A smarter approach to innovation

With the mining boom seemingly running out of puff, many businesses are working with universities to adapt to a rapidly changing world economy.

The need for this approach was made abundantly clear last week when BHP Billiton's decision to postpone the Olympic Dam and Port Headland Outer Harbour projects sent shockwaves through the market and plenty of conjecture about the end of the mining boom.

Fortunately amid the gloomy prognostications, a conference in Sydney was highliting just how businesses can adapt to changing market to ensure that our economy can endure the vicissitudes of the commodities cycle.

The Co-operative Research Centres (CRC) are a Federal government initiative set up twenty years ago by the Hawke government to link businesses with university researchers. There are forty-four CRCs covering four industry sectors.

Smart Services CRC helps service industries with a particular focus on technology in the media, finance and government sectors. Their annual conference in Sydney this week looked at the ways technology is changing most industries.

Futurist Mark Pesce kicked off the conference with a keynote looking at how industries are being “unbundled” as airlines and hotels break their services into the elements that make them up such as inflight meals, checked baggage or airport check ins become separate items to the flight ticket.

The media is one sector that has been hit hard by this disaggregation as the daily news used to be bundled with – and subsidised by – the classifieds along with advertiser friendly travel, dining, employment and motoring news. An early effect of the internet was to strip the old media model of its revenue generating fields.

For media companies, it’s essential to start experimenting with new business models and technologies that can help them deliver more value to advertisers and readers. So it’s encouraging to see Fairfax experimenting with new technologies in two applications.

One of Fairfax’s CRC collaborations is with the Queensland University of Technology extracts information from multimedia clips, which is a useful archiving and research tool that allows Fairfax to leverage their existing media libraries.

AirLink, a technology developed by researchers from the University of Wollongong and Melbourne’s RMIT, has been incorporated into the SMH iPhone app and is soon to be rolled out for The Age.

Fairfax’s Adam Mather, General Manager of Digital Innovation and Services, described how the Airlink technology indexing images and creates a "fingerprint" of the elements contained in the picture.

The development of Airlink couldn’t have happened five years ago as affordable processing power wasn’t available and smart phone cameras weren’t good enough to provide the quality of images required for these applications to run.

Another sector challenged by unbundling is the finance sector and companies are finding they have to develop services that cater for an increasingly fragmented marketplace.

The insurance giant Suncorp partnered with the University Queensland and Smart Services to revamp their business processes to move from being a “transactional business” to a “transformative business”, part of this project is their “life event” app that helps customers manage major milestones in their lives.

Another challenge for the finance industry is dealing with the mass of data they collect. Sydney company Sirca built a business around archiving data tapes from media companies like Thomson Reuters. This catalogue they have built is now a valuable store of historical financial information.

Working with the University of New South Wales, Sirca is developing their News Portal service that analyses financial news and trends which tries to make sense of the boggling volume of information financial analysts, traders and reporters have to deal with every day.

Sirca, Fairfax and Suncorp are examples of how businesses are harnessing technology to deal with huge changes in their marketplaces. Government initiatives like the Co-operative Research Centres help industry find the high level scientific and engineering expertise in our universities.

In a world where prosperity isn’t guaranteed, keeping up with technological change is essential when commodity and cost cycles turn against the economy. Some companies are at trying to do something to deal with these trends.

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