There is a general consensus or at least an attitude in Europe that Australia is quite a bit behind in most, particularly technological, things. However, there was also a general consensus in Europe that it was leading the mobile devices and services development – until the United States and the West coast in particular zoomed right past it at 100mph, a development which I’m not sure everyone has come to terms with even today. So it’s worth asking whether the view of Australia as a technological backwater is really a valid one.
The truth, of course, is a bit more complicated and nuanced than just flat-out “yes” or “no”. In some respects Australia certainly is behind – fixed broadband connections, for example, are relatively expensive and slow. With the NBN (of which many abroad are still blissfully ignorant about), that should change quite dramatically in the next few years. Houses are by and large insulated poorly and it remains a cruel fact that I have never been colder in my life than in Australia during winters. Despite the temperature practically never going below +5C or +10C during the day, I have been warmer in Finland in -30C weather indoors than indoors here.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. Mobiles are one good example – having grown up in Finland, I grew up with the expectations that mobiles need to work everywhere, all the time. While the Vodafone network has been experiencing major pains, I have been quite impressed by the Telstra “NextG” network (which btw is a standard HSPA+ network despite the odd name – and for full disclosure, I work for Telstra), as I expected much worse performance and coverage.
But what’s been even more impressive in the mobiles space are the devices – ever since arriving here, the nation seemed to be dominated by iPhones. The iPhone still grabs by far the #1 spot in smartphone sales (which, in turn, make up a bigger percentage of total mobile sales than pretty much in any other country), though Android has made a strong entry over the past 18 months. People in the mobile industry sometimes lament the fact that all attention is now on smartphones, whereas the vast majority of the devices in use are not smartphones. Over in Australia, however, that’s no longer true – the majority of the devices out there are smartphones, and featurephones are practically irrelevant from a future-looking service perspective. And while it may not be a sign of progress per se, I suspect Australia has the largest install base (percentage-wise) of iPhones in the world. That has some interesting implications in terms of service take-up and the kind of services that are developed. It’s safe to say Australia today is ahead in the smartphone adoption curve compared to, say, Finland, the cradle of the mobile phone.
Another aspect is the energy-efficiency and environmental awareness. It’s a very ironic thing that a country where the existing housing stock’s appalling inefficiency (only very recently has respectable energy-efficiency begun to be required from new buildings) leads to enormous waste of energy, a country where most electricity is generated by the dirtiest means possible (coal) and a country that has one of the highest carbon-footprints in the world, still manages to have a much more environmentally conscious vibe to it than, say, Finland. This is of course a generalization, but more people here are more environmentally aware than in most other parts of the world. Maybe it’s because Australia is no stranger to the effects of climate change or adverse climate in general, but the fact that 38% of the global organic food production is in Australia is very telling. Water conservation is taken seriously, Australia led the world in phasing out incandescent bulbs, residential solar hot water as well as PV solar systems are common and Permaculture, what can possibly end up being the most important contribution to humankind’s survival ever, has its origins in Australia.
It’s a paradoxical situation – while there is no doubt that Europe as a whole is more energy-efficient than Australia, the topic of energy-efficiency and environmental awareness is at the societal level taken more seriously here and with greater respect. While, for example, many Finns say they want to support local food production and organic foods, they too rarely put their money where their mouth is – whereas organic farms thrive here, with a great deal of grassroots activity. It’s more of a bottom-up approach here where in Finland people seem to assume the government will take care of these things, a more top-down mode of thinking which at least occasionally is somewhat naive.
But to get back to the point – for foreigners to think of Australia being always a few years behind in everything is a bit dangerous and a bit self-conceited. Certainly the culture is different from that, say, of famously risk-taking America, and definitely one can easily find many things that could use an improvement. Some things drive you downright crazy. But that goes with the territory of living in another culture and it’s equally easy to find counter-examples of aspects that are taken care of better here than in many other places.
The path of information and idea exchange between Australia & the rest of the world should be a two-way road, benefiting all parties involved – and there is plenty of scope for such movement both ways.