Australia’s Digital Future—a nation of users or leaders?

September 21, 2021

Australia risks becoming a laggard among the world’s top technologically driven nations without a stronger investment in digital technology-based research, innovation and workers, according to a new summary for policymakers published today.

While countries such as the USA, United Kingdom, France and Canada are prioritising digital technologies as a strategy to bolster competitiveness in the emerging ‘digital economy’, Australia is falling behind. Digital innovation accounts for only 7.4 per cent of Australia’s GDP compared to the 11.2 per cent average enjoyed by the OECD.

The summary, by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, calls on the Australian Government to make emerging digital technologies a national science and innovation priority.

It says while the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the prioritisation of emerging digital technologies in Australia, they must now be recognised as an independent growth sector.

The summary also recommends research and innovation in emerging digital technologies be included in the Australian Government’s 2021 Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

It looks at emerging digital technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), augmented and virtual reality, blockchain and 5G. It also provides examples of the benefits being seen by other countries that have prioritised investment in science and technology research and development, and in particular in digital technologies.

Professor Shazia Sadiq, Chair of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Information and Communication Sciences, says while the Australian Government’s investment in key digital capabilities, through its digital economy and modern manufacturing strategies is welcomed, more needs to be done.

“We call on the Australian Government to recognise the importance of building scientific capability behind the digital economy, both in investment and narrative,” says Sadiq, who is also Professor of Computer Science at the University of Queensland and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

“While it is difficult to predict what future innovations might look like, a strong national focus on fundamental science and engineering behind emerging digital technologies will allow Australia to stay ahead of the curve in a dynamic and fast evolving landscape.”

A strong national focus on fundamental science and engineering behind emerging digital technologies will allow Australia to stay ahead of the curve in a dynamic and fast evolving landscape.

The summary says the next wave of emerging digital technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, smart micro-grids, 6G and quantum computing, will further disrupt and transform many sectors.

Professor Mike Miller, Chair of the Digital Futures Forum at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, says Australia is at a crossroads in the development of a strong digital technology economy.

“We have strengths in emerging digital technology research and development, but opportunities for sector growth and sovereign capability are nascent and require coordinated and strategic support,” says Professor Miller.

The summary points to Australia’s looming shortage of digitally-skilled workers and says the growing demand for this workforce is expected to increase by 100,000 between 2018 and 2024.

“To grasp the opportunities presented by a growing emerging digital technologies sector, Australia must address the digital divide to ensure equity of access to the benefits delivered by digital technologies, and to meet the skill requirements for a future digital workforce,” says Professor Miller.

“Australia’s emerging digital technology capabilities must receive this support in order for the nation to remain internationally competitive and ensure that scientific leadership is adequately harnessed in shaping our collective digital future.”

The new summary for policymakers follows the publication of a strategic plan in 2019 outlining Australia’s potential as a digital nation.

© 2024 Australian Academy of Science