Friday, 17 November, 2017


What would it take to align competing views of the Hunter region in government, industry and the community, to build regional consensus, synergies and attract investment?

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 seen as long-lasting, and uncertainty is high. Consider the nation’s energy mix and the planned closure of the 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 invited participants. That can serve as a springboard for conversation, drawing on the expertise and insight that each person brings to the table. Such a tool is known as a ‘boundary object’, a term from the academic field of technology studies. But what sort of boundary object could foster effective dialogue about key decisions for the Hunter region?

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. These statistics are meant to enable people to have informed conversations about common concerns.

We are now making them easier to access and use. We will be drawing on results of a $2-million research effort addressing the changes in Queensland’s Darling Downs agricultural area due to $40-billion 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. These indicators characterised changes occurring in the region before, during, and after the surge in onshore natural gas development, during a period of drought, and in response to local government amalgamation.

The research produced the Boomtown Toolkit. The Toolkit was employed to create an annual report on trends in these socioeconomic indicators measured over a 15-year period. See the data and analysis at

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, who is ‘winning’ and who is ‘losing’. That is essential for a sensible, evidence-based, and inclusive conversation about needs and opportunities.

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

These Hunter regional indicators would be accessible on your phone or laptop. 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’.

Professor Will Rifkin
Director, HRF Centre

New Professors Talk -

This opinion piece was published in the Newcastle Herald on 25 October

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