Tools for resolving global conflict

It was definitely not Cambridge Enterprise’s typical spin-out. In 2011, Dr Sara Savage, a social psychologist now based in the Department of Psychology but at the time a senior researcher in the Faculty of Divinity, contacted Cambridge Enterprise. She needed advice on trialling a course, designed to avert violent ideological extremism, with the London Borough of Ealing council.

Called IC Thinking, the programme was developed by Savage with Dr Jose Liht and Dr Eolene Boyd-MacMillan. The ‘IC’ stands for Integrated Complexity—and refers to both the style of thinking people use when facing difference and disagreement, and a way of measuring it, based on over 40 years of research by Professor Peter Suedfeld and his colleagues.

Rapid, inflexible, closed thinking (‘low IC’) prevents people from seeing others’ points of view. When people in conflict use this style of thinking, things are far more likely to end in violence. IC Thinking uses experiential group exercises that work with deep brain processes to produce measurable and robust behaviour changes. Participants complete the programme better able to manage their thinking style for peaceful outcomes to conflict. In 2011, however, the IC Thinking programme lacked funding and a track record of success. And that’s what Savage needed help with.

Savage’s request, which had bounced around within the University, landed on the desk of Dr Chris Arnot, a biochemist who had recently joined Cambridge Enterprise as a Consultancy Associate. Although his background was in immunology, Arnot was deeply impressed by Savage, her colleagues and their obvious passion for the programme. “I thought ‘this could truly have a big impact’,” he recalls. “I believed in it, and it snowballed really fast.”

Why is it so important? Europe is enduring one of the largest mass migrations in recent history with over a million people fleeing conflict or poverty. Some may already be on the pathway of radicalization; others are escaping it. Along with sectarian conflicts, the rise of right-wing populist and anti-immigration political parties, these challenges reveal tensions that can be associated with globalisation.

Arnot arranged consultancy agreements with Ealing and then other London boroughs. With demonstrable intervention successes under IC Thinking’s belt, other organisations, such as the London Metropolitan Police, began to contact Savage. The Scottish Government approached Boyd-MacMillan, who, like Savage, was also originally based in the Faculty of Divinity and is now in the Department of Psychology (where she and Savage work in collaboration with Dr David Good). The number of consultancies began to become unwieldy. IC Thinking was becoming too big for Cambridge Enterprise and needed to spin out on its own.

A critical first step to this was taken by Cambridge Enterprise Technology Manager Charlanne Ward when she helped identify a CEO for IC Thinking, Simon Pellew, OBE. In 2012 Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds gave Savage and Boyd-MacMillan funding to establish a not-for-profit company: IC Thinking (Cambridge) Limited. In the ensuing four years, it has achieved considerable success and been taken up globally.

IC Thinking develops prevention programmes for communities, organisations and schools, drawing on insights from psychology, neuroscience, biology, theatre arts and community development.

Participants report feeling empowered by the programmes’ experiential teaching about the brain and about group dynamics. They say what they learned makes them feel more capable of managing their physical reactions, thoughts and emotions in socially beneficial ways.

While working to prevent violent extremism, IC Thinking programmes also build social cohesion and improve resilience and overall mental health among participants. As one said, “It taught me how to share ideas with people, how to live with different faiths and to overcome hatred.”

Since the company’s formation, interest has grown internationally as well. IC programmes are being used in countries wrestling with extremisms and other potentially volatile social issues, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland, Sweden and Pakistan.

In Northern Ireland, the team has been partnering with the Northern Ireland Council of Integrated Education (NICIE) to establish a secondary schools programme.

In Scotland, IC Thinking has been funded four times to design and test a programme, I SEE! Scotland, to tackle Protestant-Catholic sectarianism.

As demand for IC Thinking’s expertise has grown, the company has also partnered with NGOs, such as the UK Red Cross with which IC Thinking is developing a course entitled ‘Living Well with Difference’, designed for secondary schools to increase IC management capacities.

The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre, part of the Defence Academy, has commissioned IC Thinking to pilot a Conflict Transformation programme with delegates from the Royal Navy, Army and RAF who are routinely involved in inter-religious conflict when deployed in dangerous places.

IC Thinking team members have also been consulted at the governmental level, delivering presentations to the United Nations, Sandhurst’s Royal Military Academy, the Ministry of Education in The Netherlands, the Pentagon in the US, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the EU Directorate for Education and Culture.

Globalisation has brought many benefits, not least the enrichment that comes for rubbing shoulders with new cultures, traditions and people, but also many tensions. Through national and international partnerships with governmental bodies and organisations, the work of IC Thinking can help us all make the world a better place to live in harmony with our neighbours.


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