The recent National Science and Innovation Agenda begins “Innovation is at the heart of a strong economy…”, a sentiment that as Chair of the AIIA Innovation Special Interest Group I agree with. We certainly need to move beyond the “2 gear economy” of mining and agriculture to become a world player, if not leader, in the (digital) services economy.
is disrupting has the potential to transform everything we do. As we move from the printed document being the arbiter of knowledge – every transaction, every process, every learning, every legislation, every agreement is codified in a printed document – to a world where we can have instant access to planetary knowledge, we transform the way we do everything.
Which brings the doomsayers decrying the machines (or rather automation) taking our jobs. The problem isn't that technology is disrupting our economy too rapidly, it is that it isn't.
With regard to automation taking jobs, this does happen at an individual level. It just doesn't happen at a national, or even global level. For years technology has been displacing workers. From the automatic washing machines and dishwashers in the 70's removing servant's to the middle classes, to manufacturing robots replacing automotive factory workers. Yet every economic report from that era show's unemployment figures going down or remaining flat, productivity and wages going up. Automation doesn't reduce labour demand, it shifts it to a different area of skill. And it allows an industry to scale earnings and productivity.
If we look at higher skill professions: Medicine, Law, Education and to a lesser extent Accounting, we see far less evidence of (information) technology disruption.
Quite the opposite, anyone who's been to a hospital recently has to agree that IT systems are impoverished. Here's an area rife with paperwork, where we can't even digitise basic health records. Different departments don't share information leading to massive duplication, prone to human error, delays in patient flow, and an inability to use analytics to ask the most basic questions (e.g. How many people in our area need a pre-emptive mammogram?)
The legal profession is equally behind. Drawing up a simple contract of sale for a house, collating information which in any other industry would take seconds and a couple of queries, takes a minimum of 5 days. Drawing up contracts, researching litigation precedents, even basic court scheduling harks back to the Victorian era. At a recent jury duty I served, the court didn't have the technology to display video footage collected by the police.
These areas are all as ripe for disruption as the monopolies of the taxi industry were. But it begs a couple of questions:
- Why during the biggest period of IT progress, have these industries languished?
- What does it mean for the economy to digitise and automate these areas?
- What should we do at a country, and individual level, to thrive through this change?
Further down in the National Science and Innovation Agenda, in the “Best and Brightest” section we read: “By developing a passion for science and innovation in our young people we’ll give them the skills needed to gain the high-wage, high-productivity jobs of the future.” And here's where I disagree.
Only with the topics and the adjectives. It's not (just) science and innovation. We don't just need more scientists, and tech innovators. We also need nurses, teachers, social workers, lawyers who can all creatively use technology to scale productivity. In the same way as over the last 400 years we've not needed any more authors we have needed individuals in every profession to be able to read and write.
And this is not for “high-wage, high-productivity” jobs. This is for jobs. Period. This is to ensure that Australia's economy doesn't slip from a producer to an irrelevant consumer. This is to drive our healthcare to the highest global standard. To allow nurses move from an 80% administrative workload, to a 100% care workload, with machines doing the repetitive tasks they do so well. But even more than productivity, to move from a healthcare system that aims to
treat manage sickness, to one that promotes health.
It's a big ask.
Which brings me to Education.
There's a wide acknoweldgement that we need to up the ante on STEM. (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). And we do. STEM subjects are the “ticket to the dance.”
A brief aside, I personally don't adhere to the current rhetoric on STEAM, the 'A' stands for Arts, or the US centric STREAM, the 'R' stands for Religion. STEAM and STREAM are everything aren't they? Which essentially dilutes the focus and we'll be in the same position we're in right now. Arts (& Religion) are important subjects, but we already have a bias towards these. What we need to do, as a matter of urgency, is turn the dial up on STEM.
And herein lies a couple of intractable challenges:
1. Legacy Beliefs at Home
The last of my four daughters has recently graduated high school. For all four of them they still have peers who's parents assertively drove them into “high paying” careers like Law, Medicine, and Accounting. Parents, despite all evidence to the contrary in their own lives, still adhere to the “good grades -> university -> good job -> earn lots of money” culture.
So from kindergarten, you have parents reinforcing legacy beliefs with school selection, homework, subject selection, extra mural activities, teacher preference and expectations on results. All driving schools to reinforce current positions, and students to reinforce outdated choices.
Counter-intuitively this is exacerbated by parents who've faced redundancies due to technology, either directly through automation, or indirectly through offshoring.
We need to drive education for parents.
2. Legacy Beliefs in Teaching
Whilst there are islands of incredible progress, e.g. Hilltop Rd Public School, which has the most advanced technology strategy I've seen in a Primary School, the vast majority of current teachers don't have the capabilities to teach STEM. Neither do they have the capabilities to use technology for pedagogy, thereby leading by example.
And to be fair (my wife is a teacher), whilst it is true that many teachers aren't invested in adopting new technologies, all of them have to adhere to a legacy curriculum. There is simply no compelling reason for teachers to want to invest in change, neither are there enough resources for those that do.
This isn't unique to public schools either, many private schools show a lip service to technology, they 'use' laptops, but still haven't changed their method of pedagogy delivery, or done even the basic investigation into the changing skills in the industry to develop curriculum. This is hardly surprising, given their customers, the parents tend to work in industries less impacted (yet) by technology.
We need to provide resources, prepare curricula, and aggressively drive education through schools, beginning with principals.
3. Lack of Strategy
As the husband of a teacher for the last 21 years, and by association, friend of many teachers, I know intently their passion to transform lives. To prepare young people to thrive in the world. What's changed is not the 'why,' it's the 'what' and the 'how.' What world we need to prepare our young people for, and how we prepare them. And this to a large part is determined by the education the teachers themselves get, that itself should be driven by our national strategy.
When we look at Teacher training, we don't prepare teachers for the current world, let alone the future. There are no courses on using technology for pedagogy, none on introduction of STEM subjects at current university courses.
Even when we look at how we determine the skills mix in the workplace, our strategy in Australia is determined by 15 year olds. We ask 15 year olds to select the subjects they want to study in year 11 and 12, which in turn determine their options for tertiary education, and ultimately define the capabilities for talent source in the marketplace.
So I do laud the National Science and Innovation Agenda for the start of the conversation. But this needs to be translated into an effective teacher training strategy. A strategy that addresses current and future teachers, students, and parents.
Not just STEM
As I mentioned STEM is the (BIG) “ticket to the dance.” But it's not just STEM skills we need in this future world. We don't only need scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. Nor only people in every industry that are as literate with digital technologies as reading and writing.
Individuals also need:
- Critical thinking
- Design thinking
- Information search, synthesise, and application skills
- Ability to deal with cognitive overload
- Interpersonal collaboration skills – both face-to-face and using technology
And so much more.
But we need to start with STEM.