Catastrophic economic damage is pushing world economies to think about how they will rebuild as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic eases – but new figures suggest the biggest opportunities for Australia’s recovery will come in areas where the Morrison government has been winding back funding.

The technology areas promising the “most impactful innovation” in coming years include data and AI, medical bioengineering, trust and supply chains, and the future of work, a new survey of experts by the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center has revealed.

A non-partisan policy thinktank, the Atlantic Council’s analysis concluded that the coronavirus pandemic will “accelerate innovation significantly” as world economies adjust to the impact of massive changes in long-established models of work and tap new technologies to solve medical and bioengineering problems.

The thirst for innovation had driven efforts such as the use of 3D printing to manufacture protective personal equipment (PPE), with Konica Minolta Australia the latest to jump onboard through a partnership that will see it 3D printing Venturi valves for P2/N95 masks that were designed by partner 3D Systems.

In another local innovation, Australian company SPEE3D announced that it had developed a way of 3D printing its ACTIVAT3D copper coating – claimed to kill 96 per cent of SARS-CoV-2 virus within 2 hours – onto high-use metal objects such as door handles, hand rails and touch plates.

Western Australian firm Nanoveu has also been addressing coronavirus with innovation, recently reporting that initial testing had shown a purpose-designed antiviral nanotechnology coating would pave the way for smartphone and tablet cases capable of killing viruses on contact.

Innovating on their own

The Atlantic Council experts scored Australia, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand – grouped for their similar approach to innovation – as having an average innovation impact of 0.72.

This put Australia behind Singapore, Japan and South Korea (0.89) and just behind China (0.77) and the United States (0.76) – but well ahead of the EU countries and India/South East Asia, with average innovation scores of 0.58 and 0.42 respectively.

“Innovation will not be distributed evenly when it occurs,” the analysis notes, “either geographically or technologically – and the countries manifesting innovation will do so in starkly different fields.”

China, for example, would lead the world in terms of innovation around data and AI while EU countries would lead in supply-chain overhauls, Russia would be almost the only country to double down on space technology, and the UK/Canada/ANZ cluster would make the most impact in medical and bioengineering.

Yet in Australia, capitalising on innovation opportunities has traditionally come with the strong backing of government bodies and public-private partnerships whose viability may be tested when the government releases its delayed coronavirus-focused 2020-2021 budget in October.

Business funding to date has been focused on helping maintain the status quo through costly economic “hibernation” by keeping Australians employed and housed throughout the duration of the lockdown – but the nature of that support will need to change for the business community to turn innovation into a net-positive force for economic growth.

That was already a difficult ask, with a recent Harvard University study ranking Australia’s economic diversification as 93rd in the world – down 22 spots between 2007 and 2017 – and the Morrison government already controversially cutting R&D funding and slashing innovation programs long before COVID-19 had emerged.

A likely budget focus on paying for coronavirus stimulus could challenge the government’s past innovation commitments, such as the $20b Medical Research Future Fund that would – if the funding can be preserved – seemingly play into the priority areas identified by the Atlantic Council survey.

Time will tell whether Australia can find the money to back innovation as a force for economic rebuilding – a goal that the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources identified in its Australia 2030 strategy – and whether that innovation will play a large or a marginal role in following other countries as the world eventually pivots into the post-coronavirus era.

“While more developed economies will probably continue fuelling innovation alongside their recovery efforts,” the Atlantic Council analysis notes, “others will not have that luxury.”

“Accordingly, innovation from more developed economies will likely consist of new technologies shaped by the pandemic and their response – that is, innovation and recovery.

“Less developed economies may be more prone to innovate by adapting older technologies and systems to better suit their current needs – innovation in recovery.”