Regional Insights 2021: The year to build resilience into our regions

Regional Insights 2021: The year to build resilience into our regions

By Caroline Chernov.

“Regional Australia holds the key to Australia’s economic recovery, post-COVID,”. said Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

As we close out a year that has disrupted our way of life and challenged our thinking, we reflect on why regions have taken centre stage in the recovery agenda. 

Building inclusive and resilient regional economies is key to our competitiveness and our socio-cultural wellbeing.  This has always been the case, but COVID has kicked started a renewed focus on regions and opened the gates to new possibilities of lifestyles, employment pathways and economic innovation opportunities. 

Growing interest in the regions increases demand in services, infrastructure and the need for an uplift in regional skills. All of these forces converge to create both risks and opportunities, inviting us to consider, as we step into the new year, what our priorities should be around driving regional resilience and growth. 

Here are our observations on the four big trends and issues that are poised to take centre stage on the regional agenda in 2021.

Embedding authentic community engagement through deliberative processes

With the introduction of the Local Government Act in Victoria, all councils are adapting to regulatory requirements to build community and deliberative engagement processes into their visioning and planning activities. 

We observe that councils that are doing this effectively share an ability to apply three lenses to their engagement work.

Futures thinking:

  • Anticipating future expectations and needs of community groups
  • Understanding how future trends impact infrastructure, services and community expectations
  • Considering how existing regional assets can be leveraged to prepare for these trends and secure community trust and participation
  • Considering how social norms are shifting in the region and how these may fuel greater levels of stakeholder activism that influence capital flows, talent retention and regulatory approvals

An inclusion perspective:

  • Gaining insights into the profiles and mindsets of different stakeholder groups
  • Understanding which groups should be highly involved, which ones are attentive and which ones are browsers, tailoring engagement approaches to each
  • Leveraging digital platforms to build sustainable engagement and deeper dialogue
  • Finding the leaders who are not the usual suspects and challenging notions of formal power by including informal power systems and influencers

A systems lens:

  • Understanding interdependencies across different stakeholder groups and the interplay between different expectations and needs
  • Understanding how tradeoffs and multi-criteria decision making is needed to navigate complexity
  • Understanding causal reasons for entrenched disadvantage and factors that constrain participation in order to build inclusive economies

We anticipate that building these competencies into council planning will remain a priority in 2021.

Data-driven decision making

We expect key macro trends around the fourth industrial revolution and automation along with population migration from urban centres to regions to continue shaping regional development in 2021. 

This will have significant impacts on regions, reshaping employment and workforce opportunities as well as infrastructure and service requirements. Skills transitions and adaptation will be key, as will an ability to bundle services and infrastructure in ways that meet shifting demands.

Our observation is that regions with comparative advantage in this area are those that have access to real-time data, an ability to analyse this data in real-time and link insights directly to decision making. 

We expect data-driven decision-making competence will be high on leader’s development agendas next year.

A critical dimension of building data-driven decision-making capacities is to address the digital divide in many regions. The human barriers to digital uptake constrain broader enterprise transformation and the region’s capacity to transition to a digital economy. 

This, in turn, constrains its ability to participate in innovation opportunities across Australia as well as trading into Asia, particularly in light of the recent Singapore-Australian Digital Trade Agreement.

These human barriers can be dismantled by understanding different community expectations, requirements, aspirations and fears while developing tailored mitigation strategies that prevent potential roadblocks.

ESG innovation

ESG pressures continue to rise and markets are demanding new innovations that drive economies with more mindful environmental and community footprints.

Regions are well positioned to play the ‘clean and green’ brand and create new ESG businesses. For regional leaders, this creates two challenges we see as being top of mind:

  • Ensuring community expectations are understood and factored into the design and rollout of new innovation businesses – whether that be large infrastructure projects around water and energy or affordable, low-carbon housing or digital health businesses.  Understanding and managing the change-readiness of communities and mitigating the potential for outrage will be key. 
  • Considering how to build innovation ecosystems that support the overall uplift of innovation and entrepreneurial capacity in the region. Rather than investing in isolated, one-off innovation plays, there is growing recognition of the need to build frameworks that support the incubation of ideas through to the commercialisation of high-potential businesses. Bringing in capital to support such developments, supporting capacity development as well as addressing inclusivity issues such as remote access, gender and culture will be big issues for regions to work through in the new year.

Systems thinking to accelerate job growth

Job growth and positioning the region for future employment resilience will, without a doubt, remain a priority for regional leaders in the coming year.

We will watch the rising interest of governments at all three levels in using systems thinking to build inclusive economies. This trend acknowledges an interdependence of variables that come together in a regional system to fuel or indeed constrain job growth. 

Pockets of communities are under-employed and many families continue to suffer from inter-generational disadvantage and exclusion. Tackling these complex issues requires an analysis of the range of different factors that work together at a systems level to hold individuals out of employment pathways. 

For example, understanding how housing developments that do not have appropriate public transportation or access to critical education and health services can result in social housing and unemployment ghettos. 

We welcome this integrated approach to problem solving and see it as a potential strategy for regions to consider in their broader economic development agendas.

Aligning efforts, resources and perspectives around these themes will be critical for us to realise the regional economic development agenda in 2021. We look forward to partnering with you as we work toward our shared vision of regional resilience and prosperity.