Forest City, in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, is a smart city under development by China's Country Garden. This is a model in a Singapore showroom. Photo: Johan Nylander
Forest City, in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, is a smart city under development by China's Country Garden. This is a model in a Singapore showroom. Photo: Johan Nylander

It wasn’t too long ago that bourses saw red as a market rout wiped off billions in valuations from Sydney to Singapore, triggered by a sense of panic that was linked to a slowdown in China’s growth and a softening in crude-oil prices. As a traditionally natural resource-driven economy, Australia bore the brunt of this angst.

Then the iron-ore price crashed to around US$40 a ton, dragging other commodity prices along with it. Mining investment slumped to around 4% of Australia’s gross domestic product, which knocked one whole percentage point off the country’s annual GDP growth.

Against that backdrop, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced a National Innovation and Science Agenda, valued at A$1.1 billion (US$866 million) over four years. The agenda will see A$84 million allocated to boosting education in digital literacy and science, technology, engineering and mathematics; A$106 million going into tax breaks for early-stage investors in startups; and other strategic investments to promote research, development and collaboration between industry and universities.

Governments have traditionally been the Asia-Pacific region’s biggest spenders in areas that drive an innovation economy, such as education, technology and infrastructure. Beyond its heft, the strategic direction that national governments set carry considerable influence in the way enterprises and the broader community organize themselves to take advantage of these innovation agendas. We have seen these influences come into play across the region: from Digital India, to China’s Internet Plus; from Singapore’s Smart Nation to Japan’s innovation ignition.

In spite of differences in demography and scale, we observe one common language that is spoken by innovative economies. That is the language of data.

Democratizing data to drive innovation

Management consultancy McKinsey has reported that organizations that use big data and analytics effectively show productivity rates and profitability that are 5-6% higher than those of their peers.

Australia-based analyst firm Telsyte has found that more than 70% of large local organizations, those with 200 employees or more, will become data-driven in the next four years.

And considering the vast potential that data can unlock, in driving greater productivity, raising top-line revenue and cost savings, is it surprising that customers of business intelligence (BI) companies have asserted their preference for self-service analytics applications over traditional BI platforms that keep data in the hands of the chosen few in the information-technology department?

Studies by research firm International Data Corporation on companies across the Asia-Pacific region arrived at similar conclusions. IDC found that organizations that empowered their employees to access and make sense of data for themselves outperformed those that did not, by two-to-one.

Recognizing the merits of democratizing data, Telsyte’s research showed that “around 5% of organizations [in Australia] have Line of Business (LOB) spending on technology surpassing that of the IT department”.

These insights point to the increasing pervasiveness of data as its benefits become more apparent regardless of industry vertical or scale.

Reaping innovation gains with data

Since 2003, HomeRepair has provided domestic repair services to one of Australia’s largest general insurance companies. HomeRepair is based in Melbourne, Victoria, and employs 35 staff. The company’s 300 associated tradespeople complete thousands of repairs annually across Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.

After 10 years of providing repair services through a major insurance client, HomeRepair faced a more competitive market. HomeRepair needed to understand its performance quickly in areas such as timeliness and cost in order to defend its market position.

After it adopted a self-service approach to data analytics from Tableau Software, HomeRepair had not just gained insight into its performance but also driven improvements. The company used analytics to identify and communicate priorities and says it has improved productivity by six times, despite keeping a smaller staff.

The benefits of self-service analytics is also evident in Australia’s telecommunications sector. Amaysim is an online-led Australian mobile service provider. The company has more than 10 billion call data records, which presents it with a great opportunity to use that information to drive more data-informed decision making.

After redesigning its technology stack and introducing self-service analytics, Amaysim says it was able to reduce time-to-insight by up to several weeks, visualize critical business data to support decision making at senior-management level, and improve workforce productivity. These were the outcomes of empowering non-technical business users to explore data, investigate new angles and give rise to clearer thinking and better ideas so as to drive greater operational efficiencies within Amaysim’s business.

Outside of business, Australians are treated to what is one of the most widely anticipated grand slams in the professional tennis calendar each year, the Australian Open. What many might not know is the role that data plays in the running of the tournament.

Tennis Australia uses data to drive fan engagement and ensure seamless operations. This year, it has added a Tournament Notifications Dashboard, an application that automatically identifies and classifies statistics and updates from matches as they happen during the tournament, along with player statistics. The information is color-coded so that editorial and social-media teams can easily differentiate and identify what is useful to them. Then the informed recipients make real-time decisions on what information to share with media partners, what to post on websites, and what to put out through social-media channels.

These are just some of many stories about how communities and businesses in Australia have embraced data to become more innovative in the way they operate and engage with their stakeholders.

Limitless potential from an ideas boom

The University of Newcastle Australia is regarded as one of the country’s leading universities for research and innovation. Its business, communication and accredited engineering courses are offered in Singapore via PSB Academy. In 2015, the university was tapped by the New South Wales government to partner with Newcastle City Council, local businesses and technology groups and implement Newcastle’s smart-city vision in an initiative dubbed the Hunter Innovation Project.

Among the project’s milestones are the roll-out of smart technology including sensors to collect and analyze data, digitally connected and interactive public infrastructure, and Wi-Fi throughout Newcastle’s central business district to boost ease of access, efficiency and livability for residents. While Newcastle will certainly serve as a showcase for the rest of Australia, I hope that it will more importantly spark off a smart-city race worldwide.

In unveiling his National Innovation and Science Agenda, Turnbull declared that he was seeking to steer the Australian economy away from its traditional bases and toward economic drivers that “put Australia on the right track to becoming a leading innovator, open to adapting and evolving to improve the well-being and quality of life for all Australians”.

Data is the lifeblood of any innovation hub. And the sooner employees, students and publics grasp the importance of mastering data to fuel ideas, the more rapidly they will realize a positive transformation among their teams, across enterprises, and within their communities.

Unlike a mining boom, an ideas boom can continue forever, limited only by imagination. And as the originator of optimistic narratives such as “the lucky country”, one would find no lack of imagination and ideas Down Under.

Marcus Loh

Marcus is Director, Asia Pacific Communication at Tableau Software (NYSE: DATA), the world's leading visual analytics platform. He is passionate about making brands matter in the data age and takes joy in giving back to the community by serving in various advisory capacities for academia, industry and non-profits. His views on brand strategy, data literacy and public affairs have been published in The Diplomat, Channel NewsAsia, The Straits Times, The Business Times, Singapore Business Review among...

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