Opinion article

Reassessing the Australian National Outlook post COVID-19

The CSIRO Australian National Outlook 2019 (ANO) mapped Australia’s prosperity to 2060, proving a compelling vision of Australia’s future. A year on, COVID-19 demonstrates that no country can escape the consequences of a viral pandemic. The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for years and cut across all prisms of life as we know it. What does Australia’s National Outlook look like now? What are the priority areas for businesses to focus on? What is the role of innovation in leading us towards our 2060 vision?

Just over a year ago, CSIRO released the Australian National Outlook 2019 (ANO), which outlined a vision for Australia in 2060 with prosperous and globally competitive industries, inclusive and enabling communities, and sustainable natural endowments. The ANO combined input from over 50 senior business leaders with CSIRO’s research and modelling to identify five major, generational shifts Australia will need to undergo to achieve this vision. It also outlined six challenges we’ll need to overcome to get there, including technology disruption, climate change and the rise of Asia.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating bushfires of the past summer have put many of these challenges into greater focus. As such, now is a good time to revisit some of the key findings of the ANO and look at how Australian businesses can put them into action.

For example, the ANO showed the importance of investing in science and technology to create economic growth by boosting productivity in established industries and creating new industries based on emerging technologies. In the Outlook Vision scenario, GDP per capita is around 35 per cent higher in 2060 than the base case Slow Decline scenario, with around three-quarters of the difference attributable to technology investments.

In the past three months, we’ve seen first-hand how science, technology and innovation can help address urgent challenges. In response to COVID-19, we’ve seen leaps forward in our national adoption of innovative digital services like telehealth, the mass movement to digitise our workforce, and the rise of agile manufacturing to scale up vaccines and the production of critical products like face masks.

Now we have an opportunity to build on that momentum by accelerating our investment in science and technology to boost our economic recovery and build long-term resilience and sustainable growth. The ANO identified nine industries where emerging technologies could create significant opportunities for Australia, including Advanced manufacturing, healthcare, food and agriculture, energy and mining.

The ANO also highlighted the risk that a changing climate would contribute to more extreme weather events, including extended periods of drought and longer bushfire seasons. As we saw earlier this year, this can have a significant impact on our communities as well as our industries.

Although we are past the point of eliminating this risk, we can minimise its impact by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to keep the global average temperature increase below two degrees Celsius. In April, at the peak of global restrictions on mobility to slow the spread of COVID-19, CO2 emissions fell by 17 per cent. But this reduction appears to be short-lived with emissions now rising again as restrictions are lifted.

We now have an opportunity to rebuild our economy through a green recovery. Modelling in the ANO showed that Australia can achieve net zero emissions by 2050, while still experiencing strong economic growth. There are three main levers we can pull to achieve this: increasing our energy productivity, decarbonising electricity generation, and investing in opportunities for low-emissions energy export. Advances in science and technology will underpin each of these levers.

For example, over the last four years, CSIRO has been working with industry to support the development of hydrogen for energy storage and export. Hydrogen (or other energy carriers like ammonia) could be a lucrative new export opportunity for Australia that utilises our vast renewable energy resources (sun and wind). This will be particularly important considering that demand for thermal coal could decline by as much as 70 per cent by 2060 if the world takes serious action to mitigate the impact of climate change.

The last six months has demonstrated that the challenges we face are not just abstract ideas; they have tangible impacts on our prosperity and wellbeing. This is our wake-up call to take the bold action needed to secure a prosperous future for Australia. What do business leaders need to do to address these challenges and capitalise on new opportunities?

1. Invest in science and technology to gain a competitive advantage in the COVID-19 recovery

The current pandemic and preceding bushfires showcase the important role of science and technology to solve our greatest challenges. Technology also plays an important role in creating competitive advantage in existing industries by boosting productivity and enabling new products and services. Furthermore, evidence suggests that large firms that invest more in R&D and prioritise intangibles perform better than firms that prioritise dividends.


2. Invest in workforce skills and capability development

These same technologies that are reshaping existing industries and creating new ones are also changing the skills that will be needed in the workforce of tomorrow. Businesses can invest more in the skills and capabilities of their workforce to ensure they are globally competitive, prepared for the technology-enabled jobs of the future, and adaptable to future shocks and disruptions.

3. Collaborate for greater impact 

COVID-19 has highlighted how collaboration between businesses and with government can lead to rapid innovation, particularly for challenges and opportunities that are too large for any one organisation to tackle alone. Government, research and industry need to continue to work together to leverage their strengths for greater economic, environmental and social well-being.

As Australia’s innovation catalyst, CSIRO works with both large businesses and SMEs to help them identify science and technology-based opportunities and translate them into value for customers and shareholders. These opportunities will be critical to Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19, and to our long-term prosperity.
About the authors

James Deverell

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James Deverell is the Director of CSIRO Futures, the strategic advisory arm of Australia’s national science agency. He leads a team that builds on CSIRO’s deep research expertise to help clients create sustainable growth and competitive advantage by harnessing technology and innovation. He works with senior decision makers in some of Australia’s largest companies and government to develop evidence-based strategies to address significant opportunities and challenges. In this role, he also leads a number of national-scale initiatives, including the Australian National Outlook 2019, a multi-year project that combines input from more than 50 senior Australian leaders with CSIRO’s integrated modelling to identify the key drivers that will underpin Australia’s future.