Dr Larry Marshall is the CEO of CSIRO. He opened the Data61 Live event held in Melbourne on 28 June 2017. Celebrating Data 61’s first birthday, Marshall says the past can be an amazing teacher.
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CSIRO’s initial focus was about agriculture in a very arid land. CSIRO started by making cotton, wool and mining possible in Australia’s harsh climate.
“It was about dealing with the adversity of where we were,” said Marshall.
Marshall says those challenges drove innovation but today’s world is about using science to see challenges and problems before they hit us and prepare for them. It’s about making challenges into opportunities he said.
Disintermediation, says Marshall, is how data can be used to look into the past and predict the future in order to prepare. For example, Marshall says we had to reinvent cotton as it couldn’t grow here. But having overcome the challenges of climate a century ago, we have continued to innovate so that Australian cotton is now in the top 20% of the world’s cotton. He said, this has resulted in Australian cotton being a major part of the coveted Egyptian cotton.
Similarly, having invented soft contact lenses, Australian scientists kept pushing forward and created lenses that make it possible to better diagnose vision disorders.
In the past, Marshall says we had science roadmaps but we are now mapping those with market roadmaps in order to address the needs of industry. For example, there are energy industry, mining and other roadmaps that bring together research and commerce.
An example of where this can work in mining, where we have been exporters of undiffertiated raw minerals. Marshall says we are moving to using some minerals to create 3D printing inks so we can export high-value, unique products.
The “magic” of how that happens comes from Data61’s ability to use data and collaborate with traditional CSIRO’s scientific background. With CSIRO’s long history, dating back over a century, Data61 has access to a massive trove of data and expertise. It’s an evironment where, Marshall said, scientific research and market needs can coalesce to create products and services that can deliver value able solutions.
“It’s not enough to invent,” said Marshall. There has to be a shift from inventing to delivering value - from science to solutions.
Following Marshall came Chris Kurtarna, the co-author of The Age of Discovery and Oxford scholar speaking about the impact of some technical innovations - “shocks” such as the development of the printing press (with its origins in China in the 10th century and its reinvention in Europe in the 15th century), Amazon in the late 1990s and others.
What those shocks create is a shorter-sighted view, said Kurtana. But he says we are in a time of “rennaissance” - a period of time where significant change is upon us.
He likens today’s world to the era of the printing press and exploration of the 15th century where our knowledge and view of the world changed. Explorers discovered new lands but caused massive disruption.
For example, the value of spices plummeted when Portuguese explorers found a new route to the east, across the sea, that changed the economics of the overland route that was largely controlled by Venice, which was the wealthiest city in the world per capita.
We are in a similar era, said Kurtana. International borders - the maps we depended on for businesses not long ago - are dissolving.
We are in a moment of great disruption and opportunity. We need to realign what we want to happen with what is happening around us. Kurtana says looking at the past, into the 15th century rennaissance, enabled him to predict Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
“There is real wisdom there... for the taking,” he said.
What we need, said Kurtarna, is to bring wisdom from the first rennaissance.
We need to welcome genius. While that sounds obvious, he said history shows we don’t embrace new thinking. Citing the example of Copernicus, whose work was discounted, he pointed out we don’t always embrace thinking that sees the world in new ways.
Like Florence in the rennaissance, where artists gathered to share ideas, we need to find ways to bring people together. And while modern systems make it possible for people all over the world to collaborate, it is important to physically bring people together. This allows people to share “informed intuition” - knowledge of information that isn’t written down - and not just explicit knowledge which is easily captured.
The final piece of advice Kurtarna offered was the need to create new maps that change our thinking. Maps of the world, before the rennaissance, were completely changed by exploration. New technology and information changed how people conceived the world.
So, when the spice economy of Venice collapsed, the city pivoted to banking and other crafts to remain the richest per-capita city in the world. It is possible to adapt but it’s not easy, said Kurtarna.