ATSE President's Reflection

Technology moving us toward the ‘age of wisdom’

16 June 2020

Professor Hugh Bradlow FTSE

Professor Hugh Bradlow FTSE

President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering

I doubt whether any of us will forget the Ides of March 2020. That is the date that our economy, which has been powering along successfully for 30 years, was brought to a crashing halt by COVID-19.

However, thankfully due to our politicians, bureaucracy and institutions, Australia has navigated its way through the health crisis and now the discussion has turned to what we do next. One thing is for sure: it won’t be the same as before the Ides of March. The choices we make at this historic inflection point will determine the future for ourselves, our children and possibly their children as well.

As things stand, the relaxation of restrictions does not mean that we have beaten the virus, it simply implies that when you get sick you can be accommodated in an ICU. The best-case and most optimistic scenario is that a vaccine emerges next year which is effective and can be delivered to seven billion people.

However, there are so many unknowns in relation to this disease, and precedent suggests it may take years for a vaccine to be developed (the fastest ever vaccine development took four years and that was for polio about 70 years ago – although hopefully, with modern technology, that is an unduly pessimistic projection).

Without that vaccine, even with a relaxation of restrictions, international (and possibly national) movement will remain restricted, trade and tourism will be hampered, and hospitality venues will only be able to operate at a fraction of their capacity, thereby ensuring that large slabs of our economy remain depressed for possibly years to come.

If that is the case, we need to plan for a totally altered economy by investing in new industries and a new path (South Korea is already planning such a way forward). Clearly the way to achieve this is by spending on human capital and infrastructure (both physical and digital).  There are many options in this regard, but I believe our priority list should include:

  1. First and foremost, we should be focusing on ensuring equity across the society. If we want to avoid further outbreaks of disease, we need housing for the homeless, and working conditions that enable casual workers to afford to not go to work if they have COVID symptoms. We also need better solutions for remote education for students who live in small crowded homes where there is no space for them to work without disruption (governments have at least already solved the technology access issues).
  2. We need to reduce our supply chain dependence on other countries and become much more self-sufficient. Technology such as the Internet of Things (or Industry 4.0) will allow us to build local manufacturing facilities that are competitive with overseas suppliers.
  3. We need to ensure that our universities are viable without relying on overseas fee-paying students.
  4. While -COVID-19 may have removed our horror summer from the front pages, the atmosphere has not been forgotten about climate change. Now is the time, given that we want to create jobs in new industries, to be investing in the R&D and technologies to create a viable hydrogen economy that can compete cost-wise with natural gas, as well as grid-scale electrical storage systems to remove our dependence on fossil fuel energy systems.

While the priority actions above will require investment, some changes will occur naturally. There are many people for whom working remotely will have become normal and they will choose to do so for large portions of their time irrespective of whether the COVID-19 threat is removed or not.

Besides the individual benefits of time better spent, the flow on societal benefits in terms of reduced congestion are significant.  In addition, hopefully, the practice of telehealth has now become routine for many medical consultations.

COVID-19 has been a shock, but the optimist in me says that this is the jolt that, with wise choices and technology adoption, will enable us to set a path into the “age of wisdom”.