By Ruby Quince
The Chelsea Smile was an import of of the Glasgow Grin. No wonder my dad was keen to get out of Glasgow as soon as he could: In 2005 the city was the murder capital of Europe and Scotland the most violent country in the developed world. But over the last 10 years there has been a radical decline in knife crime thanks to a pioneering approach that treats violent crime as a public health issue, like a disease. We talk a lot about creative problem solving at school, and this struck me as a supreme example of thinking that made a real impact on society.
The thinking came from Gary Slutkin, an American epidemiologist who had worked on the transmission of infectious diseases in East Africa. He had mapped out the spread of diseases and worked to change people’s behaviour to contain the spread. My understanding is that they key was not to look at the ‘perpetrator’, but rather at group behaviour and social norms that fueled the spread, and to break the patterns.
On return to the US he found parallels with the homicide rate in Chicago, where homicide was spiralling out of control. Here there were clusters of killings in rapid succession. People that were victims of violent crime were far more likely to be perpetrators. His organisation, Cure Violence, focused on disrupting patterns of violence as they happened, employing ‘interrupters’ that intervened as the sequences were set in motion. The result was a staggering 40% decrease in homicide i the neighbourhoods that they worked in.
While the Chicago work was driven by a health organisation, the Scottish police were the first force to adopt a public health model, working with schools, social workers and healthcare systems to interrupt the patterns. A&E departments in particular were a flashpoint, as people sought revenge, so efforts to defuse tension at this point has been a big disruption that has broken the sequence. While there has been a recent uptick in violence in the city, it’s still 60% down on the peak a decade ago.
When I hear about things like this the prospect of using similar thinking to help brands sell soft drinks to kids feels a bit shameful. But it doesn’t have to be. On the first day of our SCA course Marc suggested that our goal should be to win a Nobel Peace prize, which seems far-fetched, but perhaps it’s not such a stretch to consider that better understanding alternative thinking and problem solving can contribute to big changes that have a genuinely positive impact on people’s lives.