Imagining 2070: What Wollongong's future holds as it celebrates 50 years as a city

Imagining 2070: What Wollongong's future holds as it celebrates 50 years as a city

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We will probably never guess how much the world will change in 50 years. But when it comes to housing, health, jobs and industry, great challenges lie ahead. Luckily, each of the University of Wollongong experts Future Focus' partner the Illawarra Mercury spoke to agreed that - if we act now - the city is uniquely placed to deal with many of these challenges.

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On October 30, 1970 the name City of Wollongong was officially gazetted. In the 50 years since, the city has changed dramatically.

Imagining Wollongong in 2070 is impossible.

In 1970, high-rise apartments which now dominate the CBD skyline would have seemed far-fetched. And how to explain the downfall of the retail sector facing our city and towns, and the online revolution which has spurred that on?

Would people buying the unwanted cliff-side mining homes in the northern suburbs ever believe their real estate would sell for millions, or that their suburbs would become so crowded with tourists on weekends that Lawrence Hargrave Drive would be almost permanently gridlocked?

Would Dapto residents ever believe that one day vast swathes of farmland next to the escarpment would become the city's most important housing project?

Would it have been imaginable the world would be told by the International Energy Agency that coal was now in certain decline; that we're only a few years away from renewable energy sources providing 80 per cent of the world's power?

Would we believe the university and hospital would far outweigh the steelworks when it came to jobs? And where would you even start to explain the climate-change induced bushfires of last summer, or the ways this once-in-a-century pandemic has changed us?

We will probably never guess how much the world will change in 50 years. But when it comes to housing, health, jobs and industry, great challenges lie ahead.

Affecting all four of these things is climate change. 2070 is the year the NSW government has pinpointed as the "far-future" in its modelling for the region, when minimum and maximum temperatures are projected to rise by two degrees in the Illawarra.

Here and around the country, there will be more "extra hot" days, far fewer cold nights, and more days of extreme fire danger. The region will also experience more extreme weather, like that which has caused some of our worst floods or coastal inundation events in the past 50 years.

Luckily, each of the University of Wollongong experts the Mercury spoke to about the next 50 years agreed that - if we act now - the city is uniquely placed to deal with many of these challenges.

An underappreciated asset for climate change in the future

Professor of Geography Chris Gibson said climate change was "our most profound challenge" which, along with rapidly changing technology, would make Wollongong a different city in 50 years time.

"The structure of our economy is already shifting with decarbonisation already underway and we need to look at what opportunities there are for an industrial region like Wollongong," he said.

"It won't be a seamless transition, where jobs in coal are replaced by jobs in solar, but it is within the industrial cultures that have been a source of pride for the Illawarra that you find the skills, with materials and systems, that are transferable.

"This know-how of industrial regions is an underappreciated asset for climate change in the future."

He also said technological changes could shift where and how we worked, and change the shape of Wollongong's city and town centres.

"Working from home using digital technology could be so much more prevalent, as we've seen in the pandemic - and that could mean there is an increasing push for people to move and live in very desirable places, which would be profound for Wollongong," he said.

"We could have vibrant residential communities with smaller pockets of energy spread across the city, instead of being concentrated in the city."

However, the desirability of the region could also lead to exacerbated problems related to population growth.

"I think there will be a lot of pressure on the Illawarra to absorb a larger population as Sydney grows and the pattern of work changes - and you don't want this to be running ahead of basic services and infrastructure," Prof Gibson said.

"We also might need to look at what kinds of developments we are putting forward, what shape are they taking and what are we actually locking into the built environment of the future that we might come to regret in the next 50 years."

My fear is that we're rushing ahead to accommodate larger populations too quickly, and throwing up cost-effective concrete boxes that we're going to regret in the coming decades. How easy will it be to retrofit this high-density environment into what we need in the decades to come? - Chris Gibson.

"Our research shows that a lot of the work in adapting to a climate change future is actually being done by low income households, households managed by women, and low density households - so the ability to be able to control your environment are enabled in a low density environment.

"My fear is that we're rushing ahead to accommodate larger populations too quickly, and throwing up cost-effective concrete boxes that we're going to regret in the coming decades. How easy will it be to retrofit this high-density environment into what we need in the decades to come?"

Future jobs must 'stay true to our past'

While Director of UOW's SMART Infrastructure Facility Professor Pascal Perez is hesitant to make any predictions for 50 years in the future, he says there are a number of scenarios which can at least give us a glimpse into the future of work in Wollongong over the next 15 to 20 years.

"If we do nothing we will end up with a massive increase in population, from where we are now we will have a potential workforce of between 150,000 to 170,000 people, and if we don't create jobs at a higher rate than what we have now we will put between 40,000-60,000 people on the road to Sydney or western Sydney to get a job," he said.

"Now we have roughly 20-25,000 [people commuting], and these extra people would have to use the same roads and the same train line, which would be hell for everyone.

"Wollongong would more and more be a city where people come to sleep - so that's the doom and gloom scenario."

Government agencies were trying to avoid this by doubling the number of jobs created in Wollongong between now and 2041, he said, which would require big changes - especially in the way the region was connected by road and rail to western Sydney.

Every region in Australia wants to have flourishing health, education and high-tech sectors, but there will be only a handful of winners and I think those will be the ones who are true to themselves, not forgetting who we were and what we stand for. - Professor Pascal Perez

"If we could double the creation of jobs over the next 20 years, we could probably have about 10,000 to 14,000 jobs more than we have now," he said, adding that improving the vibrancy and diversity of the city would also help attract new firms.

"So not everyone will have a job here, but if we have better connectivity then people who have to commute to Sydney or western Sydney will have a more enjoyable journey too."

As for the type of jobs that would be prevalent, Prof Perez said Wollongong needed to do more for both older and younger people.

"We have an ageing population in the region, because of a lot of immigration and more people want to retire here ... so we need aged care facilities and operators and to cater for more of that generation," he said.

"At the same time, we need to cater for a younger white collar, high-tech population."

He said in some ways the COVID pandemic had been a boon for places like Wollongong because people had started to think about work/life balance, and more tech companies and start-ups had begun looking outside Sydney.

However, he warned that as Wollongong moved towards more advanced manufacturing and other new jobs, the region must not forget its industrial past.

"Every region in Australia wants to have flourishing health, education and high-tech sectors, but there will be only a handful of winners and I think those will be the ones who are true to themselves, not forgetting who we were and what we stand for," he said.

"We should be honest with where we come from as a community, and where we want to go together."

A 'mecca' for health care and research

The university's Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Health and Communities, Professor Alison Jones, also said the region would be able to leverage its existing strengths to meet the health challenges that would occur over the next 50 years.

"I see the Illawarra becoming a bit of a mecca for ageing health delivery, and I see health and the education and health services being absolute pillars of the community moving into the future," Prof Jones said.

She said much of this would come from the existing health, research, care and education sectors (which already employ more people than any other industry), but that the Illawarra's focus on health research would attract technology companies to partner with researchers and manufacture devices which would revolutionise health care.

Prof Jones said that would mean that today's robotics and wearable devices would become implantable devices, monitoring systems and microchips that could adjust medication, leading to a more personal, less invasive model of care, especially for older people.

I see the Illawarra becoming a bit of a mecca for ageing health delivery, and I see health and the education and health services being absolute pillars of the community moving into the future - Professor Alison Jones

She also expects the university's many research units to make great strides by 2070, which will help the region (and world) to deal with new and unimaginable health challenges.

For instance, she said the focus - through places such as UOW's Early Start - on the first 1000 days of life would, over the long-term deliver "materially different health futures" for children who will become the adults of the next five decades.

There will also be a greater understanding of the genetic and protein basis of disease and, through the uni's Molecular Horizons research, there will be much better keys to unlock the molecules of disease.

"Some things in the next 50 years will be curable, that haven't been to date ... perhaps neurological degenerative disease, for example," she said.

"I hope that our current environment where we are focusing on the prevention and management of chronic diseases is successful, but humans being humans, I suspect we'll still face ageing and lifestyle related challenges."

Additionally, she said more pandemics were not off the cards, as diseases like COVID-19, which occur when animals and humans a closely co-located, become more likely in an increasingly populated world.

Likewise, climate change will throw up new health problems in Wollongong, such as respiratory diseases from more bushfires or insect-borne diseases that currently only affect the tropics.

"By then we'll be better with technology so we'll hopefully be able to stop these diseases before they become a problem," she said.

The final prediction Prof Jones made for life in 2070 was one that could have "an almost unimaginable" effect on human brains.

"I don't want to sound wanky, but by 2070 I think we will have quantum computing - which is basically computers that are able to think for themselves and teach themselves.

"So to what extent will human brains be able to adapt to artificial intelligence on that kind of level?

"If you have an assistant that's smarter than you, how will you use that assistant, and to what extent will human brains evolve to manage that technology for a better optimised life. We can almost not imagine the type of impact that will have."

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