Byron Dreaming: Where will we be in 10 years?

November 29th, 2019

The Byron area is continually going through growth and changes. Not everyone is happy about this so there may be some consolation in knowing what these changes may look like. Predicting the future is pretty random and unscientific. But science fiction writer, William Gibson once said: ‘The future is already here, just badly distributed’. Therefore, it may be possible to see the future in observing what is already showing up.

Rise of the Creative Class

The Byron area has traditionally been an attractive destination for the bookend generations – Baby Boomers and the “young and restless”. This retiree cycle is starting to wind down as the Boomers come of age and settle into the sunset years. The young have been flocking to Byron for the last 50 years and will continue for the next 50. There is now a new demographic discovering Byron – the Creative Class.

The Creative Class is a phenomenon discussed widely by the social scientist and economist, Richard Florida. Practitioners of Creative Industries used to congregate in inner cities and IT hubs. With better commuting and relaxed employment regimes, they can now work from almost anywhere. Small, agile internet-based businesses no longer need to be in the city and are seeking out better locations for their more discerning workers.

The NBN fiber-optic roll-out has just completed in Tweed Heads and is starting on the north of the shire. We will see the number of tech and online businesses expand as download speeds improve. The Habitat development in the Byron Arts and Industrial Estate is a forerunner of this trend. Byron’s biggest employer just a few years ago was the Ingham chicken factory on Ewingsdale Road. Now the biggest business is an online travel company – TripaDeal. There is even a Byron business employing over 20 people who provide top-end CGI animation graphics to Hollywood studios.

Millennials are singing from the same songbook as Gen X and Y. The label Digital Nomads has been around for a decade or so, identifying the growing tribe of people in the 20s and 30s wandering the planet supposedly armed only with a laptop and a yoga mat. A new type of development is being built to cater to them – upmarket hostels with good wi-fi, relaxed and quiet work areas, and healthy food options such as juice bars and organic cafes. These specialty hubs are already visible in hipster-friendly locations like Costa Rica, Ubud in Bali and Sri Lanka or parts of Spain.

Digital Nomads are not interested in buying a property or settling down – just yet. The Creative Industry entrepreneurs want to, but do not want to live in suburbia or traditional apartment blocks. Watch out for more diverse structures like work/live complexes, terraces, co-housing, co-working offices, walk or bicycle distance from vibrant and busy cultural hubs. The local developer, The Kollective is already out there cashing in on this trend, providing smaller dwellings, but big on design and aesthetics.

Specialty Produce

Tourism is still the main industry driving Byron’s economy. We now have 2.2 million visitors each year. I had assumed the ‘wellness industry’ – spas, retreats, yoga, and therapies – would become the next big employer in the Shire. But the data is cloudy as a lot of the turnover in accommodation also includes wellness-based retreats.

The biggest growth recently has not been in wellness, but specialty produce. Many food businesses are gaining a positive profile by leveraging the ‘Made in Byron’ brand. The four majors in this space are Byron Bay Cookie Company, Stone and Wood Brewery, Salumi Smallgoods and Brookfarm Australia, best known for its muesli, but which describes itself as ‘Australia’s leading producer of Premium Quality Macadamia products’.

There are another 20 or so smaller companies which are expanding quickly. The Mullumbimby Industrial Estate now has its third complex dedicated as a food manufacturing hub. Value-added products like activated nuts, organically grown produce, vegan foodstuffs, kombucha drinks and gourmet items such as olives, bread, and coffee are examples. These businesses will only keep growing as the rising middle class in Asia seek out clean, green foodstuffs they can trust. If you are in doubt about the coming transition to vegetarianism and plant-based proteins have a look at this film available as a download or on Netflix – The Game Changer.

Byron Council is peddling hard trying to keep up with the rising demand for industrial land to cater to this. Most of the shire’s industrial land is already full and Byron A and I Estate is bursting at its seams. They do have a policy in place for this but it could take years to roll out. More info on their Employment Land Strategy is here.

Climate Change Resilience

This is a vague term for a difficult subject. The recent fires and lack of rain have galvanised many people into considering how to adapt and manage the future in a changing environment. The smart money is now moving past the idea of halting climate change and looking at options and activities that can, hopefully, make it more manageable.

Tree planting and forest regen is a growth industry. Some landholders in the Byron hinterland are keen on the idea of recreating patches of the ‘Big Scrub’, the native dense rainforest cover of the Mt Warning caldera before European settlement. These initiatives are not completely altruistic. Assuming there will still be a demand for quality furniture and timber products in 30–50 years, sustainably harvested native Australian hardwoods will be an extremely valuable resource. Primary production also provides a tax incentive.

Home insulation, air conditioning, fireproofing, solar PVs and batteries and microgrid installations will be products and services in increasing demand. Home gardens, rain tanks, bore drilling and water conservation and recycling technology will also be sought after. Regenerative agriculture will move from being a fringe activity to being mainstream. The overgrazed paddocks we drive past every day will gradually shift from the unsustainable dairy and beef cattle industries to high-value food production employing many people.

An essential element of surviving climate change will require a well-functioning and coherent civil society. This may seem like the hardest part but maybe not. Historically we have found the will to pull together in times of crisis. The resistance to change, especially from our established political class, may be swept away by necessity rather than choice.

Byron Shire could see itself at the cutting edge of many of these trends. Our early alternative settlers have been road testing many of these experimental technologies in unique and colourful ways for several decades. Rather than buy into the dismissive mainstream rhetoric that Byron Shire is a dole-bludging, hedonistic bubble, we have the opportunity to see ourselves as a can-do, pragmatic creator of planet-saving new paradigms. Could it be that the best and brightest have been moving here for a reason?

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