Productive dialogue on power lines
While working toward his PhD in sociotechnical studies at Stanford University in the 1980s, William Rifkin ’78 examined how a California water quality control board handled disputes about the cost of cleaning up pollution. The board is entirely Republican, while its technical staff seems primarily Democratic — but 99% of the time, the sides reach similar resolutions. How? Rifkin examined testimony from polluting companies, board staff, and environmental groups, who ultimately concluded that the most productive exchanges occurred when experts allowed themselves to be distracted. Engaging with someone who will allow you to ask questions is empowering and building a connection, says Rifkin, whose career focus is to foster dialogue between experts and non-experts.
Now a professor emeritus at the University of Newcastle in Australia, he recently retired from his role as chair of apply regional economics at the school’s Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) Center. “Communication has two elements — an information part and a relationship part,” he said. “They’re connected in an unbreakable way.”
Born in the US, Rifkin came to Australia after his PhD. He lived, met his wife, and remained so throughout his career. He committed to his physics studies at MIT that interested him in the social aspect of science and taught him to look beyond professional dogma to solve problems.
Nearly a decade ago, the University of Queensland hired Rifkin to find out how communities in a rural area were affected by developments to extract natural gas from underground resources. coal seam. His answer: stress — because of rising house prices, an influx of new workers, and concerns about pollution and health. The pro-gas and anti-gas factions lack ways to participate productively, but his team has developed a toolkit that has helped industry, government, and community partners evaluate the social impacts. and economics. “It describes what is happening in these communities in a language that is recognized by local residents and can also be understood by the seats of power,” he said.
As director of the HRF Center, Rifkin has played a key role in building a civic leadership coalition that focuses on the long -term interests of the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales. For a year, the Committee for the Hunter helped land a large federal government investment to upgrade the region’s airport.
Common to all of his work, Rifkin said, was the idea of helping people speak up for only half the battle. Dialogue, he says, “suspends power relations, enabling people to actually hear each other.”