The Federal election is fast approaching and no matter who Australia votes for, the new government will face formidable challenges both at home and abroad.
These challenges are growing. Extreme flood and fire are more frequently ravaging our people and places – our climate change challenge cannot be kicked down the line. It’s now or never to make deep cuts to our emissions.
Our skills challenge is growing more acute. Australia risks becoming a laggard among the world’s top technologically driven nations. By 2023, digital technologies are estimated to contribute $65 billion to Australia’s economy. Yet, our workforce is ill-equipped for this future – we need 100,000 digitally skilled workers by 2024 and 40,000 more engineers by 2025.
Whoever assumes office has the opportunity to take a long-term view and create a new future. A future powered by technology and driven by people.
Technological breakthroughs made during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate what a technology enabled future looks like. Telehealth, mRNA vaccines and remote learning technologies are all examples of how disruption leads to technological advancement and adoption. Going forward who knows what will come. But to get there we need a national strategy to translate our excellent research into ground-breaking innovations and a workforce that can create and use these technologies.
The climate is changing. The latest IPCC report has stated it’s now or never to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The devastation wrought by recent floods, black summer fires and another mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef are what climate change looks like today. Extreme weather events are not happening in a vacuum and will only grow in severity.
Our changing climate and the pandemic have taught us that Australia needs to be resilient. We need resilience in our infrastructure, supply chains, energy systems, and in our skilled and connected workforce. Planning for resilience needs to become second nature and to do this we need data, evidence, and modelling to prepare for the worst – be it climate change or the next pandemic.
This future needs to sustainable in the way we handle all resources. It is not enough to have a sustainable energy system if we continue to create around 67 million tonnes of waste each year (2.7 tonners per person). ATSE’s own work has shown that the key to sustainability is to design for sustainability. We need a paradigm shift in design principles to eradicate waste. If we design clothing that can be recycled into tiles, and solar cells which can be broken down into critical minerals at the end of their lifespan, we will become more sustainable, resilient and create new markets.
While the outlook for restricting climate change to 1.5 degrees celsius is bleak, it doesn’t need to stay that way. A decarbonised future can slow warming further and unlock opportunities to reverse it. To do this we need more ambitious short-term emissions targets, an energy system which is powered by 100% renewable energy and deploy low-carbon technologies which can make deep cuts to high-emitting sectors. Simultaneously we need new technologies which extract carbon from our atmosphere for storage or even better, utilised for manufacturing substituting carbon-intensive processes. We have the tools to do the former and the research know-how to latter. But only if we have a plan to do both.
The Australian economy relies heavily on minerals and agriculture. It will continue to play a role in the future. But we cannot deny that the future needs to be economically diverse so Australian’s can have access to the jobs of the future. Advanced manufacturing, services enabled by artificial intelligence, quantum computing, medical devices, are all areas where Australia has research advantage, one that can be used to create new markets. We need a strong research sector and a national plan to translate that research. This will diversify our economy making it more profitable, resilient, and one that works for Australians.
Finally, a technology powered future must be human driven. The centre of any economy is its people. It is people who must bring the skills and creativity to devising this future, and people who must benefit from technological advancement, be that through better health and aged care, better jobs, or a cleaner more sustainable environment. At its heart, technology must always enable people to live full and fruitful lives and leave a better planet for our children.
A technology-powered, human-driven future is one where our climate does not exacerbate floods and fires; where the greatest ideas are supported by our research infrastructure to become the greatest game changers; where everyone has the skills to be technology users and leaders. And if we can create this future here in Australia, we can lead the way in creating this future globally.
The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering’s Election Position Statement is available here.