support and align human growth with this.

Finally, we need to bring the community along with us. We’ve never really managed that successfully. How do we help Mum’s and Dad’s see that new industries are the future for them and their kids? How do we take the fear away and inject excitement.

Entities such as Questacon do a great job of this. But we need so much more. In Israel, mothers tell their kids “Don’t bother with medicine and law – be an entrepreneur”. What can we learn, what can we invent, to bring Australia along the journey and be proud of the great ideas we have that can build jobs. This is a key piece of work for us.

So will we limp into the post COVID-19 era allowing other countries like Vietnam to pass us by, as did Singapore and South Korea some time ago?

Or will we inspire imagination, identify good ideas and develop new ways of doing things collaboratively to allow us to succeed in the coming high growth future industries?

Dr Sarah Pearson, FTSE is Innovation Lead and Deputy Director-General at the Department of Innovation and Tourism Industry Development, Queensland. Sarah has a DPhil in particle physics from the University of Oxford, and is a member of the investment committee of Main Sequence Ventures. The opinions in this article are purely personal.

This story first appeared on the @AuManufacturing site. You can subscribe to the @AuManufacturing newsletter here. 

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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