Business giants and startups front Australian PM's digital forum

A forum on the Digital Economy, hosted by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has heard from the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Atlassian on ideas and concerns surrounding the digital economy in Australia.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Prime Minister Julia Gillard today heard from industry giants, such as Google and Microsoft, as well as successful Australian start-ups like Atlassian and Shoes of Prey, on their ideas and concerns on Australia's digital economy.

Over 40 executives, academics, and technology experts from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Atlassian, PayPal, Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, Xero, CSIRO, Deloitte, IBM, and Australia Post gathered at the University of New South Wales today for the Prime Minister's Forum on the Digital Economy. The forum focused on the challenges and opportunities offered by the digital economy in Australia.

"Through better exploitation of the digital economy we can increase the output of both our capital and our labour, and make Australia more competitive," Gillard told the forum.

"If we don't collaborate to get to the front of the digital pack, we'll see our competitiveness decline, jobs move elsewhere, and our overall prosperity reduced. Today is ... an opportunity for participants in the forum to share their experience, for business to learn from business."

Google's Australian Managing Director Nick Leeder told the group that Australia needed to establish a "Silicon Beach" to foster start-ups in Australia. Leeder said that the infrastructure of the National Broadband Network (NBN) was important to establishing this, that copyright and other regulation needed to be more flexible to encourage innovation, and that companies needed to embrace cloud computing.

"We think we should be setting out to build this Silicon Beach, and use the examples and capabilities that [it] will provide to accelerate the uptake and absorption of digital, right through the main parts of the economy," he said.

Co-founder of online shoe retailer Shoes of Prey, Michael Fox said that Australia wasn't short of good ideas for the digital world, but there was a lack of people in Australia with the skills to put those ideas into action.

"We need more software engineers. I think there is a real shortage of software engineering talent in Australia," he said.

"I think a big issue for the NBN is going to be that lack of talent. We're going to have a fantastic infrastructure in place, but we're going to need the software engineers to actually build the tools that we can use on the NBN," he said.

Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar said that Australia should not be concerned about gaining a geographical advantage, and should instead focus on specialising in certain areas of expertise or business, and then build on that.

"We have to decide which areas we want to become experts in. We can't just rely on our geographical region to give us a head start. We are actually competing [globally]," he said.

Microsoft's Australian Managing Director Pip Marlow said that the government needed to become a role model for businesses to embrace online services, and the digital economy generally. She said that Australia needed to think digitally first.

"I think there is an opportunity for government to be role models in the Australia economy for how they would do things digitally," she said.

CSIRO's Director of Digital Productivity Dr Ian Opperman said that IT needed to be "sexy," and there needed to be more positive role models out there to encourage young people to get involved.

"People get turned off at a very early stage. We can turn people back on, we can make ICT and the skills in ICT, and ultimately the science in ICT exciting, sexy at an earlier stage, and make people want to be part of the evolution and revolution."

Gillard said at the closing of the event that the government is in the process of putting together a cyber whitepaper, which was supposed to focus on security, but she said this would be expanded out to become a digital whitepaper encompassing all areas of the digital economy.

She said that the government would consider the discussion from today, and would seek the contribution of the participants for the whitepaper.

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