CSIRO and Austrade prescribe digital and R&D to create 'roaring 2020s'

Australian science agency takes a look at 'megatrends' from the COVID-times and projects the best paths to recreate the vision of prosperity of the 1920s.

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The reality of zoonotic pandemics and recovering from them is certainly with us in 2020, and while it will take time to move on from the aftereffects of COVID-19, Australian government agencies Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Austrade have said digital initiatives could allow Australia to recover.

"A generation of Australians will train, work, and live in an economy primarily concerned with rebuilding and recovering from the COVID-19 shock. This will characterise government policy and industry strategy," the agencies said in the Global trade and investment megatrends report released on Monday.

"Even though the economic conditions are extremely challenging there are good reasons why the Australian and global economies can bounce back. We can achieve the roaring twenties again in the 2020s."

The report listed a number of actions to help recovery, the first of which is using data science, machine learning, predictive analytics, and natural language processing to boost trade and investment. Using these technologies would allow for a "more tailored and granular analysis" of trade opportunities and ensure recent data is used, the report said.

"Machine learning and AI can be used to help an Australian company determine which export markets are best aligned to their products and services," the report said.

"Attempting to export into the wrong market can be a costly error. However, exporting into a high demand and rapid-growth market with few competitors can be extremely lucrative."

Much of the report was concerned with attracting research investment from overseas -- perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of the federal government ripping money off the tertiary education sector -- while also saying the country needed a campaign led by Austrade and co-ordinated between universities, research organisations, industry, and state and federal agencies that could funnel foreign direct investment (FDI) into research.

"R&D FDI improves the scientific, technological, and research capabilities of a country, which is associated with productivity uplift, which, in turn, leads to increased economic growth and job creation," the report said.

"The COVID-19 crisis may create a window of opportunity for Australia to meet the R&D needs of companies and governments worldwide."

Australia should boost its digital exports, the report added, by building on the nation's "brand profile for trusted, reliable, and high-quality digital solutions". It said that trust, transparency, reliability, and quality of digital products and services would be increasingly important when competing globally.

"The main opportunity associated with this megatrend is the chance for Australian companies to sell into new export markets for digital products and services," the report said.

"This applies to the digital technology sector and traditional companies that may convert some, or all, of their product offerings to digital, allowing them to respond to both domestic and global markets. Foreign direct investment could also ramp-up within Australia's well-established and rapidly growing digital technology sector."

Australia could also benefit from a safe haven effect, due to the country being able to manage the coronavirus risk and having a relatively well-performing economy despite going into recession with the rest of the world. According to the report, this provides an opportunity for Australian businesses to tap into companies that are looking to diversify supply chains and seeking perceived safer locales. One industry that should trade on the perception of safety is tourism, which has been smashed by the pandemic.

"In the short-to-medium term, we are likely to see governments and citizens worldwide turn to local options and trusted countries for tourism, manufacturing, and services," it said. "There is likely to be a much stronger economic, trade, and cultural connection to local places during and after the pandemic."

The report further said businesses needed to think about other potential outbreaks as global trade looks to approach prior levels.

"Digital technology will play a critical role in the rebuild. Telework, telehealth, online retail, online education, and online entertainment are all booming. A vast swathe of economic activity has transferred from the physical world to the virtual world. Much will not go back," the report said.

"The world has seen 10 years' worth of digital transformation in the space of a few months."

The recovery, in both pandemic and economic terms, might be longer than thought, but the report leaned on history to project forwards.

"The 1920s began with the world recovering from a war, the Spanish flu pandemic, and a depression. However, it later emerged as a time of prosperity, rising incomes, and innovation, with antibiotics, electric light, telephones, and radio coming to consumers and making life profoundly different to a decade earlier," it said.

"The 2020s might see similar changes with quantum computing, energy storage, AI, blockchain, and molecular biology. Emerging technologies today have the potential to boost economic and productivity growth in Australia and internationally."

The report did not discuss what happened in the decade after the roaring 20s.

Elsewhere, the Department of Communications kicked off on Friday its consultation on a round of grants to promote the commercial use of 5G.

Over the next two years, the government is looking to conduct two rounds of grants worth AU$10 million in total under the Australian 5G Innovation Initiative label, with individual grants looking to be in the range of AU$0.5 million to AU$1 million each. The grants are intended to be used on equipment and installation costs.

"It is not expected that the Initiative's grants will support significant investment in research and development into 5G applications as the focus of the Initiative is on supporting commercial applications," the department said.

"There may however be some need to support limited development costs if applications are pre-commercial or specific software is needed to facilitate 5G use cases."

Submissions to the discussion paper are open until 5pm on December 11, with the expected timeline for grant applications to open in February, with grants to be awarded in May, and winners to report back between May and June 2022.

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