A king tide of data, workplace change and how to leverage technology for future prosperity were the themes of GE’s Decoding Industry event held at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art this week. Ten thought-provoking speakers engaged with 200 leaders from aviation, healthcare, resources, energy, and tech, to negotiate the gap between right now and accelerated innovation.
“We need to become an exporter of technology; this has to be our national agenda,” said Geoff Culbert, GE’s president and chief executive in the Australian region. The possibilities to transform major industries where Australia has “depth, capability and global scale” have barely been touched, he added.
There were no candles, no nostalgic celebration, but with GE global chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt co-hosting, Decoding Industry was the perfect opportunity to mark the 125th anniversary of General Electric as a company, and its 121 years in Australia.
“We made a thousand mistakes as we’ve gone through this,” said Immelt, who described the company’s dedication to continuous evolution of Asset Performance Management, Brilliant Manufacturing and the digital thread that enables GE’s workforces. These are no longer theories but applications built by thousands of GE’s newly integrated software engineers and designers on Predix the company’s fast-growing open analytical platform which has become “a convenor for industry”.
Inviting Qantas CEO Alan Joyce to the stage, Immelt held up “the work we do with Qantas,” as “some of the most innovative high-tech work we do anywhere in the world.” (Joyce quipped that it was little wonder GE had taken four years to get from its incorporation in the US to working in Australia, since Qantas didn’t exist in 1892.)
With the majority of Qantas aircraft now powered by GE engines, 100 aircraft on order and another 100 optioned, Joyce said the 33-year-old relationship between GE and Qantas “has traditionally been tight on engines, but it’s becoming more and more tight on data and digitisation, and using the information”.
The audience fastened its seat belts in anticipation of the airline’s new direct flights to Europe in 2021-22, made possible by the technology of ultra-long-range aircraft such as Boeing’s 777-8X, powered by GE’s most efficient engine ever, the GE9X. Qantas’s continual reinvestment in technology is made possible in part by pursuit of efficiencies through specific data analysis, smarter scheduling, lighter, more durable aircraft materials … “A 1% improvement of fuel efficiency on the Qantas network will generate over $30 million a year to our bottom line,” said Joyce.
Champions of a new connectivity
In case you think Decoding Industry was a joining of hands across the corporations, engineer Marita Cheng, founder of Robogals, and Aubot caused a ripple in the tarmac when she described the disruptive potential of an Aubot robot called Teleport, which she says reduces people’s need to travel. Instead, it allows business people to visit operations in other locations as a telepresence that can move through a remote site, meet with staff and customers, observe procedures and even chat in the kitchen with colleagues thousands of kilometres away.
A community impact of Teleport is that it helps weave a more cohesive social fabric, said Cheng, because it allows disabled people, sick children, and elderly populations to engage in wide-ranging activities and dialogue, wherever they may physically be.
“Companies are starting to organise as networks, more like the Navy Seals: provide the context; enable distributed decision making; and you have the ability to move faster.” — Adrian Turner, Data 61
Workplace cultures also emerged as opportunities for new human connectivity and creativity. Atlassian’s head of R&D and work futurist, Dom Price, turned traditional HR terminology and management on its head. He described the exponentially growing software company’s structure of 2,000 employees working in 300 global teams of six to eight people, as united by values before culture.
One key outcome of hiring for values such as empathy, openness and taking responsibility for change, says Price, is that “when you hire for values, you get diversity”. Values, he explained, transcend race and gender and ultimately bring together teams of people who trust one another to move quickly and argue productively for outcomes outside the square.
Future skills must be drawn from all of society
Where will we be if we fail to encourage and develop more than half the talent in the pool? Potentially without breakthroughs such as radio astronomy, which physicist Ruby Payne-Scott developed in the years after World War II and which underpinned the development of Wi-Fi.
Dr Cathy Foley, physicist and science director of Manufacturing at CSIRO, reminded Decoding Industry attendees it wasn’t so long ago that Payne-Scott had had to lie about her married status in order to continue her work. Foley says that in the physical STEM sciences—engineering, robotics and programming—female participation remains below 20%, if not mired in single-digit figures.
“Education, education, education. That is the long-term lever that is going to help Australia become a more innovative and productive country.” — Paul Bassat, Square Peg Capital
Foley said that mentoring and sponsorship—men and women recommending talented women for promotion—are important strategies. But, she said, “The real changes come when men step up and say, ‘For us to be successful as a company, for us to be successful as a society, we need to have diversity.’”
Data61 CEO Adrian Turner described how his digital and data innovation hub has scaled up open and generous collaboration to include: 680 PhDs focused on data science, an alliance of 23 universities, 90 corporate partners, every Australian government, state and Federal, and the domain expertise (mining, agriculture, healthcare) of the CSIRO. He said this “applied-research network model” is right now working to create new Australian industries “underpinned by deep science and technology”.
Enthusiastic applause accompanied Australian of the Year, Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, to the stage. Mackay-Sim’s breakthrough research into the ever-regenerating sensory cells inside the human nose has led to clinical trials of treatments that will change the lives of people with spinal-cord injuries, and perhaps also those with diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease, schizophrenia and hereditary spastic paraplegia.
In Poland, application of the adult olfactory neural stem cells identified by Mackay-Sim, has already enabled a paraplegic Polish firefighter to walk again by helping his spinal cord to regenerate and bridge the gaps left by a knife-wielding attacker.
The difficulty of translating scientific research into medical application, said Mackay-Sim at Decoding Industry, lies in attracting funding for essential clinical trials of therapies that are unlikely to return a profit to drug companies. These are therapies for chronic diseases and conditions that cause ongoing distress to patients and their families, and cost the public purse vast sums each year for medical care and support.
“Australia pays $2 billion every year for care and costs of people with spinal-cord injuries.” — Alan Mackay-Sim, Australian of the Year
Mackay-Sim’s plea at Decoding Industry was for new business models for medical R&D that place a value on the future cost of health. “This is my innovation statement,” he said: “We need to develop business models that make it sensible to invest in medical research that will improve future profit, but are not based around a patent.” Treatments are out there, he said, which are not attracting further funding. “We just need to get scientists, government, maybe CSIRO and business together in new public-private partnerships, to translate these medical breakthroughs into clinical practice.”
“Always do the easy things first!” said Immelt, speaking from experience. The low-hanging-fruit adage seemed perfectly suited to Mackay-Sim’s call for Australia to find a way to fast-track cost- and pain-saving medical research that has already begun.
The final words for the day came from Immelt. On Decoding Industry: “This is real! If I were an industrial company, I’d make sure my CIO was good—shore up my digital resources.” On innovation: “I think Australia is a place where you can try things. Smart people, constrained market, this ought to be a place where there’s lots of experimentation!” And the ultimate encouragement: “Your energy problems are solvable, I give you my personal guarantee. It’s a little bit of politics, a little bit of science, but let’s go to work.”