Australia’s digital future has scientists worried

Published on the 12/09/2019 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Australias digital future

Urgency needed to improve synergy between innovators, universities and the market…

With a reputation for innovation in decline, just what will it take to push Australia into its tech-enabled future? That’s the big question the Australian Academy of Science is attempting to answer with its new research document Preparing for Australia’s digital future: A strategic plan for information and communication science, engineering and technology.

Produced in partnership between the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Information and Communication Sciences and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, the paper anticipates significant future opportunities for Australia Inc in areas such as data, the internet of things, virtual reality, e-health, automation and smart cities.

“Australia needs to be much more proactive about adopting and owning the ICT-driven transformations”

But before we can get that, the bad news: “Although we’re aware of the importance of digital technology to Australia, we lag most developed countries in both business awareness and plans for the future,” says the report.

It says that Australia’s international standing as a “forward-looking digital nation is not only at risk, it is in active decline”.

“Until now we have lacked an overarching strategic plan for prosperous digital future,” the report says.

To that end the paper offers some thinking points, with lots of focus on capitalising on research, getting new technology to market and taking steps to make sure Australia is an early adopter of new technologies, especially from government.

“Australia needs to be much more proactive about adopting and owning the ICT-driven transformations currently permeating the whole economy,” reads the report.

“This is also required to place Australia in a position of strength ahead of subsequent waves of change. Government consultation processes should be genuine and timely and engage all constructive stakeholders.”

In total the paper offers 32 recommendations under five broad categories: Encouraging digital leadership in industry, fostering research and industry partnerships for our digital future, safeguarding and ensuring whole-of-government action and delivering research sector reforms.

There’s also a strong focus on strengthening Australia’s digital workforce and capability pipeline. The paper says that while ‘generic’ ICT skills and digital literacy have emerged as highly desired skills for jobs across industry, universities are having trouble finding ICT jobs for ICT grads.

“Our workforce supply side is experiencing a range of challenges, including the ICT industry carrying a legacy of negative perceptions of desk-bound, repetitive, isolating jobs; skills supply being limited by the low levels of female and mature-aged workers in the ICT workforce; and many students who pursue an ICT education experiencing difficulty in finding employment in the sector upon graduation, with many graduates using their qualifications to pursue careers outside ICT.”

The report also identifies employer complaints that tertiary graduates “do not possess the desired combination of technical and complementary business and communication skills to contribute effectively in the workplace”.

Despite the increasing complexity of ICT services and the growing demand for these skills, says the report, “engagement and investment” of industry in ICT skills development is low.

To that end the plan calls for improvements in the quality of ICT teaching in schools and tertiary education institutions, improvements in the suitability of tertiary graduates for entry-level positions, increasing the numbers of skilled ICT workers and ensuring employers of ICT workers, including employers of contractors, support ongoing skills development and the effective utilisation of skills in a fast-moving and rapidly changing sector.

A taskforce will now be established to push the implementation of the recommendations.

“Digital transformations are continuously and rapidly evolving, driven by aggressive technology progress and accelerating uptake – and Australia is not driving,” says Professor Glenn Wightwick FTSE, a Fellow of the Academy of Technology and Engineering and co-chair of the steering committee that drew up the plan.

“It is essential that, through strategic actions outlined in this plan, we are able to chart our own course.”

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