“It's pretty incredible, but what I'm most excited about is that there was an actual category of women in the awards of Indigenous women in this space,” said Mikaela Jade after being honoured as the Indigenous Leader of the Year at the Women in Digital awards.
“It’s important that, finally, the tech sector is recognising the additional hurdles that Indigenous women need to jump through in order to be successful women in digital,” said Jade, who earned a masters degree at the ANU School of Cybernetics earlier this year.
In 2014 Mikaela founded Indigital, Australia’s first Indigenous edu-tech company specialising in technology development and digital skills training.
The aim of Indigital is to empower First Nations Australians in the use of digital technologies, and to share the ancient cultural knowledge and history of Australia with audiences in new and engaging ways.
Mikaela’s ground-breaking app, Indigital Storytelling, was inspired by her many years working as a park ranger in Kakadu. It uses image recognition technology to bring stories to life through augmented reality.
Mikaela and her company have garnered several honours, including The Australian’s 100 Top Innovators List, a YBF Lift Off Award, Australian NFP Technology Awards, and an AMP Foundation Tomorrow Maker. Indigital is also a finalist for “Most Impactful Initiative” at the Women in Tech Global Awards 2021.
Modern applications for the world’s oldest knowledge system
A proud Cabrogal woman from the Georges River in Sydney, Mikaela sees First Nations Australian ways of knowing and being as having enormous application in the tech world.
“We are the original scientists and engineers and we have more than 80,000 years of cultural knowledge in our sciences to bring to the table,” she said. “We have a lot to contribute to STEM and a lot of opportunities for First Nations people to create sustainable and enduring businesses in this sector.
Indigital partners with Microsoft and Telstra to deliver Indigital Schools, which aims to close the digital skills divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Participants connect with& culture, history, and language from First Nations Australian elders, while learning digital skills such as augmented and mixed reality technologies, geospatial technologies, animation, and coding.
“I feel the spatial web is one of those areas where we'll definitely supersede western scientific knowledge,” Mikaela said. “Our people have lived in multiverses and been custodians of multiverses since time began. We have a very good and grounded understanding of what it means to walk between the physical world and other worlds at the same time.”
The intersection between First Nations Australian knowledge and western science is something that Mikaela sees as crucial to the future of the planet.
At a recent event to mark the 30-year anniversary of the Bachelor of Engineering program at ANU, Mikaela spoke about the importance of “reading Country as we find our way together between the natural world, the ancient world, and the world we want to build”.
“Working with the world’s oldest knowledge systems and the world’s newest knowledge systems and co-designing solutions together will be really important,” she said.
Cultural & personal research at ANU
Mikaela's masters project at the School of Cybernetics explored the intersection of First Nations Australian cultures and the spatial web, looking specifically at the idea of digital twins and how cultural protocols are captured and observed within that digital space.
A digital twin is a real-time 3D and 4D scan of a cultural site, often captured before the destruction of the physical site. An example that has particular significance to Mikaela is Willow Grove on the Parramatta River in New South Wales.
“Willow Grove was recently destroyed along the Parramatta River in Sydney to make way for the new Powerhouse Museum despite our mob’s continual protesting for many years,” Mikaela said.
The land “holds really important spiritual and cultural and economic value to us and always has”, Mikaela explained. “It was a safe place for our mob to go to during early colonisation as well so there's a lot of good spirit on that country.”
“When a place like that gets destroyed to make way for new western buildings, what happens when they capture the old place as a volumetric capture — a three-dimensional scan of the place mdash; before they destroy it?
“What happens culturally, spiritually, morally, ethically to that digital twin? So, if we know that we had artefacts buried on that physical ground before it was destroyed, and it now has a digital twin in the spatial web, how do we honour our cultural heritage in that digital twin because that's now the only place that those physical things survive?”
Mikaela said there are many digital twins being created of First Nations Australian cultural sites, but not necessarily for cultural purposes. The mining industry, for example, scans land to understand its hydrogeology and locate mineral resources.
When digital twins are made of sacred lands that are subsequently destroyed, what are the cultural protocols with respect to access ownership rights?
“There's a lot of scanning that happens of our places and those are held in custody by corporate organisations or governments or both, and we don't necessarily get access to those digital twins that are created,” Jade said.
“So, we're asking questions around custodianship at those places like if we have Aboriginal land rights, do we have Aboriginal digital land rights that go with those?”