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?