For Indigenous Australia, the fourth industrial revolution presents particularly acute challenges and potential opportunities.
James Mabbott, Head of KPMG Innovate, KPMG Australia and
The world is now entering a fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0. The exact nature of this new revolution is difficult to define, because it lies mainly ahead of us.
We can say it will likely be characterised by advancing technology creating a blurring of the physical, virtual, and biological realms. We can also say with confidence it will fundamentally reshape economies in both developed and emerging economies. Such a revolution will obviously create disruption at all levels of Australian society.
For Indigenous Australia, however, the fourth industrial revolution presents particularly acute challenges and potential opportunities.
As labour markets morph rapidly, Australia’s capacity to compete in an increasingly global marketplace will lie in its ability to innovate and instill a culture of innovation. The employment and entrepreneurial opportunities of the future will look very different to those of the past. In many cases they will be unrecognisable.
What we do know is that they are likely to require a high level of education and training, and the capacity to collaborate effectively. Australia’s Indigenous population is at an immediate and obvious disadvantage here. The educational, socio-economic, and often geographic disadvantage of Indigenous Australians today would suggest most may miss out on the opportunities the new digital economy brings.
Accelerator and incubator programs, for example, so critical in facilitating the cross-pollination of ideas, are generally clustered tightly in inner-city metro areas, away from Indigenous populations which tend to be located in outer suburbs and regional areas.
Challenges also loom for Indigenous enterprise at a time when Indigenous business is just starting to enter an encouraging growth period.
We are increasingly seeing non-Indigenous modern enterprise — banks, telcos, retail companies, and the like — investing heavily in the new tools of innovation like human-centred design, investment in research and development, lean startup, agile management and powerful data and analytics. These are the key building blocks of the super-companies of today, such as, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.
Through this innovation they are looking to completely re-engineer the way they create, test and iterate products and services. They also have an intimate knowledge of the customer and an ability to make decisions based on data driven frameworks.
The risk to Indigenous enterprise is that without the skills and capital to similarly evolve their commercial offerings, they will be left behind in the ‘old economy’ while other non-Indigenous businesses leap forward into the new.
Industry 4.0 though could also present great opportunity for the economic development of Indigenous Australia.
Indigenous Australians are, on average, much younger than other Australians. As previously noted, today 60 percent are aged under 35 years. Children, teenagers and young adults are ready to seize on new competencies that power the startup economy. They are also likely to be avid users of new digital services and with that have a familiarity that older Australians do not have.
An understanding of the kinds of skills necessary in the new economy is still being developed. There is opportunity for young Indigenous Australians to begin their education from a relatively level starting point, and seize opportunities as they arise in the new economy, without starting behind the eight ball.
Currently, there is a push toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills and additional new economy skills, like coding and entrepreneurial business fundamentals, to be taught in schools and universities. If extra effort is made to bring Indigenous Australia into this frame, it will have an equalising effect on opportunity.
We know from research that the overwhelming majority of Indigenous Australians, even in very remote areas, are already engaged with new consumer technology — there is a very high rate of smartphone usage, for example.
With access to an internet connection and new technology there is a brand new potential for Indigenous Australians in regional and remote areas to access global audiences with almost three billion people online.
Areas of the economy in which Indigenous Australians are already active carry significant potential as providing a basis for existing startup entrepreneurial activity.
Startup entrepreneurial opportunities look likely to abound in areas that Indigenous Australians are already economically active in: think agri-tech, mining-tech, and clean-tech.
In order to play fairly and equally in the future of enterprise Indigenous Australia needs to have the same skills, capabilities, and access to capital as other Australian entrepreneurs.
Without this, Indigenous Australians will not be able to access the commercial opportunities presented by new technologies, business models, and a digitally connected world.
Education efforts should focus on STEM skills and entrepreneurship, agile development, lean startup, and human centred design. Educational opportunities also lie in commercialisation and IP management.
Much of this training is at the school level, but valuable opportunities also lie in post-school training. Initiatives to attract global talent to work with Indigenous entrepreneurs and innovators would be valuable to facilitate knowledge sharing and exposure to the latest skills and techniques.
We also need to ensure there are paths for Indigenous entrepreneurs to access incubator and accelerator environments to give them the opportunity to build, develop, and grow digital and tech based enterprises.
While taking incubator environments to remote and regional areas is important, we should also be conscious of the lower hanging fruit: shifting opportunities to urban Indigenous locations on fringes of major cities, for example.
Education is just one half of the equation – access to capital is the other. Impact investing, social bonds, and other means of developing funding sources to support Indigenous enterprises can be utilised in this context.
However, such funding only makes sense where there are opportunities to invest. We therefore need a platform to expose Indigenous entrepreneurs to venture capital, angel investors, and other forms of funding.
The next generation of Indigenous Australians in regional and rural Australia could be leveraging the economic opportunities of the ‘Indigenous Estate’ into exciting new startup projects.
Potential opportunity abounds. For example, the rapidly rising middle class in Asia will generate high demand for high quality produce, creating an opportunity for Indigenous Enterprise to meet this need through innovative use of land and agri-tech. However, there is also no reason we could not see Indigenous robotics or Indigenous AI ventures.
To achieve any of this means striving to provide this young Indigenous generation with equal access to tech education, training, and learning opportunities. This may lead to completely unique Indigenous ventures, or simply a reasonable proportion of Indigenous entrepreneurs working at the cutting edge of new enterprise.
What is certain is that if we do not build the right skills and investment environment, we will see a rapidly accelerating widening of the already unacceptable economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.