Incoming CSIRO chairman and former Telstra chief executive David Thodey has called for a national policy framework and agenda for the technology sector that encompasses the federal and state spheres and urged policymakers to “just get on with it”.
Thodey is arguably Australia’s most experienced technology industry executive. He formerly ran IBM in Australia and New Zealand, topping off a 22 year career at the Big Blue with his stint at Telstra. He will step into the CSIRO chair in December.
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers,” Thodey told InnovationAus.com in an interview at the weekend, adding he had been spending time talking to as many people both inside and outside CSIRO as possible. “There is no blueprint you can take off the wall, unfortunately.”
Unsurprisingly, Asia features high on Thodey’s agenda, both for its models of creating technology hubs, as well as a place where Australian innovations – as opposed to innovators – can find a home.
In recent years he has been a technology advisor to the Mayor of Shanghai for the city’s Special Economic Zone, a position he is relinquishing as he finally steps away from Telstra on August 21.
He had stayed on to help his handpicked successor Andy Penn in the transition from chief financial officer to CEO, the first orderly transition at the company since Ziggy Switkowski took over form Frank Blount in 1999.
Thodey said in Shanghai “they identified six things: talent, technology transfers commercialisation, entrepreneurship, IP and immigration…they said we will just chase policies in those areas, and they do it.”
“I am not saying we need to do all those things in Australia, but we just need to make the big decisions and just get on with it,” he said. “There’s no reason in Australia we can’t do this at a state and federal level – and I thought just having that blueprint was great.”
Government is important, Thodey said, because the funding that flows to education and research institutes was key. He identified New South Wales Premier Mike Baird – something of a political pin-up boy at present – as doing “good things in terms of [that] flow to create jobs in NSW.” He also noted there had been some good initiatives coming from Victoria and Queensland.
“We can’t have states competing against each other. I think we have got to find some way of coordinating and driving better interaction. At a federal level we need to be driving these CRCs [cooperative research centres] and try to get some alignment around that,” he said.
“I am very conscious that you can’t tell universities what to do … I am reticent to say too much.”
Thodey’s last public speaking engagement before stepping down from the top job at Telstra was in Singapore, the wealthy city-state determined to emerge as the premier information and communications technology hub in Southeast Asia.
He was launching Telstra’s Muru-D startup accelerator in Singapore, the first Asian offshoot of program.
Speaking to an Australian Chamber of Commerce luncheon in April, Thodey gave a frank assessment of the Australian technology sector.
“I have decided to take a position where I can speak up and be heard constructively, instead of throwing rocks from the sidelines, “ he said.
Over the past decade Thodey has proven a consistently approachable, upbeat and unusually humble senior figure in the Australian business community. These qualities helped to underpin his remarkable success at Telstra, where he settled a company rent with damaging management and board disputes amid generational changes in the sector over a decade.
He also settled the financial markets too, doubling the share price of the telecoms giant. No mean feat in Australia’s most politicised major corporation – both internally and externally.
Despite his public and perhaps more private critiques, Thodey is typically optimistic about the Australian technology sector, despite its well documented struggles to gain policy and popular traction in a nation that has seemed reluctant to embrace tech success, beyond the occasional big deal or bumper IPO.
While always happy to revel in the success of Australia’s rugby team; he spent Saturday night watching the Wallabies at Sydney Stadium chalk up a rare win over the All Blacks – “while keeping one eye on the Sydney Swans” – like many, Thodey believes more balance is needed in where Australia celebrates its successes.
It is important for the nation celebrate innovation much as it does success on the sporting field.
“Going back to Telstra, a lot of the change is [derived] in the culture. We need to recognise and celebrate what we achieve. We need to drive research and have everybody think how can I innovate to solve problems,” he said.
“We want as many people as possible to do this, we have to celebrate this” adding that education was central to creating a different culture. We have to create a national agenda, that is a big part of this,” he added.
Thodey said the aim should be“ a combination of technology and business disruption, companies like Airbnb (the collaborative consumption accommodation group) that are doing things we have never been able to do before.”
“You can be a great scientist or mathematician or physicist and apply that to the real world business and technology at the same time,” he concluded. “That is where the real value is created.”
“And it doesn’t have to be all about economics … it can be about carbon emissions, water management or waste management.”
CSIRO has its own well-documented problems, with government funding cuts and a relatively new chief executive Larry Marshall, a former venture capitalist who is engaged in court battle with the shareholders of Arasor International, a collapsed ASX-listed technology company he formerly headed.
And while Thodey understandably did not want to engage in commentary about an ongoing court case he said, “I do know that sometimes in this VC area things don’t always go well. You look in the Valley, companies fail all the time, this is not unusual. We want people to give it a go. “
But he cautioned, “I am not across all the details, Larry has to work that through”
If Thodey can succeed in applying the same proven mix of consultation and tough negotiating skills with government and his managers that harvested such great results at Telstra, then CSIRO will come at last into the light and with it, perhaps, Australia’s broader technology sector.
But as he noted, this needs smarter policy approaches by federal and state governments. First, policy makers should take the time to listen David Thodey and the many others with experience in this sector.