While pursuing his PhD in Social Engineering Research at Stanford University in the 1980s, William Rifkin ’78 studied how the California Water Quality Control Commission resolves controversy over the cost of cleaning up pollution. The board was completely republican, while its technical staff appeared to be largely democratic, but 99% of the time the parties came to mutually acceptable solutions. How? Rifkin analyzed the testimony of polluting companies, board members and environmental groups and ultimately concluded that the most productive exchanges took place when experts allowed themselves to interrupt. Interacting with someone who allows you to ask questions empowers and strengthens connections, says Rifkin, whose career has focused on improving dialogue between experts and non-experts.
He is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Newcastle in Australia and recently retired as Chair of the Department of Applied Regional Economics at the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) School Center. “Communication has two elements – the information part and the relationship part,” he says. “They are intertwined in such a way that they cannot be made out.”
Rifkin was born in the USA, after receiving his doctorate he left for Australia. He settled in, met his wife and stayed for his entire career. He believes that his physics studies at MIT got him interested in the social aspects of science and taught him to go beyond professional dogma to solve problems.
Nearly a decade ago, the University of Queensland hired Rifkin to determine how rural communities have been impacted by the development of natural gas from underground coal beds. His response: stress – due to soaring house prices, an influx of new workers and concerns about environmental pollution and health. Gas proponents and gas opponents lacked the means to productively interact, but his team developed a toolkit that helped industry, government and community partners assess the social and economic impact. “It described what was happening in these communities in a language that the locals knew and could also be understood in the centers of power,” he says.
As Director of the HRF Center, Rifkin played a key role in building a civil leadership coalition focused on the long-term interests of the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales. During the year, the Hunters’ Committee helped the federal government attract huge investments to modernize the regional airport.
Throughout his work, Rifkin says, the idea is that helping people speak is only half the battle. Dialogue, he said, “suspends power relations by allowing people to really hear each other.”