Paul Wallbank

Paul Wallbank is a speaker and writer charting how technology is changing society and business. Paul has four regular technology advice radio programs on ABC, a weekly column on the website and has published seven books.

Jun 292016
Skilled workers are essential to building industries

As the 2016 US Presidential election settles down into a competition between Republicans and Democrats, Hillary Clinton has released her vision for the American tech industry.

Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology & Innovation is a comprehensive document laying out the candidate’s plans to increase the American workforce’s skills and the nation’s infrastructure.

What’s particularly notable about the Clinton plan is her aim of “building the tech economy on main street,” which is “focused on creating good jobs in communities across America.”

Spreading the tech industry’s jobs, and wealth, beyond a few middle class enclaves is an important objective for all nations in the twenty-first century and Clinton’s objectives are an indication that the US political establishment is beginning to understand this.

Other countries should be noting Clinton’s objectives to raise the skills of workers, build the tech infrastructure and get investment into smaller communities as something they too have towards.

In an Australian context, Clinton’s initiatives highlight the missed opportunity of the Turnbull government’s Innovation Statement, a narrowly focused and weak document that has done little to encourage investment and even less to reform skills training.

The Clinton move though shows technology, training and stimulating new businesses will be one of the imperatives of nations as they deal with a rapidly changing economy.

Jun 282016

“If you’re digital now, you’ll be cognitive tomorrow” says Ginni Rometti, the head of IBM.

Rometti was talking at the Sydney IBM Think forum today where she laid out the vision of IBM’s role in the data rich organisation of the future,

IBM’s pitch is that services like their Watson artificial intelligence platform is a key part of business as companies try to differentiate themselves in the new economy.

While Rometti’s view is correct, the question is whether IBM are the company to do this. The audience in Sydney were largely incumbent corporations and government agencies, it was almost sad that some of the panelists citing their digital smarts were from Australian businesses that have been tragically leaden in responding to changes to their markets over the last two decades.

In the first panel Rometti was joined by Andrew Thorburn and Richard Umbers the respective CEOs of the National Australia Bank and the Myer department store chain.

Thornburn’s comments about NAB being an agile fintech company were somewhat at odds with the reality of Australia’s housing addicted banking sector but Umbers’ view that Myer is leading the way in customer experience is almost laughable given how his company has missed almost every development in retail over the past twenty years.

Leaden corporations are Rometti’s core customers however – it still remains true that no-one at companies like Myer and NAB gets sacked for buying IBM.

“We’ve been part of your past, and I hope we can be part of your future” was Rometti’s conclusion of her keynote. It remains to be seen whether her customers are part of the future.

Jun 272016
Kennedy Nixon Presidential Debate 1960

Brexit, the rise of Trump and the unrelenting negativity of the Australian election campaign underscore the consequences of playing a negative game in politics.

For thirty years, the pattern in western democracies has been to belittle your opponent and demonise relatively powerless minorities such as welfare recipients, immigrants and refugees.

The rise of Donald Trump and the Brexit are symptoms of large segments of society losing confidence in their political leaders, something that isn’t surprising after thirty years of constant negativity from the political classes.

Exacerbating that distrust of the political establishment is the working and lower middle classes wore the brunt of the economic changes of the 1980s and 90s with their work prospects never really recovering. A reality that has not been acknowledged by political leaders.

As we enter another period of dramatic technological change that’s going to have massive effects on the workforce, we’re going to need better leaders.

Jun 252016
Ged, the Telstra robot

First they came for the pizza makers.

Alex Garden, a former head of production of online game developer Zynga, is the co-founder of Zume. His company is automating pizza making.

“It’s going to be a long time before machines can do everything people can do, probably not in my lifetime,” he tells Bloomberg.

Pizza making though isn’t already untouched by automation. A visit to the local Pizza Hut or Domino’s shows how the process is already standardised and partly automated at many fast food chains.

Like coffee making, the machines are supplanting many skilled tasks and service industry jobs that were once thought to be beyond automation. The nature of work is changing and in turn invalidating many of the assumptions about employment held by policy makers.

Those with a 1980s view on how service sector industries will be the drivers of employment may have to reconsider their theories.

Zume and Gaden may have some way until they fully automate the pizza supply chain, but humans will increasingly be a smaller part of it.

Jun 242016

A few years ago I interviewed the boss of a US software company. At the end of the discussion he mentioned how his business had moved most of its development operations to London from San Francisco.

I was surprised at this – while San Francisco is one of the most expensive places in the world to do business, London is even pricier again.

“We can get labour in the UK,” explained the CEO. “In the US if I want to bring in some developers I’ll be tied up by immigration for months, if not years. In London, I can get on the phone and have a bunch of coders on the plane from Barcelona tomorrow.”

That ease of access is now threatened by the Brexit vote, should the UK leave the EU and give up on the free movement of workers across the continent then one of Britain’s core advantages is lost.

Brexit is a historic mistake by middle England that now threatens to see the UK disintegrate as Scotland leaves and the Northern Ireland conflict reignite, the tech industry though will probably be one of the first victims.

For the EU, this is a warning that reform of its institutions has to be a priority. One of the ironies of Britain’s vote is the monstering of Greece, Spain and Ireland following the 2008 global crisis that cost the EU much of its popular support was partly to protect London’s banks.

The bigger issue though is the British voters’ distrust of institutions and elites – something that’s driving Donald Trump’s rise in the US.

We live in interesting times.

Jun 232016

It seems the Arab Spring has come to the US Congress where Democrat representatives protesting the house’s refusal to vote on gun control legislation have occupied the house.

House speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, ordered the chamber’s TV cameras to be shut off but the occupying members responded by streaming their own media feeds through Facebook and Periscope.

Once again we’re seeing how new media channels are opening up with the internet. While they aren’t perfect, they do challenge the existing power structures and allow the old rules to be subverted.

Jun 222016
the economy of indonesia is growing and evolving

Can Indonesia create a startup tech culture? The 1,000 startups movement aims to try.

The movement looks to encourage tech startups across the island nation with workshops, incubators and hackathons.

Notably, the program isn’t being supported by the Indonesian government with any money, just an expression of support.

That in itself may not be a bad thing, a program run to meet the needs of communities and industry is much more likely to succeed than one being supported by bureaucrats meeting KPIs or political objectives.

A question though is how appropriate Silicon Valley’s ‘unicorn’ model for tech startups is for a developing nation like Indonesia. While the nation has a high level of mobile phone penetration and a young population, it doesn’t have the sophisticated investment community or financial markets that underpin the Bay Area’s or those of other technology hubs.

Indonesia, like most developing nations, needs to find its own model which may turn out to be very different to today’s Silicon Valley when it reaches maturity later this century.

That the 1,000 Startups Movement isn’t part of a government department gives it a chance to develop a unique Indonesian identity rather than trying to recreate an officially mandated copy of Silicon Valley. It will be fascinating to watch.