Can Australia harness the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The world stands at the cusp of the second machine age. The fourth major industrial era since the initial Industrial Revolution of the 18th century is

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Matt Codrington

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Managing Director, Lenovo Australia and New Zealand

The world stands at the cusp of the second machine age. The fourth major industrial era since the initial Industrial Revolution of the 18th century is upon us now and will change our lives in remarkable ways.

So what are the opportunities for Australia’s 4IR? Future of work faces perfect storm

Known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), this era will build on the digital revolution of the last 30 years and be marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in a number of fields that will certainly include artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, drones, robotics, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and the internet of things (IoT). It will also have a huge impact on the future of work: the role and nature of work will change, new jobs unheard of will appear, and the balance between manual and knowledge work will change again.

While Australians are traditionally fast adopters of new technology (I’ve seen that in my career with cloud adoption and virtualization as examples), it’s uncertain whether that local leadership will carry to the fourth industrial revolution – because of the challenges we face with infrastructure, digital skills shortages, and innovation funding.

Autonomous cars are here, and automation and robotics continue to make headlines, (Dubai has even launched its first robocop). Locally, our policymakers are aware of the issues, if not yet taking action to address them, as highlighted in a key report by the CSIRO.

Titled Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce: Megatrends and Scenarios for Jobs and Employment in Australia Over the Coming Twenty Years, the paper provides a solid platform for Australia’s leaders and policymakers to plan for a successful future of work. It describes a perfect storm approaching:

1. Exponential growth in technological innovations spanning high-performance computing, robotics, drones, self-driving transportation, automation, big data analysis, and artificial intelligence, set to truly take-off from 2020

2. Transformation of work from old employment models to the gig economy, entrepreneurship, freelancing, and flexible employment

3. An aging and more multicultural population

4. A diversification of Australia’s economy post-mining boom into services, knowledge and innovation exports, fueled by the changing global economy

5. Australia’s trading partners in Asia transitioning from industrialisation-phases of development into advanced-service sector economies

Rallying for a new reform agenda

The report also identifies concern that not enough action has yet been taken to address the scenarios or risks let alone the opportunities. This is where I believe our government has work to do.

Workplace transitions — how individuals move from one job to another and how industries move from one labour market to another — are going to be crucial and will need clearer leadership. Michael Stutchbury, Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Financial Review calls for a new collaborative reform agenda to drive growth and stresses that a strong narrative will need to be crafted to facilitate and lead the necessary change.

The reform challenges around the future of work need to be tackled early. Veteran technologist Walt Mossberg has written about the pressing need for public and private sectors to collaborate to create real and binding laws, industry codes and safety standards to protect society in the coming rapid technological and disruptive transformations of our workplaces, homes, and lives.

Ed Husic, the Australian Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy and the Future of Work, and Mike Priddis, the CEO and co-founder of Faethm, an R&D firm focused on the applications and implications of emerging technologies, co-authored an article in the Australian Financial Review to sound the alarm and call for support to overcome Australia’s risk of being unprepared for the 4IR. This echoes the CSIRO report from just over a year ago.

And yet, while there is much nervousness about the changes coming, there is also much potential. I see opportunities in the adoption of workforce automation, robotisation, and development of artificial intelligence as well as in preparing and empowering those who will be affected by the changes.

Why it’s important to continue to nurture innovation

Alexandra Heath, RBA’s Head of the Economic Analysis Department, advocates for “more work on gaining a better understanding of how technological change might affect the economy and drive productivity growth into the future.”

A good example of that in action is coming from our Digital Transformation Agency. I have met and had discussions with the Federal Government’s Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor and he’s got a real ambition to move the needle. The DTA have closely followed the UK’s digital transformation: the engagement of the citizens there, and how they can best consider passing the power of technology on, to make it easier to engage, to make it more intuitive to engage, for the citizen to have fingertip access to the government and circumvent bureaucracy.

Despite some media claims about our lack of innovation here in Australia, my perspective, as a multinational subsidiary director based in Australia and Japan is that we have been successful in holding our own against many of the world’s big players. Two examples are the fast adoption of virtualization in the enterprise space (a space still growing), and leadership in cloud deployment.

Broadly speaking, Australians like to take charge, make things happen, and beg for forgiveness later.

We also have the benefit of being a pilot market for global organisations. Our market has a lot of the dynamics similar to the larger markets of Europe and the U.S., but with less risk of exposure, and is therefore ideal for experimental projects and investments. The dual benefit of this is it empowers local innovation and creates global firsts.

One of our own recent examples of this is the launch of Lenovo’s PC as a Service offering, which originated in Australia before being rolled out across Asia.

The challenge is to maintain this historic momentum and this breakthrough culture. There are hurdles we now need to leap, with new policy and new technology. They include:

● Lagging infrastructure – Australia is behind 49 countries in internet speeds, and our NBN infrastructure project is slower and more expensive than originally promised. And despite the fact that Australia invented WIFI, public availability is far less widespread than in many foreign cities.

Enabling Venture Capital to facilitate innovation and growth

● Diversity – we need more women in STEM, because it’s inherently right, and also because we’ll otherwise run out of homegrown talent. Any plan that tackles the future of work in the high demand fields of STEM or STEAM will need to take advantage of the unharnessed potential here for inclusion and empowerment – a cause I am proud to champion with my role at the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).

The Asia opportunity

● VC funding – we’re never going to match Silicon Valley for sheer weight of VC funding, but Israel and the UK both have competitive funding models.

The Asian market is the world’s fastest-growing market. It’s a region with markets that are still emerging, so there’s much potential for growth. To take advantage of this, in ANZ we need new partnerships and alliances with Asia rather than just with our traditional partners in the United States and Europe.

Our place in Asia is absolutely the solution for any skills shortage difficulties facing Australia. There is a huge talent market in the region and this will only continue to grow. In Asia, for example, they have higher, and growing completion rates for Information Technology tertiary education, whereas, Australia’s completion rates are lower and declining. We also have lower engagement in STEM.

While innovation is expected to continue to come out of Silicon Valley and Europe, Asia is growing its reputation as an innovation powerhouse. What’s more, the opportunities for growth and partnership for Australia ARE going to be in Asia. Therefore, our place in Asia is absolutely the solution for the difficulties facing Australia in the 4IR.

Let’s have a conversation. I’m @mattcodrington on Twitter and I also hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.

Renewed, ongoing and committed ownership by the Australian Government on an innovation agenda, and energetic collaboration with the private and public sector on new reforms will enable economic growth for Australia as we head into the 4IR.

Opportunities for Australia exist in education, agribusiness and everything-as-a-service delivery and we need to look to our partnerships in Asia and to empowering women in the workforce into STEAM and leadership positions to move Australia forward with a level of confidence.

Managing Director, Lenovo Australia and New Zealand

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