OpinionGetting Hunter stakeholders on same page

OpinionGetting Hunter stakeholders on same page

What would it take to align competing views of the Hunter in government, industry and the community, to build regional consensus, synergies and attract investment?
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BRIDGE BUILDING: Will Rifkin delivers his recent New Professor’s Talk.

Misalignment and disagreement have many causes, including marginalisation of certain voices and domination by others. Those who feel disenfranchised can block agreement and change. These problems are compounded when questions are significant, outcomes are long-lasting, and uncertainty is high. Consider the nation’s energy mix and the planned closure of Liddell power station. What about the balance between the Hunter’s mining economy, agriculture, a rising service economy, opportunities for innovation, and desires to preserve community character?

One way to build a bridge between people with different areas of expertise, experience, interests, and values is through ‘dialogue’. In dialogue, strongly held assumptions and pre-existing relationships of power are momentarily suspended.

One can support dialogue through creation of something with a common meaning for the participants. That can serve as a springboard for conversation, drawing on each person’s expertise and insight. Such a tool is known as a ‘boundary object’, a term from the academic field of technology studies. What sort of boundary object could foster effective dialogue about key decisions for the Hunter?

The Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) Centre at the University of Newcastle has been creating such boundary objects for years. They are embodied in results from its quarterly Pulse surveys and analysis of other key social and economic indicators.

We are making them easier to access and use. We will be drawing on results of a $2million research effort addressing the changes in Queensland’s Darling Downs agricultural area due to $40billion in onshore natural gas development. This work was funded by the coal seam gas industry and the University of Queensland (UQ).

My team at UQ sought to develop a boundary object that stakeholders in different sectors would find meaningful and revealing. We had people from the communities, government, and industry prioritise a small set of social and economic indicators.

The research produced the Boomtown Toolkit. It was employed to create an annual report on trends in these socioeconomic indicators measured over 15 years.

Even just a single indicator – the rent on a three-bedroom house – helps us to understand the ‘system dynamics’ underlying a boom-bust-recovery cycle. The small set of indicators agreed on have helped to stimulate a shift in the regional conversation to address the distribution of benefits and burdens.

The HRF Centre is working on Hunter indicators. The priority indicators – e.g. population, primary school enrolment, mobile phone volumes, employment – would be selected by key stakeholders from the community. The data would then be ‘ground-truthed’ via local interviews, which can explain cause-and-effect relationships.

These Hunter indicators would be accessible on phones or laptops. They could de-mythologise debates about the region’s future and potentially attract more strategic investment. This sort of inclusive boundary object can help to put different parties ‘on the same page’.

For the complete New Professors Talk, visithrf苏州夜总会招聘.au/news-events/events

Professor Will Rifkin is director of HRF Centre