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Is regional Australia ready for its digital boom?

Outside of Sydney’s Opera House and Harbour Bridge, most of what Australia is most well known for happens outside our cities. Yet despite the long, sandy beaches, vibrant rainforests and much cheaper cost of living, many of our regions can’t seem to shake the idea of sleepy, tumbleweed towns where not much happens. But that’s changing fast. Governments of all levels have pinpointed regional Australia as a key – if not the key – to the country’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic recession and the remote working revolution has driven a mini exodus from cities. Meanwhile in the regions, new infrastructure and new ways of thinking are driving digital opportunities in fields such as robotics, smart farming and research.

What is happening in regional Australia right now? 

Regional Australia is so big that this question is a bit like asking, “what’s going on in Europe these days?” We’re obviously not going to be able to give you a full rundown but we can point you to some pretty exciting new projects and hopefully put paid to the idea of the regions as a digital backwater. While internet access has traditionally been a roadblock, this is slowly improving with the NBN and various state government enterprises, such as QCN Fibre, are also filling in some gaps. That digital shift is one of several factors helping to drive fascinating projects all over the country. In Queensland alone, aviation giant

Boeing is involved in a $14.5 million drone-testing facility in Cloncurry,

Australia’s biggest solar farm is being built near Chinchilla and the Queensland University of Technology is setting up “living labs” to help regional Aussies make better use of their digital tools.

What opportunities will young people have in the regions?

Research shows young people who study regionally are almost three times as likely to stay there. But what about the next step? Teaching, medicine, government and mining are some of the surer bets for graduates looking to work in the regions but that’s broadening, particularly in industries where large companies may look to move out of the city. Smart agriculture requires data scientists or at the very least people who can service or replace the countless sensors and tools. You’ll find a similar situation in smart manufacturing and ehealth. These more digital jobs are only likely to become more common across the next 5–20 years as robotics, artificial intelligence and internet speeds continue to improve. Even data centres are starting to move out of the capitals and into places such as Townsville — where they’re often closer to the power generation they need — meaning “significant job creation” in areas such as cloud services and more.

Sea-change, tree-change, COVID-change?

Probably the biggest factor right now is the rise of remote work. The Australian Financial Review reports that,

In just the first three months of the pandemic, 10,500 people ditched capital cities

in many cases opting to work from home with more space, less traffic and lower living expenses. “Families selling up in expensive capital city locations and buying, sometimes sight unseen, in regional hotspots is becoming commonplace,’’ one real estate agent said. According to the ABC, house prices have reacted accordingly. Another agent told Domain:

“People are just totally reassessing how they live their life, what their values are, how they want to live their [life] and what they want to do.”

Many industries are still a bit slow to catch the wave but some companies in everything from IT and marketing through to design and business analysis are now opening up the floodgates to remote work, even for graduates. 

How will small towns and remote regions be at the epicentre of Australia’s economic recovery?

You’ll hear it again and again from politicians at all levels: the regions are at the centre of Australia’s pandemic recovery. That means money for roads and other traditional big infrastructure but also tens of millions of dollars for training, tourism and small business adaptation. In many cases that means going back to basics with the classic “regional” industries such as farming and mining, but with smarter tech leading the way. Deloitte thinks big data is

one of the next big things in agriculture, through sensors connected to the Internet of Things that allow farmers to continuously track everything from soil moisture to livestock feed levels.

While actual farming jobs are decreasing, the Regional Australia Institute points out food processing is more important than ever and ready for growth in parts of Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. The institute also sees advanced manufacturing as having potential outside the big cities — where it is a relatively small employee but critical in specific towns — despite a nationwide decline. 

How can regional Australia better prepare for a digital boom now?

This is absolutely key. While almost

9 million people live in rural and regional Australia, producing about 40% of the nation’s economic output

there’s a lingering idea they’re somehow second rate. In fact, a 2017 House of Representatives select committee on regional development and decentralisation report found the mere “perception” of the regions as second-rate was one of rural and regional Australia’s two key issues, along with people moving to capital cities. The report argues that in fact, the

regions could be the key to addressing many of the country’s biggest problems.

But to do that we need investment, opportunities and a strategy. 

The first step, according to the committee, is building the infrastructure that’s needed to get remote places connecting and competing. Work needs to be done to identify smart regional development priorities that will create long-lasting benefits. Beyond that, the committee calls on governments to actively work to get more public sector workers out of capital cities and for the strengthening of regional universities, the source of so much innovation potential. All that’s left is to convince young people to move there, which shouldn’t be too hard if journalist Eliza Berlage’s Twitter thread on the benefits and drawbacks of rural living is anything to go by.

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