Australia is poised to become an IoT "hotbed" if it can increase industry collaboration and win innovation support from government, according to an expert panel.
The experts believed Australia was uniquely placed to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the Internet of Things, but had a long way to go to become competitive on a global scale.
Ros Harvey, founder and managing director of Tasmanian agtech start-up The Yield and co-founder of the Knowledge Economy Institute (KEi), believes commercial-grade IoT solutions in Australia are still few and far between.
She believed many players were still prototyping systems, which did not always lend themselves to business-grade deployment.
She also said that many companies were quick to say, “we’re doing IoT', without understanding what it is, such as mis-classifying device-driven data logging as IoT.
“For me, [the] Internet of Things means you’ve got compute at the edge, you’ve got IPv6 pushing out to the sensor; you’re really instrumenting so you can view smart analytics and leverage data,” she said.
Mike Briers, CEO of the KEi and IoT professor at the University of Technology Sydney, believed Australia was missing a “deep understanding of the whole of IoT as a system, as a technology stack.”
"We’re still yet to see good examples of fully integrated services that reliably provide decision support information to end users," Briers said.
The role of government and multi-national corporations
Briers believed IoT advocates needed to explain to government the importance of IoT to the economy.
“There’s a need for unparalleled collaboration and that’s a strong role for government to fill that space, to motivate new standards, and so on,” he said.
All of the panellists lauded the government’s efforts in encouraging local innovation through the release of the National Innovation and Science Agenda.
Sam Costello – who is spearheading a smart campus initiative at UNSW – added that while IoT could conceivably stand on its own within the Agenda, “we have to acknowledge that it is threaded throughout all of the initiatives in the agenda".
If the government did not step in, parts of the private sector were interested where solutions appeared to be technically viable.
Cisco's A/NZ CTO Kevin Bloch said multinational corporations could afford smaller IoT companies and start-ups global distribution opportunities that government funding can fail to generate.
“The government has probably done enough [to encourage innovation]," Bloch said.
"The ball is in our court now.
"It’s up to industry, academia, research, and more businesses to make it happen, and to make it happen quickly.”
Bloch believed that for every dollar spent on IoT research and development, $10 should be spent on product creation, and a further $100 on taking the product to market.
Australia should “play to its strengths”
The panellists agreed certain industries in Australia could become hotbeds for exportable IoT products and services, primarily due to existing world-leading positions in those spaces.
Mining, agriculture and food, and freight and logistics industries were raised as existing strengths.
However, Harvey highlighted the R&D sector as also being an area of opportunity.
“One of the things that [the KEi] has been working really hard on is how we can use IoT to increase the effectiveness of our R&D spend, where we know we’re at the top of the league table in terms of expenditure, but at the bottom when it comes to [industry] impact,” she said.
“There’s a lot of opportunity, and it's one of the things we’re looking at in the KEi, and that is how you can change the relationships between industry and researchers to get faster impact [to industry], and also more efficient research.”
Costello said that smart cities and smart campuses should also be “high on the agenda”. She likened smart campuses to smaller versions of smart cities.
“A lot of the conversation that happens [around smart cities] is that yes, we can do the waste and transport, and those are easy wins, but where is the big value statement for connecting up a smart city? There are environmental impacts and things like that which should also be addressed," she said.
Addressing the IoT skills shortage
The Internet of Things has brought about an increase in the importance of certain skills and proficiencies, and the panellists shared their views on what skills are required and how Australia can encourage the organic development of these skill sets.
“At the university level, what’s become apparent is that it’s the data visualisation and the data analysis skills that are really lacking,” Costello said.
“Researchers are excellent at examining a particular problem and generating masses of data, but don’t necessarily have the skills to deal with that data in a way that gives them value.
“Critical thinking and creatively, however, is unquestionably the most important thing, so any technology becomes part of the way that we just ‘do things’, but it’s the ability to think creatively and to do something meaningful with it that’s most important.”
Briers sees the scope of the Internet of Things cutting across multiple disciplines, from hardware, networking, software, user experience and others, as justification for multi-skilled talent.
“I see the need for more ‘generalists’. We’ve got some specialists, but I’m seeing in the university sector [for example] just how hard it is to get somebody from one specialisation to talk to another person in the same language,” he said.
“The people that are thriving are the ones that are cutting across those groups very quickly, and as a parent, it shouldn’t start at universities either – this is a K-12 problem, and how we teach our kids and help them learn in a rapidly-changing content and knowledge environment is important.”
Bloch sought a more robust science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.
“If you want to do medicine, neurology, psychology, or any career in the future, you’re going to need to understand technology and you’re going to need to understand how best to use data,” he said.
“If you don’t have a basic understanding of STEM, I think your career is going to suffer. 75 percent of existing jobs will disappear in 20 years, and most of the new ones are going to be littered with STEM-based capability.”
Harvey agreed that technology skills are important, and added that communication and collaboration skills are also key.
“To do IoT in particular, you’re looking at end-to-end [solutions], so you’re looking at sensors, platforms, data analytics, user interfaces, integrating that with domain expertise and interacting with users,” she noted.
“[IoT] is actually an incredibly complex thing to make work in the real world, and when you bring different teams of people together [with different skill sets], communication becomes really important.”