The man in charge of building Australia’s future

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

An interview with Adrian Turner MAICD photo
An interview with Adrian Turner MAICD
CEO, Data61

    Adrian Turner, CEO of CSIRO’s Data61, speaks to Domini Stuart about the research organisation’s drive for greater ambition and innovative thinking in Australia.

    After 18 years in Silicon Valley, Adrian Turner MAICD felt it was time to make the US his permanent home. But an invitation to head the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) new data innovation group, Data61, changed his mind. “I accepted the job because I believe this is the one group in the country that can change Australia’s innovation trajectory from within,” he says. “It’s an incredible asset – a team of 1,100 people including 680 PhD and doctoral students, all focused on every aspect of data science.”

    Turner graduated from the University of Technology Sydney and worked in product management before switching to technology in the late 1990s. He moved to Silicon Valley where he co-founded software security firm, Mocana Corporation. He also co-founded holding company, Borondi Group, which is building a portfolio of operating assets with the aim of disrupting traditionally conservative industries such as agriculture, mining and healthcare.

    Turner’s time as chairman of Advance, a not-for-profit network which connects 20,000 expatriate Australians in 90 countries, made him more aware of the deficiencies in culture, finance and infrastructure that were driving Australian entrepreneurs to take their nascent businesses elsewhere. This awareness was behind his eBook, Blue Sky Mining: Building Australia’s Next Billion Dollar Industries, which compares Australia with Silicon Valley and sets out changes necessary to ensure Australia’s global competitiveness over the long term.

    Building new industries

    As industries become data driven, the world is undergoing massive economic change, which Turner compares with the move from agriculture to manufacturing. “New economic structures like Facebook, Google and Uber tend to be naturally monopolistic and are scaling three times faster than any other cohort of company in history,” he says. “As we move to a world where everything connects to the network, these structures will be applied across all industries, including the most conservative. In Australia, we need to figure out how to develop and build these new industries and how to help the 97 per cent of our businesses that are small businesses to succeed in a global digital environment.”

    The best place to focus is on our strengths, he says. “One obvious example is food provenance,” says Turner. “Australia has a huge opportunity to sell premium and value-added agricultural products overseas, but at the moment, we value add to just one per cent of our agricultural exports and there are already examples of inferior, local produce being passed off as quality Australian exports. If we have any ambition to fulfil our potential in this area we must ensure that the litre bottle of milk being sold for $9 in other countries is, in fact, Australian milk and that we as a country are reaping the benefits. Genetics, smart packaging and blockchain could all be combined to guarantee provenance.”
    Another example is geospatial intelligence. “About 70 per cent of government data sets have a geospatial dimension and this will become even more prevalent as we move to a world of precision agriculture, robotics and autonomous systems such as driverless cars,” he says.

    Picking up the pace

    One of Turner’s major concerns is Australia’s attitude to collaboration. “In Silicon Valley, deep collaboration and almost perfect information sharing is the norm,” he says. “As a result, everything moves much faster because people don’t waste time on problems that someone else has already solved. In Australia, a lot of lip service is paid to collaboration but, overall, we still have an “I win, you lose” mentality rather than a growth mindset of doing things together. I do sense a bit of a shift but we’re still moving too slowly.” Another concern is the culture surrounding risk. “In general, Australians have been comparatively risk averse and afraid of failure but I don’t think this will inhibit the next generation,” Turner says. “The school students I talk to, and the students working in our organisation, all seem to be fearless, which is very encouraging.”

    What it means to be human

    In April 2016 Turner was appointed co-chair of the industry-led Cyber Security Growth Centre. “For me this role has brought into sharper focus what it will mean to be human in the emerging digital world,” he says. “The technologies are going to be extremely powerful in terms of quality of life as well as life extension and wealth creation so there are many societal implications. It’s vital that we don’t allow a divergence between people who have access to technologies and people who do not.”

    There will also be fundamental questions about data, including who should own it, who should have access to it and under what circumstances. “As more of the systems that influence our lives are automated, there needs to be transparency and there must be mechanisms in place that allow people to challenge the decisions the systems are making that affect them,” he says. “That’s profound. And these are all things that business leaders should be thinking about right now.”

    This article first appeared in the December/January edition of the AICD’s Company Director magazine.

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