Government and industry must “double down on Australian innovation” in science and technology to emerge from the pandemic-led recession in “a much stronger position”, says the head of the CSIRO.

“At this pivotal time in our history, the inclination is to batten down the hatches and postpone investments or actioning new ideas while riding out the storm,” CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall said in launching the COVID-19: Recovery and Resilience report, identifying the most promising short, medium and long-term areas for investment.

The speed and scope of post-COVID recovery will hinge on five pillars including investment in science; adoption of technology; growth of tech-based export industries; cultural shifts including workforce development and research-industry collaboration; and stronger emphasis on “triple-bottom-line outcomes”.

Businesses can realise significant benefits over the next 6 to 24 months from “mature technologies that are readily adoptable today”, CSIRO Futures lead economist Dr Katherine Wynn said in highlighting “opportunities for increased productivity” from technologies such as energy efficient technologies.

Healthcare providers will benefit from sector-wide integration of digital health initiatives targeting global biosecurity, virtual treatment, and patient-specific tailored healthcare.

And manufacturers can maximise their local capabilities by focusing on growth sectors like pharmaceuticals, food and beverage production.

Other sectors CSIRO explores include agriculture and food, energy, mineral resources, and digital.

Leaning on the digital economy

While rapid adoption of remote working has headlined COVID-19’s digital-transformation story, the report flags a rising tide of digital interaction across many sectors of everyday life and industry.

Remote learning and working will increasingly be complemented by other initiatives as companies lean on digital to improve efficiency, the report said, noting other standouts in an agile COVID-19 response that has “[set] an encouraging precedent” for future digital transformation.

“Five years of progress has been made in consumer and business digital adoption in just eight weeks,” the report says, noting that transforming supply chains “are bringing businesses and consumers closer” while businesses are embracing digital alternatives as they reassess their business models during the pandemic recovery.

Australia’s natural advantages will accelerate this trend, with world-leading research expertise and workforce skill supported by a “sound regulatory environment and robust testing ground” that would benefit established and successful industry sectors that are “ripe for digital”.

The more than 580,000 workers in Australia’s digital sector – spanning information, media and telecommunications, and computer system design and related services – currently contribute 6.6 per cent of GDP, worth $122b in gross value added (GVA) to the economy.

Digital innovation will deliver an additional $315b in GVA over the next decade “if Australia catches up to global leaders”, the report notes.

This included leveraging Australia’s global position among countries researching new applications around artificial intelligence (AI) and computer science, with our “sound regulatory environment and unique geography provide a robust testing ground” for testing and expanding digital technologies to other countries.

Medium-term opportunities in digital will, CSIRO argues, be led by improvements in three key areas.

These include data utilisation – using technologies like AI and machine learning, cybersecurity and privacy, robotics, high-performance computing, and decentralised storage – to “inform decision-making and improve processes, drive new efficiencies, and improve safety”.

Data proliferation and sharing would also play a role, with new data sources offering new ways of collecting and sharing data from operations and equipment such as robotics, autonomous systems, sensors, image analytics, geospatial intelligence, and cybersecurity.

Opportunities to improve risk management and business continuity would be the third defining characteristic of the digital-led recovery, with COVID-19 already highlighting promise of high-performance computing, data visualisation and modelling, natural language processing, AI, cybersecurity, and ‘digital twinning’.

Risk-based assessment technologies “can increase operational understanding and improve risk recognition and mitigation”, the report notes, with scenario planning and modelling helping businesses better understand risk exposure as they emerge from the economic downturn.

Framework for long-term growth

Short-term and medium-term transformation would segue into longer-term investments in areas like space and defence, Marshall said, flagging the importance of “big, bold, exciting ideas of what’s possible when we work together”.

This included developing Australia’s capabilities in areas like highly automated systems, workplace distribution, and quantum technology.

Quantum promises domestic revenues of over $4b and 16,000 new jobs – and could, CSIRO argues, “help future-proof the digital sector” by laying foundations for quantum computation, sensing and imaging, information security, communications systems and quantum-safe cryptography.

CSIRO has recently ramped up its local industry support by investing $6.5m into a local cybersecurity innovator, spearheading the creation of a national blockchain for contracts, and securing an anchor tenancy at the western Sydney Aerotropolis – Sydney’s ‘third CBD’ – that it will position as a STEM and skills hub.

Ultimately, the report argues, science and technology-driven partnerships will help Australian innovators pivot from the economic disaster of COVID-19 pandemic.

“Science excellence can only be translated into national benefit when it’s surrounded by a strong innovation ecosystem of partners working together on taking solutions from science to customers in market,” Marshall said.

“The pandemic is testing us as a nation, but we get to decide how we respond, and what kind of Australia we want to live in.”