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No more white paper

So far, we’ve gone from intersectional subversion of feminist academic conferences to wholescale city planning.
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So far, we’ve gone from intersectional subversion of feminist academic conferences to wholescale city planning.

There might be some logic to this, to foment radical feminist critiques of what has largely been a patriarchal endeavour (see Robert Hoddle for Melbourne, Oscar Niemeyer for Brasília, and Robert Moses for Manhattan).

But this path was also to show who needs to be part of any change that is ‘planned’, and how these plans might be approached.

For Lorde, the ‘who’ was the forgotten Black feminist who needed a voice; for city disrupters it was the organic communities that live and evolve between grand city plans. Both sets of interventions looked at the issues in the context of a system.

Our takeaway this week is that a diversity of voices will share their stories in ways that make new problems visible, and new options to manage them viable.

In place of the master’s tools, we want to suggest models that foment community collaboration which can enable change. To do so requires first reviewing the power and limits of ‘white paper’ thinking.

Governments, industry groups – and other units at Deakin – tend to clarify issues or challenges by framing them as a ‘problem’ and then presenting various solutions to solve them. This often involves the preparation and presentation of a ‘white paper’. White papers serve a dual function: they educate on an issue and provide data and arguments to support a set of specific positions or policy directions.

These directions are directive(!), meaning they may proscribe a specific way to an end goal. However, they sometimes lack practical applicability in local contexts, and often do not account for the nuanced views and lived experiences of community members.

White papers can assume a top-down perspective of what should be changed and how that should happen: authors get to define both problem and then fill in relevant rational solutions to it. Think back to the theory of change ‘chain’ that could be broken at any link by experiences or viewpoints or feedback loops in a system that were not considered.

In short, white papers are useful tools to share knowledge and direct policy, and they are useful for those writing them to have their own ideals shaping ‘what is possible’. While an important step in the arts of changing the world, the white paper or policy report will only get us so far, and leaves out so much.

Next – as an alternative to white papers – we’ll explore modes of organising that can result from systems-based understandings. We’ll emphasise community and collaboration across difference. These modes might serve to steer systems toward joint goals. They might subvert the logics of immutable structures that are otherwise inescapable. They are meant to have you ask, ‘Who needs to be involved?’, to help understand what needs to be done.

In short, rather than provide answers to questions, our answer is to provide ways to ask the type of questions that should be asked.


If you’re a professional taking this as a MOOC, tell us about a white paper you’ve read recently that provides a limited view of a situation. How you would iterate on it? Or, if your community has been impacted by a white paper, jot out a few dot points on what happened, and what should have happened.

If you’re Deakin student, in the previous Global Challenges unit, you drafted a white paper on a specific issue. Quickly jot out a few dot points on how you might reform your approach – either by iterating on it, or radically revising what is at stake and who should be consulted. This will be important as you think about your first assignment for this course.

© Deakin University
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Global Challenges, Local Communities: the Arts of Changing the World

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