Australia risks being a tech laggard without stronger investment


Australia risks becoming a laggard among the world’s top technologically driven nations without a stronger investment in digital technology-based research, innovation and workers.

That’s according to a new “policy primer” report by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, which calls on the federal government to make emerging digital technologies a national science and innovation priority.

Shazia Sadiq, chair of the Australian Academy of Science’s national committee for information and communication sciences.

“Australia is at a crossroads in the development of a strong digital technology economy,” the report, “Australia’s Digital Future a nation of users or leaders?”, says.

“We have strengths in emerging digital technology research and development, but opportunities for sector growth and sovereign capability are nascent and require coordinated and strategic support.

“To grasp the opportunities presented by a growing emerging digital technologies sector, Australia must also strive to address the digital divide to ensure equity of access to the benefits delivered by digital technologies, and to meet the skill requirements for a future digital workforce.

“Australia’s emerging digital technology capabilities must receive this support in order for the nation to remain internationally competitive and ensure that scientific leadership is adequately harnessed in shaping our collective digital future.”

If that support does not arrive, “we risk falling behind as a technologically driven nation”, the report warns.

“This requires investing in research, innovation and workforce development to ensure strong expert leadership in this rapidly evolving sector.”

While countries such as the US, the UK, France and Canada are prioritising digital technologies as a strategy to bolster competitiveness in the emerging digital economy, Australia is falling behind, it says, pointing to digital innovation accounting for only 7.4 per cent of Australia’s GDP compared to the 11.2 per cent average enjoyed by other OECD countries.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the prioritisation of emerging digital technologies in Australia, they must now be recognised by government as an independent growth sector, the report says.

It also recommends that research and innovation in emerging digital technologies should be included in the federal government’s 2021 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

The report looks at emerging digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), augmented and virtual reality, blockchain and 5G and provides examples of the benefits being seen by other countries who have prioritised investment in science and technology research and development, and in particular in digital technologies.

Chair of the Australian Academy of Science’s national committee for information and communication sciences Shazia Sadiq told InnovationAus that while the Australian Government’s investment in key digital capabilities — such as through its digital economy and modern manufacturing strategies — was welcome, more needed to be done.

“Our key message is that we need to be more than ‘smart users’ [of emerging technologies],” Ms Sadiq told InnovationAus.

“So what does that mean? It means that we need to have the scientific expertise — our sovereign capability — through which we can help and create and foster those opportunities that come from these emerging digital technologies, but also help [with] the vulnerabilities and limitations and dangers and do it at a national level,” she said.

“We need to be able to ensure that the scientific expertise in the voice of science and engineering is going hand in hand with the application of these technologies.

“The thinking is that these digital technologies have a very wide footprint that impacts almost all sectors.”

Professor Mike Miller, chair of the digital futures forum at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, said Australia is at a crossroads in the development of a strong digital technology economy.

“We have strengths in emerging digital technology research and development, but opportunities for sector growth and sovereign capability are nascent and require coordinated and strategic support,” Professor Miller said.

“To grasp the opportunities presented by a growing emerging digital technologies sector, Australia must address the digital divide to ensure equity of access to the benefits delivered by digital technologies, and to meet the skill requirements for a future digital workforce.

“Australia’s emerging digital technology capabilities must receive this support in order for the nation to remain internationally competitive and ensure that scientific leadership is adequately harnessed in shaping our collective digital future.”

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