'Culture' for regional development: has the coin dropped?

On Monday and Tuesday I was at the Australian Regional Economies Conference in Parkes, NSW. Invited to give a keynote about my research on the significance and contribution of festivals to rural and regional communities, it was also an opportunity to reflect on what recognition there is for 'culture' amongst regional development thinkers.

At the conference were people from many different backgrounds: council economic development officers; state government folk; shire mayors; businesspeople (and myself and my colleague John Connell as the token academics!).

My sense is that slowly, but surely, the coin is dropping that economic development for regional areas requires more than just understanding export markets or business leadership. Presentations touched on the underlying role that demographic change, ageing and youth migration play in shaping economic futures. In another presentation, amenity, lifestyle and sense of community were argued to be key drivers of regional development.

Lurking throughout the conference was a sense that cultural assets matter - whether they be community festivals, local gelato producers or more intangible features like the 'openness' of the community to newcomers, or the distinctiveness of local cultures in the national imaginary. It was hardly a revolutionary 'turn' in regional development thinking taking place, but I do think it was a lurking realisation at the conference that 'culture' matters.

Above all, my sense was also that there was a demographic or culture change occurring amongst the conference participants themselves. There is clearly an older, usually male, generation of regional development thinkers who have not really considered 'culture' a serious part of their universe. The idea of cultural assets is wierd stuff to them.

But then there were the newbies: often (but not always) younger, usually female, with backgrounds in psychology or tourism rather than town planning; they were cognisant to the importance of social processes and cultural traits for questions of regional development.

It will be intriguing to see whether this generational 'culture change' in regional development thinking will continue, and how it flows through into policy.