Disruptive STEM

November 29, 2016

The face of business is changing, explains Robert Hillard, and it is up to STEM-skilled graduates to encourage the application of new technology to achieve great benefits for society.

disruptive technology

Wherever you turn these days you see the term “digital disruption”. For those of us lucky enough to be educated in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – we probably feel empowered and excited by this disruption and the changes it brings.

But the same sense of optimism is not true for everyone – because where there is technological disruption, business and social disruption tend to follow.

Electronic communication like email, for example, has almost completely taken over traditional mail. Mainstream bookstores are a shadow of their former selves due to massive online bookstores, and paper books are becoming obsolete due to increased use of digital devices for reading.

But these changes to traditional professions that created and distributed these products has cost jobs, and not everyone who lost a job has been able to transfer their skills into a new role in the digital economy.

Innovation has caused changes in areas such as transport, energy and financial services, and will ultimately leave more people at a disadvantage due to job loss than anything we’ve seen so far. Department stores, for example, could be wiped out in Australia, while banks could be taken over by FinTech innovators.

Disruption spurred on by digital technology is extending into new fields of engineering. Batteries will take houses off-grid and electric vehicles will do away with yearly car services. These changes could leave car dealerships without a source of service income and power utilities without a market.

The birth of the internet removed advantages for large businesses in terms of scale and geography, and allowed small businesses to compete equally with larger companies. But after 20 years, the larger online businesses still have the advantage of scale. As more people use the same search engine, for example, the algorithms for that search engine become stronger. And if a greater number of people use the same online social network, the reach of that network increases exponentially.

We can use technology to improve access to capital while maintaining a safe financial system. We can find better ways to access products and services without doing away with stores. We can make the move from fossil fuels to renewables while keeping a highly skilled engineering capability employed.

“The future depends on those with a STEM education.”

Those with STEM skills have the ability to channel their knowledge, skills and innovative flair to develop new applications of technology, as well as encourage its application to achieve greater benefits for society. The future depends on those with a STEM education.

Robert Hillard

Managing Partner, Deloitte Consulting & Fellow of the Australian Computer Society

Read next: John PollaersChairman of the Australian Advanced Manufacturing Council, on Australia’s best lever for a thriving, high-tech manufacturing sector.

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