Speech: University of Wollongong Honorary Doctorate, 12 December 2018

Address to graduates of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences

Chancellor, members of the University, graduates, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Good morning!

I am extremely honoured to be recognised by the University of Wollongong, and delighted to speak on this wonderful occasion. To all of you graduating today, my warmest congratulations on your fantastic academic achievements.

I know I don’t look like an Australian, and neither do I sound like one! So – who am I?

I grew up in rural China, during the time of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when Chinese universities were closed.

Little did I know, back then, that I’d go on to enjoy a career in academia that would take me to the forefronts of knowledge and innovation.

Little did I know that I’d become the Vice-Chancellor of a leading UK university.

And I never dreamt that I would be standing before you here today.

After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese universities were able to reopen. And, age 16, I went to Northeastern University, with support of a scholarship. Age 24, with a scholarship from the University of Queensland, I was able to move to Australia to do my PhD.

On my arrival in Brisbane, I had $20 in my pocket.  I survived the first week on the $3 left after a cab-ride from the airport, plus a good deal of help from my fellow PhD students. In Queensland, I flourished, made a home, and shaped a life and career, thanks to the kindness of the Australian people. I owe a debt of gratitude to this great nation, which I seek to pay back whenever I can. Therefore, it feels particularly meaningful to be honoured today in Australia.

The experience of a university education changed my life. More importantly, it gave me the opportunity to help change the lives of others.

Because, as you know, that’s what universities like Wollongong and Surrey do. We change lives.

We change the lives of the students who arrive, every year, ready to expand their horizons.

We change the lives of people struggling with diseases like cancer. Our research helps them to live longer and happier lives.

We change the lives of future generations, who will inherit sustainable energy and clean water, smart cities and communities, and advanced telecommunications.

Today you are graduating with degrees that will put you at the forefront of this change and innovation. The fields of health, technology and engineering are more fertile and dynamic than ever before. You have opportunities to shape a future that we cannot even imagine, but whose advances and inventions will soon become the ‘new normal’.

As graduates in the Faculty of Engineering & Information Sciences, your training and experience are much needed in a society now defined by speed, complexity and uncertainty. It doesn’t matter whether you are pursuing cutting-edge research, or taking up a well-defined position in an established company. Either way, you will come face to face with Change and Collaboration as two key drivers of the Digital Age.

Fortunately, university education gives you the skills to think and see beyond boundaries, and also the ability to understand and embrace change.

Speaking of change, the past century has been extraordinary. Technology alone gives a fascinating example of the pace of change:

  • On December 17, 1903 Wright brothers’ first flight lasted 12 seconds for a distance of 120 feet ‐ less than the wingspan of a 747.
  • 66 years later (in 1969), Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. So from 120 feet to 240,000 miles took just 66 years.
  • Today, the power of computers is doubling every 18 months. Every minute, YouTube users upload 72 hours of new videos, Twitter users tweet over 300,000 times, and Google receives 4,000,000 searches.
  • The first human genome project took 13 years to finish and cost $3b, but now we have DNA sequencing costing less than $500 taking less than 1 day.

The lesson is that now and tomorrow we need to move quickly and be more adaptive.  This is why talented people like you, with the drive and skills to innovate, will be at a premium.

Innovation is about new ways of creating, capturing, and delivering value.

For example, innovative doctors can use technology to transform health economics and patient experience. Facing the challenges of an aging society, comprehensive and integrated health and social care must be delivered at or near home.

‘Digital doctors’ are the future face of connected and holistic healthcare, created by combining strengths in health and medical sciences with data science and technology expertise.

As new collaborations are created, traditional boundaries disappear. This is how research and innovation will improve lives all over the world.

The nature of any job – particularly for engineering projects – is collaborative. Whatever the game, teamwork is essential to winning. According to an African proverb:

‘If you want to go fast, go alone.

If you want to go far, go together.’

Addressing the grand challenges of now and tomorrow — from climate change and health care, to clean energy and water, to social equality — requires cross-cutting, multidisciplinary and international collaborations.

In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, where none of us have all the answers we need and change is the only constant, collaboration is the key to surviving, and thriving.

Where do we go next?

In the era of big data, we are often overwhelmed by the speed, connectivity and urgency of the virtual world.  Information goes through our fingers almost without going through our brain cells. But real knowledge and understanding are harder to achieve.

From my own experience, it is important to have the patience to penetrate the superficial and truly discover substance underneath. Only by so doing, you will be able to see a further vision and develop a sustainable strategy, not only to deal with what is known to be important now, but to cope with the unknowns and disruptions of the future, and recognise the opportunities they bring.

My humble beginnings and my experiences have instilled in me humility, resilience and foresight, qualities that are invaluable for success and happiness, particularly in the face of great unknowns.

Finally, can I offer my whole-hearted congratulations to you and your families again, and my best wishes for an exciting journey in the next chapter of your career.  Never stop learning, and innovating, and above all enjoying the journey!

Thank you.