​Australia opens consultation to build 'forward-looking' digital economy

The federal government has released a consultation paper it hopes will shape the country's upcoming digital economy strategy.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The federal government wants to build a nation that is ready to respond and thrive in a digital economy, and has launched a consultation paper on Tuesday to get the ball rolling.

According to Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos, The Digital Economy: Opening up the Conversation is an open consultation paper that will help develop a plan to "maximise the potential of digital technology to improve the nation's productivity and competitiveness, while minimising its negative effects".

Sinodinos, who announced on Wednesday he was taking a leave of absence for medical reasons, said the strategy will focus on ways governments, businesses, and the community can adjust to seize the benefits of digital transformation. In the consultation paper's foreword, the minister said such benefits include improving access to new and emerging technologies and digital infrastructure to "grow Australian industry and jobs".

The purpose of the paper [PDF] is to "start the conversation with all Australians" and it asks for ideas to help develop the strategy.

The strategy, to be launched early 2018, will set out a roadmap for government, private sector, and the community to follow.

"Australia already has areas of competitive strength, such as energy resources and medical and mining related technologies," Sinodinos wrote. "We have significant opportunities in emerging sectors like fintech and precision agriculture."

Pointing to estimations from McKinsey, the minister said that if the nation moves quick enough to leverage such strengths, the Australian economy could be boosted by AU$140 billion to AU$250 billion over the next eight years.

The paper defines the digital economy as covering the range of economic and social activities enabled by technology, including banking, buying and selling, and accessing education or entertainment using the internet and connected devices.

It also says that given such tech-based activities impact all industries and business types, and influences the way people, business, and government interact with each other, the basis of competition is set to change as sectors become "data-driven" and "industry boundaries blur".

The paper points to the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN), and the emergence of technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) as key to a digital-ready future economy.

It asks what communication services and underlying data, platforms and protocols that Australia is going to need to maximise the opportunities of the digital economy.

The paper highlights the advancements Australia is making in distributed ledger technologies such as blockchain; for example the work the CSIRO's Data61 is doing with Treasury, as well as Standards Australia, which was charged with managing the secretariat of an international technical committee for the development of blockchain standards by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) last September. The paper added that fintech is a sector Australia is well-placed to excel in.

Also highlighted by the paper as an area the country can be a world-leader in is quantum computing, with Australian universities such as the University of New South Wales, University of Sydney, the Australian National University, and the University of Technology Sydney all vying to win the quantum race.

The paper also highlights that organisations are still hesitant to undertake a digital transformation, asking respondents why that is, and what the government or private sector can help with to get the ball rolling.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the country's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda in December 2015, which handed out funding to initiatives covering over 20 measures centred on its "Ideas Boom" rhetoric.

The innovation agenda is centred on four principles: Building the science culture and capital, strengthening collaboration, encouraging science and innovation talent, and government leading as an exemplar.

Building on that, the consultation paper highlights the need to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) studies in children; increase the number of women in STEM-related roles; and determine ways to include older or less technology-savvy citizens in its digital economy.

Submissions close November 30, 2017.

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