IT Pro

Hunter's digital new beginning

Which valley has a tech industry that produces military war game simulators, globally awarded website design and analytics software worth $500,000 a pop?

The Hunter Valley has quietly grown a crop of successful tech companies of which Bohemia Interactive Simulations and Newism are some of the better known.

Now an ambitious group of business people has launched a bid to transform Newcastle and the Hunter region into a global digital mecca by 2020.

''We've got all the talent and lots of small technology and creative companies but our narrative around the region is purely minerals,'' said Gordon Whitehead, vice-president of the Hunter DiGiT taskforce.

Newcastle lays claim to fast growing websites, Network Ten's partly owned sports opinion site, The Roar, pop culture site Lost at E Minor and recruitment site Startup Jobs, which was featured at the South by Southwest tech festival in the US.

''From the university we have microchip designers and a PhD student who speaks around the world about her theories on the modern museum,'' Whitehead said.

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''We're not going to be as big as Sydney, but we have the lifestyle, connectivity and a culture of innovation - and we have lots of space.''

The Hunter Digital Innovation Growth Industry Taskforce (DiGiT) was incorporated a month ago to turn the Hunter Valley into a leading digital economy by lifting the technology literacy of local businesses.

The taskforce's first event, Digital Expo 2012, attracted more than 300 people on Friday. It ran sessions on how local businesses used the latest technology to reinvent themselves.

Shoeboxed, GeoOp, Unleashed Software, Microsoft and local companies Newism, Insider Jobs and Nimbler were among the exhibitors. Hunter Medicare Local demonstrated its trial of a government-funded telehealth project.

Brisbane City Council hosted a similar event last month. The Queensland capital is also pursuing a digital strategy.

Whitehead is undeterred by the slow pace of the installation of the national broadband network (NBN), which will not arrive in Newcastle for another 2½ years. He says it will not cover some areas, forcing them to rely on wireless instead.

''In a way the NBN is irrelevant to us because the digital economy is here. There's no point in waiting for the NBN to get here. We have the talent and we need to push the agenda,'' he said.

The City of Steel has sought to reinvent itself several times since BHP shut down more than a decade ago. It was among the first cities in Australia to look at the potential of broadband a decade ago but failed to secure a deal with an international provider, said Paul Budde, an analyst at research consultancy BuddeComm, based in the lower Hunter Valley. An attempt to brand the city as a leader in green policies had limited success but lacked a holistic approach.

''If they have learned from their mistakes, this could be third time lucky,'' Budde said. Cross-sector, grassroots support was just as necessary as buy-in from mayors and chief executives of key businesses in determining the success of regional strategies, he said.

''You need to tap in to the local champions that already exist. As we have seen so far, all major digital breakthroughs have come from the bottom up and most of the time from the younger generation.''

Sholto Macpherson is the editor of BoxFreeIT.com.au.

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