Wed. Dec 1st, 2021

While working to do his PhD in social technological research at Stanford University in the 1980s, William Rifkin ’78 examined how a water quality control board in California handled disputes over the cost of cleaning up pollution. The board was entirely Republican, although its technical staff initially seemed democratic ত yet 99% of the time, the parties reached a mutually agreed decision. How? Rifkin, after taking evidence from polluting companies, board staff and environmental groups, finally came to the conclusion that the most fruitful exchange takes place when experts allow themselves to be interrupted. Interacting with anyone who lets you ask questions builds empowerment and connections, Rifkin says, whose career focus is improving dialogue between experts and non-experts.

Emeritus, now a professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia, recently retired from the role of chair in the applied regional economy at the school’s Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) Center. “Communication has two elements – an information part and a relationship part,” he says. “They are involved in a way that cannot be isolated.”

Born in the United States, Rifkin moved to Australia after completing his PhD. He settled down, met his wife and stayed for the rest of his career. He credits his study of MIT physics that makes him interesting in the social aspects of science and teaches him to look beyond professional doctrine to solve problems.

Nearly a decade ago, the University of Queensland hired Rifkin to determine how communities in a rural area are being affected by development to extract natural gas from underground coal seams. His answer: Stress: Due to rising housing prices, the arrival of new workers, and concerns about pollution and health. Pro-gas and anti-gas teams lacked the means to be productively involved, but his team has developed a toolkit that has helped industry, government and community partners assess social and economic impacts. “It describes what is happening in these communities in a language that is recognized by local residents and is also understood in the seat of power,” he said.

As director of the HRF Center, Rifkin has been instrumental in establishing a civic leadership alliance focused on the long-term interests of the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales. Within a year, the committee for Hunter helped the federal government make a huge investment to upgrade the region’s airports.

Rifkin says the general idea of ​​all his work is that helping people speak is only half the battle. Dialogue, he says, “suspends power relations, enabling people to actually listen to each other.”

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