Preparing for the digital future

Marek Kowalkiewicz has an agenda: to create a thriving future for his children. The foundation of this future is a digital economy that drives cities and businesses to be competitive on a world stage. Kowalkiewicz speaks with Business First about his ambitions to turn the city of Brisbane into a digital powerhouse that his children and future generations of citizens and businesses can not only thrive in, but also be proud of.

How do you prepare the right future for your children?

If you ask Polish born, Brisbane loving Marek Kowalkiewicz it has a lot to do with creating a thriving digital economy. Prof. Kowalkiewicz certainly doesn’t suppress his love for Brisbane. He says, “I love Brisbane so much that I want it to be the leading place in the world in the digital economy.”

He certainly has form in creating digital economies, having spent half his professional life working for industry with large software organisations, and the other half working with universities. Prof. Kowalkiewicz also founded his own digital start-up and has worked in digital meccas Silicon Valley and Singapore.

Interestingly, he compares Brisbane to the Californian hub that is arguably driving the world’s technological breakthroughs. While Brisbane has some way to emulate the history of Silicon Valley, what buoys Prof. Kowalkiewicz are the cultural comparisons.

“The people we have in Brisbane are just as smart, just as passionate, just as entrepreneurial as those in Californian Hub,” Prof Kowalkiewicz says. “If we can prepare the right setup, give them grow their businesses and be just as successful.” Prof. Kowalkiewicz says the digital work being done in Brisbane is now bearing results.

“The start-up space in Brisbane is very hot. There are a lot of things happening practically every day. It’s really exciting,” he says.

Brisbane is the second city in the world behind New York to have appointed a chief digital officer, but what separates Brisbane from New York according to Prof. Kowalkiewicz is the city’s more relaxed nature, which potentially leads to better decision-making unencumbered by stress and hustle.

It is those traits that attracted this Silicon Valley Senior Director of Product Innovation to the city of lights. Indeed, Silicon Valley is a long way from Brisbane, however Prof. Kowalkiewicz has really sunk his teeth into leading an ambitious research agenda to inform and influence a robust digital economy in Brisbane and Queensland. Prof. Kowalkiewicz manages a contemporary research portfolio and converts industry-driven opportunities in the digital economy into research outcomes of global relevance. technologies and using them to create opportunities and solve problems that businesses or individuals face,” Prof. Kowalkiewicz says. “The opportunity to make a tangible difference to businesses and students is a key reason for making the move. That and the enormous liveability of Brisbane.”

Prof. Kowalkiewicz sees his current role as the best job in the world.

“I get to work with CEOs. With C-Suites of large and small organisations in Brisbane. Founders and owners of small organisations. And I get to work with them every day. What I do, and what my team is good at, is helping them discover what they are and plan for the future. My job is to make them aware what may be around the corner and the disruption to come and to work together with them on addressing these issues. In a way I get to create the future with them; not only predict their future but shape their strategies.”

Behind this is an ability to look at what is happening globally and determine what opportunities are locally relevant to really put them at the forefront of global business practice. Prof. Kowalkiewicz conducts a lot of research, examining various organisations around the world to see what makes them successful: the tricks, the business models, the approaches that make businesses thrive. He then shares those lessons with Brisbane-based organisations and SMEs.

He is working on several projects with Brisbane businesses at the moment. “I’m working with a start up created by three graduates of QUT’s Executive MBA programme, that in turn works with Queensland Urban Utilities to develop a smart toilet concept.” The concept is a small sensor; a small physical device that can be installed inside a toilet and analyses waste that can shared with a person’s GP. Essentially it is a pre-diagnostic device that could create a closer relationship between patient and doctor.

Prof. Kowalkiewicz sees several benefits of this, including delivery to remote communities in Queensland, where there are no Doctors nearby.

“There are no GPs in certain areas, so there are communities who would get this early warning, early feedback on their health, which I think is really exciting.”

Another project being worked on by students at QUT, which is yet to be associated with business is the exploration of the technical possibility to connecting families of small communities to internet for less than $1,000. Assuming there’s an Internet connected city or town within 20, 25 kilometres.

“We’re exploring cheap ways of providing that last mile of Internet. We’re trying to make it super cheap and accessible.”

So not only is Prof. Kowalkiewicz looking forward, but he is also helping businesses in the present through regular podcasts to businesses which explore a particular topic from the digital economy such as the impact of 3D printing on industries, or specific concepts like block chain or digital identity.

Prof. Kowalkiewicz also holds events where several hundred people from Brisbane pile into one room and explore a particular topic.

“Just a few weeks ago, we had an event on the future of retail. A few months ago, we had an event on proactive organisation. So we explore how a business could predict what their customers might want and deliver those services even before they’re asked for.

Furthermore, if you’re a large organisation we can run a joint research project and explore a particular topic in depth.”

Part of the strength of this digital scene in Brisbane is the partnership formed between PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), QUT, Brisbane Marketing and the Queensland Government, which Prof. Kowalkiewicz says is the  only such partnership in the world where governments, industry and academic partners come together to explore digital economy.

“It really hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world. There are some partnerships between industry and academia or government and academia but not the full triangle. So this is very, very unique and each of those partners is crucial in their own right. On one hand they convert the outcomes of my and my team’s work into real world impact. So there is the research that I do and there are already services available to cities and organisations based on the outcomes of the research.”

Prof. Kowalkiewicz spends a lot of time with Brisbane Marketing, with PwC, with Queensland Government and asks them “what are the challenges that you’re facing, what are the challenges that your customers, that your citizens are facing” and based on that he shapes is team’s research agenda.

“It’s a wonderful co-existence and collaboration,” he says.

And it is a collaboration that has certainly taken the city into the digital age and allowed it to thrive.

“I think Brisbane is doing very well and one of the reasons is because I clearly see that people in Brisbane Marketing clearly understand that the digital economy is not only about computers, technology, IOT smart networks and so on. In the end, it’s all about people; it’s all about the human aspect of the city. And they see that the digital technologies are basically just an enabler.

“There is also a huge difference when compared to other cities around the world based on conversations around how do we become a better city and how do we use digital technologies in order to enable us to become a better city. In the end we need to be a better city for our citizens and the goals that they might have including work, education and lifestyle.”

With all that in mind, Brisbane is fast tracking its digital approach and Prof. Kowalkiewicz is one of the facilitators of the city’s ascension as a world respected digital innovation hub. And with that ascension comes the ultimate goal: to have the people in Brisbane stay in Brisbane so that Brisbane thrives, and for Prof. Kowalkiewicz personally to prepare the right future for our children.



Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.