David Thodey on the science of growth

By James RileySeptember 25th, 2019

Originally published by InnovationAus.com

CSIRO chairman David Thodey has cautioned government and business alike against tightening research and innovation budgets in the face of Australia’s somewhat anaemic economic outlook.

After the 27 years of continuous growth, the economy is quite clearly tightening, and it is becoming harder to find new growth.

Offering a word to the wise, Mr Thodey says these are precisely the circumstances where public and private investment in science, technology and innovation becomes critical in building a platform for long-term, sustainable growth.

“Every great nation in the world in the last couple of hundred years has been driven by great science, great technology and the application of that technology in improving the way that we live and driving new economic value,” Mr Thodey told InnovationAus.com.

“Science and technology, and truly applied science and innovation, is the mainstay of any great economy,” he said.

“The challenge that every group has, whether you run a business or you run a government, is that as pressure builds on economic growth in the short-term, you tend to pull back on things that have a longer term value-creation potential.

“And technology and science can be one of those categories, and so we need to keep talking about this and encouraging people to look at the longer-term, sustainable economic growth and value-creation.”

Mr Thodey said issues like the successful translation of research from the lab to commercial products, and the low business investment in R&D remained a challenge in Australia. Maintaining and growing the level of private sector investment needed continued attention.

But the opportunities remained, especially in areas of emerging tech like the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Mr Thodey will traverse some of the opportunities of emerging technology as keynote speaker at the D61+ LIVE event, hosted by the CSIRO’s Data61, in Sydney on October 2 and 3.


From the September 2018 Digital Innovation: Australia’s $315B Opportunity booklet. AlphaBeta analysis, expert interviews, literature reviews.

There is an opportunity to continue to develop Australia’s home grown technology, building products and services to take to the world. And there is the opportunity to build the broader technology sector that underpins virtually every sector across the economy.

The sector represents 6.6 per cent of Gross Domestic Product and employs 550,000 to 600,000 people. The technology sector is so fundamentally critical to the rest of the economy, which is why the D61+ LIVE event is so important, Mr Thodey said.

landmark report released by Data61 last year in conjunction with AlphaBeta Advisors found that digital innovation could deliver $315 billion in gross economic value to the nation in the next decade, if Australia could simply meet the OECD average on key metrics like business investment in R&D and research translation.

Mr Thodey said Australia will have to improve its collaboration, translational and commercialisation track records if it is to compete globally for economy-growing innovation.

Artificial intelligence is one of a number of critical technologies that can shape our future prosperity — how we coordinate to seize the opportunity as a country is of vital importance.

“It is still relatively early in the development of artificial intelligence and its related machine learning technologies, and I continue to encourage people to invest in the area simply because it is such a big opportunity,” he said.

“Because AI is such a base-level technology, it is going to be applied across so many different areas. We’re already seeing the impact of AI in areas like the mining industry and in agriculture.”

Zee hexapod

Zee is a prototype hexapod robot equipped with a streaming camera sensor and a real-time 3D scanning LIDAR.

The aim, he says, is to keep encouraging industry to take a big view, and to think large.

The challenges of research translation in Australia continue to be a focus, and from the CSIRO point of view at least, Mr Thodey says there has been good progress.

“This has always been a big challenge for Australia. We’ve always scored very high in science and research – at least in terms of the OECD statistics – but have been less effective on the translational side,” he said.

“I can talk to the CSIRO experience where Larry Marshall and his team have really put a lot of investment in this area, in terms of our Main Sequence Ventures innovation fund, the ON program, and what Data61 has been doing so well in addressing [market needs].”

“We have ramped up our market focus because we always felt we could do more – not at the expense of good science, but in addition to it – and I think we are improving as an organisation as a result,” Mr Thodey said.

“The question now is more about how do we get a broader set of organisations across Australia to really focus in on this area [of research translation].”

The theme for D61+ LIVE in 2019 is Intelligence Amplified, looking at the rise of artificial intelligence and how collaboration and collective intelligence across the innovation ecosystem enables large-scale impact.

The event brings together the different tribes of Australia’s tech ecosystem with the aim of building networks of expertise across institutions and industries.

The country’s leading AI experts and technologists, including David Thodey AO, Dr Sue Keay, Dr Stefan Hajkowicz and Prof Genevieve Bell from the 3A Institute will take the stage at D61+ LIVE in Sydney across Wednesday 2 October to Thursday 3 October.

InnovationAus.com has partnered with CSIRO’s Data61 business unit to collaborate on a series of articles ahead of the D61+ LIVE event being held at the Carriageworks in Sydney on 2-3 October.