Mar 132012
 
Skilled workers are essential to building industries

Yesterday the NSW Government hosted the Sydney leg of their Digital Economy Industry Action Plan forum meetings.

The aim of the action plan, one of a series for targeted industries, is to develop “a vision and strategy for the Digital Economy over the next decade in NSW.”

So how do we build a “digital economy industry” in a country that seems to be hell bent on staking everything on China’s continuing demand for coal and iron ore?

Picking winners

One of the things implicit in forums and plans like this is that the government has identified the ‘digital economy’ as a priority for economic development.

To help identify the opportunities the New South Wales plan breaks the sector into various industries;

  • Digital content and applications
  • Information services and analytics
  • Smart networks and intelligent technologies
  • Autonomous systems
  • E-research
  • ICT service innovation
  • ICT biomedical innovation
  • ICT safety and security innovation
  • Locally developed technologies and applications

The underlying assumption is the state has some sort of natural advantage in these areas or the potential to develop into a leader.

If these are the foundations of a region’s digital industries then we have to understand how they were identified as it’s difficult to build an industry if we don’t know what we can do.

The role of government

An important question is the role of government, an unfortunate thing with bureaucrats and politicians is they sometimes over estimate the influence they have on industry and the economy in general.

In NSW the state government’s role is going to be at best marginal, they can establish policies and offer financial incentives but business needs access to essential skills, finance and infrastructure.

Walking the talk

It’s all very well for governments to proclaim they support local businesses but if they prefer to buy from multinationals – even if the big boys are more expensive and have a less than stellar delivery record – then the domestic industry cannot thrive.

To be fair to governments, this reluctance to buy from local suppliers is shared by Australian corporations and on its own is probably one of the biggest obstacles for innovative companies and entrepreneurs to thrive in Australia.

Until this attitude changes among governments and corporations, it’s  difficult to see how local businesses can develop and survive.

Open data

For the digital industries, open data is probably the most important aspects. Unfortunately the current generation of Australian public servants, managers and politicians share an almost Stalinist view about access to taxpayer owned information.

Without making public data accessible so entrepreneurs can develop new applications and existing industries can improve productivity, governments are only giving lip service to building a digital economy.

A good example of this is the expressed desire of successive state and Federal governments to build Sydney as a global financial centre.

To do this, free and open investment information is essential yet company and stock exchange data that is assumed to be public information in the United States and much of Europe or Asia is propitiatory and locked away behind paywalls.

Government and corporate obsessions with controlling information makes it unlikely any Australian state or city can be global centre in the digital economy or the banking sector which the NSW government sees as an other priority sector.

Consistent standards

Another area governments can improve is by having open standards across government agencies so, for instance, land information can be properly matched with health data or public transport details.

Right now policies on data and things like social media or content platforms is fragmented making the cost of government and doing business more expensive and convoluted than it should be.

Promote advantages

One of the weaknesses in Australia’s overseas marketing is the nation is portrayed as a bunch of alcohol swilling beach bums cuddling koalas.

Google Maps founder Lars Rasmussen once said Google’s head office reaction when he suggested establishing a development office in Sydney was “what are you doing to do? Sit on Bondi Beach and drink Fosters?”

A missed opportunity in Australia’s disjointed tourism and investment campaigns is ignoring the nation’s diverse ethnic and skills base. We need more emphasis on the multilingual skills of the state’s workers and less on bikini babes.

Capital Problems

Whenever a group like the forums gather, there’s always complaints about Australian business’ access to capital.

Australia’s taxation, finance and social security system favours speculation on the share and property markets rather than long term investments or taking risks on new business ideas.

Three generations of these policies have a created a population who, understandably, see owning property as the safest way to provide for retirement. The banking system has responded to this and is reluctant to lend for anything not secured by real estate assets.

At the same time we’ve allowed the compulsory superannuation system to be dominated by flaccid ticket clippers who are content to charge working Australians outrageous fees for hugging the stock indexes.

Sadly what should have been a source of capital for innovative businesses largely spends its time lobbying governments for more protection and a bigger cut of workers’ incomes.

The access to capital is a serious problem for Australian business and one that can’t be kicked up the road for ever by Liberal or Labor Federal governments but it isn’t something the states can fix.

Not only do the distorted investment priorities of Australian society damage developing industries, it almost certainly guarantees the dream of making Sydney a global financial centre unattainable.

Education

One of the canards that always pops up at industry development forums is that educators aren’t in touch with employers’ needs.

There’s a certain type of business manager or owner who believes the roles of schools, technical colleges and universities is a sausage machine popping out perfectly formed young workers who can pick up a spanner, hair clippers or a copy of Photoshop and start productive work straight after being shown where the tea room is.

Those business owners are deluded.

None of that’s to say educators shouldn’t be adapting to their times as well as being open and transparent but the idea that the role of schools is to equip kids with the skills we need today would see them unprepared for next decade’s economy.

Equally however, Australia’s universities and training colleges have been encouraged to offer third rate courses to overseas students attracted by the prospect of getting permanent residence in the country. That bums on seats model had hurt the quality of the nation’s education sector and the skill levels of graduates.

Attitudes

The most essential part of building any nation’s industry is the attitude of people – if the prevailing view is it’s too hard, or threatens established interests then it won’t happen.

Probably the best advantage New South Wales, and all of Australia have, is a comparatively young, diverse and outward looking population.

The best thing the government can do in trying to build new sectors, be they in the digital economy or anywhere else, is to fix what they can such as procurement, open data or taxation and get out of the way.

A constant dreams of governments is to build the next Silicon Valley, just as it once was to build the next Detroit or Birmingham.

The era of the big engineering works passed, at least in the Western world, and the age of venture capital driven social media platforms will probably be over soon as well.

Aping someone else’s success – while ignoring the historical factors and accidents that created it  – seems a guaranteed way to disappointment.

The best part to build a digital economy, or any thriving society, is to encourage the risk takers and the inventors. Bring them together, let them loose and you build the next economic powerhouse.

  4 Responses to “Building a digital economy”

  1. You’re right there – the first step in knowing where you want to be is to know where you are now. That’s an extremely unpopular thing to know and as long as I see politicians (as I heard in Victoria last week) drinking their own coolaid and believing their own press releases then I know nothing is going to change. When nothing changes, we go backwards, as we have for the last 2 decades.

    Walter @adamson

    • The political aspect of this is depressing Walter, as a society we’ve started measuring politicians on the volume of press releases rather than results; Bob Carr is a good example of this.

  2. I found myself mentally saying “Yes!” several times. As a former long time public servant (Commonwealth and NSW) I am now I believe thoroughly recovered from the “governments can create/fix industries” affliction. And yes it is about time we started shouting down those troglodites at industry dev events who want our educational system to become a bunch of “fix today’s problems, don’t worry about tomorrow’s challenges” sausage-machines. New Silicon Valley? Great post, Paul.

    • Thanks Des, much appreciated. I think it is time educators stood up to the elements in the business community that just want kids that know how to use spanners – these people are part of the problem we have with businesses externalising their costs.

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