The opportunities and challenges of superdiversity

By Jenny Phillimore

June 17, 2015

The past twenty years have seen enormous changes in the way we live, as societies and cultures across the world have become integrated through communication, transportation, and trade. Globalisation, as this process has become known, has impacted on almost every area of life. Globalisation has accelerated the speed and scale of migration, brought changes to migration patterns, and led to the development of the phenomena of new migration.

The “old” European migrations of the 1950s to 1990s brought large numbers of relatively homogenous groups of people to Australia most of them from Australia’s former coloniser: the United Kingdom. New migration sees relatively small numbers of people from countries across the world arriving to very many places with which they have little or even no historical connection.

Steven Vertovec argues new migration is superdiverse because new migrants are diverse across a wide range of variables including ethnicity, immigration status, rights and entitlements, labour market experiences, gender and age profiles, and patterns of spatial distribution. The scale, complexity, heterogeneity and pace of new migration far exceeds that of the early Brit arrivals.

While the concept of superdiversity was developed in Europe, indeed the original analysis is based upon data from London, Melbourne provides the perfect example of a superdiverse city. Research comparing the 2001 and 2011 censuses in Melbourne shows rapid changes in the past decade. Further, none of the geographical areas defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has people from less than 17 countries of origin, with Point Cook and Dandenong being the most diverse with people arriving from 138 and 132 countries respectively.

Unlike Europe, which is struggling to come to terms with its status as a continent of immigration, Australia has accepted this fact for decades. What is extraordinary is the shift from European immigrants to those from across the world. With some 68% of Melbourne’s population born overseas, only 10.45% of the population of the city were born in the European Union. While people have begun arriving from all over the world it is the numbers of migrants who have come from Asia, the Middle East and India that have a clear critical mass.

“Rather than being part of established or emerging ethnic or community clusters, many of the arrivals come in such small numbers that they are not part of a group at all.” 

While there are important new communities being established in Melbourne, the city also demonstrates another of the key characteristics of superdiversity: fragmentation. Rather than being part of established or emerging ethnic or community clusters, many of the arrivals come in such small numbers that they are not part of a group at all. They may have few or no social connections in the city and are potentially pretty isolated. For example fewer than 20 people arrived from Aruba, Panama, Burkina Faso, and Gambia.

So what does this all mean for Melbourne and by extension Australia more broadly? There is no doubt that the high numbers of arrivals and sheer diversity of newcomers brings both challenges and opportunities for public policy and public services.

Service providers can struggle to meet the needs of everyone when they know little about the problems facing new groups and lack data about where groups are located, particularly if there is no critical mass of individuals. Consultation and communication can be difficult for departments such as housing and social services, when they do not know who lives in the city or how to connect with them.

Further when seeking to attend to the needs of diverse new arrivals service providers can find themselves criticised by longer established minorities and majority residents who perceive that resources are being re-directed from those they consider to be more deserving.

But research in the UK shows that some new arrivals experience very high levels of deprivation and exclusion because they do not know how to access services or who to talk to in order to get advice.

However, superdiversity also offers unprecedented opportunity. The people who arrive are those who had the motivation, initiative and courage to leave their families and possessions behind and move somewhere totally new. They are often well qualified, they learn quickly, are hardworking and determined.

The levels of diversity mean that Australia can benefit from cultural and linguistic diversity, and perhaps most importantly connections with almost every country in the world. With these links it is possible to grow more and stronger cultural and economic associations to other cities, not just in our region but globally. New arrivals tend to be innovative and entrepreneurial — they are social media savvy often bringing new communication networks to cities that can be used to reach places where more conventional attempts at communication have failed.

Further as cities become more demographically diverse they generally become more culturally diverse with thriving minority arts and dining contributing to increased urban buzz and, as research has demonstrated, attracting more tourists.

Finally there is growing evidence that as areas which have previously been ethnically divided become superdiverse there is a reduction in community tensions as no one group, or groups, dominate, and old ethnic cleavages are reduced.

Superdiversity is here to stay. The phenomenon, whilst pronounced in cities like Melbourne and London, is in evidence across much of the developed world. With vision and imagination Melbourne can use superdiversity to the city’s advantage and use the knowledge, expertise and connections to become one of the world’s leading convivial, cosmopolitan cities.

The Melbourne School of Government will host a workshop on the topic of superdiversity on July 29 where participants can find out more about this topic and the implications of this for policy and public services from Professor Phillimore.

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