Interview: The AIIA on the NBN, collaboration and turning Australia into an ICT leader (Part 1)

At the three-day Asia Pacific Digital Innovation Summit (APDIS) in December, an annual trade event which brought together 780 delegates from 21 countries, Computerworld caught up with Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) chairman John Grant and CEO Ian Birks for a rare joint interview. The pair spoke candidly about the challenges the Australian ICT industry faces this coming decade and the importance of accelerating NBN progress.

What does it mean for Australia’s ICT industry to be hosting the APDIS Summit?

Ian Birks (IB): It’s very significant because we’ve got about 780 delegates attending and more than 21 countries represented, the event that we’re running is a mix of two particular streams, one of them is APICTA and the other is the ASOCIO ICT summit. We’re bringing together, for ASOCIO, a lot of the regional business leaders, jobs counterparts in other countries around the region and through the APICTA stream we’re bringing together a lot of the innovative technologies in the region. Put those two things together, and you give the opportunity for local business and local industry to network with them and collaborate with them, which is pretty powerful. It has been extremely powerful in that sense and the summit sessions that we’ve been running have been very interesting from all dimensions, from us being able to positively project what we’re doing in Australia to other people in the region, but also very interesting from the point of view of Australians, John and myself included, understanding what’s happening in other countries and some of the initiatives that are being driven in other countries, which is very fascinating and impacts on our thinking.

How does Australia fare in the region at the moment, in terms of ICT?

John Grant (JG): You can answer that question from two points of view. You can answer it from the region’s point of view, where we would be seen to be very strong in terms of our current adoption and use, and very sophisticated in terms of that as well. We’re seen to be, with the NBN announcement, the sort of economy that’s well configured and well established. Because from our point of view, we look at what we’ve been told all the regions are doing and we sort of go, 'gosh – we’ve been sitting back on our laurels for a while and we have to get motoring again'. Because there’s just enormous incentive and enormous investment going into almost all the countries in the region we can see, albeit some from a GDP point of view are quiet small, but they’re still taking what I would call extreme initiatives to get ICT going. Not only to get ICT and industry going, but to get the adoption and use of ICT going, and a lot of the investments and incentives are around high-speed broadband. So they’re doing a lot of really important stuff to get their own economies more competitive. To me, I walk away from it saying that Australia lives in a very competitive world which is only becoming more competitive, a world which is being more and more globalised, and we are going to be one part of it and we need to really be working, I think, from our internal point of view, harder to position ourselves to be more successful.

What’s Australia going to have to do to “get motoring” again, keep up and not be left behind?

JG: Broadband’s a really key one. If we hadn’t have had the broadband announcement before we came to this conference you’d sort of be ringing your hands, really, because the announcement certainly does start to lay the foundation for a lot of things that need to happen to make the economy more productive, efficient, competitive, and it could not be so without it.

IB: It’s a rallying point for the whole of industry. I think it gravitates a lot of the issues that we’re talking about directly to that particular place.

JG: Then again, if you look at the other countries, you look at Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, even Bangladesh, and see where their initiatives are, and the first thing their initiatives are around is around the infrastructure. So we’ve actually made that decision now, we’re behind in terms of that decision timeframe compared with a lot of the other economies, we’ve also got a much longer run-in to get it implemented, so what we need to do is accelerate that, and it’ll be interesting to see what NBN and Telstra can actually work out, because the sooner they can work out something that folds infrastructure together, then the better off and the more accelerated it’s gonna be on the path to establishing that infrastructure, then we can do stuff on top of it.

So, [Australia] needs to accelerate what we’re already doing. I personally believe we need to be very mindful of where we stand to our world competitors on a statistical basis, so we need to be saying to ourselves, 'we need to improve our position in the OECD nations' for example, from being number 15 in the global competitiveness thing to being number five. We need to set some targets that are bench marked globally, that will position us, if we achieve those targets, as a much more successful economy. There’s a very strong political connection here, because a successful economy means wealthy citizens, and wealthy citizens means they vote for parties that make the successful economy – that is now a very direct link which is clearly understood – and is therefore a need to position this economy more successfully.

Another thing just on that, we’ve always sort of rung our hands saying how do you connect ICT and the imperatives around technology to votes for politicians? Because until you can get their attention in relation to votes, then you can’t get their attention in relation to ICT, so we had to connect those two.

There’s very recent research around what’s happening in the States, and first what happened in the Obama campaign. Obama came from nowhere to become president of the United States. One of the major reasons he was able to do that was because he built an Internet platform of support and following and fundraising. He ‘electronofied’ if you like, his campaign and showed the new way of using the information in the economy, so to speak, and that’s a real landing place. What’s happened now is a whole group of people in the United States who are not enamoured with the Obama administration are now starting to mobilise themselves through the Internet. There are groups that are connecting through the Internet to half a million voters, and there was a recent congressional election in one of the states, between republican and democratic candidates. This group put up a third independent candidate, they voted for that independent candidate, split the votes, and it went from being a republican to a democratic seat. So there’s a direct connection now between the use of technology and the ability of technology to create a social platform that can change votes.

So, what we need to now be doing as a country, and politicians need to be doing, is to understand this direct connection, because if they do then they start to understand the value of ICT and they understand that it starts to connect directly to the wealth of their citizens. It’s quite a dynamic change that’s occurring and it’s going to have to be time when the politicians do directly connect that, and I’m not trying to be overly critical of them at the moment because they’re much better than they have been but there’s still that broad connection.

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IB: One of the major themes that has come from the conversations we’ve had is how critical collaboration is. Collaboration across economies, but also collaboration within our economy to achieve the kind of outcomes we need to achieve so that the layers of government, state, federal, local that we have in Australia, in some ways that can be an impedance to achieving some of the “jump-forward” outcomes that are being achieved in other countries. Obviously other countries make a single decision to invest in a particular area; when the Philippines for example has gone from virtually nowhere to $6 billion in outsourcing business in 10 years. They made a decision that they were going to be a leader in the outsourcing business, and they are!

JG: They are! $6 billion business employing 400,000 people; it’s an amazing story.

IB: So it’s hard for some businesses in Australia to really emulate that kind of decision making because of the different levels. So collaboration is really important, and collaboration between state and federal, which is improving, and which is probably as best as it has been for many years, is really going to be critical to address a lot of these issues. John heads up the innovation council for [Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research] Kim Carr, the IT Industry Innovation Council, which is a great thing. Good because it’s got a focus on innovation but also good because you’re bringing together the states and the federal people and industry people around a common agenda and we need more of that to achieve the outcomes we want to get to.

JG: We need much more alignment. You know we’re never going to take away the initiatives of the state or federal governments, but we need much more alignment and there needs to be much more collaboration. While Ian’s comments are correct in that state to federal collaboration is improving, it’s improving because the federal government has said around healthcare we have to do it this way, so then everyone has to re-align themselves. I think there needs to be a lot more of that because if we wait for everyone to understand it needs to be that way because we need to achieve the strategic position of Australia, it’ll take too long. I think there does need to be some force applied to that process, but that’s a really critical thing, to break down the bottle-necks that occur and the distractions that occur between the state governments and federal government.

How can we better leverage our collaboration with the Asia-Pacific region to better improve our stand?

IB: Well it’s largely about trade isn’t it? I think that’s one very obvious level. It’s a global world, a global industry, and these days pretty much anybody who sets up an IT business is not looking at that in the context of just the local environment. They’re looking at it potentially as a global community business, that’s kind of now the way you run your business these days. So we’ve got to make sure we give those companies the support they need and we’ve got to look for every opportunity to provide good trade between those countries. That’s partly what the dialogue here has been about, but it’s also what we focus on with Austrade and others in terms of trying to make sure that ICT is recognised as a major contributor to exports.

JG: To facilitate a lot of trade for example, to facilitate trade, to facilitate growth, there’s gotta be work done on standardisation on various things and harmonisation on legislation. For example: a) across state boundaries of Australia, and b) across national boundaries. So things like data security, privacy, when in fact a lot of what you might be viewing, and might be putting in data will be outside your own border. There’s a whole bunch of almost global stuff that has to be done to harmonise that and harmonise the rules and regulations around that. There should be a huge imperative around it, but that’s a long job, but that’s the sort of thing that also needs to be done, to make it able to happen.

What challenges does Australia face leading up to 2020 in this respect? What challenges are we going to have to overcome to be a force to be reckoned with?

IB: I think firstly we’ve got to support a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship and that’s probably an area where we need a stronger focus. When you contrast what happens in this country versus others, it seems that we have great innovative thinking, we have organisations who set themselves up with great concepts, but the difficulty seems to be to take that to another level in terms of commercialising and growing their business, taking it offshore and getting the support that they should get to do that. I think that’s one of the key factors. We’ve got to look that whole eco-system of innovation, entrepreneurship and support that. Australia’s got to be a leader in how we use technology within our own country and that’s why the NBN is so important, because if we’re at the forefront, then we get to be aware of the opportunities for advancement and innovation, and we can lead with those particular follow-through actions.

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