Two weeks ago, our University welcomed leaders from overseas, Australia, and from across our region to an International Forum hosted in Newcastle, which explored the role of Universities in the transformation of regional cities and the transition of regional economies.
Right time, right place
The Forum was timely given that on the weekend before it started, the new Prime Minister appointed a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment as part of his new Ministerial team making the point that "Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity. Making sure that our cities and our regional centres are wonderful places to live in, is an absolute key priority…."
The timing was also significant as regions across Australia are exposed to the impact of significant global economic headwinds, with a decrease in the value of Australian mineral and resources exports and a slowing of the Chinese economy. The structure of the Australian workforce is also likely to transform, as foreshadowed in the recent CEDA report on 'Australia's Future Workforce'. As many as five million jobs in Australia are predicted to have a high probability of being replaced in the next decade or two with the increase in the impact of automation.
Simultaneously it is predicted that new jobs and opportunities will be created in fields that will be opened up by the impact of digital disruption. As Australia seeks to develop a knowledge based economy, future skills education in schools and universities will be focused around the creative application of technology to solving problems, and a focus on education curricula that encourage and develop an innovation and entrepreneurship skill set.
Regions such as our own have already been impacted by the economic slowdown. Youth unemployment in the Hunter region reached almost 20 per cent in the past 12 months. A revitalisation of major regional cities may be key to a revitalised national economy. The Australian Local Government Association's analysis recently concluded that Australia's difficulties in adopting the 'knowledge economy' would be eased if knowledge economy jobs, such as scientists, engineers and creative industry professionals, were decentralised from metropolitan centres into city suburbs and regional capital cities.
Lessons from across the globe
It was against this challenging backdrop that the Forum heard from international speakers many of whom had been part of a leadership team which reversed the decline in population and jobs in their region following the collapse of a traditional industry base. Other speakers provided their firsthand experience of the impact of strategies designed to boost national and regional innovation ecosystems on new business and job creation.
Caroline Haynes, a speaker from KPMG London, presented her analysis on 'Magnet Cities' which studied the phases of 'decline, fight back and victory' for those regional cities where the industrial base had collapsed. These cities had regrouped to build significant education, research and cultural assets to attract a new type of skilled workforce which in turn had attracted major investment from new companies and entrepreneurs. Liveability was a key factor in leveraging the 'magnet' effect when attracting and retaining talent, and in holding newly minted professionals within their region.
Two University leaders – the Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh, Professor Mark Nordenberg and the Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University in the UK, Professor Chris Brink, described the critical role which civic engagement, education, research and innovation had played in the 'fight back' of both Pittsburgh and Newcastle after significant industrial decline.
In these two cities, with a DNA very similar to our own, the University was part of a regional leadership group that developed a clear vision for renewal. It focused on supporting existing industries and businesses to be part of the next phase, and developing 'clusters' with existing and new enterprises co-located close to university research institutes and research leaders.
The Forum also heard from Dr David Sweeney, a leader in the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Dr Sweeney, a UON President's Visiting Fellow, talked about the national research and innovation ecosystem that exists in the UK and which appears to be more integrated than that here in Australia. There was a particular focus on discussing the role of 'Catapult Centres' in the UK in bringing universities and non-academic partners together to drive regional innovation.
Dr Tom Corr also spoke about the role of the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) in developing connections between universities, colleges, research hospitals and industry and investors in Canada to result in the creation of new jobs and new businesses. Funded by the Government of Ontario, OCE also actively fosters the development of the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. A critical feature of the Forum were the lively panel discussions where business, cultural, research and government leaders debated the role that universities could and should play in the revitalisation of cities and regions.
Closer to home
A common thread interwoven throughout the Panel and Workshop discussions was that visitors to our region were uniquely impressed by the compelling architecture, vibrancy and remarkable setting of our city. They were equally clear that across our different locations there was the right mix of academic excellence and civic and business leadership to drive innovation and become part of the magnetic force to attract and retain a talented, creative and entrepreneurial workforce.
Meanwhile – having enjoyed some wonderful crisp spring days and laid out the best intellectual and actual 'china' for our visitors, it is time to reflect on 'what's next' as our visitors head home – some to the other side of the world, some as far as Merewether or Gosford. A major outcome of the Forum will be a 'roadmap' which will identify a clear vision and priorities for action that a regional leadership group with the commitment, creativity and ability to collaborate can take forwards. This will ensure we continue to create new businesses founded on technological, creative and social innovation which will address the challenge of regional and intergenerational income inequalities and which will in turn contribute to the resilience of the Australian economy.
In the meantime, now our visitors have gone, a quiet glass of something chilled on the verandah pondering those next key steps is well in order....
For more information on the forum including the program, photo gallery and media coverage visit www.newcastle.edu.au/transformingregions