Planning innovation for a sustainable future in northern NSW

Published 16 September 2011

fortunatothomasA series of regional community workshops held around northern NSW in July and August has revealed the strong potential within those communities for the development of an “innovation culture” that leads to action.

Some of the ideas for innovation that emerged from the workshops involve linking with the National Broadband Network to develop business opportunities, capturing opportunities arising from mining activity, developing a regional approach to waste management, and developing and promoting “cultural hubs” with a focus on the music and creative arts strengths of the region – particularly Armidale and Tamworth. They address issues such as the engagement of the young, the ageing, and the Indigenous members of regional communities.

The workshops were held in Armidale, Tamworth, Moree, Narrabri and Bingara, with more than 90 people attending across the region. “Most of the ideas are strongly associated with specific places, but similar ideas emerged in places/communities right across the region,” said the leader of the “Unison” project, Dr Philip Thomas from the University of New England. “A common theme is that of taking advantage of particular local strengths – and even turning perceived ‘problems’ into opportunities – ‘reframing’, if you like. Basically it’s about identifying assets and building on them through ideas that lead to action.

“As an example of this, the workshop participants discussed the opportunities that will arise from increased mining activity, and ways of meeting any associated social challenges in order to prosper from the economic benefits. It’s a matter of getting the mix right to ensure a sustainable future.”

Dr Thomas, a Principal Research Fellow in Innovation within UNE’s School of Business, Economics and Public Policy, is the leader of the “Unison” project, which is funded by the NSW Department of Industry, Innovation and Investment (II&I). “Our aim is to draw innovative ideas from the wealth of knowledge and experience within communities, and to see how UNE might be able to assist in developing those ideas into action,” he said.

The project is also supported by the Cotton Communities Cooperative Research Centre, Tamworth Regional Development Corporation, and Armidale Chamber of Commerce.

Last week Dr Thomas and Professor Ted Alter from Penn State University (PSU) in the United States presented a report on the workshops to an audience of Government and community representatives at the MLC Centre in Martin Place, Sydney. Professor Alter and his PSU colleague Dr Michael Fortunato travelled to UNE to assist in the workshops as part of a collaborative program of research projects involving innovation and engaged scholarship within the newly-formed Ideas to Action Centre, based at UNE.

“With the fieldwork component of our project now completed, the debriefing session was held to share our results and insights with the Department and other interested people,” Dr Thomas said. “As a result, they recognised the ‘Unison’ project as a good example of the community engagement work possible through collaborations involving II&I and UNE.

“The final meeting under the current project is planned for early October and is likely to be held in Bingara. The aim is to identify ideas and opportunities for innovation that have potential – and particularly those that are relevant to communities across the region. The meeting will also explore the potential for creating a structure and process around the innovation network that has now formed, and discuss what is needed to support this community-based initiative.”

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here shows Dr Michael Fortunato from Penn State University (left) with UNE’s Dr Philip Thomas at one of the workshops.