Aug 212017
 

Since Australia’s National Broadband Network has started ramping up its connection, the project has been plagued with complaints of underperformance, culminating in Telstra admitting thousands of its customers were entitled to refunds.

Today the national customer rights watchdog, the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission published a range of guidelines for advertisers, something I covered for Mumbrella.

What’s striking though – apart from the ACCC’s adding a new layer of complexity with ‘minimum typical busy period speeds’ is the regulator’s requirement for ISPs to state maximum evening speeds on the network, with the cheapest plans offering no guarantees of speeds at all.

There is no qualifying minimum speed for a plan labelled as ‘basic evening speed’ given there is no slower speed tier to which a consumer could move.

By the ACCC’s figures, a third of subscribers on the NBN to date are on the lowest speed plan with no guarantee of any speed at all.

The telephone system being replaced by the NBN at least guaranteed a dial tone and data speeds slightly better than an acoustic coupler, now a large proportion of Australians will not even get that.

Australians are spending at least $50 billion dollars on a project that will see a third of the nation going backwards, future generations are going to wonder how we managed this.

May 082017
 

“It’s like we lived through five minutes of innovation sunshine,” says Federal shadow treasurer Chris Bowen about the Australian government’s innovation policy.

Bowen was appearing at the Future of Innovation panel at Sydney’s Stone and Chalk fintech hub with his colleague Ed Husic where laid out the Labor Party’s platform for the tech industry and the changing workforce.

Both Husic and Bowen represent Western Sydney electorates which, along with outer suburban Melbourne, are key election battlegrounds and the districts dealing with most of Australia’s surging population growth.

Uneven spoils

As Bowen indicated in his speech, those regions haven’t shared in the country’s economic growth over the past ten years.

Some parts of the Australian economy are doing well.  Other parts are doing it tough.

Half of all the jobs created in Australia in the last decade have been created right where we are: in a two kilometre radius of the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs.

The economy feels good from this vantage point.

 

Not understanding the mismatch between different parts of the economy was one of the failures of the government’s 2015 Innovation Statement. The multi million dollar advertising campaign was full of fine buzzwords but none of the rhetoric resonated with the broader electorate, something not helped by the Prime Minister retreating from his policies at the first opportunity.

Spreading the gains

Bowen and Husic made a good case for their policies being focused on the wider population as a changing workforce is going to affect all parts of the economy.

So I spend a lot of time travelling to and talking to people in regional economies.  It doesn’t feel as good there.

Regional central and North Queensland. Tasmania. South Australia.

Here, unemployment and youth unemployment are high and show no signs of budging.

So Bowen’s commitment for his party to work on innovation, education and industry policies that help suburban and regional Australia – not just the leafy bits of upper middle class Sydney and Melbourne – is welcome and essential for the nation.

Refreshingly Bowen also acknowledged many of the jobs that currently exist in suburban and regional Australia are very likely to be automated and that education, reskilling and investment are all critical factors in dealing with employment shifts.

A familiar tale

However we have heard this before, the Rudd Labor government came in with high hopes when it was elected in 2007 which it quickly dispelled and then compounded its errors with cancelling the COMET commercialisation program and making a mess of employee option schemes.

Given this history of poorly conceived thought bubbles posing as policy, this writer asked (or rather begged) Bowen to consult with industry and the community before announcing major policy changes – something both parties have become notorious for.

In answer to the comment about consulting with the electorate before substantive policy changes, Bowen suggested a Shorten ALP government will be requiring senior public servants to be more engaged with industry.

Suggesting that senior public servants should engage with the community and industry is a good idea. That the idea is seen as revolutionary illustrates the problem found by former Digital Transformation Office boss Paul Shetler when he arrived in Australia with the country’s top bureaucrats being isolated and aloof from the citizens they deign to rule. This isolation is in itself a challenge facing Australian governments.

Memories of earlier oppositions

 

The Sydney tech community’s lauding Husic and Bowen bought back some memories. Fifteen years ago Australian technologists  were doing the same thing with another Labor shadow spokesperson, Kate Lundy. We ended up with factional warriors Stephen Conroy and Kim Carr when Labor finally won. While both were no doubt wonderful at delivering the numbers to party faction warlords their understanding of the changing economy was marginal at best.

While the Rudd government at least paid lip service to the Twenty-First Century, unlike the Howard government which was firmly focused on taking Australia back to the 1950s – with some degree of success it should be said, the Labor Party did little apart from getting the National Broadband Network underway.

In opposition, the Liberal Party too made similar noises however communications spokesperson Paul Fletcher, like Lundy, has been marginalised since winning power and Paul Keating’s description of Malcolm Turnbull as ‘Fizza’ has never seemed more apt since Malcolm became Prime Minister.

For Australians hoping some of the Lucky Country’s luck would be applied to the nation’s tech sector, government policies from both parties have been a succession of broken dreams.

Husic and Bowen are promising this time it will be different. Many of us hope it will be, it may be the last chance for Australia to have a fair economy fit for the 21st Century.

Apr 302017
 

“We have no shortage of investors,” says Tom Nockolds of Sydney community solar farm group Pingala in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s report on small business power projects.

The ABC’s report focuses on Bakers Maison, a suburban Sydney bakery that raised 400,000 dollars to extend its solar solar electricity system to slash its power bills and promises investors a seven percent return on investment.

Seven percent is very good in these days of low yields so it’s not surprising investors are lining up for projects.

It’s also an indictment on the modern banking system that smaller businesses like Bakers Maison have to issue debt directly to the market rather than getting a loan, which would have been normal a generation ago but today Australian banks would rather lend to property speculators than productive businesses.

This isn’t to say such fund raising is without problems as there is a real risk of fraud which Australia’s prescriptive fund raising laws are designed to avoid, even at the cost of stopping genuine investments.

“We’ve had to duck and weave our way through the regulations to set up this kind of operation,” says Warren Yates of Clear Sky Solar Investments – another volunteer group – about the laws which were developed after the financial scandals of the 1960s mining boom and the 1980s entrepreneur period.

As a consequence, the ABC story points Australia is lagging jurisdictions like Germany, Denmark and Scotland in developing these schemes.

With the banking system having left the field of funding growing businesses and responsibility largely falling on volunteers to provide services, reforms encouraging community crowdfunding need to be developed to provide capital to industry and local initiatives.

That many of the current reforms in this area such as America’s Jobs Act or Australia’s Innovation Agenda focus on a narrow set of industries – specifically the tech startup sector – which means we’re missing most the value in an evolving economy. A bakery, factory or hotel deserves the same investment advantages as the next potential tech unicorn and they could employ just as many people and deliver even more benefits to the broader economy.

New technologies have always demanded new investment and business rules and we’re seeing those pressures developing today, all of us have to demand regulators and politicians pay attention to the changing needs of our economy.

With investors clamouring for new opportunities and businesses wanting capital, it would be a tragedy to miss the possibilities of today’s technological, financial and energy revolutions.

Apr 182017
 

While politicians clamour to ‘bring jobs home’, automation is increasingly taking those jobs away with the mining industry being the best example.

In 2015, McKinsey looked at the effects of automation in various US industries and found the production component of mining could lose over 80% of its jobs in coming years.

In a piece for Diginomica this week, I looked at a case study featuring Western Australia’s Fortescue Metal Group (FMG) from the recent AWS Summit in Sydney.

Slashing costs

When Fortescue planned their Solomon groups of iron ore mines in the Pilbara region of North-Western Australia in 2010, they estimated 75 manned trucks would be needed. As it turned out they only needed 49 robotic vehicles.

The savings, both in capital expenditure and operational costs was substantial and the entire operation saw its costs nearly halved.

It’s not just trucks becoming autonomous, functions like drilling and explosives laying are also being automated reducing costs and risks even further.

Dashed hopes

So mining communities like those in the United States hoping Donald Trump will bring back prosperity or Australians who believe a billion dollar subsidy to an Indian coal mining company will guarantee jobs are doomed to disappointment.

A modern mine is likely to employ more workers in an office thousands of miles away than on the site itself. Where once the surrounding region would get hundreds of jobs from a large mine, today it’s only going to be a handful.

It isn’t just the mine workers themselves though, McKinsey’s study also forecast the mining industry’s administrative workforce could see 90% of jobs going while senior management had the potential of being 99% automated.

Beyond blue collar roles

That this wave of automation will affect ‘white collar’ jobs as much as trades or unskilled workers isn’t new – this piece in 2015 for The Australian described how many of the ‘knowledge economy’ jobs will soon be done by robots or artificial intelligence.

Mining is a good indicator of where technology and employment is heading. We, and our political leaders, are going to have to think carefully where the future jobs are coming from as they aren’t going to be found in resurrecting old industries.

Apr 122017
 

It’s hard not to see Google’s decision not to move the mooted digital hub at Sydney’s White Bay as nothing short of a humiliation for the New South Wales state government.

The White Bay project is the centrepiece of the NSW government’s startup tech startup strategy and Google were hoped to be the anchor tenant for  the refurbished power station that’s been abandoned for over thirty years.

With Google’s Sydney office currently overflowing and its staff numbers expected to increase from around 1500 today to 10,000 over the next few years, the White Bay precinct with its cathedral like power station made some sense.

For the startup community, having something similar to the London Google Campus would have been a valuable part of the city’s ecosystem.

However the location is in a traffic blackspot served by a woefully inadequate and unreliable bus service with a series of major road projects planned to start in the neighbourhood over the next five years which forced Google to rethink their plans.

Now it looks like the White Bay project getting underway this year is doomed and meanwhile the Victorian state government is spending big to attract tech companies to Melbourne.

This is far from the first time the NSW government has had ambitions for a digital hub and again a project stumbles in the face of poor planning by the NSW government.

We don’t know if the Victorian government has made an offer to Google yet, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they have. It could be New South Wales is about to pay the price for its lack of vision and forethought.

Mar 312017
 

The long awaited launch of Amazon in Australia seems to be finally happening with reports the giant is scouting locations for logistics centres for a late 2018 launch.

While some are predicting a retail apocalypse, not all are convinced Amazon will do well. Australia doesn’t have a catalog culture buying culture like the United States and, as german supermarket chain Aldi found, the nation’s high property prices and restrictive zoning rules makes acquiring sites difficult.

A further impediment for Amazon in Australia is the last mile with Australia Post dominating the delivery business, despite its mediocre service, and the dominance of incumbent retailers in the suburbs where most Australians live means the US giant isn’t guaranteed success.

Whether Amazon’s entry into a market does mean a retail apocalypse is also another question, while its clear the mall era is drawing to close there are plenty of success stores with chains like Ulta Beauty, Sephora and Kiehls – not to mention the Apple Store – thriving despite Amazon’s growth over the past twenty years.

In the Australian context, a bigger question should be around why local equivalents haven’t thrived with Billabong, Pumpkin Patch and Kathmandu all failing while the established majors have barely glanced at overseas markets – Harvey Norman and Westfield being the stand out exceptions, although the former hasn’t been a great success.

Even in Amazon’s original market of bookselling, big chains like Borders have fallen victim but local independent bookshops have survived and grown despite the online threats. So local retailers can weather an Amazon onslaught.

Another benefit of Amazon starting in Australia is to encourage new business, particularly given the US giant is rumoured to be focusing on groceries as it gives new entrants to the market an opportunity to enter without having to deal with the stultifying duopoly that dominates the market.

One thing is clear though, Australian retailers have been slow in moving into online and international markets, probably due to the luxury of catering to consumers in an economy that hasn’t been troubled by recession for a generation.

The year’s warning that Amazon will be opening shop is a warning for Australian business to lift their game and compete. Those who don’t won’t have any excuses.

Mar 202017
 

Following the post on Building Digital Communities a few weeks ago, some friends forwarded me an excellent article from New Zealand tech evangelist Dan Khan on what he learned from from observing the development of Boulder’s tech community.

Khan’s view is values are at the root of building a startup community, an open and distributed network of people bringing their disparate but relevant skills to a region is what builds an industry cluster.

Equally it’s about values being aligned so the community reinforces its own strengths and advantages.

To many, the startup community is not a tangible thing. Instead, it’s an amorphous, ever-changing network of support, knowledge, resources, and relationships which gives those creating ventures, a boost up to the next level when they need it.

It’s simultaneously a safety net that eases founders down when their ideas fail; and a resounding cheerleader and network of scale for those flying high.

The New Zealand experience is informative as Wellington’s tech sector explodes on the back of special effects studio, WETA along with Xero and the vibrant startup community based around initiatives like Enspiral. So much so the city is offering free trips to prospective workers.

Enspiral itself is a good example of grass roots community initiative where a contractor’s collective has grown to 300 strong organisation building connections between Wellington’s creative, tech and businesses groups.

History is on the side of those building grass roots communities as almost every industrial hub has grown out of motivated individuals harnessing a local region’s advantages to dominate a sector.

As Steve Blank’s Secret History of Silicon Valley describes, the rise of today’s venture capital tech sector business model came out of a group of driven individuals leveraging the United States’ massive electronics research spending through the mid Twentieth Century along with a boost from tax changes in the late 1970s.

Silicon Valley’s startup culture owes a lot to government spending and policies but the development of today’s ecosystem took fifty years and many motivated individuals working together.

Which brings us to to the Victorian state government’s funding the establishment of a 500 Startups outpost in Melbourne. This is part of a sustained campaign to subsidise global tech companies’ setting up their regional offices in the city.

As part of that campaign the Victorian state government has promised to spend sixty million Australian dollars on building a startup ecosystem in Melbourne, it’s a classic example of top down planning.

History hasn’t been kind to Victoria in its tech industry subsidies, with the state government spending ten of millions at the beginning of the century to develop region’s gaming industry only to see the sector collapse as a high Australian dollar and soaring costs saw international studios leave and local producers close.

In 1998, then Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, triumphantly proclaimed subsidising Netscape’s Australian office would lead to Melbourne becoming a global tech centre. Twenty years later, that game continues.

500 Startups founder Dave McClure hints at how the outpost will be limited, “Partnering with Melbourne and LaunchVic helps us bring a slice of Silicon Valley to Australia through our startup, investor, and corporate programs.”

So there’s a strong sense of deja-vu, dare one say even cargo cult thinking, in the weekend’s announcement.

While bringing a slice of Silicon Valley to Melbourne is nice, it doesn’t build an ecosystem which will take years of patient encouragement of local, motivated individuals. What’s worse, the government intervention threatens to distort the market and stifle the culture of grass roots development Khan identifies as being critical.

The question for Melbourne’s startup community is how much patience does the government have? The nation’s political culture of announceables, which the current state minister is an enthusiastic participant, doesn’t bode well.

For the moment, the priority for the Melbourne startup community is to decide if public sector funding should be a critical part of their ecosystem. If government subsidies for foreign businesses are the answer then ensuring bipartisan and long term political support for strategic initiatives should also be close to the top of the list.