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.

Mar 162017
 

What has gone wrong with Australian innovation? For a nation so wealthy, it’s remarkable how poorly the country performs globally in terms of bringing new products or technologies to market.

At Ad:Tech Sydney yesterday, The Great Australian Innovation Fail panel discussed what has gone wrong and what can be done to get the nation back to a position more in line with its comparative affluence.

Boasting a range of digital media veterans and startup founders, the panel was far from a group of muttering naysayers. Although all but Fleet Systems’ Flavia Tata Nardini were distressed at the failure of Australia’s innovation agenda and the country’s general disdain for new businesses and technologies.

Michael Priddis, the CEO of research and development consultancy, Faethm,  pointed out that automation and artificial intelligence are not the future but the present and the job losses are happening now across industries.

Caitlin Iles, founder of XChange, added that she believes the estimates of nearly fifty percent of Australian jobs being lost to automation are actually understating the effects and it’s more like 90% – “a doomsday statistic” – which is something that Priddis endorsed in observing how the mining industry has automated in the past decade.

The employment shifts are being ignored by governments, says Beanstalk Factory’s Peter Bradd. “They have to get their heads out of the sand. We need to be supporting workers in threatened jobs to reskill. That’s just not happening at the moment.”

Australia’s underperformance is stunning when you consider tech startup exits, says the Information Industry Association’s Tony Surtees. Unsurprisingly Silicon Valley dominates the global statistics with over 47% of the global value with London, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv following. Sydney was at the bottom of the table with only .01% of value.

The value of exits is a problem, but that is more about the capitalisation of startups and may be changing. A bigger problem lies in how Australia’s corporate sector innovates and engages with new technologies.

Corporate Australia’s failure to engage is shown in the OECD ranking the country at 81st globally in ‘innovation efficiency’, while the nation is tenth in inputs it fails dismally in applying those inputs into outputs.

This is reflected in corporate Australia’s failure to compete globally outside the mining sector. Basically Australian executives have little desire in international markets and most have no interest in engaging with researchers, universities, innovators or entrepreneurs.

“People don’t like to collaborate,” says Peter. “They want to keep everything to themselves.”

“The CEOs of Australia’s top twenty companies need to get together with CSIRO and the universities and fix this problem. There’s money on the table.”

Whether Australia’s business leaders are prepared to pick up that money, or they’re happy and comfortable with their lot is probably the question of whether Australia can start to pull its weight in the innovation stakes.

“In ten or fifteen years we’ll be screwed if we don’t,” concludes Michael.

Feb 132017
 

To say Paul Shetler’s stay in Australia has been controversial would be an understatement.

After leaving the UK’s Government Digital Service in 2015, Shetler was the founding CEO of the Australian government’s Digital Transformation office. He lasted 16 months before being managed out.

In January I interviewed Shetler where he discussed the relative differences between countries, the challenges facing those trying to digitally transform governments and large organisations along with some scathing observations about the management of the Australian Public Service.

Parts of this interview were the basis for separate articles in Diginomica and the Australian Financial Review however the entire conversations is worthwhile publishing.

Some of Shetler’s answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

How do we compare the digital transformation journey of different countries?

In terms of the UK, the Government Digital Service really has done a great job. If hadn’t been for GDS we wouldn’t be having the conversation we’re having in Australia today, much less in New Zealand, the United States and other countries.

Digital Transformation wouldn’t be on the table and an awful lot of the basic ideas on how you fix government IT by looking at structural reasons for behaviour rather than just saying “let’s make a nicer interface.” they were really good at identifying those things.

Britain was the pioneer. Every country in the naughties had their own digital strategy but the UK led the way. The US right now is a mess, they don’t really have a digital strategy.

How does the US look with the new Trump administration?

They do have a lot of potential there. I do think the new administration is more likely to do something big to fix things than perhaps the Obama Administration was, because they are talking about national infrastructure.

If you to the United States it’s shocking, the physical level infrastructure is falling apart and on a digital level things are pretty much the same, if you look at the government websites many of them look like they are from the 1990s and they all look and act differently.

They are very much like the UK before Britain started the digital transformation and they’ve had several years to fix it but there’s been no concerted effort because no-one really owns it.

They do have the USDS which operates out of the White House that gets really great talent in to do fix something but they don’t have the authority across the government.

They have 18F who operate on a cost recovery basis who act like an internal consultancy… they have some extremely talented people there and we’ve learned quite a bit from them.. and they help agencies with individual things, like looking at contracts or procurement or whether it’s fixing a particular service. But there’s no vision or strategy that guides it all.

If you go to New Zealand you’ll see they’ve been doing a lot of great thinking. It really influenced us in Australia on user journeys across governments, where you want to get something done that goes across agencies.

Let’s look from the standpoint of the end user; the end user wants to send a child to school, to emigrate to New Zealand or to open up a business. What do they need to do and how can we map it out for them.

The problem in New Zealand is that the team has no authority, all they can do is propose and it depends upon other people saying ‘oh, that’s a great idea’ although there’s been a lot of great design thinking coming out of there and it difficult for that being translated into practice.

One of the things I learned here was you can have all the great ideas and talent but if you don’t have the political will and authority to drive it then a recalcitrant bureaucracy will not going along with it because their interests aren’t in alignment with their users.

What did you find on coming to Australia?

There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm on what we could do with the idea of the DTO, particularly among the public there was a lot of goodwill as well as in large parts of the Canberra bureaucracy, generally speaking the lower you got down the ranks there was more enthusiasm.

In the UK you have two layers of governments; you have the central government and local administration.

You have the split between politics and policy, you have the politicians who just don’t spend time in their departments. When I was with the UK Justice Ministry the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, and his ministers were in the building every day.

As a consequence they were very aware of what was going on. There were in there everyday and they could see things. It made it easier for the ministers to give direction and cover for the civil servants.

In Australia it’s much easier for public service to capture the minister, direction is spotty and politicians are easily manipulated, partly because of lack of information.

There’s also the gap between policy and delivery, the UK Department of Justice, for example, works on legal and constitutional policy but is also responsible for prisons, courts and other services. So there’s a tight feedback loop where if a policy isn’t working, you find out pretty quick.

How important are people and existing processes?

You can’t fight human nature you have to acknowledge it and live with it and make it work for you.

In Australia we did a terrible job of working with human nature. This idea we could get Australian government to magically transform itself because it was told to, that I could come here and put up some pretty pictures and say some nice words and everyone would say ‘hey we never thought of that.’

That’s not going to happen when you have entrenched interests, habits, structures and groups who are committed to doing things a particular way. It’s not going to happen and it’s vary naïve to think you can do it, it’s just not how people work.

In the UK, we didn’t focus on consensus we focused on getting things done. When I first met with Francis Maude he said ‘this is not a change management process – this is transformation.”

When we talk about change management it’s often about appeasing people who are throwing up obstacles, this isn’t about appeasing them, it’s about them doing their job. Too often here there was too much appeasing bureaucrats which I think comes down to a lack of political will and perhaps cowardice.

One of the major reasons why the UK was a successful as they were was because Francis Maude was the minister for five years. It became clear he was going to see this through and if you were going to fight, you were going to lose. People got into line.

Because they understood people were competitive they created a group called ‘Digital Leaders’, the digital leaders were the Director-Generals from various departments who were future leaders – most likely to become Permanent Secretaries – and said, “you guys will be those driving the transformation from the Civil Service side.” Of course because these people were all competitive they’d try to outdo each other.

How does the Australian political culture compare?

“It’s quite a bad culture. In Canberra you have people who think they are the intellectual elite of the nation who aren’t really, it’s a relatively mediocre elite.”

The idea you have a group of people sitting around thinking their Big Thoughts in a bubble and telling each other how great they are who then hand those thoughts down to proles who do the service delivery. It’s a very weird class system that’s been built up – you have the Big Thinkers and then even the proles you give it to, they pass it on to the states or an NGO to deliver it.

There is no feedback loop, there is none. You don’t know how much these policies cost, you don’t know what they’re delivering you don’t know what’s a success. That probably suits lots of people.

We saw that with digital dashboard where citizens and ministers could monitor public services’ performance. There was so much pushback, there were some agencies that worked with us but getting information directly from the systems was difficult.

What are the lessons from the Australian experience and for those trying to drive digital transformation?

When the DTO was set up, they had to make a series of trade-offs. It wasn’t GDS, it didn’t have the powers of GDS. It didn’t have the powers to mandate or block.

GDS had both, the idea you could kumbaya your way to transformation, no-one there believed it. That’s why they set up GDS the way they did. They could stop you from spending money, even if you had the budget approval or not, so that was a massive stake in the heart for a number of zombie IT projects.

It’s particularly hard for IT managers in departments to admit that a long running project was a failure so GDS was great. That ability to do the right thing and to have it sanctioned by authority was brilliant. The years of ass-covering were over.

Some kind of spending controls are good and some ICT procurement reform is absolutely essential. That’s potentially really, really good.

How important is finding the right people?

People coming into senior digital roles in the UK government were hired by GDS and that was massively important to get the right people in.

I was thoroughly vetted as were all the other hires and it was important because it created a community of people who thought the same way. We were all committed to the same mission and we all came in at the same time. It’s not talked about much, but there was also a general clearing out of the old leadership.

Having a common sense of mission was important, we would work together and collaborate with each other.

You need to have political will to see them through because the departments will kick and scream but if their autonomy was working we wouldn’t have this problem.

Why are Australian governments suffering IT problems?

If all major government projects were failing we’d not be having this conversation. That said, there is an unacceptable rate of failure and it has to be fixed. Again, departmental autonomy is not working.

Departments have chosen to deskill, departments have chosen to become dependent upon vendors and departments have chosen to put their own interests ahead of users – as we in the case with Centrelink. Infrastructure failures like the ATO or the Census were easily preventable. The idea you’re building data centres in 2016 is insane and anyone who tells you that should be fired.

These are all predictable outcomes and as long as you have a public service that’s not really comfortable with 21st Century technology and which still views as its own departmental in-group as being more important than its end-users then you’ll end up with these problems.

Public servants have to start operating the way a bank or insurance company would – how do I get onto the cloud, not how do I keep workloads off the cloud? How do I build around the user? It’s crazy to be asking these conversations because it’s an incredibly deskilled when it comes to IT. It’s appalling, much more than in the UK.

That’s the problem, when you talk to actual practitioners in the Australian government they acknowledge it. It’s not the guys doing the designs or those trying to use the technologies, it’s those further up the management chain who don’t have the skills or have too close relationships with certain vendors where you see these anti-social behaviours kicking in.

Where next?

I’ve spent sixteen months banging my head against a wall so I’m not in a hurry, I’m looking some opportunities in Australia and a few elsewhere in the world.

Feb 112017
 

Last week, the annual Startup Muster report on the Australian startup sector was released, giving investors, founders and policy makers a valuable snapshot of a vibrant sector of the economy.

The 2016 report had 2711 responses to the online survey which the researchers whittled down to 685 startup founders, 239 potential founders and 474 startup supporters.

Compared to the previous years, the replies are an increase from the 602 in the 2015 survey and 385 the year before. It shows how the Australian scene is growing and evolving.

Still a boys club

A key finding from the 2016 Startup Muster report is the changing gender composition of a group that, quite rightly, has been criticised for being too much of a ‘boys club’. This year’s survey found 24.6% of founder respondents were female, up from 17.4 and 16.1 in the previous two years.

One area where Australia’s startup community does boast diversity is in its industry composition with 17% of the country’s startups in 2016 being focused on the most popular category of Fintech. Notably that sector came in at seventh in 2015.

2015 2016
Marketing Fintech
Content/Media Retail
Retail Content/Media
Big Data Internet of Things
Health Education
Education Marketing
Fintech Social media

Also notable in that list was the disconnect between startups and investors. While 17% of Australian startup founders were focused on Fintech, 42% of investors were. The area most of interest to investors was medical technology (47%) with the Internet of Things second (43%).

Over the next few years it will be interesting to see how investment fashions change, in the UK the bottom seems to have fallen out of the fintech boom while global investments seem to have increased. It’s likely Australia will follow a similar pattern to the wider global trends.

Sydney’s decline

Another interesting shift is the balance between cities and states with New South Wales and Sydney remaining dominant but its position slowly falling,

2015 2016
outside capital cities n/a 23.1
NSW 44 40.9
Vic 17 18.8
Qld 16.5 19.3
WA 8.9 7.3
SA 2.9 6.3
Tas 0.6 2.3
ACT 6.4 6.2

The fall in Western Australia is probably due to the state’s economic collapse in the face of the dying mining boom – many of WA’s skilled and affluent workers are moving out rather than struggling with a declining economy.

Efforts by the Victorian and Queensland governments to promote their startup sectors seem to have had some success although the real winner is South Australia, something underscored by US incubator TechStars’ recent launch in Adelaide.

The big question though is how attractive Australia is as a location for startups and investment capital.

Funding woes

In the 2016 Compass Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking report, Sydney fell four points from the 2012 survey to 16th while Melbourne fell out of the top twenty city rankings.

Due to its position as the second lowest on the Growth Index within the top 20, and its comparably weak statistics around Performance, Funding, and Market, Sydney now ranks #16 (down from #12 in 2012).

Compass’ findings show a critical problem for the Australian sector, regardless of its location, industry or founders’ gender – the lack of later stage investment funds.

That lack of funding means Australian startup founders are particularly sensitive to money issues with Startup Muster finding the most common hindrance to people launching startups is life circumstances requiring a stable income. In a high cost society, the need for a regular salary isn’t surprising.

Startup Muster’s 2016 report is a very useful snapshot of the state of Australia’s tech startup community. It serves as a good guide to what business founders, investors and policy makers should be considering.