CC Strategic Engagement Manager, John Fillipis, evaluates whether Australia is poised to deliver on Scott Morrison’s recent lofty goal/statement of Australia becoming a world-class digital economy by 2030… And in doing so, postulates a potentially controversial opinion. Read on…
ScoMo says yes, Nietzche says no, and Jim Jeffries and I say “If I just …”
Fredrich Nietzche is not someone who invades the consciousness of the average Australian citizen. His multi-dimensional philosophies in the latter part of the 19th century opened the door to different ways of viewing one’s self and the world in which we live. These philosophies as described in his numerous books are insightful, revealing, scary, and in some instances, extreme.
In one of his books, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” he revealed a vision of society that was composed of two types of people: the Ubermensch or “Super Human” and Letzter Mensch or “Last Man.” The Ubermensch is the brave individual who seeks self-fulfillment by taking risks, making sacrifices, and accepting pain, to reach a goal that is aspirational and well beyond the reach of the “herd.” The Letzter Mensch belongs to the herd: they surrender their thinking to the state, are afraid of taking risks, and seek only to achieve security and comfort.
According to Nietzsche these two different personalities are in constant battle for the heart, mind, and the soul of the greater populous, with the winner of this duel defining the thread of that society’s character.
Truth be told, Nietzschean philosophy and Australian politics rarely intersect. However, this odd parallel became apparent to me by virtue of some comments from our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
I don’t often tune in to cacophony of hyperbole from Australian politicians, as it’s been a very long time since Australia has had any forward-looking political leadership; of the kind that makes core fundamental policy changes that alter the course of the country’s future. No more has this been evident has been in Australia’s track record for fostering innovation, research, development and digital transformation. Australia’s policies and commitment to use technology and innovation as the lever towards international competitiveness have had as much effect as Scott Morrison’s “thoughts” and “prayers” had against Australia’s’ devastating bushfires.
ScoMo Wants Australia to Become a “World Class Digital Economy by 2030”
Therefore, one could imagine my surprise when, during the recent Australian E-Commerce Summit, Scott Morrison stated that he wanted Australia to become a “world class digital economy by 2030.”
“Our challenge is to keep the foot on the digital accelerator, as we emerge on the other side of this pandemic,” he said. The Prime Minister said consumers and businesses have adopted online technologies at warp speed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Whilst we can marvel at the innovation and the digital acceleration, the bigger picture is that our economy has taken a massive hit. We have two stories happening simultaneously in Australia: an economy that is experiencing the worst set of economic circumstances since the Great Depression, and ferocious adaptation that businesses have engaged in to keep these circumstances at bay.”
According to the Prime Minister, during the coronavirus situation, nearly ninety percent of Australian companies embraced new technologies – “as businesses went online, customers followed.”
The Prime Minster closed his presentation by remarking that “the digital economy is central to creating the jobs that Australia needs.”
A Digitally Sophisticated Australia is Essential to Ensure Our Nation’s Future
These are lofty goals, strong words with (hopefully) strong intentions behind them, and, irrespective of which side of the political divide one sits on, it is hard to argue with what he said.
A digitally sophisticated Australian economy is indeed not only highly desirable but it is now essential to ensure our nation’s future on all levels. An under-digitised Australia will become a sitting duck on the competitive world stage in the coming years.
Although Scott Morrison highlighted that we need to have a “digital economy,” his definition (or understanding) of what a digital economy entails is very limited. For the Prime Minister, a digital economy is simply establishing a network of online trading stores for consumers to purchase goods. There is merit to this, but if online stores are still being touted as progressive digitisation in 2020 by our political leadership, then our problems are deeper than we think.
What We Need to Do to Get There
So what do you need to build a world-leading digital economy ? Well, it’s a big beast to build but at a very fundamental level you will need to do the following:
- Build a secure and ultrafast infrastructure across the nation
- Foster high tech skills programs in educational curriculum from Primary to Tertiary
- Rationalise government platforms for single point access to all government services
- Digitization of Citizenship (Identity) and the establishing of e-Residency
- Enabling the digital identity as a “passport” to access all government services (Social security, voting, taxation etc.)
- Digitising the currency (i.e. establishing the AUD cryptocurrency)
- Construction of long-term national policies to encourage innovation and investment in digital technologies
- Close ties between industry and research to translate innovative digital ideas into realities
- Government policies to encourage digital entrepreneurship
- Government taxation initiatives targeted towards rewarding not only digital innovation but implementation
- Extend a digital bridge between government and citizen so that ideas, collaboration and actions can flow freely
- Enable access to venture capital to fund digital innovation
- Government regulatory and security frameworks to enable secure digital presence
- Establishing bilateral “digital trading routes” with other digitised countries in the OECD to allow seamless and frequent data exchange of all types
Plus so much more… I could go on for hours…
Innovation and digitisation will fundamentally elevate how Australia performs on the global stage, but it will take considerable effort at all levels to make the transformation a reality. There will likely be many people who will see this as an insurmountable task that will cost billions and deliver nothing. But there have been some great examples globally of countries who have taken the steps towards realising that digital economy vision. These countries have collated the necessary political support, funding, and organisational backing to forge their own way into the new frontiers of the digital economy.
A Global Leader in Digital Identity? Estonia.
One of the best examples of countries already on the way towards a digital economy is Estonia. Estonia leads the world in digital identity for its citizens. The Estonia ID card is a cryptographically-secure digital identity card (powered by a blockchain-like backend) that allows an Estonian to access public services, financial services, medical and emergency services, as well as to drive, pay taxes online, e-vote, provide digital signatures, and travel within the EU without a passport.
China is another example that has thrown down the digital gauntlet with the announcement of the Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DC/EP). The DC/EP is a digital version of the yuan and has been under development for more than five years. The DC/EP differs from existing cryptocurrencies because it is legal tender, centralised, and not anonymous. The DC/EP will help bring China bring its massive population into the mainstream economy, and accelerate the move to a cashless society.
Australia’s Digital Growth and Innovation Has Been Mostly Stagnant
With countries like Estonia and China blazing a trail towards a digital economic future Australia has had an average record with its approach to tackling any of the key pillars needed to progress its path towards economic digitisation. As of late 2020 Australia has been mostly stagnating in furthering its digitisation and innovation.
Oh don’t worry, I have plenty of examples that highlight the issues:
- Over the last few years Australia has spent less than 1.5% of its GDP on research and development.
- Government policies have not favoured smart, innovative, agile entrepreneurial start-up companies to rise and take hold.
- There is a major disjoin between researchers, innovators, and industry.
- Large companies are the main beneficiaries of any government innovation tax breaks.
- There has been limited access to venture capital to fund innovation.
- The Australian education system (from secondary to tertiary) has been slow to bring high tech studies into the curriculum in any real capacity to make a difference.
- Lack of visionary leadership at the top levels of government to set a goalpost for Australia’s digital future and to set in motion the financial engine to drive towards it.
- Australia has fallen down the world innovation rankings from 16th in 2014 to 22nd in 2019.
- Australian small businesses last year spent less than one per cent of their revenues on technology
The list could go on…
Probably the best example of where Australia’s policy focus truly lies, was in the recent budget announcement from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg; who concluded that a post COVID economic policy for national wealth generation was to give Australian tradies a tax break for a new ute.
So you get the picture…?
Although there has been some movement with certain government initiatives trying to address the deficiencies in our digital framework, the political commitment to make these things a high national priority in Australia has been average at best. And if I’m honest, non-effectual would likely be a better description. In Shakespearean terms it’s all been a bit “much ado about nothing.”
Letzer Mensch… Is That What We Really Want?
But why is it like this?
You see, for all its wealth in natural and human resources, Australia has slowly grown towards becoming a Nietzschean “last man” society… A society which predominantly seeks only the pursuit of its own comfort and security. What really drives this point home are some numbers from our last federal budget. Australia spends $220 billion on social security, $110 billion on healthcare, and $45 billion on defence. These numbers reveal just how committed Australia is to ensuring its “comfort” and “security.”
But is all hope lost? Will we all assume the position of Nietzsche’s “last man” in the near future, where we tilt our eyes to the stars and do nothing but blink? If the greater populous or the “herd” (as Nietzsche called them) were left to themselves, then I feel yes, a stagnant, comfortable, and safe Australia we would have.
Australia’s Ubermensch Women & Men are Working for the Digital Future of Australia
Thankfully, our nation is not solely composed of last men, who only wish for things to be comfortable, safe. and to stay the same. Although greatly outnumbered, we indeed have many Ubermensch amongst us, people who wish to push the envelope, and cast their eyes afar to limits yet untouched. These people would never just blink at the sight of stars – but would instead smile.
These Ubermensch men and women, inhabit the ‘first carriage” of Australian comedian Jim Jeffries’ famous train sketch, and they have been quite active in recasting a new model for the digital future of Australia. Where this has manifested itself over the last couple of years has been in the creation of national committees whose remit is to formulate strategic roadmaps designed to promote prosperity through innovation and digital transformation.
The “Australia 2030 – Prosperity through Innovation” plan (by Innovation and Science Australia) makes 30 recommendations that underpin five strategic policy imperatives. These are:
- Education: respond to the changing nature of work by equipping all Australians with skills relevant to 2030
- Industry: ensure Australia’s ongoing prosperity by stimulating high-growth firms and raising productivity
- Government: become a catalyst for innovation and be recognised as a global leader in innovative service delivery
- Research and development (R&D): improve R&D effectiveness by increasing translation and commercialisation of research
- Culture and ambition: enhance the national culture of innovation by launching ambitious National Missions
Additionally, the government has established the Digital Technology Taskforce led by the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), whose roadmap consists of getting Australia digitally advanced by 2030 in a post-COVID world. The report they produced has resulted in a number of recommendations that can be broadly grouped under the following pillars:
- Build a National Digital Backbone
- Build a Digital Australia that is Secure and Resilient
- Build Digital Skills for the Future
- Tax, Incentive, and Government Procurement Reform
The AIIA’s recommendations for world-class digitisation by 2030 overlay nicely with the innovation framework developed by Innovation and Science Australia. They are by no means a fully exhaustive plan for a digital economy by 2030, but they are an excellent start. These two key initiatives, in conjunction with many others like them, give me some hope that that there is indeed enough Ubermensch horsepower in the first carriage of the Australian Jim Jeffries train. It is the first carriage and the first carriage alone that will propel Australia towards becoming a world class digital economy.
Now the enormity of the task cannot be overstated as it will require significant restructure across so many aspects of our society to make this a reality. For many it will be too big a picture to see and they will be unable to comprehend the differential of where we are today to where we need to be tomorrow.
Big Picture Thinkers Need Only Apply
Many moons ago (pun intended), Ubermensch US president John F Kennedy (JFK) stood upon such a precipice and addressed his fellow citizens at Rice Stadium on September 12, 1962. On that day he boldly declared (to many people’s disbelief) full government support for a space program to land a human on the moon and bring them back safely to earth. His words inspire us still and have transcended the six decades since their delivery:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
He went on to say:
I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the sixties. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.
JFK’s bold commitment and passionate words inspired his country to put its collective might behind the space initiative. Both he and the American people made good on their promise, when on the 20th July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps upon the dusty soil of a foreign world. Sadly, JFK was assassinated in 1963 and he never saw the realisation of the vision that he had set in motion.
Australia’s economic digitisation will not be of the same order of magnitude for effort and cost as the monumental achievement that was the moon landing. However, it will require a similar synergy of political leadership, multi-level government support, financial backing, corporate collaboration along with cultural and social commitment to make it a reality. The financial cost to realise this dream will probably be around $300 billion over 10 years, which is small in comparison to our Social Security, Health and Defence spending.
But can it be done in Australia? By 2030?
Scott Morrison seems to think we can do it by 2030, but his and his government’s actions are not being true to making that vision a reality. The government has shown little leadership, vision or committed any significant government funds towards building the structures needed to deliver this world class digital economy.
If I were to ask the same question of Friedrich Nietzsche his answer would be a flat No. He would reason that Australian politics, society, and culture are largely structured towards appeasing the Letzter Mensch side of the population.
Friedriech Nietzsche was quoted as saying:
The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.
If we are to truly succeed in our endeavours to become a world-leading digital economy by 2030, then it will be the men and women who think differently that will get us there. These Ubermensch group of technologists, scientists, engineers, and researchers will be the ones who will innovate, forego fear, and who will forfeit all comforts and security to succeed.
So then, what is my answer to the question “Will Australia be a leading digital economy in 2030?”
Personally, I don’t think we will get there by 2030. Not because we cant (we actually could) but its because Australia regrettably just isn’t geared to make step function changes like this.
If we truly want to become a digital economy and lead the world by 2030, then we need to truly focus our national resources (human and financial) towards delivering the strategic roadmaps that are being developed by the DTT, aiis and ISA, if we are to make our country more innovative and digitally equipped. To make this digital transformation a reality, the government (if its brave enough) will need to funnel at least $30 billion per year away from Security and Comfort spending and push it towards innovation and digitisation.
For it is only through innovation that we can generate things that don’t exist and then export them across the world, it is this that generates true wealth for any country. For far too long, Australia has derived its wealth on the back of its plentiful natural resources, most notably the mining boom. But these income sources will run dry at some point in the very near future.
The new global currency that will define wealth and prosperity across the world post 2030, will be digital services. If Australia is truly serious about being a player in this arena, then its needs to start reapportioning its financial investments away from comfort (i.e. social security) and security (i.e. defence) which are sink holes as far as wealth generation is concerned, and put them into digital services and innovation.
If our government puts its muscle behind the Ubermensch in the first carriage and we start right now and in earnest; then we might just get there, maybe not by 2030 but by 2035 or 2040. The important thing is we need to get there and fast…or we will get left behind.
As Jim Jeffries so felicitously said in his famous train analogy sketch..
“If I just pull this pin out here…imagine how much faster we would go…?”
Until next time…