Don't be a stranger

From Beyond Social

Author: Kees Dorst

Prof. Kees Dorst on finding common ground in Sydney

Kees Dorst, photo made by Dick Rijken during a workshop in Hong Kong


Sydney is a sprawling city of six million people across half a pancake with a diameter of 100 km. Many communities that are quite isolated from one another, as villages within the city. Immigrants – a category that apart from the Aboriginal communities of course includes everybody in Australia – tend to come in waves, with the influx being dominated by people from a certain part of the world in different periods of time. Whereas the issues of a multicultural society in The Netherlands are exacerbated by the fact that people are very close together, and have to deal with each other (and their differences) on a day to day basis, the abundance of space in Australia means that communities spread out. They live quite separate from one another, and tend to largely keep to themselves. Thus the society looks like getting by without too much friction, because the various groups simply do not need to meet. But then sometimes there are problems that require a common approach, or resources to be shared – in these tests, the true ‘problem solving ability’ of society shows itself.

The problem: radicalisation

Researchers and students from the Designing Out Crime research centre at the University of Technology Sydney were approached by a local council authority to look into the problem of violence and radicalising Islamic youth in a specific area in Western Sydney. The briefing was to come up with an antiradicalisation strategy and a suite of measures that could be implemented by government agencies (Counter Terrorism Police, Local Council, Social Work, etc...). The researchers and students set to work, using the Frame Innovation approach that is core to the research centre [Dorst,2015]. The first step in this approach is called ‘Archeology’, and entails a careful study of the problem’s orginal context, centering on the question: ‘what has been done before to solve this issue, and to what extent has this helped’? This first step gave an unexpected turn to the anti-radicalisation project, and forced us to think again.

Look, and look again

What did we find? In this neighbourhood, among the sprawling suburbs in the hills of Western Sydney, a recent influx of people from the Middle East has brought the Islamic faith into the community. Because there was no obvious other place to come together, the new arrivals had adopted the local library, set in a park, as their place for gathering and prayer. The very visible gathering of a whole Islamic community for Friday prayers was perceived as an invason by the other users of the park and library. The local council disapproved, and forbade the practice. Then anonymous perpetrators set fire to the library, causing extensive damage. Local suspicion centered on the Islamic community. The gutting of the library building and the ongoing conflicts are seen as clear sign of religious fanaticism, and this had led to the framing of the problem as one of radicalisation. In this day and age, fear of strangers is never far away, and the continuous media coverage of the exploits of ISIS inevitably has its effects on local communities, creating tensions that easily escalate beyond the problem solving capacity of the local community and its public sector organisations. The use of the now rebuilt library remains a hugely contentious issue in the area, with strong opinions on both sides expressed loud and clear.

It was clear that the framing of this problem as one of radicalisation was not just misguided, but actively kept people from addressing and solving the underlying issues. It reminded us of a case study in Holland, that was earlier described in the book ‘ Frame Innovation’ – (abridged version:)

An early example of a project that pioneered a completely different approach …(…) took place in the late 1990s in the city of Amsterdam. It was sparked by the pressing issues of a neighborhood that had seen a substantial influx of immigrants from Turkey and Morocco. These new communities introduced a different culture to the old area, now vibrant with ‘Eastern’ shops and newly built mosques. In their midst still lived an ageing Dutch population (Dutch families with children tended to move away from this area, to the suburbs) who were feeling more and more lost within their familiar surroundings. They perceived the neighborhood as going downhill: some public spaces were vandalized and the influx of new people did not contribute to an inclusive social network. Everybody kept more or less to themselves, and while there were no immediate problems, the social structure was felt to be close to collapse [De Gruijter et al, 2010]. From interviews, researchers learned that many of the recent (and not-so-recent) arrivals saw their existence in this cold, wet country as temporary - they intended to return to Turkey or Morocco when they were old. This actually didn’t happen at all, the first generation immigrants stayed with their kids who had grown up in the new country. However while these children (‘the second generation’) stayed, the first generation migrants did not adopt Holland as their new ‘home’, inadvertently creating enclaves where they could feel comfortable among themselves, but often not connecting into broader Dutch society. This larger social drama was played out on a local scale in this particular part of the city. Later, the Amsterdam Historic Museum coordinated a project to collect stories about this neighborhood by interviewing the older Dutch population, to give a sense of depth to the place (what could be called ‘a deep map’ [Least Heat Moon, 1999]). A website was created in which these anecdotes were displayed [1], and the website was advertised locally. In the end, people from the Turkish and Moroccan communities also got involved, relating their own experiences of arriving and living the area. When they started recounting stories about the life in the places where they came from, the project staff realized that they did not come from ‘Turkey’ or ‘Morocco’, but that each community was rooted in just a few specific villages in rural areas of those countries. The older Dutch population could relate to these stories of rural life - they were not that different from their family histories one or two generations back, when their own ancestors moved to the city from the Dutch countryside. The network of stories expressed many more common values than anybody could have imagined, and created avenues for further contact and understanding. This made a real difference in defusing tensions and improving the capacity of the neigbourhood to deal with any problems that might arise - including vandalism and the issues around loitering teenagers. Years later, this particular website is still active, with stories spanning the whole city.

The resilience of a society comes from what people have in common – that may not be obvious at the surface, but there always is a deeper common ground . We are convinced that the ONLY way to resolve these complex and divisive societal issues is to dig deeper and deeper until we reach the common ground. Then we can build new initiatives that give shape to what binds us, designing for the common good.

Moving forward

So, what to do in this area of Sydney?

Within the frame creation approach, we bypass the way the problem as initially been framed (in this case, as a radicalisation issue) and held in place by the core stakeholders. We take a much broader Field of possible stakeholders into account, and from this much broader view, the deeply underlying human Themes emerge that allow us to take a fresh look at the issues, and reframe in a way that they become amenable to solution. So, what is important in this community? What are the dangers, where can a feeling or perception of alienation make things far far worse?

In the end, one of the most promising frames focused on the plight of young people in the area. Feeling at home, forming your identity and building up a sense of self-worth in a hostile environment is hard, it is a brittle process that can be easily derailed. The feeling of being lost can easily escalate to the point where the sense of belonging created by an extreme group begins to feel like a solution. Radicalisation is around the corner: for some the draw of radical Islam, for others the draw of a far-right movement… Then there is the frustration that comes from thwarted ambition: the sense that the life you would like to lead (as presented in the media) is out of reach – convinced that an honest job will never get them there, some turn to the fasttrack to success: a career in gangs and crime. It seems that the terrorist groups have realised this, as their recruiting activities have turned away from religious fanatics towards a focus on ensnaring small criminals. A strong religious orientation is not a prerequisite anymore… (as illustrated by an incident two years ago, when a young man traveling to ISIS territory quickly bought ‘Islam for Dummies’ before setting out –obviously not a fanatic believer).

The park

The solution direction under discussion with the community right now is to actually give the management of the park over to the local youths – a frame that was sparked by thinking about School Camps, and the role they can play in a person’s life: they represent a defining experience away from the normal structures of authority, empowering youth by helping them learning to deal with their new agency and responsibility (building up pride and much more: one of our staff worked as a School Camp counsellor, and he has an in-depth insight into the role these camps can have in growing up).

We are confident that the different groups of youth in the area will discover that they have much in common – across the cultural and religious divides of the different communities. The serious issues and great challenges they encounter in growing up in this neighbourhood are the very factors that can bind them. They have much more in common than they know – and perhaps more than the older generation. But then giving the youth the management of the park gives them a broad responsibility in the community, beyond the confines of this narrow group, and challenges them to build up an acute understanding and empathy across all the different stakeholders. As it happens the park is up for redevelopment, and there is a window of opportunity to create a temporary ‘community lab’ there as a locus for these conversations. The discussions among the youth groups and with the wider community are going to be difficult, but they are absolutely the right discussions, the ones that needed to be had for a long time. The park redevelopment is an ideal basis (pretext?) for these discussions, and channels the energy away from the undoubtedly deep rooted differences of opinion among such a very diverse group of stakeholders by bringing in the concrete need to make something together, in the end. The park is a metaphor for society. For the youth leading the process, the crux is that you can’t be a stranger in your own area when you are so centrally involved in making it better. As to the redeveloped park, well, the litmus test for the quality of a public space is if people bring their kids there... We are looking forward to seeing how that is going to unfold.

We have asked the powers that be (Counter Terrorism Police, etc…) to step back, for a while, which of course is the hardest thing to do. This is a brittle moment, still. We know from earlier projects [Dorst, 2015] that this strategy of transferring the responsibility to youth can work wonders. But we are holding our breath: one more incident of violence, one newspaper article calling for ‘action’ and the authorities might be tempted to intervene again, using the usual Law-and-Order approach. Disenfranchising youth, singling them out, treating them like criminals or radcial extremists can easily trigger the very behaviour that these measures are set to prevent. We have to be so careful about how we frame such social problems. In taking the Hippocratic Oath, medical doctors promise to think before they act, pledging to ‘Do no harm’. In these complex social situations, this is not as easy as it seems…


While Frame Creation is an incredibly powerful approach to solving complex societal problems, these wonderful projects remain very vulnerable for all of the above reasons. The bottom line is that for these developments to happen at scale, existing organisations in a sector will need to develop beyond tolerating these projects to actually leading them. The old approaches do not work anymore, we need to create the new Rules of the Game. This is why we are now starting the Game Changers Studios…

In the Game Changers Studios we set out to create the new rules of the game through a thoughtful, bottom-up approach – based on the proof-of-concept and the deep insights from projects like the one presented in this brief paper. Over 8 years of Frame Innovation projects in the Designing Out Crime centre, we have shifted from more or less reactive approaches to crime prevention to a focus on creating a society that is more resilient in the face of its challenges. This focus on the inner strength and resilience of a society, rather than the creation of outward measures, is a huge cultural shift for our partners within the Criminal Justice System. With them we create the new practices, the new network of organisations (inevitably spanning knowledge and people from many silo’s in society) and the new strategies that are so desperately needed.

Kees Dorst, Professor of Design Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney, director of Design Out Crime Research Centre (DOC) Australia.