Brisbane businesses should be well placed to embrace a “New Normal” with a change in the balance between workers regularly in the office and workers working from home, likely to never return to levels prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic. From an IT infrastructure and a Digital Economy perspective, Brisbane has had a tremendous upheaval with many businesses dealing with supply chain issues, suitable internet availability and new technology adoption. Many of these technology issues are being overcome by businesses, but some are problems beyond the private industry’s ability to resolve and require public policy to ensure that Brisbane’s Digital economy thrives.

The two areas this opinion piece will focus on is, first, the availability of internet to every house in Brisbane suitable to allow remote working, its availability and why this is important. Simply put, if you want the Digital Economy to work and grow, everyone must have access to suitable internet. The second area addressed is the need for the establishment of an SME advisory service that allows SMEs to be briefed on available business technology services, minimum standards of service and support. The ITC industry is largely unregulated, and vendor-driven, Brisbane SME’s deserve an impartial and qualified advisory service to maximise their capacity in the digital economy. The basic premise is, if we ensure everyone now has appropriate internet, we now need to lead SME businesses to the most suitable digital tools to grow their businesses and the digital economy as a whole.

In modern Brisbane, it would be inconceivable that a suburb would exist that didn’t have well-constructed roads allowing transport for people to travel and for commerce to operate. Yet we are still a city with more than 7% of houses yet to be connected to the NBN or have services at ASDL speeds or less. Many businesses exist in areas of poor/insufficient internet. A lot of this has to do with federal government policy and the action of the NBN but this does not preclude the City of Brisbane having a fund to address the worst blackspots and ensure that businesses and workers in those areas are not disadvantaged.

Australia’s internet infrastructure has a ranking 54th out of the top 63 nations in communications technology and 38th for internet speeds, according to the World Digital Competitiveness rankings.

The Harvard Business review recently mapped the robustness and ability of the 42 most important economies and their readiness for their work forces to work from home. The study covered the availability of digital payments, internet infrastructure and digital platforms. Australia ranked close to the mean of this group:

Finally, resolving Internet availability problems, thus improving options for working from home as long term options for many employees and businesses, could have significant advantages to businesses, the employees and to the culture of Brisbane being and remaining a highly liveable city.

In building a case for the national broadband network in 2012, Australia’s Gillard government set a target of 12 per cent of the Australian Public Service workforce teleworking regularly. This was up from an estimated 6 per cent of employed Australians having some form of regular teleworking arrangement.

Consultancy Deloitte Access Economics predicted this could save $1.4 billion to $1.9 billion a year – about $1.27 billion of that being the time and cost savings of avoided travel. But with increased commuting times, caring responsibilities and the stress of modern workplaces, the research says most employees highly value being able to work from home. In fact, a 2017 US study found employees valued the option at about 8 per cent of their wages. Research has also highlighted benefits including increased productivity, rated by both the employees and supervisors. One study showed a 13 per cent increase in performance for employees working from home.

Working from home usually means employees have greater autonomy over how they do their work, including the hours and conditions of their work, and how they manage their lives and other responsibilities. These benefits of teleworking have been shown to lead to greater job satisfaction, lower absenteeism and turnover, increased commitment to the organisation and, importantly, reductions in stress associated with work. Work-from-home arrangements may also give organisations access to a greater talent pool.

A Brisbane City Internet fund, could identify the worst areas where business is effected by unsuitable internet infrastructure and co-fund private internet operators and local businesses to put in upgraded fit for purpose services. While solving Brisbane’s internet infrastructure needs, there is a need for an SME IT Advisory Service, to guide Brisbane’s SME businesses in how to effectively engage in the digital economy. The ITC industry in Brisbane is largely unregulated, and vendor-driven, which results in the top end of town being able to pay their way to quality advice, tools and infrastructure, while the Brisbane SME is left largely unguided and unable to obtain impartial and qualified advisory service to maximise their capacity in the digital economy. This impacts the ability of SME’s to compete with larger, better funded (international) competitors.

With Australia’s digital economy now greater than $79 billion dollars, and rapidly growing, this is a market sector that we in Brisbane can rapidly improve by suppling a service that can guide an SME business through the appropriate technologies in its sector, show emerging technologies in their field and supply templates and standards for minimum acceptable deliverables from ICT firms.

This Brisbane SME ICT Advisory service could operate similarly to bodies that have been setup in other industries such as in the legal system where there the Queensland Law Society supplies free advice on how to find appropriate assistance, the right practitioner and the standards the industry expects of its professionals. Such a service would go further show casing technologies for SME businesses that allow them to embrace ecommerce and digital connectedness with their customer.

Lastly, a note on Government buying local, and buying from SME’s and start-ups. Local start-ups and SME businesses need real government help, not grants that are extremely hard to get and often don’t move the needle enough and may or may not require co-funding. The government needs to consume the goods and services from local start-ups and SME’s to enable them to grow naturally as a business. To prove their business model, with the support of the government.

We need to government to buy start-up goods and services and create a path that bypasses the panel for goods and services that are strategic to economic growth and removes our dependence on China.
High Strategic value Goods and Services:

  1. Data processing and storage – Data Centres’, reliable & fast internet connectivity for business and consumers
  2. Coding, network administrative and IT certifications & training (12 week to 24 month courses, that build on each other)
  3. Manufacturing automation to lower costs of goods produced in Australia
  4. Investment in the supply chain logistics & shipping; retrain Australians to be distribution experts both domestically and internationally

Investing by the government into consuming the first (as a customer) and enabling the 2nd to the 4th will create a growing ecosystem that will naturally enable higher education roles (IT, health, manufacturing) and enable Brisbane to be self-sufficient and a geopolitical safe-zone for countries in region and around the world to process and store their data, as well as manufacture and distribute goods.

Brisbane should embrace its digital economy, it is something that we are well placed to world leaders in the future, but we must drive ubiquitous internet and a digital education of businesses deliberately and with concerted focus for us to make this a reality.