Advancing Australia’s digital economy
Information and Communications Technology (ICT) experts recently met with thought leaders from major economic sectors to discuss how the Digital Economy might lift national productivity through innovative ICT actions at the Australia 3.0 summit in Melbourne.
16 August 2013
Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. The digital economy is vital to Australia’s productivity, but to be effective requires innovative information and communications technology. To explore this a conference was recently held in Melbourne that brought ICT experts together with thought leaders from major economic sectors to discuss how the digital economy might lift national productivity, global competitive standing, and improved social wellbeing.
Representing CSIRO at Australia 3.0 was Doctor Ian Oppermann, Director of CSIRO’s Digital Productivity and Services Flagship. Ian joins me on the phone. Can you tell me why is digital productivity so important for Australia’s future?
Dr. Oppermann: Thanks Glen, it’s a really great question. One of the things about the modern economy is that it’s mostly services based, so out of our A$1.5 trillion that we generate in our gross domestic product every year, good enough of 80 per cent is services based, so that’s more than a trillion dollars per annum. When you take out the sectors of the economy which are doing OK, take out the mining, take out the banking and sort of tertiary financial services, and every single other part of the economy is not actually doing that well in terms of productivity, so we’ve got a huge amount of the economy which actually isn’t doing that well, and has been masked historically by the mining boom and by our reasonably good performance in the financial sector.
So what we’re interested in doing is looking into those sectors which are a part of the services economy, and specifically looking at those which are related to the creation of services in a digital way, those that can be transmitted, and those that can be consumed in a digital fashion, and that’s a really big chunk of that A$1 trillion per annum.
Glen Paul: So there’s room for improvement obviously. But why are we underutilising in some areas the digital economy?
Dr. Oppermann: Look, it’s a really interesting question. So we can only ever compare ourselves to other countries, and a favourite benchmark tends to be the U.S. – similar economy, similar sort of structure, similar societal structure – and when we compare ourselves to the U.S. we haven’t been performing well in terms of our labour productivity, or our multifactor productivity. When we compare ourselves to European countries we’re also not doing very well. And a couple of years ago the Grattan Institute called us out as being in the bottom four of the world, of the OECD world, which is actually not a good place to be in, in particular if mining comes off the boil.
So a lot of it has to do with how much we use digital services, how much we engage online, how much we engage with government, how much we engage with retail, how much we engage with other commercial services, and really how digital ready we are to sell what we’ve got to offer, to engage in a way which doesn’t require us to do what we’ve always done, but allows us to do old things in new ways, or doing new things new ways. We’ve just been a little slower than the rest of the world in adopting or accepting these new technologies.
Glen Paul: And how is CSIRO working to address this situation?
Dr. Oppermann: Well our focus is really innovation in the services sector, and here we’re looking at what we can do differently in health, what we can do differently in government services, and particularly how government service is delivered, what we can do differently in terms of how smart infrastructure is, and also what sort of commercial services can be created using innovation in the services space.
And we’re looking at it in three time framed lenses. One’s really about getting more out of what we’ve got right now, sweat the assets, and buy some headroom in terms of systems which are nearing capacity. The next level is the light blue sky stuff, that’s our technology evolution, doing old things in new ways, enabling us to really change the way we’ve done things that we’ve always done in the past. Some great examples are the work that we’re doing with our online telepresence, so helping people have different sorts of experience using telework, telehealth, tele-engagment, tele-education. But ultimately we’re looking at the deep blue sky stuff, looking at the world the way it could be, doing new things in new ways, and it’s fundamentally changing the way people go to work, the way people engage with physical presence, the way people engage with museums, the way people engage with education, entertainment, and really looking at changing the paradigm from how we historically have required ourselves to go somewhere to do something, and look at a different way of delivering that experience.
Glen Paul: Hmm. And you touched on health there. With rising health costs and the ageing population, do you see digital productivity easing the strain on our health system?
Dr. Oppermann: Health’s a really, really big challenge in Australia. Health became the largest employer in Australia, overtaking retail around about 2011. We spend about A$130 billion per annum on health. There’s a lot that can be done right now in helping understand how patients engage with the very complicated system of systems which is the health care system, so understanding patient flow. We can do things better like planning the use of emergency beds, and CSIRO developed a tool called Patient Admission Prediction, which does exactly that – better use of the assets you currently have right now, while still maintaining the waiting time that patients have, or in fact improving the waiting time that patients have.
But where we can really start to change the way things are done is looking at delivering different sorts of services. We launched in April this year our teleophthalmology service, which looks at essentially prevention of blindness with diabetic retinopathy, delivering that service via an ophthalmologist via a satellite solution to remote parts of Australia. People who wouldn’t get access to the service, or people who would otherwise go blind if they hadn’t seen an Ophthalmologist, can get access to that service via a satellite, and that has a huge impact not just for the individual themselves, but also for the health care system – it keeps the person healthier, and it actually helps keep the health care system healthier.
Glen Paul: Fantastic. Now with the connectivity that’s happening now and into the future, has cyber security been thought of with this? What measures are in place to secure Australia’s cyber infrastructure?
Dr. Oppermann: That’s another really good question. The more we rely on digital infrastructure, the more it becomes critical digital infrastructure, so it’s absolutely vital for us to keep in mind always the cyber physical security. Now there’s been some really important work done by our defence signals directorate looking at constantly improving protocols to make physical systems and cyber systems more resilient and more robust. There’s also work being done looking at things like intrusion detection, being able to detect more sophisticated intrusion, but one of the areas that CSIRO’s been working on is looking at trust.
So trust means unambiguous identification, unencumbered operation, and something always operating reliably or as you would expect it to. And if you’re relying on a piece of critical infrastructure, you want it to behave consistently reliantly, and no surprises out of the systems. So that’s something that we can work on, but cyber security as a whole consists of that security issue, privacy and trust, and there’s a lot of work being done in that space in general.
Glen Paul: Obviously that would have been discussed at length at the Australia 3.0 conference. What about CSIRO and how we engage with industry and government, what needs to be done there?
Dr. Oppermann: Well one of the things we need to do is constantly demonstrate that we can add value right now. So we’ve got partnerships with government, we’ve got partnerships with industry, and we’ve been out painting the deep blue sky picture – this is what the world could look like if we can really revolutionise the way we deliver services. But that needs to come back to something we can add value in right now.
So we’re doing a lot of work in social media monitoring for security for enhanced situation awareness, for emergency services, for police, for the Department of Environment, for libraries. We’re doing a lot of working in helping the health care system better understand things like that complex patient flow where we can deliver value right now, free up more beds, reduce waiting times. We’re also looking at some more slightly fun, but certainly with a serious intention, telepresence system. Earlier this year we launched our museum robot, which is really a fun way for kids to almost as nearly as possible step inside the National Museum of Australia, and have a guided tour.
But the serious message behind that is that telepresence takes one more step closer to being a meaningful engagement, so that telework, tele-education, telehealth, takes one more step towards being something which is almost as meaningful as being there. And if we can continue to improve that, we could fundamentally change the way people engage with health, and with education, and with a lot of other sorts of services.
So whilst we keep striving for the blue sky, we’re always coming back to delivering value right now, sweating the assets, saving dollars, or in fact even creating new markets in some cases.
Glen Paul: Fabulous. Well it certainly sounds like the digital economy offers us plenty of possibilities into the future. Thank you very much for chatting about it with us today, Ian.
Dr. Oppermann: Always a pleasure. Thanks very much.
Glen Paul: Doctor Ian Oppermann. And to find out more about CSIRO’s Digital Productivity and Services Flagship just visit www.csiro.au.