Interview: Big picture stuff

By Iain Scott
Monday, 02 September, 2002

It seems appropriate that the global CEO of a company engaged in the visualisation business is inclined to look at the big picture. Apart from being larger-than-life in person, Silicon Graphics (SGI) chief Bob Bishop is one of those outspoken, opinionated CEOs journalists love - one who is prepared to talk outside the finite square of profits and bottom lines to offer a world view.

Which is something he's quite equipped to do. The son of an Adelaide wharfie, Bishop went on to study radio engineering before launching into a globetrotting career with IT company Digital, before joining SGI in 1986.

Like all CEOs, he's got a vested interest in much of what he talks about -- SGI is a provider of high-performance data management and visualisation hardware to the manufacturing, government, mining, defence, entertainment, science and engineering sectors.

But he also has a vested interest in his birthplace. Returning to Australia, which he does regularly, Bishop is concerned that the nation is running the risk of becoming irrelevant, unless it grasps some truths, some visions -- and some technologies.

"The technologies that will enable Australia to move forward into the 21st century -- these are dear to my heart," he says. "Australia has to strengthen its engineering and science base."

It's all very well having a good education sector and a stable economy, Bishop says, but without the vision and the technology, talent and IP will continue to head "north" - to the US and Europe, where the money and big decisions are made. It's important to be able to join the north, he says, but not be in its shadow.

"We need to be an independent country," Bishop says. "We're living under the umbrella of the UK and Europe, and we're a second cousin to the US. Asia doesn't consider us a player. Australia didn't even notice the Asian economic miracle until it was over."

Tech leadership

The solution, Bishop avers, is technological leadership - by which he's not talking about telecommunications networks, broadband internet or wireless ("Every nation in the world is doing those"), but the kind of technology that would allow Australian scientists and engineers to overcome any tyranny of distance and connect with the "global design and review process" in real time.

"I would argue that we're at the threshold," Bishop says. "This tool is particularly important to Australian science and engineering. There's a way of making a quantum leap forward."

But what's lacking is technological leadership. "Leadership in Australia is groping for a mission," he says. "It's done well with the economy over the last five years, but it's losing technological ground. The [Republican argument] should have been, 'let's get independent first, then work out the model later'. "You don't want to come back as an old economy. We've got to get out of that."

Economies like Singapore and Taiwan, Bishop says, have gone forward without being hobbled by the old economy, and show "how fast someone else can get in front of you.

"It will happen in the life sciences as it happened in IT," he says. "When you don't pick winners, you become a service economy. I think the Anglo liberal democracy model has lost out to the countries that choose industry policy and are not afraid to pick winners."

Rivalry between states is also hampering Australia's progress, Bishop argues: "You've got 19 million people split vertically and horizontally." Some states, like Queensland ("the supercomputing state") have forged ahead, while NSW and Victoria have vested interests and "still carry the 'old economy' tag... Queensland got on target and will push the science of the country forward." Meanwhile, he says, Australia's scientific and engineering community is "in tatters" and without the effective rallying cry of "world's best tools" to keep talent in the country.

Streaming digital

"The world is going digital," he says. "All this digital data is streaming through the system - it's like drinking through a firehose. There's so much, you can't take it in."

Numerical-based computing, he argues, is not the whole answer, given that the most effective insights are gained by visualisation. "You can't get into the design of a product through an e-mail. I'm talking global design review of product design, like molecular modelling."

There are successful models within Australia to which science can aspire, Bishop opines - the wine and sport industries. "If we could borrow from the wine industry and apply it to the engineering sciences, we'd be doing pretty well," he says.

And he also gets inspired when he goes home to watch the Port Adelaide AFL team in action - not just the play on the oval, but also the team's leadership structure. "If you watch their leadership," he says, "they do a wonderful job at bridging between their history and their future, with training, team building and recruiting."

"To some extent we've got to figure out how to do this in business and the engineering sciences. We'd have strong prospects if we transferred sports tech over to the business environment."

Whenever he's in Australia, Bishop says, he finds more reasons why the country should seize a technological future and at least get on the global level playing field.

"We are all competitive down here," he says. "I'm an Adelaide boy, and now I'm CEO of a global company.

"We're approaching the point of impatience, and I do sense a readiness to talk about this," Bishop winds up. "We don't have a national agenda, and I'm trying to incite a riot!"

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