James Riley
June 25, 2019

Digital economy now central to G20

Policy

Digital economy now central to G20

Digital economy: CSIRO chief Larry Marshall with Industry minister Karen Andrews

The G20 leaders’ summit kicks off in Osaka later this week, with topics of innovation and the operation of the digital economy now central to the discussions.

Even taking into account the usual blue, blue sky outlooks that often accompanies the G20 extravaganza, it is remarkable just how mainstream technology has become in discussions about trade and the global economy.

The Australian delegation might as well be travelling through time. Fresh from the atmospherics of a May 18 federal poll in which discussions of innovation, technology, or the future of work were muted, culture-shock is surely a risk.

Japan has done something quite interesting in its year as chair of the G20. Earlier this month it brought together G20 Trade ministers and Digital Economy ministers for the first time. It is a recognition of the centrality of the interface between trade and the digital economy, and covers topics from the treatment and movement of data, to the global frameworks that will govern the interoperability of AI.

Australia was represented at the meeting by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham and Industry Minister Karen Andrews. You can read the communique produced by the meeting here. It is more interesting than you might think.

The meeting of trade and digital economy ministers marked another step in the continuing evolution of the G20. The policy discussion about the digital economy, innovation and the new industrial revolution was started in 2016 under China’s presidency of the G20 in 2016.

Germany established the first G20 Digital Economy Ministerial Meeting in 2017 and produced a digital economy roadmap, while in 2018 Argentina focused on digital government, the digital gender divide, infrastructure deployment, and the measurement of the digital economy.

Japan has rather grandly declared a “human-centred future society” that it calls Society 5.0 as a centrepiece for the Osaka deliberations. If you strip away the grandiosity, the goals are straight-forward enough, despite the complexity. The aim is to build the global legal, technical and trust frameworks that underpins the digital economy.

“Digitalization is expected to continue creating benefits for our economies and societies as a whole,” the ministerial statement from the meeting of trade and digital economy ministers said.

“The benefits brought by increased productivity through the use of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), fifth-generation mobile telecommunication technologies (5G), the Internet of Things (IoT), Distributed Ledger Technologies (e.g. block chain) will empower all individuals and firms by creating new opportunities, and generate new services and employment, all of which can lead to greater well-being and further inclusiveness for individuals and firms.

“While digitalization has tremendous potential to deliver benefits to society, it also raises certain concerns.

“Digital divide should be addressed with a commitment to evidence-based policy approaches together with the efforts to improve the measurement of the digital economy that enable the widest possible adoption and use of innovative technology. We should come together to promote trust in the digital economy to harness the benefits brought by digitalization as well as to mitigate the associated challenges.”

Australia has well-formed policy thinking on the issues of the digital economy. We are not dummies. What has been missing in this country is a realistic mainstream discussion. And there is little sense of urgency on the development and adoption of core technology like artificial intelligence, or even driving new governance frameworks for data.

Maybe this is about to change. As Treasurer, Scott Morrison took a personal interest in pushing reforms such as the Consumer Data Right and open banking to fruition. He oversaw the introduction of new regimes to encourage FinTechs, and in his first major domestic speech on Monday pushed a plan to improve Australia’s digital skills.

Industry Minister Karen Andrews has embraced the data sciences and seems well inclined to take up the advocacy inside Cabinet of greater urgency on building artificial intelligence capability in Australia.

The Prime Minister chairs the National Science and Technology Council, with Karen Andrews as deputy. The last meeting of the Council directed distinguished professor Genevieve Bell to lead a panel considering the opportunities for Australia in developing a sovereign capability in AI.

There is a real opportunity for Mrs Andrews to drive a more senior discussion in government about building Australian capability. This is not a single portfolio issue.

We will see what comes out of Osaka, and how tightly the Prime Minister embraces the agenda.

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