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Re-thinking the European “we”: The Bridges Retreat 2016


Counterpoint uses different formats to bring insights on social and cultural dynamics to the attention of decision-makers. One of them is the Bridges Project. Ulrike Grassinger, Counterpoint’s Director Projects, talks about the insights gained at our recent Bridges Project retreat in Florence.

You have just come back from Florence, where you gathered for the Bridges Project Retreat with some of the world’s top policy-makers and politicians, as well as with cutting edge researchers and public intellectuals to talk about the concept of ‘The Collective’. Can you tell us a bit about the context, in which this retreat took place?

The retreat forms part of the Bridges Project, a project that Counterpoint is running with the Open Society European Policy Institute to bring vital insights on social, cultural and psychological dynamics to the attention of high-level policy-makers. In a radically uncertain world, in which the public appears unreadable to leaders and decision-makers, in which unpredictability plays a key role in decision-making, policy-makers are faced with the high-cost of making decisions. Knowing what the “right decision” is has become almost impossible in this context. Many of the traditional methods that try to make sense of the public’s views and preferences (such as opinion polls) are failing because they systematically overlook deeper dynamics that shape public choices in context. We believe in the importance of making sense of public behaviour and choice by using new lenses that can help understand what is going on below the surface of public behaviour. This is why we bring disciplines like psychology, anthropology or sociology and their associated insights to bear.

This year’s Bridges Project retreat focused on exploring the concept of ‘The Collective’ because collective behaviour, choice, and sentiment are at the heart of not only political decision-making but decision-making in a wider sense – take the Volkswagen scandal for example and the public outcry it caused about cheating. Thinking about the collective means asking: who do we take to be “us”, who do we exclude and include, under which conditions and who do we trust? These questions are at the core of many policy dilemmas, for example integration policies. The retreat brought together a number of high-level policy-makers and politicians with public intellectuals and experts in psychology, sociology and anthropology to explore new perspectives around these key issues.

So this was a collective talking about ‘The Collective’?  

Exactly. We thought quite carefully about this. The challenge for us was that we had different perspectives colliding: policy-makers tend to be more concerned about short-term reactions to the current crisis and practical ways of approaching problems. The researchers tend to step back and look at the long-term developments. Which is why it is our key task was to design and facilitate the conversations in a relatable way: On the one hand, we actually brought the dynamics in our own group to the surface: are we really ‘A Collective’? What makes us one? How do we relate? These dynamics often operate on an implicit and hidden level, yet they govern our thinking about solutions. We tried to make these hidden wirings explicit by addressing them. The same dynamics also include the hidden assumptions that decision-makers hold about the public.

Much of our work is about rethinking the ways in which we perceive problems to then encourage more effective ways of solving them. We therefore work with decision-makers and unravel their assumptions about the public to help them move ahead. Unless you address such hidden dynamics, conversations between the decision-makers in the room and their engagement with the public can become stuck.


What did the retreat reveal and what were the key transformational moments?

The retreat was very much about showing decision-makers that the best solution to a problem often doesn’t come from simply fixating on how complicated or complex the problem feels, but rather from looking at it from a different angle. We encouraged participants to bring a key question that they return to again and again in their work, a question that never seems to get resolved. For instance, some policy-makers brought the question of whether there is such a thing as ‘A European Collective’. We then used different lenses or ‘filters’ (the family, the state, values, to name a few) with which they could look at the problem differently. When you take an eyesight test at the optician’s, what you can focus on changes depending on the lens you are given. Such a shift in perspective can fundamentally change the way we perceive solutions—they can in fact reveal a suite of solutions that were, until then, simply not even available. One of the key transformational moments was looking at collectives through the lens of the family and through the lens of secure relationships: The family is the first form of collective that we encounter and it shapes our relationship to the world. Good relationships are a key resource. They can prevent detrimental behaviours like criminal acts or xenophobic sentiment. Looking at the family opened up new conversations about what public policies should do in order to nurture good relationships. This kind of new understanding is fundamental if decision-makers want to foster new forms of engagement with the public.


What is the impact of using this lens on policy-making?

Let’s take the refugee situation and the crisis in Calais as an example: Once you take into account that secure relationships are key to building good and healthy societies, how does your perspective on the issues playing out in Calais change? The inhumane conditions people live in there tend to prevent the building of secure relationships. The set-up does not provide the right conditions that nurture good families, to pass on a sense of confidence or worth. And such set-ups cause heavy political and economic costs because they take away the basis for good interactions and good integration. It means that, one key dimension of the crisis in the Calais jungle, is that it is also a place that produces insecure, wounded human beings who will not be able to cope with pressures to integrate. Once we take the importance of healthy families on board, we can think about what kind of institutions and encounters we need to build in order to nurture safe families—but more to the point, what – beyond providing food and shelter – is missing in Calais; And what kinds of public services will need to be available for those who then make it into our societies.

At the retreat, there was a crucial “aha” moment: In a role playing exercise, one of our participants was supposed to represent “the state” and another participant was “the tax payer”. The state reached out his hand – to collect money – but the tax payer thought that the state wanted to genuinely connect and wanted to shake his hand. This tells us something about what ‘Collectives’ expect from state institutions: relatability rather than distance. The public does in fact not close down as the headlines often imply; on the contrary there is a real interest for engagement and interaction. Once you take the deeper, more hidden dynamics into account they can open up a whole new set of questions.


Read our summary of the retreat here


Our speakers at the retreat kicked off some of transformational debates. They included: Susanna Abse, one of the UK’s leading couple and family therapists ; Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow; Leading theoretical physicist Jean-Philippe Bouchaud; the Italian Undersecretary for Europe, Sandro Gozi; Co-founder of Wikihouse, Alastair Parvin; the European intellectual Jacqueline Rose; Sweden’s renowned journalist and essayist Göran Rosenberg and one of Germany’s best known sociologists, Harald Welzer.

The Bridges Project Retreat was organised in partnership with the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI) and the European University Institute (EUI). It forms part of the Bridges Project, which you can explore here:

Watch this space for our upcoming film!


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