Apartheid in Leeds?

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness”.  And I see a surfeit of ‘apartheid’ in development processes in our city.

Let’s look at the ‘Vision for Leeds’.  In its official version I believe this is a statutory requirement for the council to produce.  It has a website and a series of workshops each aimed at a different sector.  Cultural types are kept apart from third sector types.  Business people have their own workshop provision.   But there is also an ‘unofficial’ vision being developed by the very wonderful ‘Together for Peace’ crew.  Again I was invited to a workshop for ‘business people’.

We have myriads of other networks in Leeds. We have them for start-up entrepreneurs; for artists and cultural types; we have them for financiers and digital creatives.  We have them for hi-tech businesses and university spin-offs.  We have them for community development workers and just about every niche you can imagine.

But they nearly all require you to adopt a label, and nearly all separate you from others who don’t.  Trying to find a truly diverse network is not easy.

Now in many ways this is not a problem.  If I want to join a network to explore the latest development in double glazing then a network for double glazing specialists hits the nail on the head.

However if I want to search for ways to make progress on the problems and  opportunities facing a complex system like the City of Leeds then I had better make sure the groups I work with contain enough diversity.  That, as the systems thinkers say, we have the ‘whole system in the room’.    The beauty of large group methodologies is not that they give us powerful ways to work with large groups – but that they give us powerful ways to work with the diversity that is necessary if we are to find whole system approaches to complex challenges.  When we practice apartheid we chop the large group methodologies off at the knees.  They become nice processes with weak outcomes.

We also fragment what should be whole.  So we have a group of ‘business people’ looking at ‘the economy’.  We have a group of ‘artists’ looking at ‘culture’.  And we have the third sector looking at ‘Big Society’.  These are all facets of the same problem and we are unlikely to come up with useful interventions by consulting in isolation and hoping that we can stitch things back together later in the process.

So next time how about doing the work to get a really diverse group in the room and who knows what new ideas we might be able to spark and what new relationships we might be able to develop.

What do you think?  Have I exaggerated the problem?

Or might it be that an unconscious level of apartheid could be a major barrier to real progress in the City?


  1. ruth.steinberg says:

    Made me think, Mike. When is it important that people of like come together because they have something in common, unspoken similarities and so can start from a different place. However your point that we are coralling people and making assumptions that only artists can contribute to culture etc is missing out. It is probably fear, and complexity in how you can get people to both speak out and to listen. I’ll carry on cogitating. Thanks for the input.

  2. Mike – I am afraid the reference to Apartheid here is just plain offensive. There are many in the city who were involved in opposing the old regime in South Africa – and whatever our local problems we have nothing that can be described as Apartheid.

    I do not disagree with the idea of getting large groups of people from accross the sectors together – and sometimes in the Leeds Initiative we do just that – with the Leeds Initiative assembly last May being a prime example. We cannot always do that – and smaller groups need to progress themes and projects

    No one is ‘kept apart’ – all the groups in our network include public/private and 3rd sector folk- trying to take the city forward. So it is not just business people looking at the economy – nor just artists looking at culture -but a cross section of people, and we work with good colleagues like Together for Peace too (whose event is a great contribution to developing a new city Vision – not an alternative enterprise).

    I am open to improvement and a better way…… but there is no need for words like Apartheid.

    • Apologies for ANY offence caused. It is simply an Afrikaans word that means ‘separateness’. I know that there were many in the city who opposed it. I would include myself amongst them. I am sure we also had our fair share who supported it too….but this is not about South African political history.

      My observation is that often (not always), when we facilitate large groups we reduce diversity by composing the groups according to labels such as ‘artists’, ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘third sector’, ‘digital’ etc. We rarely seek truly diverse groups to work with – even when we have the technologies to do the job. This is often a reflection of how we divide up our resources and hold those who use them to account.

      I am not suggesting that people are kept apart intentionally – but we are nonetheless often ‘kept apart’. It is a common mistake when developing strategy to bring groups together based on their similarities. Strategy gets interesting when the groups that develop it are put together because of their differences. However it always remains problematic for reasons I have discussed elsewhere.

      We have economic development strategies based on clusters and sectors that mean we have networks for creatives and technologists that rarely (if ever) overlap. We have managed workspaces for different sectors and clusters. If you are in the right sector you might be able to access support. In the wrong sector – perhaps not.

      When you look at it, the evidence of ‘apartheid’ or ‘separatedness’, if that causes less offence, in our thinking is all around us. We have structures for Children, for the Economy, for Culture, for Safety, for Harmony and for the Environment. We seek solutions and insights primarily through analysis and separation. Rarely through synthesis and integration. We create vibrant spaces in which the rich can work and play while those who can’t afford it move further into the margins of the city.

      The Leeds Initiative Assembly sounds like an inclusive gathering, that I had not heard of. A little research shows its membership to be, “The existing Leeds Initiative Board members, Members of the new Going up a League and Narrowing the Gap Boards, Members of the Leeds Initiative strategy and development groups, The chairs and lead officers of the sub-groups of the strategy and development groups, Others as appopriate” (sic). It meets once or twice a year. Last published minutes that I can find – December 2008. http://www.citycentreleeds.com/page.aspx?id=88

      I am not accusing anyone of practicing ‘apartheid’. I am saying that ‘separateness’ is a consequence of much public policy and strategy development processes that may not always help when trying to develop an integrated vision for Leeds.

      And we should at least reflect on that.

      As we should reflect on the question ‘Do we really needs a single Vision for Leeds?’. Who will it serve? And how?

      So once again apologies for using a word that has caused offence. That was not my intention.

  3. Simon Cooke says:

    The other question is ‘who gets invited’ – these groups are almost always self-referenced and (it could be said) elitist. We make jokes about the ‘usual culprits’ or ‘the great and good’ but that is the reality. As importantly (in my experience which is considerable when it comes to these events) challenge is neither encouraged nor welcomed – the processes used are designed to create lowest common denominator solutions and to get acquiesence to a received wisdom and a prior sets of presumption about the desired ‘vision’.

    We need a group who have no purpose other than to challenge the assumptions and presumptions of visioning – from every direction.

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