The Demographics Group managing director Bernard Salt talks at the Future Northern Rivers event at SCU.
The Demographics Group managing director Bernard Salt talks at the Future Northern Rivers event at SCU. Marc Stapelberg

'Nothing to lose' by being ambitious for our future

OUR region is like looking at the "back of an old watch", demographer Bernard Salt told a Future Northern Rivers forum at Southern Cross University yesterday.

"It operates like an old style watch with cogs of different sizes working together to deliver lifestyle, prosperity," Mr Salt said.

Inspiring, imaginative, ambitious were some of the other words tossed around during a highly detailed presentation.

They're the kind of things the sold-out audience of 160 people signed up for when they attended the industry-leading business lunch on the future growth, challenges and opportunities facing the Northern Rivers.

Mr Salt delivered new insights into the region's future and what it means for families and businesses.

Vibrant, exciting, regenerative, collaborative, innovative and "enabling enterprise on every level in new ways" were some of the words teased out by Salt and a panel of Northern Rivers industry and business leaders trying to envision what the region will look like in the next 30 to 50 years.

The Managing Director of The Demographics Group, Mr Salt writes weekly columns for The Australian that deal with social, generational and demographic matters and is widely regarded as one of Australia's leading social commentators.

The panel included NSW Business chamber regional general manager Jane Laverty who was MC of the event, and there was a live panel discussion which featured prominent industry leaders: Shelley Oldham, general manager Lismore City Council; Pamela Brook, co-founder of Brookfarm, Ben Roche, vice-president (engagement) at SCU, Max den Exter SCU student, and Bernard Salt.

The panel discussed the findings of Mr Salt's research into the region and debated how its towns and villages could best position itself for the future.

And there was plenty of ideas of how the Northern Rivers should look like in 30 to 50 years, from the best food region in Australia, to being a place where young people wanted to be.

Speaking as a representative for young people on the Northern Rivers, Mr den Exter said there were three issues to consider in keeping young people in the region.

"It's education, it's social," he said.

"I've got friends who've come and started a degree but the social aspect hasn't been there.

"The third thing is opportunity - jobs - to keep the youth financially sustainable.

"The tricky thing is how do we achieve that? It's a million-dollar question.

"If we can keep those young people here... there is a flow-on effect for all types of industry.

"It's important to stop the stigma of, 'I'm leaving home because that's what everyone else has done'."

Mr Salt said there was nothing to lose by being "outrageously ambitious" for the future of the Northern Rivers.

"There should be no limitations, none whatsoever," he said.

He said during the panel discussion Australia will lead in agri-tech and smart farming and urged Southern Cross University to become a leader in the sector and to lobby the government to fund a centre of excellence.

"There will be a university and there will be a town that leads the way there in 10 or 15 years…will it be SCU in Lismore?," he asked.

Mrs Brook said the region was unique in its beauty, and it needed to be projected.

"We have to capture a bit of what it's like to live here because people come back to this region because they want to live here," she said

"There's a great sense of place because of what we do.

"The key thing is to find the common goals and find the things that make us feel proud."

Ms Laverty said: "Never be afraid to aim high and miss, it's worse to aim too low and hit."