Big data, big thinking

15 June 2016

Australia has long been renowned for its inventiveness, but do we have what it takes to lead the next wave of digital innovation? UTS Luminary and CEO of Data61 – the country’s largest data innovation group, based at CSIRO – Adrian Turner argues the key lies in improved commercialisation and better understanding of our nation’s strengths.

Capturing the future and bringing it forward to today, that’s the essence of innovation.

And it is how new business models are created which disrupt the old order. To succeed is to identify and quickly tap into latent demand for goods, services or intellectual property (IP) which changes the game. Think Google, Apple or Microsoft.

So much of the innovation we are seeing globally is being driven by digital technology and the power of data. This will only intensify as the world rapidly embraces more data-intensive business models.

The competition is fierce because those companies that are able to develop and adopt more sophisticated platforms are able to upscale faster than those that don’t, and typically who gets to scale first wins the prize of market share.

There is no doubt that Australia has the capability to be ultra-competitive in the data race. We have some incredible talent in this country, along with the institutional capacity through our world-class universities, to play a lead role. But we must aim higher.

Traditionally, we have been viewed as an inventive country, a knowledge-based economy renowned for our research and the ability to produce some outstanding innovation. There are many celebrated examples like WiFi (which was developed by CSIRO), and Cochlear’s bionic ear, which are among our best known.

What we haven’t been so good at is commercialising our innovations. Quite simply, there are some market failures in the areas of technology and data that need addressing before we can improve. Raising the bar in this respect is a burning focus of Data61.

Rather than an institution, Data61 is developing a formidable network. It is underpinned by our own great talent, comprising 1100 people including PhD students, who are organised around all facets of data. It is a network that includes 22 universities under a single collaboration agreement (with links to others); federal and state government; and of course industry, as well as the entrepreneurially minded (led by our partnership with leading start-up incubators in the country).

By locking arms we bring the entire ecosystem together under one umbrella with the aim of plugging those existing gaps between research, development and all-important commercialisation. Basically, the more successful our partners are, the more successful we are.

We want to show the world that Australia offers so much more than just being a sales and marketing arm of the big corporates; it is a place to do primary research and development, and product development.

And raising the bar means not just being satisfied with spinning out start-ups and IP for acquisition by global companies, but going on to operate new global enterprises of our own. That is something we can learn from the likes of Silicon Valley, where the level of ambition is high, success builds success, and people set out to create the next global franchise.

In this respect, digital technology and our data can not only tell us so much about the past, but most importantly they can help us to map the future. And, as we strive to discover where that elusive latent demand may be or what tomorrow’s industries may look like, such understanding is vital.

Australia should always look to back its strengths as a country and I believe the next wave of computing will be at the intersection of our industries of strength, and technology and data. These industries include agribusiness, defence, mining and energy, transport and logistics, health and medical research, education, and the services around them.
We need to think big in terms of the market – well beyond our own borders and limited domestic market of just 24 million. Increasingly, we must look to target the markets of our Asia-Pacific region and beyond, where hundreds-of-millions are to be found in places with rapidly rising middle-classes like China, India and Indonesia.

We shouldn’t be afraid either to replicate those characteristics of ecosystems in places like Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv that help foster success. In these places the infrastructure is stacked more in favour of the entrepreneur with more ready access to sophisticated risk capital from ‘angel’ investors through to late stage.

In this regard, we should be most encouraged by the government’s $1.1 billion national innovation and science package, which uses policy levers and incentives to target the right areas.

In thriving centres of innovation, risk and even failure are not things to be feared. They are, in fact, celebrated. In this field of endeavour the statistics show we will fail more than we succeed. We need to build higher levels of community tolerance of this, with the proviso that we learn from our past failures and carry these forward.

Data61 sees its role as something of a product management factory for Australia. Armed with the best possible resources, including human capital and domain expertise, we are committed to helping build the new technology-based businesses and industries of the future.

As a country we have a choice to make right now because the likes of Silicon Valley keep moving apace. Do we want to be a global leader of this next wave of digital innovation or are we happy to miss what is a very fast moving train?

Byline by Adrian Turner, CEO of Data61
Image supplied by Data61

This article was first published in the June 2016 edition of U:magazine (Reproduced with permission from U: magazine.)


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