By Jordan Green, Conversation Moderator

On August 9th the Pearcey Foundation hosted a Pearcey Conversation on the Role of the ICT Community in the Future Resilience and Self-reliance of Australia.

A panel of thought leaders brought their diverse perspectives to the table for a dynamic and engaging exploration of the topic. These were:

  • John Blackburn AO – Chairman of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia
  • Rita Arrigo – Industry Digital Strategist at Microsoft, AI Ambassador, Design Thinker, Microsoft
  • Sally-Ann Williams – CEO, Cicada Innovations

The UN describes a resilient society as one able to deal with a range of risks and threats as they arise and then be able to recover in the aftermath in a timely manner.

John spoke to us about preparedness and resilience – what do these mean?

Preparedness first requires a thorough analysis of the risks and vulnerabilities to understand the problem space. Not just for this crisis, for all the subsequent crises. As we experienced this year with the bush fire crisis rapidly followed by the pandemic. We can’t expect to prevent every crisis so we must be able to confront the reality and adapt. For that we must prepare as best we can to deal with things when they happen, even the unknown and unexpected. That means preparing ourselves to be ready to react and having the capacity to sustain that response through to an evolved, newly stable society.

A clear example of this set of issues is what we have experienced with pandemic disruption of globalised, just-in-time supply chains. Broadly, in Australia we have reacted well to the pandemic yet, how well prepared are we for dealing with this circumstance and sustaining that response through the challenges of the economic, social and community consequences of the pandemic?

Where are we today?

The pandemic has exposed a global lack of resilience as a result of a collective failure to prepare. This is NOT just an Australian problem or failure, it is a systemic and structural failure across the planet.

John pointed out that “in Australia, we lack an integrated-systems risk analysis of our vulnerabilities. We have left our resilience and, therefore, to a degree our sovereignty and security to a largely foreign owned market.” This makes us particularly vulnerable to trade disruptions in the global market place. A vulnerability exacerbated by being an island nation at the far end of very long supply chains and arduous global trade routes which are fine tuned to just-in-time supply models. Those supply chains themselves are very fragile, with limited resilience to cope with disruptions.

At the same time the COVID world is one in which technology has leapt to the fore to enable our lives to continue and adapt. Rita reminded us that in Australia we are fortunate that we had to hand the infrastructure, the access, the personal devices and the education to, almost overnight, move our daily lives into a virtual existence. We have seen the rapid acceleration of technology adoption in a wide range of areas that have truly enabled our society to evolve. It has been so much more than just those who can work from home as it has included virtual health services reaching into suburban homes, social and mental health care spreading out from our institutions, and community and cultural engagement aligning to new dynamics.

What should we think about next?

Rita highlighted that these changes and the trends of change to a more digitally enabled world will continue and perhaps even accelerate in some sectors. As we experience that evolution Rita cautioned us to prioritise inclusion, let’s not permit a new or larger digital divide within our own society, or more broadly in the world.

She reminded us of the need to ensure trust in our systems, to shepherd new capabilities in things like AI with careful attention to privacy and ethics, both of which require a high degree of transparency in how the technologies operate and in how they are used.

Sally emphasised how important it is to recognise that the technology community is a key enabler across every aspect of our society. She shared the character of deep tech ventures and how they are, inherently, resilient by nature since it takes a long time to bring a deep tech innovation to full fruition. That time, which may be decades, is far longer than a political cycle, a policy life cycle, or even a venture capital life cycle. A consequence of that gestation is that when those ventures do enter the market they tend to be robust, adaptable, agile and resilient.

How might we redesign the critical elements of our supply chains to deliver a ‘smart sovereignty’ model?

This would be a model in which we achieve the appropriate capacity and capability in domestic manufacturing and supply chains to insulate and sustain the country through future disruptions. All the key elements are included here, from the R&D effort and deep tech commercialisation through to the skilled workforce and the critical role of the technology infrastructure and capabilities. Sovereignty implies a degree of Australian ownership and/or control of the critical and sufficient capabilities and resources to ensure the capacity and sustainability of supply.

Determining the appropriate level of sovereignty is a complex and dynamic task. It is not a ‘set and forget’ once-off effort but, a persistent part of managing our country to ensure the safety, security and sustainability of our society. For example, is it sensible that we import more than 90% of our fuels and more than 90% of our medicines?

We need to keep our eye on the sustainability of our community and the value of technology, like cloud computing, to enable greater sustainability while empowering new approaches to solving really big problems. The impetus of the pandemic and the power of the technology for communications and experimentation has seen Australia operate a National Cabinet – a level of political and leadership collaboration we can only hope will continue; it has seen immersive reality and cloud access to supercomputing shorten product development lifecycles for critical medical equipment from months to days; the global mobility of digital assets and the power of 3D printing delivered new and effective personal protective equipment in far less time than it would take to send by normal supply channels.

On the other hand, it is not rational to imagine a return to the days of total self-reliance. This is very evident in the technology sector. No-one is suggesting we develop our own core technology platforms to replace, for example, the major computer operating systems. The pervasiveness of those platforms is key to the interoperability and integration of the world through technology. Yet, we can use technology to ensure we have transparency in our supply chains which will, in turn, engender trust in those supply chains supported by using technologies, like block chain and others, to verify supply is what we expect, from where we expect and produced in the manner we expect.

Nowhere is this transparency and trust more needed than in the supply of the technologies themselves. How can we develop that trust if we do not invest in having a degree of our own expertise and capability in the most critical of these technologies, e.g. AI, robotics, cryptography?

A dominant challenge to achieving preparedness and resilience is developing the policies and strategies. A task made harder by requiring our leaders to admit there is a problem and be confronted by the challenge from the community and the media to address the problem. A process that will take considerably longer than a single election cycle.

Success will require every Australian to be part of the discussion and part of the solution. We need to focus on the really big challenges that are most relevant to us. We should draw on our greatest strengths and capacities even as we develop new capabilities. We must be prepared to accept some things might cost a bit more if we are to afford the resilience we need in this ever more unsettled and insecure world. We must be prepared to invest our time, effort and money to create and sustain the capabilities and capacities that will deliver that smart sovereignty within the larger context of an uncertain and unfriendly world dynamic.

If we can do all this, if we can create our own smart sovereignty then we will have created the skills, knowledge, capabilities and capacities to help others do the same. Our panel were unanimous in their shared view that this path is not one of insular, inward withdrawal. No, it is very much one that will lead to a stronger, more agile, more valuable and more sustainable economy and society that will ensure Australia remains the ‘lucky country’.

To watch the recorded online event please visit The Role of the ICT Community in the Future Resilience and Self-Reliance of Australia on YouTube

To join in the conversation or find out more about upcoming Pearcey Heritage events please visit heritage.pearcey.org.au/events/