Failures of courage and a lack of faith in science have left a complacent Australia unprepared to thrive amidst the social, economic and technological ‘megatrends’ of the next 20 years, CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall has warned.

Three decades of uninterrupted economic growth “[haven’t] motivated us to innovate and find the new waves of prosperity where we can actually lead,” Marshall told the National Press Club as CSIRO released the 2022 update of its decadal Our Future World report.

“When was the last time that Australia caught a really big wave of change?” he asked, noting that while Australians had developed innovations like Wi-Fi and low-cost solar systems, “as a country, we lacked the vision and courage to back ourselves.”

That hesitance had left countries like the United States and China to dominate those markets globally, he said: “they saw the wave coming, and swam out to it.”

Australia, by contrast, has “a history of not backing ourselves [and] a mortal fear of being wrong and getting dumped…. We’ve fallen behind, while others have raced ahead.”

“We need to change course [and] be brave enough to do some really uncomfortable things.”

The new report identifies seven key disruptors that the CSIRO believes will shape global innovation and discourse over the next decade.

These range from adapting to a changing climate and pushing to become leaner, cleaner and greener to challenging geopolitical shifts, managing escalating health imperatives, and unlocking human innovation through diversity, equity and transparency in decision-making.

Two tech-related megatrends – including ‘diving into digital’ and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems – offer significant opportunity for Australia but also, Marshall said, risked becoming lost opportunities.

“The next wave of digital innovation is expected to create $10 to $15 trillion dollars of global opportunity, but Australia is lagging behind other advanced economies in capturing the value that’s being created here,” he explained, flagging our fixation on furphies that automation will take away jobs instead of creating opportunities and resolving crippling staff and skills shortages.

“The uncomfortable truth is we’ve focused on the threat to existing jobs instead of seizing future opportunities,” Marshall said, “particularly for our regions where teleworking, online access, and revolutionary future business models and industries can literally be transformative.”

AI is already transforming a range of industries, Marshall said, “and in time it will change every aspect of science and industry.”

“Whether we come out on the winning side of this, or the losing side of this disruption, is entirely decided by what each one of us decides to do next.”

What do we do next?

With the world climate being shaped by geopolitical instability, economic chaos, energy instability, COVID-19 and other health crises, the megatrends in the report are far from theoretical.

Intensifying floods, fires and other natural disasters confirmed that climate change is already taking its toll, Marshall said, warning that the discussion had already shifted from averting climate change to figuring out how to live with it.

“The world has missed its opportunity to limit dangerous climate change within this century,” he explained. “We will need to wait until the beginning of the next century to see the benefit of emission reductions that we do today – so we must adapt to a changing climate while we wait for the world to reduce its emissions.”

That meant adapting technologies in healthcare, critical infrastructure, disaster preparedness and other services to better handle the pressures of climate change.

Yet despite Australia’s potential to be a “superpower in clean energy,” Marshall said, “there’s something standing in our way: it’s our innovation problem, because we haven’t invested in the innovation needed to capture this opportunity and transform our economy.”

Struggling to fill the pipeline

Hindsight has validated CSIRO’s original 2012 report, which warned of six megatrends including biodiversity risks, depletion of natural resources, the rise of China and India, increasing virtualisation of work and society, and growing customer expectations from an ageing society.

Despite AI’s promise in solving these and the new megatrends, more than half of respondents in new TDM Foundation research believe today’s students aren’t being taught enough about AI to support Australia’s future needs.

With current predictions that nearly half of existing jobs will become “automated and tech focused by 2030” – and that the next five years will see over 1 million new digitech jobs created – TDM warned that “Australia is only seeing 7,000 students leave university each year with the appropriate skills to take on careers in technology.”

Despite targeted initiatives like the recent Day of AI, fully 78 per cent of university-aged students echoed Marshall’s sentiment that Australia lags other countries in AI.

Nonetheless, he said, the COVID-19 pandemic had boosted Australians’ understanding of the importance of science – and that could foster the attitudinal shift necessary to address the seven megatrends over the next decade.

“It took a global pandemic to get the nation to turn to science for solutions,” Marshall said. “COVID-19 showed us what we can achieve when we combine the power of science with an urgent need, and a networked system of willing collaborators.”

“We need to do this again, and again, and again, until it becomes as natural to us as swimming…. If we dream big, and invest big, we can solve the impossible.”