The digital infrastructure we really need

It is good that our political leaders are talking about investing in large amounts of infrastructure to kick-start the economy.  However, that infrastructure needs to be more than roads, bridges and buildings.  While some governments are already talking about investing in technology, we need to broaden the discussion of digital infrastructure to set up the next generation up with the jobs we want for the future.

Everywhere you look, there are amazing stories of how quickly we have adapted to COVID-19 by moving our real world lives into virtual alternatives.  Vast numbers of people working from home suggests we have much of our digital infrastructure right.

The future of work has arrived unexpectedly quickly and we’re not likely to go back to how things were.  Jobs that can be done remotely are likely to continue to be more flexible than ever before.

The change means that instead of staffing with the best person available onsite, jobs are increasingly available to the best person anywhere.  While working virtually, new opportunities for innovation, automation and simplification are being created which will boost productivity and pave the way for new products and services.

We should not expect that with all of this change, the infrastructure we built for the past is what we need for the future.  While the pandemic has simply accelerated trends that were already underway, it brings gaps in our digital world into stark relief.  We must not waste the opportunity of infrastructure investment to limit ourselves to roads, bridges and buildings.

To lock-in the myriad of social, inclusion, education, export and economic benefits that this new digital world creates requires new infrastructure.  Digital infrastructure.  It ranges from filling-in connectivity gaps through to solving identity and trust issues with every aspect of our lives in between.

Education infrastructure can enable a world where learning is supported by digital tools curating the best content from teachers across the country supported by dynamic coaching in-person and digitally.

Health infrastructure can extend recent progress on telehealth to create seamless virtual consultations between patients and their doctors leveraging electronic health records.

Infrastructure to support those who are working virtually can enable more people to spend less of their time in long commutes.  Governments have long wanted us to live more distributed lives.  With greater acceptance of the technology, local governments and other providers can enable collaboration hubs to encourage more people to maintain a more sustainable work/life balance.

Smart transport infrastructure designed to enable autonomous and integrated logistics can reduce our long-term costs.  This infrastructure should be supported with investments in renewable and low carbon energy combined with the Industry 4.0 capabilities that are so important to our future.

Extending Industry 4.0 manufacturing infrastructure can see advanced manufacturing which is rich in IP ready to be exported to fabrication facilities around the world in seconds and in production in minutes.

Payments infrastructure can streamline the handling of all funds removing the remaining points of friction including small transactions between people.

Cyber infrastructure is needed to ensure our security online is as pervasive as the police and army is in the real world.

Finally, administrative infrastructure can ensure that government are able to respond to the changing needs of the community as quickly as they can design the policy without fear of major IT changes.

Of course, all of this only works if everyone has the basic digital infrastructure of high speed, pervasive, access to the Internet wherever they are.  More than ever this is nothing more than table stakes.

These investments in our future need to be a partnership between business, government and the population at large.  They can be distributed across regions and leverage a wider range of skills than most people assume.  Apart from programmers and technicians, these projects require customer service, business analysis, training, design and many other readily available skills that can be brought in from other fields of expertise.

These projects will not only create jobs which leverage a wider range of skills, they will encourage more people to develop and extend their skills setting them up for the jobs of the future.

Unfortunately, technology projects are feared by many leaders as being politically risky due to their complexity and frequent cost blowouts.  But nationally important digital infrastructure will disproportionately set Australia up for the future we want to have in the 2030s.  After all, history has shown that the most significant investments of the past in the nation’s interests have come with commensurate risk.

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