As part of the Future Shapers program I’m in this year, we’ve been tasked to put together a ‘program day’ for the rest of the participants. At the opening retreat, we got ourselves into syndicate groups of 4 to 5 people and each group had to present a ‘program day’ loosely focused around one of the pillars of the Committee of Ballarat Strategic Plan. My group, the Goal Diggers, chose the Digital Economy mainly because we knew very little about it, or at least weren’t confident enough to give a convincing definition.

There is a huge emphasis on hanging out in the ‘growth zone’ with Future Shapers which means leaving the comfort and convenience of your safe lane and giving something new a try. Being the first group to present meant we had a tight turnaround and only ended up with a few weeks to bring together a full day of activities, guest speakers, site visits and experiential learning opportunities focused around the Digital Economy. Luckily Adele, our fantastic course coordinator, wasn’t going to leave us to totally fend for ourselves and with her help, guidance and ‘just get it done’ attitude we had a full day jam packed ready to share with the rest of the Future Shapers on Wednesday this week.

We were extremely lucky that the Chair of ‘Committee of Ballarat’, George Fong, also happens to be the Co-Founder of Lateral Plains, one of the earliest companies to emerge as the internet did back in the early 1990’s. Some say he invented the internet, we say he’s the best person to ask ‘What the heck is the Digital Economy?’

Firstly, we need to drop the digital. The word ‘digital’ is so evocative that it clouds the fact that the digital economy is simply just the economy. The Economy is (very) basically a super simple flow diagram of money coming and going from households to businesses through wages and purchasing goods and services. It obviously gets more complicated when we throw in governments and taxes but fundamental it is the eb and flow of being a contributing member of society. The word ‘digital’ comes back into the equation when we look at the transactions in between these touch points and if done well, we shouldn’t see anything at all.

Take the internet for example. The biggest problem we have today is if it drops out. It went from not existing, to only being accessible to a few, to total market saturation and now, I’d say we’re completely dependent on it. The difference is that we no longer have to think about it. ‘Using’ the internet is not something we actively consider anymore, we simply ‘pay a bill’ or ‘check LinkedIN’. When ‘digital’ is done well, we don’t notice it. It’s like good design. 

This led to a conversation about the ‘digital’ transformation that so many businesses are worried about keeping up with. That’s what Lateral Plains does as a business, they partner with companies to help advise and guide them through that process. By their own admission, there is always an argument about ‘progress for progress sake’. So many tech companies out there are trying to sell a single digital product which will solve all a businesses problems but most of the time, you probably don’t need half of the crap you're being sold - I’m thinking about things like Zoho (the shittiest CRM program on earth that clams to do everything but none of it well).  

Progress for the sake of progress is an important question to consider. Just because we can do something, does it mean we should? Human intelligence has far outgrown what we need to survive as a species, perhaps even to our detriment if you consider how badly we’ve been treating the planet for the last 150 odd years. As the economy and therefore the digital economy grows and morphs there are countless opportunities to use technology to help people live their lives better. At the end of the day, Technology is here to serve us. It's still a fleshy human at one end, connecting to a fleshy human at the other end. How that connection happens and why is the fun part.

Now that everyone had a grasp on the fact that the ‘digital economy’ was in fact just how we engage with the regular economy we took the whole cohort to HUCX for a factory tour. HUCX is a great example of using technology to change that way something has alway been done. We use software to transform 3D models into 2D cutting files that we manufacture into insulated panels and used to build buildings. It strips out at least 6 months from a traditional build schedule and you end up with an incredibly energy efficient building.

It was also a great opportunity for me to show off my paint job of the new offices and do a solid dry run for our open day this Saturday. Needless to say everyone was impressed with the HUCX system, and my painting job.

After lunch we headed to the Ballarat Tech School which is fast becoming one of my favourite places to hang out. I’m fortunate this year to be involved in their Girls in STEM program as a mentor. The school runs several programs for high school aged kids with a focus on going deep on STEM subjects. Not only do they have the coolest collections of gadgets in Ballarat, they do an extraordinary job in building kids' confidence and helping to create connections with industry. 

We made use of the awesome seminar space at the Tech School for a great presentation from Prof Helen Thompson, the Director of CeDRI (Centre for E Research and Digital Innovation). CeDRI is an arm of Fed Uni and partners with industry to help collect, correlate and clean data. They work a lot in the agricultural industry and with local governments. 

Because the Tech School is so techy - we did an excellent virtual reality tour of the school itself before exploring it in real life. It turns out that I’m quite proficient at moving around in the digital reality but only if I have a team of people giving me instructions about where to go. This is the first time I’ve ever used a VR headset and it was very impressive. It's incredible how your brain believes that you're somewhere else, and since we started in the real room then explored the building virtually (from that room) for 5 minutes, it was very trippy when I took the headset off and was where I started.

One phase that popped up throughout the day was ‘shit in, shit out’. In Helen's talk she spoke about the importance of data collection. Processing data won’t make it better so starting with the best possible data set is vital. With George, we had a conversation about the use of AI - the same phrase, ‘shit in, shit out’ was used. At the end of the day it’s a fleshy human putting in the prompts. AI simply does what it's told. There is no use for AI to serve anything other than the fleshy blob at the other end. 

“SkyNet is not going to happen” George Fong 2024

Video of the week
College Lecture Series - Neil Postman - "The Surrender of Culture to Technology"
Podcast of the week
Grave Matters: Rise of the Death Robots: Will Death Tech change the way we die?
Font of the week
Polymath: Font of the week by OHNO Type

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