‘Why they Rioted’ is not the question…

In the aftermath of the recent riots it was no surprise to see the multi faceted TV, radio, community meetings, articles, debates, discussions which ensued, which all gave their own unique dissection and perspectives as to why the riots happened. It is also completely understandable that engaging in such debate would be one of the first steps to finding a solution. I fear, however, that such discussions will not lead to solutions, or preventative measures because there may not be a direct causal link between the underlying issues and the riots themselves. What we may have experienced is a tipping point.

These riots were different. It seemed that the country was under siege, and out of control. With hindsight, and after a couple of weeks, it is easy to become complacent, but as the events were unfolding no one was certain of what would happen next. There were proposals for the use of the Armed Forces and other drastic interventions as civil disorder spread.

I observed, as other commentators did, that riot participants hailed from all cultures, all ages and a cross section of society. There did not seem to be any shared values amongst the rioters, there was no identifiable shared issue, neither was there a shared intent. In cities across the country youths purport to have looted Police Stations, as a means of revenge for the perceived injustice they have experienced at the hands of the constabulary. Others have been reported as ‘shopping’ for basic amenities to provide for their impoverished family. However, there were many that merely became intertwined in the unprecedented events, which were been played out on our streets. Of course, there were also a large proportion of participants who were seemingly intent on engaging in criminal behaviour, and satisfying selfish greed. As the details come in it seems the majority of the people arrested and being prosecuted are unemployed, male and between the ages of 18 and 25.

If reference were to be made to the riots of 1981, 1985, 2005, or those that took place in Brixton, Broad water Farm, Oldham or Handsworth, a particular issue and/or a particular locality would be brought to mind. I may even mention Poll Tax and memories would be stirred! However, this was different. Etched in history now, 2011 will record riots in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Bristol, Nottingham, Manchester, Leicester, Gloucester, Chatham and Gillingham.

The causal factors for the rioting will be discussed and debated in many arenas, and I doubt whether we will ever come to a consensus, given that the issues are so complex. The perhaps tenuous links to civil unrest around the globe and demonstrations against the foreign policies of the British government share the platform with youth wanting to voice their complete lack of hope and feelings of despair. Were the public protesting about the funding cuts to voluntary sector organisations, student tuition fees, economic instability and insecurity, or was it just mindless criminal activity? Has there been a breakdown of family values, culture and respect for one’s community or were unemployed, disenfranchised people trying to even the score? I am sure that the answer will lie in an indefinable amalgamation of much of the above.

There had been many people predicting the potential for civil unrest given the current economic climate but few, if any, would have predicted the random and sporadic spread that occurred. The sequence of events that produced an almost domino effect in some places was unprecedented.

Rather than trying to understand the reasons why hundreds of people across the country rioted as an isolated focus, I would like us to consider ‘the tipping point’. In sociology, a ‘tipping point’ is defined as the event of a previously rare phenomenon becoming rapidly and dramatically more common. In early August 2011, we witnessed disorder in London spread across the country, thus aligning what we saw with such a definition. The phrase was coined in its sociological use by Morton Grodzins, by analogy with the sciences, in physics the act of adding a small amount of weight to a balanced object can cause it to suddenly and completely topple.

The author Malcolm Gladwell in his New York Times best seller entitled ‘[i]The Tipping Point’ has provided more contemporary examples of tipping points. He analyses fashion trends, smoking, children’s television and a successful high-tech company, amongst other things to provide us with a unique understanding of human behaviour. I have taken the liberty of interpreting his “three rules of epidemics” with my own words and analogies to make them relevant to our recent experiences in the UK. Gladwell speaks about the “Law of the Few”, “The stickiness Factor” and the “Power of context”.  I have my own definitions of these three rules with a slight change of emphasis, in particular, the impact of social media in the context of my first rule entitled connection below. These definitions will give us a framework to understand what I believe to be some of the elements of what we witnessed just a few weeks ago.

Connection “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people or a medium that has the ability to spread the message quickly.”

The ability to spread the message quickly requires a medium with three particular characteristics. There must be the right platform or network for information to spread too, the medium must be able to get information across the network accurately and effectively, and it must have the power to influence people to act.

What we experienced a few weeks ago, exhibited completely different characteristics in its dissemination, formation and execution than that experienced in previous riots. Police Forces across the country were outmanoeuvred and caught off guard, as rioters were able to create diversionary hits, notify each other instantaneously of Police whereabouts and launch attacks, sometimes without interruption for hours. The digital age that we now take for granted has facilitated that medium. It connects, it provides information, it influences at a speed and intensity that we have never experienced before. Take note of the instant 24 hour media coverage, the social media platforms and established networks on Facebook, Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and the like.

The first of the three ingredients was in place.


MessageThe specific incident that ignites activity with enough intensity to create the glue.”

A young man named Mark Duggan loses his life in what remain dubious circumstances involving Police Officers from the Metropolitan Police Force. The family search for answers;  Policing strategy is not at its optimal level resulting in misinformed crowds who are left to fester, resulting in a peaceful demonstration escalating into civil unrest. The first ingredient; a sophisticated ability to rapidly spread a message- connection, is in place and ready. Now that the spark, the death of a young man at the hands of a Police weapon, has occurred the information can be spread rapidly. The message had sufficient emotional intensity to create the required momentum. The breaking news style media coverage, the shock of the incident, the continued silence from the Police about the circumstances surrounding the death allows a spark to be created.

The second ingredient that is required is added to the mixture, but before the tipping point can explode it needs the final ingredient…



Environment: “Human behaviour is inextricably linked to the environment.”

We all know how just a change in weather can have a profound impact on how we feel. So when there is a national mood of despair, uncertainty and in some cases hopelessness, we are all affected. No doubt a global financial meltdown and a level of debt never experienced before from government to individual households must have an impact on this mood. Add to that the recent scandals and what some define as being a moral decline in those at the very heart of the fabric of our society, in circumstances such as: MPs expenses, phone hacking and infidelity, and the mood wanes further. To add to this, events that have been, and continue to unfold in the Middle East, with young people contributing to the uprisings and overthrowing of dictators in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have no doubt acted as a contributing factor to the environment in which we find ourselves.  The scene was set for this social epidemic; the third ingredient of the recipe was being prepared. It seems that the environment was at the exact temperature for the recipe to be completed. All that was needed was for it to be mixed with the right connectors and a spark.

As the recipe and ingredients that were used to create the tipping point, a solution must involve the same three elements that I have identified; Connection, Message and the Environment. This starts with our Birmingham Citizens platform, social networks of ‘good’ communicating across the same social media platforms to a comparable degree to what we saw during the riots. To outweigh the negative way that the platforms were used the new message needs to be compelling, the intensity and integrity able to motivate. Leadership must be united and messages coherent, a campaign of civil responsibility must be pursued, active citizens developed, and equality and access to opportunity fulfilled. There must be hope for the future for young, and for old. Then there is the environment and how we set the scene. This is where the big and small businesses can play their part, working with the public sector, collaborating with the voluntary sector stimulating employment and then helping to train those to maximise the opportunities. It is time to invest collectively and meaningfully in inner cities with the people and communities from all backgrounds, tackling disadvantage and supporting sustainable and long-term programmes.

Since 1166, when the Lord of the Manor was granted a charter to hold a weekly market and permission to levy tolls on goods and produce sold therein, Birmingham has seen transformational change many times. Birmingham became a centre for free trade and enterprise and throughout the Middle Ages a centre for small-scale metal manufacturing. Business led the way. By the 18th Century, with the increasing spirit of entrepreneurship and the influence of the Lunar Society the reputation of Birmingham was established as a ‘city of a thousand trades’. The 19th Century saw transport improvements through the canal and rail networks and a population explosion. The platform was set for the 20th Century with the major companies operating in a position of prominence within the UK and a focus on car manufacturing. In more recent times we have seen a downturn in traditional manufacturing within the City, another factor of the downward turning economy. In the 1960s a completely different demographic descended upon Birmingham as a result of immigration to address workforce shortages and the 90s saw a complete regeneration of the City centre. The focus inevitably changed.

As the title of this article suggests, ‘why they rioted’ is not the question. My question to you is can we create a tipping point via innovative, transformational change, embracing the impact of the retail and leisure sector, investing in the educational establishments to produce a highly talented and skilled workforce? Can we once again take the lead in high-tech, knowledge based manufacturing and maximise the potential of business and professional services sector to make Birmingham a beacon for education, trade and business in Europe and beyond?

Let’s do something radical! To begin this change, I suggest that every business sponsor a young person(s), not just via the medium of an apprenticeship or internship but by engaging them in a real and meaningful way. I encourage all of those in business to rally their resources across the voluntary and public sectors but believe with conviction that it is time for business to take a lead in rebuilding our society.

Let’s create a positive tipping point in Birmingham. Spread the word. Do it now.

[i] Gladwell, M. (2000). ‘The Tipping Point- How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference’ London: Abacus, Little Brown