- In June, the Productivity Commission released a report discussing how Australia could adapt to digital disruption.
- Recommended strategies for Australia’s future digital transformation include a light regulatory touch on new businesses and better collaboration between governments.
- Could a sharing economy for Australia’s world-class research institutions kick-start a new era of innovation?
Shortly before the federal election earlier this year, the government’s Productivity Commission, a body that provides research and advice on economic policy, released a research paper titled Digital Disruption: what do governments need to do?
The paper didn’t make a huge splash at the time of release – perhaps attention was mostly focused on the election. But it did cover an issue that sits firmly on the political agenda: Australia’s pivot towards an innovation-led economy.
Across four chapters, the report asks how digital disruption could affect markets and the workforce, examines what will happen on the new frontiers of data privacy and cyber security and mentions new technologies such as 3D printing and automation. It also comments on the rise of emerging digitally-enabled business models, particularly the sharing economy.
Many of the report’s recommendations focus on how digital technology can help change the way governments operate and regulate, both internally and externally. These strategies include:
- driving digital transformation from within,
- improving information sharing between levels of government,
- not rushing to over-regulate new digital business models, especially if existing regulations remain untouched.
A key question raised by the Digital Disruption report is whether digital technology, and the new business models it unlocks, can bring about meaningful productivity growth in Australia.
One of its scenarios is to increase the utilisation rates of assets, referring to the sharing economy and the digital platforms that power it. Examples of these platforms include outsourcing specialist skills (such as Airtasker), household assets (such as Uber and Airbnb) and the opening up of access to public research facilities.
While Uber and Airbnb are relatively well known examples of shared economies to the public, a shared economy for research facilities is a much more novel idea.
With many of Australia’s research facilities publicly funded, a digital platform that connects these together could open up a multitude of new opportunities. It may contribute to digital transformation, more open and collaborative governments, and stronger ties between public research and the private sector.
Like Uber or Airbnb,
but for science
The use of digital technology to share research infrastructure is already happening, says the report. It cites America’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its iLabs platfom, which allows the university’s laboratories to be accessed remotely for experiments.
Here in Australia, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has opened its Centre for Additive Innovation – otherwise known as Lab22 – to third parties who wish to use its metal 3D printing capabilities.
On the commercial side, a startup called Science Exchange has established a digital marketplace that allows scientists to outsource their research requirements to registered institutions. The platform features institutions from across the world, including a limited number from Australia.
These new digital platforms are a departure from the contract-based research laboratories of the past. They seek to streamline some of the legal and intellectual property aspects of the previous process and they leverage digital’s scalability to connect customers and suppliers across large distances.
Using these platforms, facilities can become reputable online ‘resource labs’ – teams that specialise in a specific suite of experiments, performing them faster and cheaper with fewer failed experiments or lost time developing new techniques.
These first steps into sharing economies for research show that the concept is possible. However, they are only the tip of the iceberg. The Productivity Commission’s report suggests scope for an even wider sharing of Australia’s assets – for example, using advanced medical equipment found in the nation’s public and private hospitals.
But why not go even further? As part of a wider strategy of digital transformation and improving collaboration between levels of government, a digital platform could be envisioned that links up all of Australia’s research facilities and equipment – say, from Monash University’s Synchotron particle accelerator to CSIRO’s new research ship RV Investigator.
Access to these facilities could then be opened up to businesses, not-for-profit organisations, or even members of the public. In effect, research and innovation could essentially become democratised.
Benefits of a shared
Such a digital platform, if executed well, could have a range of potential benefits:
- Cost savings: Research equipment is expensive and must be constantly upgraded. By connecting research facilities together, equipment inventories can become more targeted, reducing the ownership of unnecessary or under-utilised assets.
- Increased efficiency: By concentrating certain experiments at specialist facilities, experiment times can be minimised. If enough facilities achieve this with sufficient demand, the overall efficiency of the network’s research capability would vastly improve, potentially accelerating the pace of research (and therefore new discoveries and breakthroughs).
- Create new revenue streams: Opening up research facilities and personnel to external collaboration makes new revenue streams available for these facilities – anywhere from US$5,000 per experiment to considerably more if repeat tests are required from clients.
- Further incentivise investment: As well as connecting facilities together, the digital platform could function as a nationwide inventory of equipment, personnel, and research capability. This data could be used to optimise government investment at the policy or budget-setting level, with the ability to target specific capabilities or research areas.
- Improve ties between the public and private sector: Using the platform, collaboration between public research institutions and the private sector could be strengthened, something that’s a notorious challenge in Australia and one that PwC has itself worked to address through its investment in the PwC Chair in Digital Economy at QUT.
When it comes to preparing the Australian economy for the future, a sharing economy for public research services is only a drop in the ocean (and only one suggestion amongst dozens within this report).
However, it appears to be an ambitiously achievable initiative, and one that embraces the spirit of innovation.
Whether such a digital platform is pursued by the government, by individual research facilities, or through the private sector, significant collaboration and leadership will be required at all levels to make such a vision come alive. But the potential rewards, from lowered costs to increased efficiency and better research outputs, are worth it.