Australia is playing catch-up when it comes to digital transformation. Our internet speeds are lagging, our digital literacy is making slow progress, and there are just as many women studying STEM subjects as there were almost three decades ago – and even less in tertiary education.

Discussing the future of Australia’s digital transformation, panellists Labor MPs Terri Butler and Ed Husic, Nationals MP Bridget McKenzie and Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman suggested education and collaboration were remedies to improve our digital progress.

However, what was most important, according to Zimmerman, was encouraging a greater risk culture among Australians.

"We have to be prepared to take risks, and we have to be prepared to fail. It’s something the United States has always done better than [us],” he said.

This sentiment was echoed throughout ACS’ flagship event, Reimagination.

Butler, however, said Australia must be careful in not being complacent in our optimism.

“The challenge lies in educating people as technology progresses. We must be resilient, adapt and continue to learn,” she said.

Butler said ensuring teachers had access to understand and transfer knowledge of digital literacy to students was essential to ensure Australia could keep on par with rapid global digital transformation.

All members of the Digital Expedition panel agreed Australia’s digital transformation is too dependent on other countries, perpetuating a culture where our own innovation fails to be created.

The panel suggested ways to combat this ‘catch-up culture’ is to formulate a plan for the nation’s digital progress which, according to Husic, would overtake other countries and ensure a higher quality of education across the board.

“The biggest moonshot is to actually do it,” said Husic.

McKenzie, however, argued that being overly prescriptive left little room for creativity – an important skill needed for the future of ICT careers, while Zimmerman argued Australia needs a combination of both.

Zimmerman said it was important for Australia to take advantage of innovation happening in the ICT sector, and maximise its benefits for Australia.

A key area where businesses are progressing innovation is the North Sydney Innovation Hub, an initiative set up by Zimmerman to maximise the advantages the region has to offer, such as proximity to the CBD and a large business hub. Zimmerman said this could be extrapolated to other areas of Sydney.

“I think it is about creating that network. There’s enormous conglomeration benefits in sharing ideas and experiences,” he said.

McKenzie also mentioned that smart technology used in agriculture should aim to be extrapolated to other sectors.

The MPs suggested more conversations surrounding digital infrastructure and creating a central economic policy were necessary steps forward.

L to R: Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, Nationals MP Bridget McKenzie, Labor MP Ed Husic, Labor MP Terri Butler and ACS CEO and panel moderator, Andrew Johnson.

Data and privacy

The panel agreed data should be made more open and useable to engage the community, which was suggested as a possible way to build consumer confidence in light of recent defence failures.

“If we want people to be confident that data is being used well by Government, then Government’s got a long way to go to build that confidence,” said Husic.

Zimmerman argued that Australia is slowly progressing when it comes to securing our data.

“The government will always be one step behind when it comes to progress, but we are always stepping forward,” said Zimmerman.

However, Butler said Australia must not overstate its progress when it comes to our approach to data and privacy, homing in on communication between ‘smart’ entities needing to be a constant priority. Butler also mentioned faults related to data leakage had much to do with human error.

“[We cannot] blame technology, but [must] use it in a smart way.

“We need to improve our infrastructure to aggregate datasets, but we also need to really be careful of the ethical and intellectual dimensions that aggregate these datasets,” she said.

Wrapping up the session, moderator ACS CEO Andrew Johnson asked the panel their views on artificial intelligence as an existential threat. While Zimmerman said humans should never fear tech, the rest of the panellists agreed it was important to pay attention when experts voiced concerns about its danger.

“It is healthy to be afraid of self-aware machines with a lot of power, and we should think about what the proper response is,” said Butler.