Australia’s National Science Agency – Focused on the Future
I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about the future of our society and planet – how we can solve problems of today and prevent those of tomorrow. Quite often I draw up battle plans on scrap paper in preparation for those policy battles we don’t even know exist yet, those looming around the corner. Thinking I knew the CSIRO website in and out, you can imagine my delight when I stumbled upon CSIRO Futures. This forward thinking, strategic planning group is dedicated to helping government and industry make the tough, and smart, choices that will be critical given our uncertain future.
Wanting to learn more about this group’s work and impact, I reached out to Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, the Theme Leader for CSIRO Futures. This is our digital conversation about science, education, energy, and what Australia must do to secure its future.
Can you provide some historical background on CSIRO Futures? What was the impetus for the creation of this unit? How and when did it come about?
The birth of CSIRO Futures was somewhat serendipitous. In 2009 we started a small internal think-piece to inform CSIRO strategic planning. It wasn’t ever intended for the outside world. However, at a major Industry and Government conference in Melbourne a video link to Boston Consulting Group (BCG) broke down. That was our lucky break. Someone from BCG was going to deliver a talk on “megatrends”. When the video link broke I was asked to step in and cover the session with our own homegrown megatrends. The audience loved the fact this work was also being done down-under and we subsequently received heaps of offers to present the work in boardrooms and at conference keynotes. We later received requests to do foresight research/consulting projects for industry sectors. So that’s when we set up CSIRO Futures. It’s now running pretty well. We’ve delivered a bunch of projects and more are in the pipeline. Our aim is to inform, engage and from time-to-time entertain.
Can you describe your role as theme leader at CSIRO and the impact this role has had (or will have) on the future of science?
This is an interesting role in CSIRO. In fact – I love it. I was appointed in July 2012 and it’s been fascinating and productive. This role is having impact in many ways. One way is that it’s making science accessible to people in industry, government and the community. For many people CSIRO means evidence-based, robust and well-researched information. When the CSIRO logo is mixed with imaginative stories about the future of the world there’s much interest. The aim is to mix science fact with science fiction to inform people’s decision making.
The report “Our Future World: Global megatrends that will change the way we live” identifies the 6 megatrends as priorities for CSIRO’s work and securing Australia’s future. Could you summarize how the 6 megatrends are interrelated and tie them to how they will influence science and technology in the coming years?
The six megatrends represent important shifts in the social, economic, environmental, technological and political landscape within which Australian industry and society must operate. They are presented as a Venn diagram to highlight the inter-linkages. Each megatrend is connected to every other one. The areas of overlap represent opportunities. The idea is that if your organisation still functions under all possible future megatrends you’re in a safe space.
Can you identify other areas that your team is working on in 2013? What are the top 3 areas you think Australia most focus on in the next 7 years to secure its future?
My three would be tourism, food and education. The first might be a surprise. But I think that Tourism might be an increasingly important pillar of the Australian economy. The reason is that some 1.02 billion persons in Asia will cross the income threshold from being poor to wealthy in the coming two decades. As they move up through Maslow’s hierarchy they’re going to want different stuff. They’ll want experiences more than just the basic necessities of life. This will include holidays. And Australia might be well positioned to supply these holidays.
Food is the next one. The world faces a major food security dilemma. We need to increase agricultural output by 75 percent by the year 2050 if we’re going to have enough food. But each year we lose some 12 million hectares of productive agricultural land, which if kept in production, would have made 20 million tonnes of food. Energy prices are also on the rise and they transmit into higher food prices. Population growth, income growth and declining agricultural resources (land, water & energy) are set to keep global food prices high. Australia has a role to play in supplying global food markets. There’s a big financial opportunity, which can be secured alongside helping with a major global challenge.
Education is the next on my list. The CSIRO report “Our Future World” identifies so many massive challenges before Australia. The reality is we haven’t yet found answers for them all. However, somewhere there’s a kid in grade 4 (lets say) who is as bright as a button and might have the idea that unlocks food insecurity, water scarcity or the rise of chronic illness. Current knowledge can’t solve it. We’re relying on the innovative capacity, aptitude and intelligence of the next generation. So education is vital.
When we can’t solve a problem today the next best thing is to educate a young person so they’ll be able to solve it when it’s their turn. I believe that for many of our toughest problems that’s how we really find an answer.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job? Would you consider yourself a futurist?
The most challenging part of my job is remembering all the fascinating things that I need to remember. There’s so many facts, figures, trends and insights in the work I’m challenged with staying on top of it all and also remembering where I parked my bicycle.
I guess I am a futurist. But then again who isn’t. We’re all going to be living there. I think everyone thinks about the future in some way. So I find it hard to say what a futurist actually is. Was it Albert Einstein that said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”? I think a futurist is someone who has lots of imagination. However, knowledge is also a critical part of the recipe. Imagination about the future builds on knowledge.
Your work centers on foresight and strategy planning; do you ever get the opportunity to see your future work implemented in the present? Has CSIRO Futures had an immediate impact, the idea was so great, so well thought out, that it was acted upon immediately?
Once I built a decision model that was used to allocate $147 million amongst 14 regions for the purposes of environmental management. I was somewhat stunned and amazed. It was great to see one of our tools get put to work. However, for most of what I work on the pathway to impact is more indirect. Through our narratives of the future we aim to enrich people’s information environment. As this occurs they are imbued with better decision-making capabilities. An improved information backdrop helps us make wiser choices. It’s hard to trace the link from a decision being taken to the initial research but I believe it’s there.
I want to talk about the planning behind Australia’s energy and transportation habits and needs. Australia’s economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuels and has a society enamored with being on the move – whether the automobile in the suburbs, or transit in the larger cities. The natural resources and mining industry has been responsible for much of Australia’s economic prosperity over the past 10 years. With coal prices continuing to slide, is this shifting the attitude on energy and transportation? Do you believe alternative energy sources like solar and wind will have a significant earmark in Australia’s energy portfolio?
The forecast, as I understand, is that they’ll play an increasingly important role but still 20 years out will make up a relatively small part of our total energy supply. The big growth area is natural gas. Worldwide we’re going to see big growth in coal and oil. So traditional fossil fuels are still likely to the dominant part of the mix. It’s not my preferred future – I’d like to see renewable play a much larger role- but I think it’s the trajectory we’re on largely for economic reasons.
Still one of the best forms of energy is not needing it in the first place. We’re hunting for a transportation technology that’s so advanced it has minimal greenhouse gas emissions, is affordable, avoids congestion and doesn’t require parking space. Now what might that be? The bicycle is often overlooked but it ticks so many boxes for urban transportation but we don’t seem to make use of it. There’s many ways we can reduce the need for energy and maintain (or improve) our lifestyles.
Signs of a thriving metropolis and sound economy include cultural, recreational and educational experiences for the members of its communities. This is evident in cities like Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. But the suburbs surrounding those cities are competing as well – for residents, resources, transit. Can you talk about urban sprawl and the effects it is having on Australia’s resources and communities? Is CSIRO Futures investing in community development practices by partnering with state/city governments and town councils to offer strategic planning advice to ensure vibrant and successful communities?
We haven’t done that yet. But it would be interesting. From some perspectives, the move to a digital economy might take away the necessity from living near the city centre. We can telework and shop online. But I think it will be different. One thing that’s coming out of our work is that humans crave other humans and centres of cultural activity. The city centre is only going to get more important into the future. We’ll have reduced necessity to visit a physical space – it will become increasingly discretionary. Therefore, the physical space will need to concentrate on the experience-factor if it’s going to draw us in. Urban design and architecture are going to get much more important. Although it’s likely to be a focus, it needn’t all happen in the city centre. It can happen in local hubs also. I do think, however, urban and regional planners haven’t yet capitalised on the opportunities of a digital economy. We can substantially change the way we use space.
Having a well-versed society capable of competing in the global economy, particularly in the science and technology field, will rely heavily on the education our youth receive now. How would you rate the scientific curriculum and instruction available to children in Australia? From CSIRO’s perspective, is there a shortage of future scientists and skilled technicians on the horizon? If so, what steps are necessary to reverse that outcome?
One of the challenges over the horizon for Australia is the coming surge of skills in developing countries – especially Asia. With rapid income growth there has also been a dramatic increase in skill levels. Asian countries contain thousands/millions of engineers, scientists, technicians, architects, lawyers, accountants and other professions. The skills and capability level is rising rapidly.
In the interconnected global economy those skills will increasingly compete with the Australian labour market. Basically there’s 10,000 of me in India and China who are willing to work at one-tenth of the price. And they’re good at what they do. To stay on top of my game I have to think about how I can differentiate my skill set by constantly moving into new spaces.
I don’t really feel qualified to say whether or not Australia has enough scientists – others will know more than me. I do know that science, research and technology capabilities are fundamental requirements to run an economy, and society, in the 21st Century. I do think it’s a bit of a pity that we don’t champion our scientists to a greater extent. Actors, sportspeople and models get lots of time in the spotlight and big sponsorship deals. Scientists and researchers don’t really get the same level of attention. But they have so much to offer.
What do you see for the future of science in Australia?
It’s going to be a big part of Australia. Our ability to think and innovate is what will ensure our economy has sustained productivity growth.
Thank you to Dr Hajkowicz for his gracious participation in this article.
To our readers, if you have not done so already, check out the CSIRO Futures website for reports and projects to learn more. You’ll find some thought-provoking, fascinating topics guaranteed to make you put your strategic thinking cap on and get lost in a world of ‘what-ifs’.