Harnessing transformative technology and digitalisation

Publication Date
21 June 2021

Opening remarks

Thank you Julieanne for that introduction, I would like to use this opportunity to acknowledge Julieanne’s leadership and support as Chair as she nears her retirement from our Board.

Thank you to the Committee for Brisbane for inviting me to deliver the keynote here today to mark the release of your new report ‘South East Queensland: Australia’s First Data Community’.

It is lovely to be here in Brisbane, particularly at such an exciting time for South East Queensland with confirmation of a 2032 Olympic Games edging closer by the day.

I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways on which we meet, the Turrbal and Jagera peoples, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge and congratulate the members of the South East Queensland Smart Region Taskforce – who have led the development of this initiative and the report which we will hear more about in the forthcoming panel discussion.  

And acknowledge too, and welcome my fellow panellists – Adam Beck, Helen Clark and Bevan Slattery.

Pace and scale of change

I am a big believer in the value in bringing leaders from across government, industry and academia together in forums such as this.

There is so much more that can be achieved for our communities when we collaborate – and leverage our collective skills, resources and expertise.

This is particularly true when it comes to data and digitalisation – where there is so much value in ensuring different systems and processes are able to talk to one another.

At the recent 2021 Global Infrastructure Initiative Summit in May – they outlined some of the best ideas from the summit including “engage owners in technology adoption and move from experience based to data driven decision making.”

The pace and scale of technological change today provides profound opportunities to: 

  • Improve quality of life for our communities
  • Provide better access to services
  • Adjust to changing customer needs and
  • Grow new industries.

Digital connectivity is producing more data than ever before.

But to harness the transformative potential of data and digitalisation – and its ability to maintain and enhance the liveability of our cities and regions – we do need to take concerted action.

While innovation is continual, it is not necessarily coordinated, standardised or clearly regulated.

Alignment and enablement across government can help Australia – and major growth regions like South East Queensland – to realise major economic and community benefits.

This is the central premise that underpins Committee for Brisbane’s proposal for the region to become Australia’s First Data Community. It is also a guiding principle of Infrastructure Australia’s reform and investment advice as we look to support the national COVID-19 recovery.

About IA

For those who are not familiar with what we do, Infrastructure Australia is the nation’s infrastructure advisor.

We sit alongside government, with a mandate to provide evidence-based analysis and advice on reform and investment priorities to help deliver better infrastructure for all Australians.

Our flagship products include an Audit of the performance of our economic and social infrastructure.

We also provide advice on market reforms and investment priorities required to improve productivity and quality of life.

In advising government on opportunities for infrastructure investment and reform, we are highly attuned to the major shifts underway in data and digitalisation.

Innovation is happening faster than ever before

In 2019 we released the Australian Infrastructure Audit – which was a wide-ranging assessment of the challenges and opportunities facing Australia’s infrastructure over the next 15 years and beyond.

The 2019 Audit highlighted both the pace of technological change and new customer expectations as key trends that were changing the nature of infrastructure in Australia.   

It identified the key role technology can play in overcoming barriers to service access due to distance or location.

As well as the key role user data and customer insights can play in developing services that better meet community needs.

Of course, Australia’s technology is evolving rapidly, with innovation occurring at an unprecedented pace.

Better use of

  • data,
  • artificial intelligence,
  • the internet of things,
  • robotics,
  • autonomous vehicles
  • are just a few of the near-term innovations that are reshaping our communities and our economy.

Smart technologies are already transforming everything from traffic management, environmental monitoring, and waste collection and resource recovery – to how we build, monitor and interact with infrastructure.

Data and digitalisation has changed the face of active transport in Australia – with apps providing real-time data on when next train or bus is arriving and – how full it is – now commonplace in our cities.

Or one of my favourite examples – we now have the ability to the map the most convenient route through a city by wheelchair or with a pram.

Australians are also increasingly empowered as infrastructure users, with data on water, energy and internet usage at their fingertips.

Smart places are using new technology to:

  • Enhance the quality and performance of urban services
  • Reduce costs and resource consumption and
  • Engage more actively with citizens.  

COVID-19 impacts

These trends have only increased in pace over the past 18 months as we continue to respond to the challenges of COVID-19.

During the pandemic, we saw the acceleration of the existing trend towards digitalisation – which enabled many industries to pivot quickly to remote working. 

We saw a rapid uptake of digital collaboration tools – with 90% of Australian firms using digital collaboration tools such as Zoom or Teams so people could work from home during periods of lockdown.

Online retail grew to six times its 2019 rate – this increased congestion on the broadband network and shifted micro freight from the CBDs to the suburbs.

We also saw technology driven innovations in service delivery, including greater use of telehealth (from .04% to 35% of all Medicare schedule services) and the shift to teaching online.

These trends and many more are canvassed in Infrastructure Australia’s report, Infrastructure Beyond COVID-19, which we released in December last year.

New challenges

This report presents a moment-in-time snapshot of how COVID-19 has changed the way we use infrastructure.

It makes clear that technology will continue to be the biggest driver of change for Australia. 

In particular, digitalisation and better use of data will drive higher expectations on the reliability and functionality of the infrastructure as well as access and cost.

However, accessing quality data remains a challenge.

In developing our Infrastructure Beyond COVID-19, we found it difficult to secure timely data from public and national databases.

In general, private data was more current and granular.

It became very clear to us that better data for public decision makers should be a priority – particularly as both governments and industry seek to respond to new customer expectations brought on by COVID-19. 

The report also highlighted the importance of mobile and broadband access – opportunities to use new technologies was constrained by unreliable access.

Better quality decision-making

Better data has a critical role to play in supporting better decision-making across the infrastructure sector.

This is even more important as we adapt and respond to the still evolving impacts of COVID-19 on our infrastructure.

For example, over the course of the pandemic, there was 200% increase in net migration from capital areas to regional areas – but it is still unclear from the available data as to whether this trend will continue. 

And in fact, we expect figures for net population growth to be even larger than this as current datasets to measure internal migration – such as registered address for Medicare cards – may be slow to reflect reality.

This makes it incredibly difficult to plan and deliver infrastructure that meets community needs.

Better data on the spatial impact of population changes will be critical to help governments with strategic planning that supports future liveability and our recovery from the pandemic.

The waste sector is also being held back by insufficient, unreliable data.

COVID-19 drove a 20% increase in consumer waste, due to more people working from home.

High levels of food delivery and online shopping have generated sizeable increases in paper and plastic packaging waste and single use waste, placing additional pressure on a sector already adapting to China’s recent waste import bans.

Better access to national data would support investment in domestic waste and resource recovery infrastructure.

Across all infrastructure sectors, Australia has a substantial opportunity to harness technology, innovation and digitisation to grow new industries and drive service improvements.

However, in embracing the opportunities presented by data and digitalisation, we also need to maintain a focus on privacy and security.

Privacy and security

Highly advanced computing, analytics and data processing will continue to drive enormous change.  

However, these technologies also bring inherent risks, such as the misuse of personal data and compromised privacy.

To protect users, there need to be stronger consumer protections, clearer legislation, and voluntary codes of practice across all industries.

Ensuring trust in technology will need to be a key focus if we are to fully harness the potential of data and digitalisation. 

This requires greater transparency from governments and businesses in how data is used and how decisions around technology are made.

It also means ensuring that consumers will increasingly expect to retain control over its use.

Securing digital and telecommunication networks, such as payment systems, against cyberattacks and misuse of confidential data sets will also be paramount.

The Australian Government has been investing in cyber research and developing knowledge centres that provide information exchange and technical support to industry.

However, as cyber threats become more complex and pervasive, the policies that govern the use and defence of computer systems will have to be reviewed and updated.

Harnessing transformative technology and digitisation

Emerging technologies such as 5G, smart cities and the Internet of Things are already delivering significant benefits to communities, businesses and local economies.

To ensure the opportunities these ground-breaking technologies present are fully realised, there must be better alignment across governments and industry and improved public understanding and adoption.

These challenges and opportunities are front of mind for Infrastructure Australia as we are finalising the next Australian Infrastructure Plan for release in coming months.

Developing the Plan is one of Infrastructure Australia’s key responsibilities as the nation’s independent infrastructure advisor.

It is the reform response to the challenges and opportunities we identified in the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit and our Infrastructure Beyond COVID-19 report, which I mentioned earlier.

Due for release in coming months, the 2021 Plan will detail pragmatic reforms to deliver improved services and sustainable infrastructure across our cities, regional centres and rural and remote areas.

Of course, harnessing data and transformative technology is a key theme of this reform roadmap.

The Plan will argue that - in a highly connected and digitised world, governments and industry must transition away from digital by exception towards digital by default.

This will unlock substantial productivity gains and efficiencies across infrastructure planning, delivery and operations, ensuring the infrastructure sector has the capacity to accelerate Australia’s post-pandemic economic recovery.

Valuing data

This means firstly, that data should be valued as an asset. Data is inherently valuable.

That value is in enabling better decision-making and customer experiences, not in selling information. But to unlock that value, you need open data.

It also means investing in digital upgrades to existing infrastructure, and ensuring new infrastructure is smart-enabled when its built.

It is not possible to accurately predict what technology will need to be accommodated beyond the next 10 or so years, but we should be planning to embed and upgrade infrastructure with new technology as much as possible.

And finally, we should avoid the trap of ‘mixed rail gauges’ in this technology enabled era – which means a focus on common systems and processes and working collaboratively to improve community outcomes.

There is a key role of stakeholders interested in this space is to help governments understand that digital enablement is about interconnected systems and processes, and new infrastructure investments that value data.

Increasingly, our infrastructure is defined by innovations which put user experiences front and centre.

To support that, we must embrace greater information transparency and give people more choice over how their information is gathered, stored and used.

Concluding remarks

Referring to our colleagues in the UK, the National Infrastructure Commission’s Data for the Public Good report – doing nothing is a big risk.

“Without coordination and collaboration across the infrastructure network operators, regulators and users, the benefits that could be achieved from data and the application of data science will not be realised.

Progress towards greater innovation is being hindered by closed attitude to data across the infrastructure sector, and by an array of regulatory, commercial and cultural barriers.”

Technology is evolving at a faster rate, and in more interconnected ways, than ever before.

To enable our cities to reach their full potential as smart and connected liveable cities we need to fully understand the levers of change and ensure we have the right models in places to keep pace and plan for better infrastructure outcomes.

As everyone in the room here today knows well, South East Queensland is experiencing one of the highest rates of population growth in the country.

It is vital as the region grows, lifestyle benefits of the region are not only protected but also enhanced.

In doing so, reconnecting infrastructure decision-making with the needs of a community should be a key considerations.

And as the report the Committee has launched today show - data and digitalisation has enormous potential to support this.

Infrastructure Australia will have much more to say on the opportunities afforded by data and digitalisation as when we publish the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan in coming months.

I look forward to sharing that work with you and continuing to engage on this critical opportunity for South East Queensland – and the broader economy as we navigate the ‘new normal’.

Thank you again to Committee for Brisbane for inviting me to speak here today.

I look forward to hearing your questions during the panel discussion.