By Toby SkinnerJanuary 21st 2021

Last year was a challenging one for Shetland and its economy. But 2021 looks set to be a year of change and innovation, from fishing to renewable energy and space.

Building a space economy

This will be the year that the new Shetland Space Centre breaks ground in the northeast corner of Unst, Shetland’s northernmost island, with plans for test launches ahead of Lockheed Martin’s Pathfinder programme in May 2022 – the first commercial small satellite rocket launch from the UK.

“This is a chance for Shetland to lead the rest of the UK and create a whole new road map,” says Yvette Hopkins, a former Director of Intelligence for the US Army who is now the Executive Vice President of the Shetland Space Centre. “But it’s about more than just rockets. It’s a chance for us to build a Shetland space economy.”

It’s about more than just rockets. It’s a chance for us to build a Shetland space economy

The UK Space Agency predicts that the Shetland Space Centre will create 140 new local jobs by 2024. “Those new jobs don’t just include local engineers and manufacturers who will have a big part to play, or fishermen who can help with the logistics of launches,” says Hopkins. “We also want to develop Shetland’s data analysis, so that the islands can benefit from the satellites we’re launching – whether that means tracking the algae that might be dangerous to local mussel farms, or tracking rubbish collection in real time. We want Shetland to be a smart island.”

Yvette also sees the space centre as a boon to tourism and education. There are plans for launch-based tourism packages, space exhibitions and an artist-in-residence, while Hopkins hopes that Brian May’s Starmus astronomy and space exploration festival might soon be held in Shetland. With the project already involving leading academics from around the world, there are opportunities for new courses and learning opportunities at the Shetland College UHI, and even the NAFC.

“There’s already an amazing number of smart, innovative people on Shetland, with so many engineers and problem-solvers from the oil and fishing industries,” says Hopkins. “Shetland was incredibly fast to create an oil economy in the 1970s, and we’re hopeful we can create a space economy just as fast.”

Heading for carbon neutrality

Shetland hopes to be carbon neutral by 2030, and to provide five per cent of the UK’s clean energy needs by 2050 – generating £5bn of revenue for the region and creating 1,750 new local jobs in the process. That process will shift gears this year, with the Viking Energy project breaking ground on the first of 103 wind turbines, which are hoped to be operational by 2024. Taking advantage of some of the most consistent winds in Europe, the Viking project is part of a wider shift towards green energy on the islands, with offshore windfarms being considered, and plans to use existing oil and gas facilities to develop ways of storing carbon and developing clean hydrogen.

Meanwhile, Nova Innovation will continue to develop the world’s first offshore tidal energy array in the Bluemull Sound between Yell and Unst. Like the Shetland Space Centre, it puts Shetland at the heart of a UK plan to lead the world in a future-facing industry. “It’s the chance for the UK to be a world leader in a virtually untapped energy source,” says Nova Innovation’s Engineering Director Gary Connor. “And Shetland can be a huge part of that.”

Taking food and drink forward

While 2020 was difficult for many of Shetland’s food and drink producers, it also provided opportunities for some to find new revenue streams. Whalsay Made, Donna Polsen’s artisan preserve, chutney and pickle brand, saw a six-fold sales increase, driven by a new brand and increased digital sales to people wanting beautiful local food at home. Other brands have made similar shifts online – like Shetland Reel, which has invested in a new digital store and accountancy software, as well as hosting multiple online tastings, to grow digital sales of its gin and whisky.

Others have simply used the break of lockdown to grow their business. Like Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms, which in February is expanding from a tea room and gift shop to become an artisan farm shop, selling home-made and local food, including lamb from co-owner Victoria Mouat’s family croft.

More broadly, the Shetland Food and Drink umbrella group – which has shone a bright spotlight on Shetland’s great local produce since launching in 2017 – is ramping up its efforts this year. Now backed by Scotland Food and Drink, the group has a new strategy which includes gathering data on the turnover and headcounts of Shetland F&B businesses, in order to better help the sector. After a digital pivot in 2020 – which saw a doubling of sales on the Taste of Shetland online shop, and 45,000 viewers attend a successful digital version of the Taste of Shetland Festival – the group is hoping to blend real-world and digital events to reach a wider audience. In February, they’ll also facilitate video training so that members can up their marketing game online.

There are big real-world plans this year, too, with the team looking at buying a multi-use truck with cooking workstations, to be used for pop-ups around Shetland and beyond – as well as increasing the range of food tours for visitors if tourism opens up again. “We’ve visited places like Iceland to see how they tell stories around food,” says Shetland Food and Drink manager Claire White. “We’ve had a bit more time during lockdown to look at our strategy, and this year we’re raring to go.”

Gearing up the fishing industry

The Brexit deal may not have delivered the new quotas that Shetland’s fishing industry hoped for, but this year will see Shetland firm up its position as one of the most sustainable and innovative fisheries in Europe. The fish landed here tends to be particularly fresh (a result of Shetland’s proximity to fishing grounds) and sustainably-caught, often in sustainable seine netting.

“A lot of Shetland fish doesn’t just go to processors, but to high-value clients who respect quality,” says Sheila Keith, policy officer at the Shetland Fishermen’s Association. “We think the market for quality Scottish fish will still be there – and if supply is down, it might cause prices to rise.”

A lot of Shetland fish doesn’t just go to processors, but to high-value clients who respect quality

Whatever happens in the wider industry, Shetland is well set to capitalise, especially after completing the new white fish market in Lerwick last year – which more than doubled the size of the old market’s loading bays, adding a state-of-the-art temperature control system and a deepened dock so that larger boats can unload here. Whereas many fish markets around the UK have live auctions, including at Peterhead, the Shetland market has digital Dutch auctions, which count prices down and mean that anyone can bid from anywhere via an app. “We have a world-class product, an efficient supply chain and no restrictions to trade,” says Keith. “Whatever happens, Shetland fish will be at the front of the queue.”

Welcoming startups to the North Isles

The Shetland Mainland is already home to many digital businesses, including Lerwick software developers Mesomoprphic. Now the North Isles of Yell and Unst are being connected to the same superfast fibre broadband, and hoping to attract remote workers and small businesses. Part of the Shetland Space Centre plan is to renovate the little airstrip at Baltasound on Unst, with plans for a startup incubator to foster innovative local businesses like the local Pure Energy Centre, which provides clean energy products from hydrogen electrolysers to nitrogen compressors.

Meanwhile in Cullivoe, North Yell, the North Yell Development Council is hoping to complete a new pier project that will create a new marina and new office spaces with fast broadband, for individuals or small businesses. There are already plans for new ventures at the pier, including a new whelk farming business to join existing businesses like C & A Thomason Mussels and salmon farmers Cooke Aquaculture. Effectively a seaside workspace, it means the North Isles are primed for a new breed of digital nomad.

Welcoming new careers

With its mix of wild beauty and vibrant, self-sustaining economy, Shetland is well-placed to capitalise on wider global trends, including de-urbanisation and the rise of remote working. Between lockdowns, career changes and global politics, many people are itching for a change – and not many places offer the blend of opportunity and quality of life, especially for families, that Shetland does. Hence, there’s a huge opportunity in 2021 to bring more workers in key areas, from nurses to teachers, planners, engineers, digital workers and much more. When they come, they’ll find a rich life in a beautiful, sustainable, community-driven, family-friendly archipelago. Last year may have been tough for many, but there are opportunities ahead.