U-RLP Zoom-in 3: A look at Plan Einstein through the intercultural lens
This third and final zoom-in on the Plan Einstein project aims to provide a view of the project from the perspective of the intercultural approach. Although there is no single definition of what interculturalism means, nor do I intend to address all the elements that are specific to this approach, I believe that we can use three principles on which there is currently a reasonably broad consensus to synthesise the key ideas of interculturalism.

The intercultural approach proposes some principles that I consider to be well suited to this project, understood as a long-term process that requires the effort of many different actors. On the other hand, this exercise can contribute to a better understanding of the practical application of the intercultural approach from local policies, beyond the reception policies for refugees and asylum seekers and from a more global and transversal vision on how to tackle the challenges posed by socio-cultural diversity.

The aim is not to carry out an academic exercise or to evaluate the results or impact of the project. The team of external evaluators has done a great job in this sense, and the evaluation report can be consulted based on the fulfilment of the objectives and results foreseen in the initial definition of the project.[1]

The last 15-20 years, there has been a surge in the academic literature on diversity and integration models of how to address the challenges of living in more diverse and complex societies.

One of the significant weaknesses of theoretical approaches is their difficulty in demonstrating their effectiveness or usefulness in the real world. If there is one thing that is lacking in the academic debates on the various models, it is how they are translated into specific policies and actions. It is in this sense that I propose to contrast the premises of a theoretical framework with the practice of an innovative and complex project such as Plan Einstein.

[1] Oliver, C. Dekker, R. and Geuijen, K., 2019. The Utrecht Refugee Launchpad Final Evaluation Report. University College London and COMPAS: University of Oxford. https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/041219-Final-evaluation-report.docx.pdf

Although the challenge of living in diverse societies from the perspective of origin, cultural background, ethnicity, beliefs or languages has been raised throughout history, it is clear that it is a question that is very much present today. The increase in socio-cultural diversity in recent decades in societies that are still very much defined by the framework of the nation state has reinforced the debate in the political and social agenda on how we can and want to live in diversity.

History provides many examples of how differences have been translated into inequalities, discrimination, racism, exclusion, segregation or exploitation. However, there are also some examples of contexts and periods in which situations of more harmonious coexistence and respect for diversity have occurred.

But what do we mean by diversity? What we understand by socio-cultural diversity includes many diversities that are interrelated with each other. Differences of an ethnic-cultural nature, origin, religion, languages and customs, intersect with other diversities related to gender, economic and social status, sexual orientation, age, and abilities or values, among others.

All these diversities exist in specific institutional, political, cultural, economic and social contexts, which determine many of the complexities and also the inequalities that occur in our societies. Diversity is closely related to the distribution of power and influence and the relationships between people and different groups and collectives.

People's identities are far from being a static element that can be simplified by reference to a single singular characteristic (nationality, ethnicity...). Instead, they are a dynamic and hybrid set of circumstances. Some are assigned to us, others we choose and some are given to us by others. But they evolve and change according to our view and that of others.

And how is this diversity addressed? There are different ways of interpreting the challenges arising from socio-cultural diversity, both by the institutions and by society as a whole. Diversity can be interpreted, for example, according to whether the emphasis is on the idea of threat, mistrust, indifference, a structural reality that simply has to be managed or as an opportunity and a reality that has to be celebrated. There is room for many interpretations and usually different doses of several of them are combined.

Historical, political, social, economic and cultural factors influence how each society interprets diversity and the related policies it promotes. In recent years, there has been a rise in political discourses in various countries around the world focusing on the stigmatisation of certain differences and even the criminalisation of some groups.

However, despite the current increase in social polarisation, a large majority of the population has a somewhat ambivalent and ambiguous view of diversity, which depending on the context and other variables may tend towards a more negative or more positive perception. These perceptions influence public policies and these in turn influence citizens' perceptions.

The intercultural approach goes back decades in contexts as diverse as Latin America or Canada. In recent years it has developed further as a possible alternative to models such as assimilationism and multiculturalism that have exposed their weaknesses in the search for a complex balance between diversity and social cohesion.

To simplify, we can point out that some of the leading models have been characterised by how they have interpreted diversity. Thus, we find models that have chosen to ignore it, others to deny it and even others to over-emphasise it.

Some of the problems, risks or consequences of mismanagement of diversity that interculturalism seeks to address are discrimination, social segregation and fragmentation, social polarisation or processes of cultural homogenisation. Furthermore, interculturalism, understood as a long-term process in which there are no magic recipes and requires the involvement of many different actors, also raises the need to take advantage of the opportunities that arise from diversity. Opportunities that have to do with cultural exchange and enrichment, both at a collective and personal level, promoting critical thinking and empathy, but also at a social and economic level, encouraging creativity and innovation. However, this should not lead us to the mistake of adopting a utilitarian and even mercantilist vision of diversity. Diversity is a reality that has a value in itself, and for this reason alone, it is necessary to recognise and value it. This does not mean that from the recognition of diversity and the view that there are no better cultures than others, it is not possible to debate and question certain cultural elements, within the framework of respect for Human Rights and through intercultural dialogue.

As I have said, I do not intend to give a detailed description of the intercultural approach[1]. Still, I believe that it is convenient to explain it through three principles that summarise well the fundamental elements of this approach: equality, recognition of diversity and the promotion of interaction and meaningful relations.[2]

2.1 Real equality of rights, duties and opportunities

The intercultural approach is based on a proactive commitment to the defence of human rights, democracy and a concept of citizenship based on equal rights (social, economic, political and cultural), duties and opportunities. Moving towards real equality requires a commitment to equity, which implies taking into account the differences in contexts and starting points to avoid "equal" treatment resulting in unfair situations. It also requires a clear commitment and action against all kind of discriminations, racism and xenophobia. It must be tackled both from the perspective of prevention, by questioning stereotypes and prejudices, and from the institutional, cultural and legal spheres, to address structural and profound changes that guarantee real equality.

It is often considered that the local level cannot make a relevant contribution to equality because many of the existing inequalities are related to more structural conditions. It can be due to the legal sphere, dynamics related to the economic system and the labour market, or due to access to basic services and resources that are not within the competence of local administrations.

But equality and equity also include a wide range of factors, both objective and subjective, which make it possible to move towards greater equality, or at least to reduce the effects of more structural inequalities: Access to housing; access to specific social and cultural services and facilities; the development of new skills and support in the transition to the labour market; having a quality and inclusive public space; facilitating the participation and contribution under equal conditions of all people in many social areas; the generation of social and personal networks; the promotion of self-esteem and personal autonomy; the reduction of prejudices and stereotypes and proactive strategies to prevent discrimination are examples of possible areas of action which can be strongly influenced from the local level. In short, it is also a question of claiming a concept of inclusive urban citizenship based on equal rights, duties and opportunities.

2.2 The recognition of diversity

Interculturalism is based on the recognition of diversity as a structural reality that must also be valued. A diversity that poses complexities and opportunities and that, depending on how we interpret it, we will reinforce one or the other. It defends a broad and dynamic concept of culture and recognises the value that unique elements of its own culture have for the identity of many people. However, it defends the plural and hybrid nature of identities which does not allow people to be put into boxes based on ethnocultural factors, without this meaning that the value of this component of identity to many people is underestimated.

Recognising diversity also implies that society challenges preconceived ideas about culture and identity and opens up complex debates to generate new consensus through dialogue in which all voices are heard. It also means ensuring that institutions, public spaces and different areas of social life recognise and reflect this diversity. For example, when institutions, political representatives, the media, educational centres, social organisations or companies do not reflect the diversity that exists in society among their workers and managers, something is wrong with this recognition of diversity.

But the recognition of diversity also entails the need to emphasise the common, shared elements that generate cohesion and new senses of belonging. The relevance of differences cannot be overestimated, because there is a risk of emphasising them when in many cases these differences are closely linked to other factors of a social, economic and power distribution nature. One of the most significant challenges is to point out the causes of certain realities and inequalities. This avoids an excessive culturalisation of the challenges that arise and that serve as an excuse to hide other causes. This is what many discourses that blame certain differences and groups for many of society's problems do, for example accusing immigrants of taking jobs away from the natives or of living exclusively on public benefits (a contradiction in itself).

Finally, interculturalism is an approach for the whole of society, in which the majority must also feel challenged and involved. One of the biggest mistakes is to think that interculturalism is aimed exclusively at specific profiles or groups. Without this inclusive dimension, any proposal that seeks to provide a real framework for social transformation towards a better coexistence and inclusion is condemned to failure.

2.3 Interaction, dialogue and linkage generation

Finally, interculturalism focuses on the importance that, together with equality and the recognition of diversity, positive interaction, exchange, common knowledge, links and relations between people and groups with different cultural backgrounds and origins are generated. If interaction takes place under favourable conditions, it allows for the creation of links and a sense of belonging, challenge prejudices, encourages critical thinking and trust and allows us to take advantage of the opportunities of diversity.

It is not merely a matter of organising cultural, leisure and social activities to mix people up. This has often been an excuse to take a superficial, simplistic and limited view of interculturalism. Although this type of activity can play a significant role, we must go further and take into account the set of circumstances that influence the generation of urban environments that facilitate these relationships and reduce the barriers that make them difficult (both physical and mental obstacles).

Gordon Allport (1954) in his influential "The Nature of Prejudice" raised his hypothesis on inter-group contact and identified four conditions necessary for an interaction to lead to a reduction in prejudice, mistrust and hostility between people and groups with different ethnocultural profiles.

  1. the equal status of participants
  2. the achievement of common objectives
  3. inter-group cooperation
  4. institutional support (rules, processes and design of spaces that facilitate optimal contact)

This theory has since become widely accepted and has influenced many research studies based on these conditions. Some research suggests that the positive effects of contact extend beyond a specific situation, which is evidenced by positive attitudes not only towards the members involved in the interaction but also towards the whole ex-group.

Other authors have gone deeper into Allport's hypothesis. This is the case of Pettigrew who proposed to focus on the conditions for facilitating "Friendship potential" (Pettigrew 1998). More recent research (Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. 2005) shows that not all conditions need to be in place for more significant interaction to have positive results. In other words, these conditions are facilitating factors (although also complex to ensure on a day-to-day basis), but they are not essential for the interaction to have positive results. In some cases, it is not possible to guarantee equality from the beginning for the participants (as is the case with asylum seekers, who start from an unequal situation concerning various rights and personal circumstances). Still, if the interaction implies common objectives and cooperation, the result can be positive and increase the perception of equality.

It is evident that there are multiple factors that determine the results of the interaction, such as the frequency, quality, variety and atmosphere surrounding the contact, as well as the roles, status and characteristics of the participant. However, it is important to stress that the essential condition for positive inter-group relations is given by the social structure that determines the relationships between groups and their members.

Elements such as urban or educational segregation, the design of public space, socio-economic and rights inequalities, discrimination, political discourses that stigmatise certain groups, etc. are factors that pose significant barriers to positive interaction. Hence, the local sphere can play a fundamental role in generating urban environments that facilitate these interactions, and to a large extent, this is one of the reasons why the intercultural approach has been developed especially in cities.

The link between the importance of social interaction and the reduction of prejudices and the improvement of living together in diversity goes beyond the interaction between people with different profiles and origins. The survey conducted by Gallup in 2016[3] in 138 countries on the level of acceptance of people towards migrants, showed a direct relationship between the level of social interactions of people with their friends and the level of positive acceptance of migrants. In other words, people's perception of diversity and immigration depends not only on where they live, their socio-economic profile or age, but also on the intensity of their social life. According to this study, the more interactions with friends per week (regardless of whether it is with people from different profiles and backgrounds), the better the acceptance of migrants.

In the European Union, the results of the index of acceptance of migrants by people who interact with their friends more than 10 times a week is 6.72 out of 9 while those who interact less get a 3.66. Although young people show a higher level of acceptance of immigration, it is also shown that older people who interact and relate more, show a higher rate than those with much less social life.

As with the other principles, we cannot think that from the local level we can influence all the causes that determine and facilitate these interactions, but of course, if there is the political will and commitment, it is one of the aspects that can be influenced the most. Therefore, it is important to include this principle, along with the two previous ones, in the design of all municipal policies, from urban planning, reception, culture, sports, participation, etc.

Finally, it should be stressed that interaction can also lead to some complexities and potential conflicts, which must be addressed proactively and creatively through intercultural dialogue and the development of specific competencies and skills.

[1] For an analysis of interculturalism and a summary of the academic debates of recent years on the differences between multiculturalism and interculturalism see the article "But What is Interculturalism?" (GRILLO 2016) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311650122_But_What_IS_Interculturalism

[2] Proposed by Carlos Giménez and adapted to the field of local public policy management (Giménez 2003)

3. A look at Plan Einstein through intercultural principles

In summary, we can say that interculturalism is based on the commitment to equal rights and opportunities, the recognition of diversity and the importance of creating social links that transcend differences and favour social cohesion and a shared sense of belonging, and that takes advantage of diversity for the development of more inclusive, dynamic and sustainable societies.

The intercultural approach proposes a conceptual framework from which to design public policies, especially at the local level, but also to inspire attitudes and actions from the whole of civil society (schools, entities, cultural and sports centres, companies, etc.) in a dynamic long-term process adapted to each context.

Plan Einstein is an innovative project that has proposed a new approach to policies for the reception of asylum seekers and refugees. Precisely, one of the most innovative components of the project has been, in my opinion, the commitment to work on inclusion from day one. This is a point that I consider fundamental to assess the approach and methodology of the Plan Einstein. It is an attempt to change the paradigm of what we understand by the reception of asylum seekers, which has generally been characterised by a passive and segregated approach, very marked by uncertainty and the final outcome of the files. In fact, many of the policies that are considered to be intercultural, focus on the moments after the reception. Moreover, the competences of the management of the asylum processes are at state level. At the same time, the reception policies, in order to really work, must be carried out from the proximity of the local level, or at least from the full cooperation between the different levels of the administration. Although their different approaches (one more focused on security and control aspects and the other emphasising inclusion) make this cooperation difficult.

We then explore how the project has contributed to or taken into account the three principles of interculturalism in its approach. It should be clear that many activities reinforce all three principles at the same time. In other words, cooperation between people with different profiles and backgrounds to jointly design a meeting space can be promoting equality, recognition of diversity and positive interaction between participants at the same time.

3.1 Plan Einstein and equality

It is obvious that asylum seekers do not have the same rights (residence, work, economic, etc.) as the rest of the population, and these are fixed by a specific legal framework. However, there is a crucial space in which the local level can work on different strategies to advance and try to compensate for the more structural inequalities. In this sense, I believe that the project has made a significant effort concerning the principle of equality, taking into account the very complex and sensitive situation of a group that also presents a situation often marked by very traumatic experiences.

But when we look at how Plan Einstein has contributed to equality and equity, it is essential that we do not just look at it from the perspective of asylum seekers and refugees. We must not forget that interculturalism is an approach for all citizens. In this case, we cannot focus only on the group of refugees, but on the group of residents in the neighbourhood where the centre was opened, marked by certain needs and complexities.

In what way can we say that Plan Einstein has contributed to the principle of equality in relation to the asylum seekers resident in the centre?

The project has opted for an approach that has placed emphasis on equal status and treatment of all people in the set of activities that have been promoted, strengthening the common and shared elements. The approach has been based on the idea that although refugees and asylum seekers have special circumstances, this does not mean that they are not neighbours of the city, who share many interests and needs with the rest of the population.

Throughout the project, certain circumstances have occurred, such as the delay in the arrival of many asylum seekers to the centre, the change in their expected profile, the need to make certain decisions on the building and space management for security reasons, or the hasty transfer of residents to other centres earlier than planned, which have undoubtedly influenced the development of many activities and their impact.

This serves to show how important it is for reception policies to have the capacity to adapt and be flexible and creative to adapt methodologies and approaches to a complex and changing reality.

I would now like to highlight some of the actions in the project's approach which I believe have been able to contribute most to promoting greater equality directly or indirectly, especially when compared to the reality of other reception centres.

  • The fact that the reception centre was located in a neighbourhood of the city and not in the periphery was already a first decision of "inclusion" that can reduce some of the barriers to greater equality, both objective and subjective, derived from the physical and "mental" segregation in which many of these centres are located.
  • Sharing the same building and some common spaces with some youngsters of the city also helped to reduce the perception of inequality, by merely sharing the same context. It is true that the housing conditions between young people and asylum seekers were different, and this distorted this perception of real equality. Their rights and daily activities were also different (many youngsters were studying or working and were very busy during the day). But despite this, I believe that the benefits of sharing space have been much greater than the costs of showing that their conditions were different.
  • Another vital aspect of moving towards greater equality is access to information. This translates into support in bureaucratic processes, but also into advice in defining personal itineraries according to the profile and circumstances of each person.
  • When no efforts are made to support and follow up during this first stage of the process, the negative consequences are reinforced with regard to the psychological dimension of the people, who feel more discouraged, confused, and in many cases depressed, in relation to the uncertain future that awaits them.
  • The possibility of participating in English and entrepreneurship training courses, shared with local neighbours, I believe also helped to reinforce the perception of equal treatment and circumstances. Furthermore, learning English and not Dutch (a complex but, in my view, wise decision) allowed for this equal status in a shared language learning. Sharing these learning spaces on an equal base between people who shared a common goal helps to strengthen a bond that temporarily transcends the conditions set by the status of being an asylum seeker.
  • Apart from the training, the resources linked to the project incubator and the support and coaching for the development of these projects, allowed some asylum seekers to reinforce or acquire new skills that are useful for the transition to the labour market, but also for the knowledge of the Dutch society and to reinforce self-esteem and confidence.
  • The workspaces for the development of projects, whether in the field of entrepreneurship or in processes of designing shared spaces or different activities, also allows the contribution made by asylum seekers based on their experience, knowledge and talents to be valued. The exercise involves significant learning by doing but also recognition and visibility of their skills, knowledge and ideas.
  • Another critical aspect of reducing inequalities at the outset is the creation of social, personal and professional networks. The links generated with some of the young residents, with neighbours, with professionals at the centre or with local entrepreneurs, have made it easier for some asylum seekers to create some networks beyond those formed with other asylum seekers. Although these networks could not be consolidated much because of the time spent in the centre and also because many refugees had to move to other locations, this initial opportunity for openness and social connection is a critical capital that has both practical and psychological consequences.
  • On the other hand, the possibility of participating in activities of a cultural and artistic, social, recreational or sporting nature, with other residents of the neighbourhood, has reinforced an essential aspect of equality, which is to be able to participate and contribute actively to the social and cultural life of the city. This is not at all common in this first phase of reception, and yet it is an investment that positively affects future inclusion processes.
  • Finally, the opportunities for meeting, getting to know each other, cooperating and creating links with other residents and neighbours allows for the challenging of stereotypes and prejudices, which are at the root of hostility and discrimination. Anything that reduces the base of possible discrimination is a medium to long-term investment in equality.


These are very complex aspects to evaluate, and it is clear that not all residents of the centre have participated in these activities and the work of the evaluation team has identified some complexities but also facilitating elements that will undoubtedly inspire future actions.

However, regardless of the number of people who have participated in these spaces, I believe that their existence already contributes to generating a perception of greater equality. For many people, the knowledge that they can participate or use certain resources, is already a subjective perception of greater equality.

In what way can we say that Plan Einstein has contributed to the principle of equality in relation to the neighbourhood's residents?

The opening of a refugee reception centre is not usually received as great positive news by the residents of a neighbourhood. But beyond the hostile attitudes that are often expressed by some residents, there are some underlying causes that help to explain specific reactions. One of the reasons that generated distrust in the neighbourhood was based on the precarious situation in which some residents find themselves, especially young people who have difficulties in becoming independent, but also adults who have training needs to improve their position in the labour market. Therefore, the project took the following decisions:

  • To allocate part of the centre's building to rent cheaper apartments for young people, mostly from the neighbourhood, who could also be involved in some way in the welcoming process of refugees.
  • To offer free training in English and entrepreneurship to both asylum seekers and neighbours. This was a new training offer in a neighbourhood that is not distinguished by having many resources of this type.
  • To promote a set of actions and activities around the centre that contributed to enriching the social dynamism of the neighbourhood, as it lacked many services and facilities that would allow the creation of dynamic environments with spaces and opportunities for participation and meeting in activities of a cultural, social and sporting nature.

These decisions helped to send out an important message that has been central to the focus of the Plan Einstein: the reception centre could also become an opportunity for the neighbourhood and bring new opportunities to its neighbours, both on an economic level (access to affordable housing), on a training level (free courses), and a social and cultural level. And, this generated an atmosphere which helped to mitigate the initial hostile reactions to the opening of the centre, and to ensure that the majority of neighbours maintained a rather neutral and non-negative attitude towards the presence of the centre.

Although many residents did not participate in the centre's activities, the number of participants in the training courses and programme activities have been very relevant. One of the complexities of the project has to do with the expectations that it has generated in some residents, who after evaluating the existence of the centre positively, have experienced the closure of the centre, which reduced some of the positive dynamics that it had generated.

3.2 Plan Einstein and the recognition of diversity

We have already commented that there are different options regarding how society interprets socio-cultural diversity. In some cases, there is a tendency to deny it, even to criminalise it, in others to ignore it and in others to over-emphasise it. The intercultural approach considers that recognising diversity in a broad sense is a fundamental requirement for moving towards a more inclusive society. At the same time, recognising diversity should not mean that we look too much at differences, but that we should also emphasise the common and shared elements that facilitate social cohesion.

In the case of policies for the reception of refugees and asylum seekers, it is as important to recognise the socio-cultural diversity of these people as it is for them to perceive that the host society is already diverse and to recognise and value this diversity.

In the case of Plan Einstein, the commitment to inclusion from day one has translated into a greater recognition of diversity, as asylum seekers have had more contact with their surroundings than in other centres. Usually, in the time that passes until their cases are solved, they have few opportunities to experience how diversity is interpreted and recognised by the host society.

In what way can we say that Plan Einstein has contributed to the recognition of diversity?

Firstly, it is essential to highlight the political commitment at the local level to the project approach, which has resulted in the dissemination of a positive narrative of the reception of refugees and asylum seekers. The narrative, as we analysed in the previous zoom-in, has been coherent with the conceptual framework consolidated in the city of Utrecht in favour of Human Rights, diversity and inclusion. The main focus has been on highlighting a message of unity and generating a broader and more inclusive "us". The repeated slogan of "living together, learning together and working together" is an example of this inclusive discourse that values the idea of an inclusive community, just like "we are all neighbours" or "building a future together".

Secondly, I believe that the project activities that have had the most significant impact on the recognition of diversity have been those of a cultural and social nature at the community level. These activities have also involved a broad and diverse set of local actors, allowing this narrative of recognition of diversity to reach a wider audience. Here are some examples:

  • One of the strategies to promote a greater knowledge of reality and diversity consisted of the dissemination of personal testimonies. These testimonies humanise a reality that is often communicated from the coldness of data and the risk of stereotypes. These have been disseminated through social networks and the media, using videos, interviews, personal experiences etc.
  • Every six months, the Central museum asked a group of residents of the city to give a reflection on the collection. This time, in collaboration with Welcome to Utrecht and Plan Einstein, the museum asked residents of the Overvecht district and six residents of AZC Einstein. In pairs of two, they sought out a work of art for each other in the Central Museum. The conversations that led to this choice have been recorded and contain remarkable stories. The interviews were presented for the first time in the presence of local politicians, and the results could be seen and heard at the reception centre and the Centraal Museum.
  • Another example from a different museum, the Old Catholic museum of the city that has organised group visits mixing local visitors with Eritrean refugees. The Orthodox Coptic Church of Eritrea has many paintings similar to those in the museum, and they promoted debates to reflect and learn together about art and these similarities.
  • The project Radio Einstein, an initiative of Stut Theater and Theatergroep Vreemde Vis. Radio Einstein is a radio studio located in the reception centre (now moved to the Haydn Centre) with asylum seekers as reporters, experience experts and storytellers. "An asylum seekers' centre. Do you ever wonder what is going on there? Who lives there? What are their stories? What do their days look like? Listen to Radio Einstein for an answer to these questions and more! In 30 short episodes, you can listen to the residents of this place. Listen to their special stories about home, music from faraway places and everyday talk."
  • Another example of how to reach different audiences in an authentic way, that also reinforces the importance of attracting very diverse actors, comes from the theatre field. The WijkSafari was a theatre project with the aim that the "public" knows better the reality of different neighbours of the city. In this case, the project consisted of some people living for two weeks in the asylum seekers' centre and then explaining their personal experiences to the theatre group. Based on these stories, the theatre company designed a route through the neighbourhood in which local youngsters accompany the public on scooters, attending different performances in various spaces and come into contact with asylum seekers and neighbours.
  • Another interesting and creative example has been the project to decorate a big outdoor sofa with mosaic, involving refugees and local residents. They started participating in a mosaic workshop and then decorated the sofa, which became a public spot for everyone around to meet and enjoy. This is an example of how this idea of recognising diversity and in the same time cooperating to achieve common goals, is not only relevant for the participants involved, but also it has a much wider visibility and dissemination to all citizens.

These examples highlight the importance of communication and the creation of a narrative that transcends the project. In this sense, all the images, videos or messages that have been disseminated through the different communication channels have given visibility to the socio-cultural diversity of both the participants in the project and the city.

Finally, refugees and asylum seekers were also able to see that Utrecht is a city of great diversity. To begin with, the neighbourhood in which the centre was located has an important presence among its neighbours of people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, this diversity, although to a lesser extent, was also reflected among the professionals and actors from different organisations and local entities involved in the development of many project activities.

The fact that people who arrive in an unknown country and city perceive that it is diverse and that it does not hide it, but recognises and values it, facilitates the complex inclusion and adaptation processes.

Indeed more can be done to recognise diversity, but Plan Einstein has shown the capacity and possibilities that cities have to start from the beginning to make an effort in favour of a more positive narrative of diversity. A narrative that, with the support of the city council and many local agents, is built bottom-up, with the asylum seekers and neighbours themselves as the main protagonists.

3.3 Plan Einstein and the promotion of positive interaction

Plan Einstein and promotion of positive interaction

Indeed, of the three principles of the intercultural approach, that of positive interaction is usually the least taken into account, especially in reception policies and more so in contexts of great uncertainty, such as the case of asylum seekers, as more attention is usually paid to resources to support people in moving towards greater autonomy.

However, many studies show the positive impact of interactions and that instead of leaving them for later, they should be promoted from the beginning, as Plan Einstein has done.

We have already seen in the analysis of the other principles, and we have also highlighted it in the previous zoom-in, that the project has focused on creating spaces and opportunities for interaction, encounter and also cooperation between asylum seekers and neighbours. Regardless of the number and intensity of these encounters and relationships, it is evident that compared to other reception centres, Plan Einstein has generated a social environment, in which these encounters have been much richer:

  • Youngsters from the neighbourhood lived in the same building as the asylum seekers made it easier from the outset to have encounters and relationships between them. Some dynamics, such as the organisation of a weekly meal together, also facilitated to create an atmosphere conducive to these encounters.
  • Some asylum seekers went to English or entrepreneurship courses with other neighbours which has also facilitated the creation of these relationships and social networks.
  • The activities that have energised the youngsters themselves and the number of activities that have promoted different local actors, such as ‘Welcome to Utrecht’ have created an atmosphere of social community and open space for meeting and mutual knowledge. From language cafés to sports activities, gardening, theatre, music or collaborating in the new design of the open space of the centre among many others.
  • The "Coffee of the World" challenge was a great example of how to promote cooperation on equal terms to achieve a common goal that was shared by asylum seekers, youngsters and neighbours alike. It is undoubtedly one of the most innovative and effective experiences to promote interaction in compliance with the Allport criteria.
  • The open, common and flexible space for different activities and types of meetings was a great energiser for the centre and a facilitator of meetings and relationships. Without doubt one of the great lessons of this initiative is that if the criteria of equality, cooperation, common objectives and institutional monitoring are taken into account, the results can be very positive.

This is not to say that all asylum seekers and neighbours were participating in the activities. However, even for those who did not experience such encounters, living in an open and facilitating environment changes perceptions and reduces mental distance and distrust.

If we analyse in greater detail and based on the evaluation work carried out by the team of researchers, we can see some of the complexities that have been identified in order to obtain a more significant impact from these meeting spaces and activities.[1]

  • During the first phase of the project when there were fewer asylum seekers due to delayed arrivals, relations with the young residents were closer and more intense than when the largest group of asylum seekers arrived. The balance between the number of youngsters and asylum seekers in a small group and the sharing of common and entrance spaces facilitated the perception of equality and the intensity of the interactions.
  • The physical separation between the youngsters and the asylum seekers set by the requirements of the COA (Central Agency for the Reception of Newcomers) of the Ministry of Justice, made more spontaneous meetings in the space of the centre difficult. The changes in the profile of the asylum seekers, with greater age differences, with more families with children, with different educational profiles, etc. also meant greater complexities in facilitating relations with the young residents. These circumstances and decisions marked by the institutional context made the opportunities for interaction more complex, but those responsible and partners in the project reacted by promoting more activities to encourage opportunities for meeting and cooperation.

It has been mentioned before that the perception of diversity improves if we have high levels of interaction with our friends, but if we add to this that some of these interactions occur on equal terms with people from different profiles and backgrounds, then the impact is more significant. These results confirm that the commitment of Plan Einstein to promote a socially and culturally dynamic atmosphere that facilitates spaces for interaction and contact at all levels is undoubtedly a positive strategy to improve the acceptance and recognition of diversity. Certainly, methodologies and actions must be adjusted according to the context, profiles, and institutional and other barriers. Still, the commitment to facilitate interaction has been a positive effort and should inspire many other projects and cities.

[1] For a more detailed analysis of these constraints, see the article published by the project evaluation team Oliver, C; Geuijen, K; Dekker, R; (2020) Social contact and encounter in asylum seeker reception: the Utrecht Refugee Launchpad https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10108503/



In this zoom-in, I wanted to analyse the approach of the Plan Einstein project from the principles of interculturalism of equality, recognition of diversity and interaction.

There are several reasons for this decision. On the one hand, the intercultural approach has been gaining ground in the academic debate as a possible alternative to models such as assimilationism or multiculturalism. Many European cities are adopting this approach as a conceptual framework to inspire their diversity policies[1]. On the other hand, it is still necessary to go deeper into how this approach is put into practice in local policies, especially in areas such as the reception of asylum seekers.

In the case of Plan Einstein, it is evident that its approach is closely related to what the perspective and principles of interculturalism propose. That is why I believe that looking at the project from this approach can help to enrich the project's contribution and reinforce the narrative it proposes.

In this analysis I have not focused so much on the results as on the approach, taking into account that there is an external evaluation that provides data and assessments of the concrete results of the project and that an impact assessment on these three principles was not foreseen.

It is essential to highlight the complexities that the project has had to deal with since its inception. However, this is common in innovative projects that address issues regulated by competences at different levels of government, such as the reception of asylum seekers. For this reason, I believe that the city's commitment to promoting such a complex process, which involves a change in the reception model that is primarily determined by the state level, should be assessed very positively. The cooperation between the local and state level has been a positive effort, but it has not been free of complexities and conflicts of interest and priorities.

The project has shown that if cities are committed, and if there is political commitment and the necessary technical expertise and know-how, there is a field of action beyond their competencies in the reception of refugees and asylum seekers. In this sense, the project has contributed in a very appropriate way to put the focus on the importance of taking into account the principles of equality, recognition of diversity and promotion of positive interaction in the design of reception policies.

Today, it is important that this view is taken into account when adapting the Project at Haydn's centre because the context has changed, and so has the council's ability and freedom to define specific criteria and work methodologies. In this sense, it would be important that, from the cooperation with the central administration, the aspects of the project that can contribute in a more decisive way to equality, recognition of diversity and interaction are strengthened.

The importance of having common and flexible open spaces for diverse uses; to continue opting for training offers that are relevant to both refugees and residents; to reinforce the figure of young people who can act as a bridge and try to recover the idea of co-housing; to promote cultural, social and sporting activities with the involvement of many local agents; to design initiatives that allow for cooperation together to achieve a common goal that also has a positive impact on the city; to take advantage of all these activities to recognise the diversity of the city as an essential and positive reality of its identity; to continue working from different approaches to challenge the negative stereotypes and prejudices by reinforcing the inclusive narrative of the project or to continue evaluating the project to identify weaknesses and strengths and to adapt the approach on the basis of the accumulated know-how... all these elements must be maintained and reinforced in order to continue to clearly commit to the inclusive approach of the project.

I believe that this commitment to integrating the principles of the intercultural approach is the way forward not only for reception policies but for all municipal policies, to build a more inclusive, dynamic and creative city, in other words, a more intercultural one.

Plan Einstein bis

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Daniel De Torres, UIA Expert
Utrecht, The Netherlands
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Urban Innovative Actions

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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