Imagine last year reading a story that began: ‘In 2020 we will have these massive fires and they will burn for months destroying 50 million acres and then we will have a horrible virus that will infect millions of people that make everyone on the planet stay inside.’ You would have been convinced that only an eight-year-old would write something like that!
Unfortunately, this year is no story, but we do get to write our own ending. The recovery from the economic crisis created by the disruptions of 2020 is going to be hard.
Already leaders are talking about investing in large amounts of infrastructure to kick-start the economy. This is great, but that infrastructure needs to be more than roads and schools. It should include digital infrastructure that will set the next generation up with the jobs we want for the future.
If there is one thing that COVID-19 has done, it has been to accelerate changes that had already been coming to the way we use technology. As a result of months of disruption, millions of Australians are much more digitally savvy.
We are comfortably engaging with each other through video, we are buying online at levels that we expected to be years in the future and, most importantly, we are engaging with education virtually and learning as much about digital learning as we are about the subjects themselves.
There have been more subtle changes too. Worldwide, business and government has been learning to work virtually.
The future of work has arrived unexpectedly quickly and we’re not likely to go back to how things were. Jobs that can be done remotely are likely to continue to be more flexible than ever before.
The change means that instead of staffing with the best person available onsite, jobs will be available to the best person anywhere. While working virtually, new opportunities for innovation, automation and simplification are being created which will boost productivity and allow for new products and services in the longer term.
For Australia, the move to virtual work means the possibility of accessing new export opportunities. We have a highly skilled workforce who are well regarded across the globe. Contributions that were too hard to make through the tyranny of distance are suddenly open to us.
To lock-in the myriad of social, inclusion, education, export and economic benefits that these new digital skills create requires new infrastructure. Digital infrastructure. It ranges from filling-in connectivity gaps through to solving identity and trust issues.
Our future is a hybrid of physical and digital and needs to include advanced manufacturing which is rich in IP which can be exported to identical fabrication technology in seconds and in production in minutes.
It is a world where learning is supported by digital tools curating the best content from teachers across the country supported by dynamic coaching in-person and digitally. And it is a world where cyber security infrastructure is as pervasive as our defence and police forces.
The challenge with investing in digital infrastructure is that it is sometimes hard to see the progress.
If a government invests in roads, bridges and buildings then even if there is a cost blowout, there is something useful at the end of it. Technology, on the other hand, is notorious for missed budgets combined with architectural missteps or even obsolescence.
However, just because these investments are hard and carry risk, we cannot shy away from them.
Nationally important digital infrastructure will disproportionately set Australia up for the future we want to have in the 2030s. After all, history has shown that the most significant investments of the past in the nation’s interests have come with commensurate risk.
That the government could respond as quickly and in the way it did with JobKeeper, JobSeeker and small business boosts was because of investments made in complex IT systems over the past decade. These systems are examples of critical infrastructure that provide resilience to support the economy and its people.
Some of the risk can be offset by combining digital with more traditional infrastructure. Support for the building of a space industry – including launch sites – brings the best of all of Australia’s capability to bear.
Smart transport infrastructure designed to enable autonomous and integrated logistics will reduce our long-term costs. Investments in renewable and low carbon energy can be combined with the Industry 4.0 capabilities that are so important to our future.
These investments in our future need to be a partnership between business, government and the population at large.
Digital skills are needed and available to everyone as never before and many people are looking to embrace new ways of working. Government and educational institutions realise that aligning with industry will be critical.
Universities have been disrupted but not displaced and are ready to build on the newly discovered digital muscles that so many people now possess. Business has never seen a greater reason to reinvent themselves than responding to a disrupted economy.
We need to take control and write the end of our own 2020 story, let’s make it an ending we’re proud of.
Robert Hillard is Chair of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA). He is also Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at Deloitte Australia and is a member of Deloitte’s global board of directors.