What can cities teach us about tackling radicalisation?

A far right rally in Newcastle, England: a form of radicalisation we don't talk about enough. Image: Lionheart Photography/Wikimedia Commons.

Radicalisation has been thrust into the spotlight following terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice and, while undoubtedly a major security concern, it also highlights numerous social issues at play. Unemployment, poverty, inequality and poor integration leave communities fractured, and individuals at risk of being sucked into radical ideologies that offer an escape from everyday life.

A study in Amsterdam among a small group of returnees from Syria reveals a common set of characteristics: most are under 25, have criminal records, and display a multitude of problems such as mental health issues, poor self image, low self confidence or unsafe home lives. These are often, though not always, young people who lack opportunities or a sense of belonging.

The education system can therefore be a first step towards addressing radicalisation, enabling authorities to spot and report early signs and engage young people in activities. As part of its radicalisation strategy, Helsinki encourages students and young people to get involved in associations and plan school activities and events. Schools in Amsterdam and Ghent have trained staff ready to identify at-risk individuals early enough for the authorities to intervene. Bilbao, meanwhile, works with unaccompanied foreign minors to provide training, workshops, cultural and sports activities.

Radical Islamism may be the most high profile, but it isn’t the only form of radicalisation. Cities’ experiences show the importance of addressing all types of radicalisation, including hate crimes, political extremism and Islamophobia. Focusing on a single target group can be counterproductive, risking further tensions and stigmatisation. Ghent intentionally avoids targeting groups according to religion in its local action plan for fear of generating a "them against us" culture. Other cities are concerned with different types of radicalisation, like political – far right or left – groups in Brno, Dresden and Tampere; while Hamburg set up a prevention network in 2014 to address Islamophobia as well as violent religious extremism.

Building relations within communities is far more important than creating divisions. Anti-radicalisation efforts in Bilbao are embedded in the city’s programmes to manage religious diversity by maintaining and developing relations with all religious communities. Other cities have channels to directly address residents’ concerns and alleviate tensions. Rotterdam organises meetings between local residents and the city. Following last November’s Paris attacks, these drew hundreds of people from different backgrounds to discuss freedom of expression, radicalisation, extremism, discrimination and integration.

The terror attacks and ongoing refugee situation have put more media scrutiny and greater pressure on cities to get it right, and have exacerbated underlying tensions. Helsinki has been prompted to strengthen its integration policies by allocating a further €10m and boosting funding for multicultural outreach, with the aim of promoting dialogue and trust between asylum seekers and local residents.

European cities find themselves operating under different conditions. Some work under national frameworks like the UK’s Prevent strategy, while others have been left much to their own devices, like Belgian cities Antwerp and Ghent.

But what is commonly recognised is the need to cooperate with different partners. Working with social services, schools, grassroots organisations, community leaders and the police is common practice in European cities. Gothenburg’s "Safe in Gothenburg" programme is a collaboration between police and city authorities, while in Amsterdam the mayor meets regularly with the police and public prosecutor to determine threats and priorities. Highly-trained personnel are also needed, and cities such as these have hired several experienced staff in the past year. This costs money, and funding can come from a variety of sources: from the cities themselves, through national programmes such in Leeds and Manchester, identified as priority areas under Prevent, or through EU funds, like in Bologna.

Given that many cities are in the early stages of their anti-radicalisation work, it is hard yet to measure impact. This makes networks like EUROCITIES all the more important, as we offer an outlet for cities to share what works and what doesn’t, and get inspired by others.

We need to make our societies more inclusive and integrated to get to the heart of this challenge. Radicalisation may be a major concern at national and European level, but it is in cities that we can really prevent it by addressing it at the root causes.

You can find out more about this subject in EUROCITIES' report, "City responses on preventing radicalisation and violent extremism: social inclusion as a tool?’". The report is supported by the European Commission’s Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI).

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To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.