The Future Summit: Australia’s future as a technological backwater

Does Australian have a bright future in a challenging broader global economic climate? The Future Summit, the Australian lite version of Davos is being held in Melbourne Monday and Tuesday featuring some of Australia’s leading figures in industry, the media and Government. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to attend both days along with a group of new/ social media people from across Australia. Fortunate in that at least one day in, it has so far confirmed my worst fears: Australia’s future is as a technological backwater.

At a summit that should be envisaging what this country could be, we had a lot of old, mostly white people (perfectly gender balanced I should note) talk about what has been, and what is happening now. What I saw very little of was what we could and should be, at least in terms of anything new or exciting. We heard the same old story on education, we heard about the challenges presented by the decline of the United States and the rise of China and we heard an advertorial dressed up as a welcoming address from the State Premier.

On tech, Google Australia’s GM briefly spoke on a panel about the rapid changes in technology, there was a mention of two in passing of Twitter, and one panelist boldly said that the majority of Australian’s want internet censorship (they don’t, polls are against.) But the only tech concept that went close to getting a work out was broadband, and here’s where we have the problem.

Government has the same problem, but our business leaders do as well. “Broadband” is a buzz word that they believe will deliver improved opportunities for existing businesses, eduction, and health. But that’s it. No innovation. no web industries, no increase in tech jobs. Nothing. Not a thing. One panelist asked what Australia’s competitive advantages will be in 20 years time, and his response was Minerals. No mention of striving to deliver a “clever country” that thrives on new tech and web related jobs. No mention that two of the United State’s largest companies by market cap are tech/ web companies (Microsoft and Google). Nothing. Zip. Zilch.

Australia’s Government and business elite can’t see the web from the trees. The web is all about crappy YouTube videos and Facebook for them, but nothing that is taken as a serious business opportunity, nothing that can provide jobs for the kiddies they want to provide improved educations to. While Australia’s industrial base is dying, and white collar service industry jobs get exported to India, we as a country do nothing to promote web jobs that are not some pipe dream, but proven overseas. Millions of people in California rely on direct or indirect tech/ web jobs, a US State with a bigger population than Australia.

Victorian Premier John Brumby had the tenacity to compare the Victorian economy to Israel in the opening speech this morning, and nothing could be further from the truth. Despite its geopolitical issues, Israel has 7-10x more tech/web related startups then the entirety of Australia put together, despite having a population nearly 3x as small. Israel is a country that understands the value of high tech and web related startups and jobs, and Australian could do well to learn from it. The alternative is to further cement our place as a technological backwater, and from what I heard today, perhaps it’s already too late to change course.

(image: JJ Projects, L-R: Darren Rowse, Bronwen Clune, me)

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