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23 Aug 2017

Design, Systems Thinking and Anti-radicalisation


We want to explore what role design can play in anti-radicalisation and the development of preventative activities.

Over the past few months, there have been four tragic terrorist attacks in the UK – in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, and Finsbury Park. These attacks cost the lives of 37 people and injured more than 224. We feel deeply troubled by this at Snook, and want to explore what role design can play in anti-radicalisation and the development of preventative activities.

At Snook, we’ve seen that design has the power to achieve positive change when applied to complex problems. Design research looks to gather insights, facts, and details on a particular subject matter in a real-world context as well as through face-to-face discussions, then use these insights to design actions in response. These emergent results can support systems, organisations, and policy on where to focus and what might create positive impact. By first researching what people need, organisations and policy-makers are provided with the information to make services work more effectively. We listen to people, look at system dynamics and based on these findings, determine actions that could be formed. Some actions are strategic others are taken into formed assets like service models, product designs or brand communications. In these complex and challenging times, we need to ask ‘who are these users in the system, what are the parameters of the systems and what are the user needs?’


In this context, we have to consider who are the users? We could say that in one sense, our user group is society as a whole. Terror attacks threaten our freedom and security, creating an atmosphere of insecurity, often perpetuated by the media – some say an act of theatre. There is a desire for individuals to be able to feel comfortable in daily life, to know that close friends and family are safe, but right now this is not being met. After these attacks, the families of both victims and attackers need support and protection through education, financial, and mental health services.

Other groups include communities most at risk of radicalisation and extremism who, through marginalisation, lack the opportunity to voice their own fears. It has been reported that the UK’s counterterrorism programme ‘Prevent’ is not working. Accusatory approach results in students being wrongly accused, and in staff feeling as if they are caught in limbo between not wanting to get it wrong and from missing the signs – it is still not addressing the issues at the core of the problem. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is reviewing the option to replace the programme with an alternative for “true community buy-in at a grassroots level.” Initiatives to counteract this should include the facilitation of diverse groups coming together to form a nationwide strategy for research.

Design is a powerful tool to connect charities, organisations, and campaigns. With positive work being done nationwide, it is an important time to collaborate on building the networks we need to prevent radicalisation and solve problems at their root cause. The Muslim Council of Britain is holding a consultation to hear what Muslim communities would like to replace Prevent and what services can be co-created with the government to counter acts of terrorism. How might user research and democratic digital platforms pull out topics in an inclusive and safe space?

Digital content

Considering the potential positive benefits the digital sphere might play, we must also acknowledge the role it plays in terrorist activity. As a means of intercepting and diffusing extremism, government are collaborating with industry and academia to stay on top of cutting edge technology. As terrorists exploit technology to spread radical material and to advance attacks, it is necessary for the counterterrorism bodies to continually benefit from new technological developments. This authoritative control over advanced technology presents a fine balance between security and privacy.

In response to the London Bridge attack, Theresa May said that there has been far too much tolerance of extremism” and insisted on a review of cyberspace regulations. This poses a threat our freedom of speech and privacy. Moderating the Internet to obstruct potential terrorists tackles some important aspects of the problem, but the root cause must still be addressed. At Snook, across much of our portfolio we’re promoting to look beyond ‘treatment’ but preventative measures, that consider a system wide approach to problem caring and ‘solving’. This is an extremely complex area, where there are no ‘answers’, but a system that perpetuates an issue. There is research in this space which considers preventative approaches however sometimes how these are manifested in schools, communities and areas haven’t be brought to life or ‘formed’.

Facebook have recently launched an initiative to counter extremist content on their platform. Furthermore, they use technology and experts to review and remove dangerous content. An increase in digital, verbal, and physical hate crime has been documented over the last few years. How might the systems of private companies integrate with nationwide preventative systems to counter terrorism and also ensure that the xenophobic material that is ingrained in our mainstream media and politics is not further fuelling these ideas?

Domestic violence

Another user group is victims of domestic violence, who are living with partners with the capacity for further attacks. Helen Lewis discusses the link between domestic violence and larger terrorist attacks in an article in the New Statesman. “Of mass killers between 2009 and 2015, 16 per cent had previously been charged with domestic violence.” In 2015, the Office of National Statistics published that, “two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner.” Hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing their own private terror at home, with 140,000 children being exposed to high-risk domestic abuse taking place. In a period of great political unrest, it is ever more important to take notice of these indicators and patterns in an attempt to prevent such acts from taking place.

These cases are mainly reported through organisations and charities such as SafeLives and Refuge. However, according to Women’s Aid, two-thirds of women in need of help are being turned away from refuges due to severe cuts. “Between 2010 and 2015, Conservatives cut local government funding by 51%, meaning 34 specialist refuge services, mostly BME services have had to close.” There is also a plan to further cut this funding by 30% by 2020. We know the value and high importance of these services in saving lives, yet they are still deemed low priority by our government. By funding domestic violence services we can also enable an early alarm system for repeat attackers. Of the 3,500 suspected potential terrorists in the UK, can we ask who has a history of domestic violence?

At Snook, we collaborated with Chayn, SafeLives, and Comic Relief on a project called Tech VS Abuse exploring how digital tools can support women affected by domestic violence and abuse in the UK. Digital platforms might extend to create a safe and non-judgemental space to provide people with a way out of domestic violence and a means of speaking out against terrorism. There is a need to gather existing research that has been done with the outlined user groups and together address what measures can be put into place.

We’re under no illusion that design is not a panacea for any of this, what we’re facing is a deep rooted, historical and system wide set of issues that create the current circumstances we live in.

This is a wide and complex area, it is a systems problem, involving many networks including the media, communications, families and our communities.

However, we do believe there is a space for rigorous qualitative research and that design could play a valuable role in these areas to re-think approaches to services, communications around these and engagement.

In an attempt to work out what this role may be, we are in exploring this with Eclipse Experience, acknowledging our joint thinking on this topic. If you would like to share your thoughts, get in touch.

Let’s talk.