pain or gain from structural change?

pain or gain from structural change?

Fanned by the hurricane that is the digital world, creeping globalisation and undeniable climate change, mature economies are undergoing huge structural change. Christopher Rollyson argues that the major driver of change is actually people placing greater value on consumer experience.  They demand better choice, access, convenience and quality at a time when consumer power has never been stronger.

The pace of change is certainly accelerating, as is the noise from many affected by job losses in industries like manufacturing, retail and traditional media. There are plenty of ostriches playing the blame game – “It’s the carbon tax!” (even before its introduction) or, “it’s Fair Work Australia” or “it’s the exchange rate”. Conditioned by a legacy of handouts and bailouts, the complaints are also generally accompanied by calls for the government “to do something”.

Fortunately, there are also business leaders who see the change towards a knowledge economy as an opportunity rather than a problem. Peter Roberts’ recent piece in The Australian Financial Review highlights how enlightened companies are finding the way to adapt and benefit. He cites companies like GE, which has identified $30 billion of near term opportunities in Australia in areas like LNG and wind power. We don’t all have the deep pockets of GE, but there are other impressive examples of adaption to a changing world, such as the gradual transition of LJ Hooker from property developer to sustainability manager. My own experience suggests organisations that embrace environmental and sustainability challenges, tend to drive costs down and foster innovation more rapidly than those that choose to treat them as an imposition.

The knowledge economy isn’t the exclusive domain of high tech and big companies. In reality, the biggest changes will come from the application of innovation and knowledge in the low to medium technology sectors, which form the bulk of the economy. These sectors include food processing, transport, the hospitality industry, and service industries in general. They provide the possibility for intelligent customer-focused business solutions that will attract consumers like magnets.

Julian Cribb has written a compelling opinion piece called Australia in 2050. He paints a picture of the biggest economic driver being knowledge (including technology and advice) and thebiggest export sector climate adaptation, where we use our own natural climate volatility experience as an intellectual springboard for creating new industries. Opportunities will span food production, water management, construction of homes and workplaces, urban design and tropical medicine.

What can governments do? The most relevant policy responses are likely to be around supporting financial pressures borne by innovative firms, and re-focusing the role of Australia’s knowledge infrastructure, particularly universities and scientific institutions. There will also need to be a much greater commitment to R&D, in the way that China has committed to spend an incredible 2.2% of GDP annually ($320 billion) on R&D in the latest five year plan. Such responses are required to diminish the debilitating brain drain from Australia to places like Silicon Valley. We need to see the level of debate about our rapidly changing economy, migrate from whingeing and blame, to insight and possibility.

image by jason hoover


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