Skills for the future we can't predict - Speech



 Thank you to Suzanne Campbell from the Australian Information Industry Association for inviting me to be with you tonight, and to iAwards team for putting together such a great event. I’ve just come from a day up on the Hill with my parliamentary friends and foes, trying to find solutions to the very concrete and prosaic challenges that are right in front of us. Because of that, it’s very exciting and energising to be amongst a group of people who have their eyes lifted instead to the digital and technological horizon.

Predicting what lies ahead in that future is a notoriously risky business. William Preece from the British Post Office proved that back in 1876 when he confidently asserted: ‘the Americans have need of the telephone, but in England we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” I might try telling my sons that when they get to the age where they start asking for iPhones. 

Then there’s 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s prediction back in 1946 that: ‘television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.’ He was right about the plywood bit. But I think he might have slightly underestimated the addictive appeal of having epic drama, complex storytelling and fascinating characters beamed straight into your living room – like the other night on Masterchef when Georgia set fire to the stove with her vinegar and oil emulsion and…never mind.

One of the technology predictions I’m most fond of is Robert Metcalfe’s 1995 comment that: ‘I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.’ It just so happens that 1995 was also the year that Microsoft launched its Internet Explorer browser and made its first sales. I’m pretty glad the people behind those products trusted their own instincts rather than Robert Metcalfe’s.

Despite the mounting evidence that predicting the future is a mug’s game, plenty of people keep at it. As recently as 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told as major US newspaper that: ‘there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.’ He’s sort of right, I suppose. After all, Apple has sold 700 million iPhones, so it’s only one-tenth of the entire world’s population that has one. Hardly what you’d call outright global dominance.  

I really shouldn’t be too hard on all these historical clairvoyants. After all, I’m an economist by background and my field knows a thing or two about faulty predictions. As John Kenneth Galbraith said: “the only real function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

My point is that predicting the future with accuracy is hard. Sifting through all the signs, signals, trends and data thrown up by events today in order to understand what tomorrow will bring is a fraught business. Sometimes we get it right; other times we become comedy fodder like the misguided prophets I’ve just quoted.

When I think ahead to the Australia my kids will inhabit in 30 or 50 years’ time, I can’t see with clarity the fine details of what technology they’ll be using, how the internet will be embedded in their lives, or what they’ll do for a living. But at this distance there are certainly some broad outlines that are starting to take shape. It’s important we ensure our schools, universities, industries and commercial infrastructure are geared to help young Australians thrive in that future.

For instance, it seems pretty clear that being able to work collaboratively and creatively with machines is a skill that will stand young people in good stead in the workforce of the future. As Bill Shorten said in his recent Budget Reply speech: ‘coding is the literacy of the 21st century’. That means digital technologies, computer science and coding should be taught in every primary and secondary school in Australia.

I was really thrilled to see that a number of the nominees for tonight’s awards came from Canberra Grammar School in partnership with Digital Careers. The Reduce Your Emissions website is a great tool for mobilising young people to take action for a cleaner environment. The Image Our World and Geburtstag apps show how creative schoolkids can be in coming up with new services that respond to specific needs and interests. The students behind these apps haven’t just created fun services Australians can benefit from; they’ve also gained valuable hands-on experience in the process.       

Practical experience building apps and web-based platforms is exactly the kind of training all Australian students should have access to – whether they’re at a great non-government school like Canberra Grammar or your nearest local public school. Their counterparts in countries like the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Singapore and Finland already do. That’s why my party will make sure coding is taught in every school around Australia as a core part of the normal school day.

Coding is just the start of skilling young people for the jobs of the future. There’s going to be plenty of call for workers who are good at thinking analytically and critically; who can solve complicated problems and come up with innovative new solutions. Coding plants the seeds for those skills, while study in fields like science, technology, engineering and maths will help them bloom and grow.

Doing a science degree doesn’t mean that every student will put on a white coat and go work in a lab – any more than studying law means going on to be a criminal barrister. Studying maths doesn’t mean you’re consigned to a life teaching it; not every engineering student will graduate into a job filled with set squares and blueprints. It’s the ways of thinking taught in these disciplines that really matter.

This will give young Australians the flexible, adaptable skills to make the most of a future which is also fluid and changeable. That’s why a future Labor Government will also fund 100,000 tertiary scholarships for students who choose to study science, technology, engineering and maths degrees.

A big part of Labor’s focus on STEM and coding comes from a desire to build up a highly-skilled and capable workforce to ensure our national economy thrives in the future. But it’s also about guarding against skills-based inequality; a society divided between the skilled and skilled-nots.

We know that technological change tends to favour highly skilled workers who have the resources and capacity to adapt, and hits those with limited skills and training the hardest. We don’t want to see an Australia where a few pull away from the many in work – any more than we want to see that happen in wealth. Ensuring all Australians have access to high quality computer science and STEM education is an important bulwark against future inequality. You can expect my party to make this one of our top priorities when we are fortunate enough to next be back in government.

Since Robert Metcalfe didn’t think the internet would last past 1996, he certainly couldn’t have dreamed up the NICUCAM Project at Canberra Hospital, which does so much to give peace of mind to families with frail babies in intensive care. He wouldn’t have imagined workers would be using an app like SignOnSite to stay safe at work. And frankly the whole idea of Bitcoin and BitMoby’s dedicated top-up service would probably have blown his mind. I’d like to congratulate every one of tonight’s iAward nominees for having the vision and creativity to imagine something others couldn’t.

Like many of the people in this room, I’m an avid Twitter user; why not follow me @ALeighMP to find out just how avid? *plug plug*. One of the things I really like about the platform is the way users condense really big ideas into very short and pithy statements. Yet again though, not everyone saw this potential when Twitter first launched. Writing in the New York Times in 2007, sci-fi author Bruce Sterling claimed that: ‘using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite The Iliad.’  

I think Twitter’s 302 million active users have pretty comprehensively proven Mr Sterling wrong. But just to underscore the point, I thought I’d sum up the key points of tonight’s speech in under 140 characters. I hope you all feel this counts as ‘literate communication’. Here goes: We don’t know the future; do know Aussie kids with the right skills can build any future they can imagine. Let’s make sure they get them.



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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.