The world would be a scary place without 'disruptive technology'. Image: Flickr/Sammy0716.

The world would be a scary place without ‘disruptive technology’. Image: Flickr/Sammy0716.

By Dr Bronwyn Harch, Chief of CSIRO Computational Informatics. 

It has been almost twenty years since Harvard professor Clayton Christensen first explained his theory on why technologies that initially receive a weak reception from the mainstream can eventually overturn existing market orders and become the norm. He coined this concept as ‘disruptive technology’.

Imagine life without everyday items like digital photography which, despite starting out with low picture quality and poor resolution, now dominates the marketplace and strongly influences how we communicate. Could you do without our Wireless LAN technology, which we initially struggled to patent in the 1990s? This technology now connects billions of people around the world to the Internet and to each other.

Despite these success stories, the challenges of helping our society adapt to and embrace new technologies still remains. Although many researchers passionately believe in the potential of ‘disruptive technologies’ and their benefit to our society, economy and environment, these innovations are often branded as too radical at the time of conception. In many cases, this is because the impact is too difficult to quantify or the anticipated adoptability of the technology has not been well thought through and are hence rejected by the masses.

What are the benefits of digital disruption?

The evolution of disruptive tech over the past 100 years. Click on image for full size or view on Pinterest.

The evolution of disruptive tech over the past 100 years. Click on image for full size or view on Pinterest.

While Australia has received worldwide praise for our strong and resilient economy, largely as a result of our strong commodity markets and increasing demand from the emerging Chinese and Indian super-economies, we are currently faced with the challenge of maintaining a competitive edge in an increasingly complex global market and resource-limited world.

However, a recent report released by the McKinsey Institute predicts the potential economic contribution of new disruptive technologies such as mobile Internet, advanced robotics and 3D printing are expected to return between $14 trillion and $33 trillion globally per year by 2025. By taking the leap of faith to invest in innovation and new technologies, governments and industry have the opportunity to help create a successful digital economy which will drive Australia’s future economic growth and contribute to quality of life and well-being.

Interestingly, the disruptive technologies referenced in the report have a reduced focus on new gadgets and gizmos and an increased emphasis on technologies which require advanced data analytics. A recent Cisco report also predicts that by 2020 there will be 37 billion ‘things’, from our car to our fridge door, connected to the Internet. When you consider this in the context of the rollout of Australia’s national broadband infrastructure and further predictions that the average person will own six different smart devices by 2020, it is easy to see how our increasingly connected lives have led to this explosion in the volume, velocity and variety of data and information now available at our fingertips.

Embracing the era of ‘disruptive data’ to build a more resilient nation

We have responded to this challenge with the formation of our newest research Division – CSIRO Computational Informatics (CCI). This Division will enable us to work at the forefront of global development and remain competitive in key research areas that transform the information and decision making workflows of industry, government and the innovation sectors. It will help us tackle major national challenges, such as declining productivity and the ageing population, through our National Research Flagship program.

In one example, through our Preventative Health Flagship, we are already leading the way in transforming advanced data analytics to pinpoint the genes that could lead to a simple blood screening test for Alzheimer’s disease before it takes hold. Through another project, involving our Digital Productivity and Services Flagship and the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation (ACBI), we have created a platform which leverages next generation broadband networks to gather personalized health information that enables older Australians to live in their own homes longer, more safely and independently.

But it’s not just the healthcare industry reaping the rewards from this explosion of data. Advanced materials, environmental science, renewable energy, agriculture and services industries have all become increasingly dependent on progress in mathematical sciences and digital technology research. More than ever, the expanding and evolving role of these research capabilities are globally recognised as having broad reach and significant impact.

I would encourage governments and industry alike to proactively take the initiative to address the impact of our future data and information challenges, rather than simply waiting to react to them.

These disruptive technologies may very well be the innovations which drive the economy of tomorrow, enabling us to make a more connected, productive and resilient nation for future generations.

This article was initially published on

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