ASHER MOSES June 12, 2012
The Australian Technology Park, Redfern. Photo: Ben Rushton
A draft 10-year NSW government blueprint for the digital economy "doesn't say much at all and will deliver little benefit to the economy as far as technology is concerned".
That's the view of Freelancer.com chief Matt Barrie, who sat on the taskforce that worked on the NSW Digital Economy Industry Action Plan - due for release for public consultation in the next month or so but obtained by this website.
Hailed by the state government and taskforce as setting "the direction and vision for our state over the coming decade and beyond", Mr Barrie describes it in part as ''fluff", ''window dressing'' and a "white elephant".
The taskforce includes a representative each from IBM, Telstra, Optus, Foxtel, CSIRO, integrated media company Omnilab, electricity network Ausgrid, digital production company The Project Factory and venture capital firm OneVentures.
But in an email sent to taskforce members last week, Mr Barrie says:
"After attending the first meeting and seeing how the committee was poorly defined (read: "digital") and stacked (read: no technology companies), with the exception of Ms Deaker, who runs a technology venture capital firm ... and of course the CSIRO, it became clear that this would be yet another embarrassing initiative to try to build up the tech industry.
"I mean, in the first meeting there was discussion of a 'smart traffic light' project in Parramatta that was being proposed to roll out across the country.
"I mean seriously guys, WTF? What are we talking about here when we say digital? Technology? Or a mish mash of interests from the film, media, telco, services and infrastructure industries? If so, what could it possible achieve for our 'digital future'?"
But Mr Barrie, who heads the three-year-old online outsourcing business that turned over $35 million last year, has poured scorn on some and ridicule on others (read his comments on each at the end).
He proposes an alternative plan.
The problem in Australia, he says, is declining enrolments in engineering and science, and the fact that schools are not placing enough emphasis on IT.
High school students "are exposed to a whole bunch of subjects that frankly haven't changed much in the last 20, 30 or 50 years", he said.
"They are told through well established patterns of behaviour that 'law' and 'medicine' are the pinnacle career paths to aspire towards.
"Students graduate and don't even know what the word 'engineer' means.
"The two subjects in IT that we teach today in a few schools are so ridiculously appalling; you'd think that they were written by The Onion circa 1950."
Mr Barrie lays out a detailed plan for how the IT syllabus can be rewritten for a modest cost, with involvement from the National Computer Science School.
And he suggests new programs instead of those suggested in the report.
Mr Barrie says there is no other industry that can create so much wealth for the country with such low capital expense, and there's no other industry where "a 28 year old can build a $50 billion company in eight years".
"That's a lot of employment in a high skills area, and a lot of corporate tax," he writes.
"However fluffy marketing, building buildings, hand waving and word smithing reports for political correctness isn't really part of it, in my opinion."
In an interview before the leaking of the report, NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner told this website the report's findings would be "taken up by government in a policy sense".
1. International Digital Leadership - Attracting business opportunities to NSW by positioning the state as a "digital global leader" and promoting the state's "digital product and services capabilities".
Strategies include increasing global exports; hosting high-calibre conferences to showcase NSW digital businesses and market Sydney as "Silicon Boomerang"; an online portal for "digital business owners"; target specific hot spots such as mobile and apps; government leadership through early adoption of digital solutions like e-learning and e-health; and appointing a "digital ambassador".
Mr Barrie's take: "Spend money on window dressing."
2. Digital Precinct - Establish a "digital innovation precinct" with a new hub at Carriage Works. Longer term the precinct will include an "open and vibrant digital community space" covering the "entire railway yards from ATP [Australian Technology Park in Redfern] through to Central Station".
Mr Barrie's take: "Build a building in a terrible area of town that has always been earmarked for technology, but always been a white elephant because it's a disused railyard out the back of Redfern."
3. Connected Regional Communities - Stimulate the "digital culture" of regional NSW communities and improve technology literacy.
Mr Barrie's take: "Fluff, but we needed the word 'regional' in the report so we could pass the keyword check."
4. Digital Skills - Support programs like the National Computer Science School (NCSS), FIRST Robotics, CSIRO's Scientists in Schools and STELR (Science and Technology Education Leveraging Relevance); teach teachers digital skills; "modify" the high school technology curriculum; use technology more in the classroom (a whole section is devoted to the $25 Raspberry Pi single-board computer); and establish links with industry.
Mr Barrie's take: "NCSS is a fantastic program and frankly my company funds for some bizarre reason more than the Australian government in total each year."
5. Finance and Investment Channels - Increase funding available to NSW high growth companies. Last year only $120 million of $1.8 trillion available funds in Australia was invested by venture capital firms.
Strategies including creating an "office for government funding" to advise businesses on ways to capitalise on existing federal funding schemes like Commercialisation Australia and the R&D tax incentive; creating a minimum $20 million "future fund for digital investment"; encouraging corporate ICT investment; encouraging superannuation funds to invest in innovation; assessing the implementation of "crowd-funding" (businesses funded by the community i.e. Kickstarter); setting up mentoring programs; reducing red tape; and offering tax and other incentives to organisations prepared to invest in innovation.
Mr Barrie's take: "Instead of proposing we lobby the federal government on tax reform, unpicking what they've done with option plans, passing crowd funding legislation, and basically create a legislative environment to allow start-ups to flourish and attract investors, let's put $20 million into a fund to try to bribe start-ups to use the building we build in Redfern."
6. SME-Corporation-Government Networks - Create collaborative networks that link tech businesses with corporate and public partners for investment, trade and business development.
Mr Barrie's take: "Not sure what to say here but again we need to include "SME" for keyword density in the report."
7. Open Data Innovation - Facilitate access to open government and public sector information, empowering citizens and organisations to use the information to drive innovation. Strategies include educating public bodies on how to make the data they collect useful to others; implementing an "open data initiative; and building a public forum.
Mr Barrie's take: "Could be better worded like Obama has just said: 'Every government department is now required to have an API.'
8. Integrated Port Logistics Systems - Help industry develop an integrated port logistics system to ensure safe and efficient passage of freight from producer to consumer.
Mr Barrie's take: "Not sure what on earth this is doing here ... should be in the infrastructure committee, not this taskforce which is supposed to be working on how we can build up the technology industry in this country. Because representatives from Telstra, Optus, the film industry and Freelancer.com are totally qualified to talk about container terminals. Not."
The 53-page report was circulated to taskforce members last Tuesday and they were given just a day and a half to sign-off. The "final version" was then expected to be handed to the NSW government by the end of last week.
"If no response is received, we'll keep the process moving and will take 'nil' response as your approval to release," wrote Michael Harrington of the NSW Trade and Investment department in an email to taskforce members, seen by this website.
Mr Barrie suggests inviting technology entrepreneurs such as Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of Australian-based global technology powerhouse Atlassian, on to the taskforce ("soon to be, if not already, Australia's next big billion-dollar technology company").
However, he said Mr Cannon-Brookes told him: "Mate, I did that last year, and it was the first, and last government committee I will ever do."
The chairman of the taskforce, IBM research and development director Glenn Wightwick, said in a statement through the NSW Department of Trade & Investment that the taskforce had engaged in a "rigorous process of consultation" for views from across the industry.
He said the final draft report would take into account more than 30 written submissions together with views expressed across seven regional industry consultations.
"The taskforce itself comprises expertise, knowledge and insight from highly regarded individuals from right across the industry, and the final draft report will represent the efforts and views of the entire team," Mr Wightwick said.
Foxtel chief information officer Robyn Elliott, who also sits on the taskforce, said the draft report seen by the Herald, which was labelled version 32, was "by no means final yet".
After the state government has read the report it will go out to another round of public consultations before the plan is finalised.
"Matt's a member of the taskforce like the rest of us so we've all got our comments on it," she said.
But Ms Elliott rejected Barrie's suggestions that companies such as Foxtel were not the right companies to include on a taskforce looking at building the digital economy.
"It's not just about start-ups it's about how all businesses can get access to digital skills," she told the Herald.
Another taskforce member, Jennifer Wilson, director of The Project Factory, said Mr Barrie "does raise an awful lot of really good points" but many would need federal government support.
Responding to Mr Barrie's comments about the digital precinct near Redfern, Ms Wilson said there was a much richer discussion in taskforce meetings about what the digital precinct was than what made it into the draft report.
"The committee is not suggesting that we take those disused rail yards and turn it into start-up central," she said, adding the taskforce recognised there was already significant start-up activity in Ultimo, Surry Hills and Pyrmont.