A plum for Victoria?

August 14, 1998

Victoria, Australia, is determined to become a key player in the global digital economy. Peter Thomas went to assess its progress

Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria, is the home of the world's first minister for multimedia. Alan Stockdale's portfolio, which also encompasses his role as state treasurer, is an indication of the strenuous efforts Australia is making to position itself as a serious player in the multibillion dollar global digital economy.

Mr Stockdale's efforts are mirrored at a national level by a new National Office for the Information Economy based in Canberra. This "whole of government" effort is attempting to recreate Australia as a thriving hub of multimedia activity.

South Melbourne's "multimedia alley" houses dozens of aspiring multimedia publishers and Internet start-ups. Multinationals such as Netscape have set up operations in Melbourne, and Cooperative Multimedia Centres draw together business and academic initiatives.

The vision is that Victoria, and Australia, will become an information-literate society attuned to the digital age, generating new economic benefits in the process. It is born out of the realisation that unless Australia improves its competitive position in multimedia content and services, its situation by turn of the century will look decidedly precarious.

I have spent the last year as a consultant for the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, commissioning a central part of the state government's research and development strategy, the Interactive Information Institute. The institute, created with a A$5 million (Pounds 3 million) state government grant from Mr Stockdale's Multimedia Victoria agency and matching funds from industry, is intended to give a significant boost to Australia's capacity for innovation.

The state government, industry and academia are traditionally close in Victoria, but whether the suggested outcomes from university-industry collaboration can be effectively delivered is another matter. Australian academia is attempting to move into an area where it has no established track record - working on medium-term innovation activities directly with industry players, themselves driven by the need to enhance their competitive position globally.

In dealing with the voracious appetites of highly aggressive industries, higher education institutions are struggling. Australian universities, still reverberating from a wholesale reorganisation of higher education provision and conditioned by a long history of research grant schemes, appear ill-prepared to exploit a unique situation in which they could be learning from business, generating valuable intellectual property, and strengthening their international position.

In creating and managing an enterprise in which the interface between government, academia and industry was crucial, the problems became on occasion all too apparent. Industry chief executives often seemed less than confident of universities' ability to integrate with their companies' well-developed initiatives, which are often tuned to product development for markets outside Australia.

Senior academic managers were fiercely protective of their institutions' intellectual property and always conscious of the ways that it might be adversely exploited - without any real understanding of the structure and dynamics of the information technology and communications industry or of emerging trends that the institution could exploit. The government meanwhile was keen to bring both sides together in constructive discussion.

Australia is in this process for the long haul. Initiatives such as the Interactive Information Institute are only experiments in designing interventions to enhance the nation's competitiveness in industry sectors dominated by North America. The experiment is ongoing and bears scrutiny: the Victorian government continues enthusiastically to pursue actions to attract international investment and boost research and development expenditure (the US invests 50 times more than Australia) claiming as a key drawcard the intellectual expertise in universities to which industry will have ready access.

A new venture capital industry is being created to commercialise multimedia products ready for global markets. There is a drive to develop a "creative infrastructure" and to ensure that Australia is not merely a consumer market for multimedia services developed elsewhere. Meanwhile, Australian academics continue to struggle with institutional barriers that limit their access to the intellectual and financial resources they need to work closely with industry.

The Victorian multimedia context is an exciting one, and has achieved some notable successes: new services that exploit the broadband cable infrastructure, immense progress on information technology literacy and Internet access in schools, the delivery of government services online via multimedia access points around the state, and the growing use of e-commerce services by small businesses.

Higher education in other countries can learn from Victoria's experience. Open dialogue with key decision-makers in industry and government should be sought, but only after securing realistic expectations from all sides. Universities must be objective about their key competencies and how they form part of the industry picture. State seed funding is a prerequisite and, as in Victoria, government agencies need to set down clear guidelines and timescales if the process is to be successful for all parties.

Peter Thomas is professor of information management, University of the West of England.

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