Massively Parallel Peacebuilding: A Strategy for Building a Democracy That Lives Up to Its Ideals


Hyperpolarization Graphic


Newsletter #179— December 1, 2023

From the Directors Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Before Thanksgiving, we promised this "good-news" post to at least partially offset the depressing material that we have been posting about Israel and Gaza. This post summarizes and links to two videos that offer our latest thinking on Massively Parallel Peacebuilding and Massively Parallel Democracy Building (MPP/MPDB). Based on a presentation we gave in mid-November to the Trust Network, the first video explains why we think that a massively-parallel approach offers the most promising strategy for dealing with the scale and complexity of society-wide intractable conflict. The second video highlights the good news  — the fact that large numbers of individuals and organizations have already made major progress toward filling the over 40 roles identified by the MPP framework. 


by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

December 1, 2023

Over the years, Beyond Intractability has been systematically cataloguing the many conflict problems that undermine society's ability to resolve disputes in wise and equitable ways, while also resisting the destructive forces of hyper-polarization that are tearing apart so many societies (and undermining democracy).  We have also been trying to figure out more effective ways of addressing these problems at the full scale and complexity of modern society.  Rather than trying to come up with some new grand plan that we would ask everyone embrace and follow, we have, instead, tried to focus on understanding and strengthening society's natural learning engine. This engine is driven by the fact that all problems create opportunities for people who can figure out how to solve them. Put another way, we are focusing on ways in which Adam Smith's "invisible hand" applies to efforts to strengthen society as well as efforts to increase the quality and quantity of available goods and services.

What we find especially encouraging in these troubled times is the fact that we have been able to identify a large and growing list of individuals and organizations that are developing and working to implement realistic strategies for addressing the many conflict problems that we have catalogued over the years.  What this demonstrates is that MPP is not some imaginary, impossible theoretical approach to peacebuilding.  Rather, it is simply our name for a natural process that is actually happening now, and has happened in other contexts for a very long time. The economic "invisible hand" first described by Adam Smith has, after all, been able to successfully direct people into thousands of different roles, all contributing to making a successful economy work, usually without any top-down direction. Similarly, in massively parallel peacebuilding (or massively parallel democracy building), thousands or even millions of people play over 40 different roles that are each contributing their own "small part" to the large-scale effort to build peace or put democracy back on track—again without top-down direction. But taken together, these efforts can have a large impact.

Unfortunately, most of these efforts are largely unknown, except by the people doing them and those directly involved with them as participants.  So it is easy to get discouraged, to figure that the world is falling apart all around us, and there is nothing we can do about this disintegration.  But, actually, there is much we all can do, and much that is already going on, as there are countless people working in many different roles and different ways in order to build peace in deeply-divided and war-torn societies, and to strengthen democracy in places where it is threatened. 

We believe that, if more people become aware of these efforts, they might become less depressed and frightened, and more hopeful.  Perhaps, more importantly, they might be able to figure out a role they can play — a place they can fit — in the puzzle that is strengthened democracy or peacebuilding. The second video presents a whirlwind introduction to the many roles that are now being played. Over the coming weeks and months we will be highlighting people and organizations who are playing each of these roles, what they are doing, and will suggest ways other people might be able to join them in an even larger MPP effort.

Introductory MPP Video

In the first video, we explain that our core goal is building a "power-with" democracy that lives up to its ideals. We argue that democracy, as it is currently practiced in the United States and other places around the world, is, despite its many flaws, far preferable to authoritarianism and anarchy. So rather than turning our backs on democratic norms and institutions in ways that take us closer to authoritarianism of either the right or the left, we advocate for socio-economic and political/policy changes that would help democracy more effectively address its shortcomings while truly providing wise decisions and security and fair treatment for all. 

We start out this video by explaining the principal challenge that MPP is designed to address — the extreme scale and complexity of destructive societal conflict and democratic deterioration. Traditional conflict resolution strategies, in which a mediator, for instance, sits with a few people sitting around a table, is 7-9 orders of magnitude (factors of 10) smaller than a large societal-level conflict. (To give a comparison, a person walking slowly (at 1.7 miles/hour) is moving only four orders of magnitude slower than the International Space Station (which circles the earth at 17,000 miles/hour). So, the difference between a mediator working with two people (what we call the basic "mediation triad") and the conflict in Israel and Gaza is a seven orders of magnitude.. The difference between the mediation triad and the hyper-polarized political conflict in the United States is 8 orders of magnitude. That's 10,000 times larger than the difference between the space station and one person walking slowly! So, the strategies needed to address conflicts of this scale and complexity need to be much bigger and organized in ways that differ dramatically from "table-oriented" processes. 

We then outline four other challenges, beyond scale and complexity, that must be met if we are to be successful at strengthening democracy or building peace. One is to try to find a set of fairness principles that everybody can agree on as a basis for social organization. How do we define who gets what (distributive justice)?  How do we make societal-level decisions (procedural justice)? How do we compensate for past wrongs (restorative justice)? In this context, we highlight the unifying potential of the "golden rule"  — the principle, common to all of the world's major religions, that we should treat others as we would like to be treated.

The second challenge focuses on strengthening the civic skills needed to navigate the unbelievably cumbersome decision making processes associated with any modern democracy. This means helping people understand how their government actually works (or is supposed to work), getting them good information about the choices to be made on major policy issues, and helping them to get involved with the decision-making process, not only though voting, but also through expressing their views to their elected representatives, and participating in public involvement processes such as citizens assemblies, surveys, town halls, etc.

Third, we talk about the bad-faith actor problem and how efforts to make democracy work are under attack by a wide range of forces, including "authoritarian wannabes," foreign powers, and "conflict profiteers" (such as hate-mongering media companies). In addition to strengthening the positive attributes of democracy, we must strengthen our defenses against those who would tear it apart for their own selfish gain.  

The fourth challenge we address is the threat posed by hyper-polarization and the fact that people have split into warring camps where whatever the other side wants, the first side opposes, without ever really looking at the merits of competing views. If we are only out to "hurt the other," rather than making good decisions for all, that really makes the kind of compromise that's core to any democratic process impossible.

We ended this video by noting that a centralized, top-down strategy for dealing with these challenges won't work. But that all of these seemingly impossible challenges can met by the social "invisible hand" discussed above.   We focus on how this is being done in the second video. 

MPP Roles Video

In this video we give a whirlwind tour of the over 40 different roles that are currently being played by peacebuilders and democracy strengtheners, each contributing a small piece to the very large and complex puzzle of a peaceful, well-functioning society. As we said before, this is not Guy and Heidi's hypothetical plan of what should be done to save the world.  It is a description of what is actually being done now, by people trying to strengthen democracy and build peace.  It is our attempt to make the social "invisible hand" more visible. We will be fleshing out all of these roles in further posts in the coming weeks and months, highlighting particular people and organizations who are role models, in a sense, of what can and needs to be done in order to strengthen democracies around the world and build peace where it is lacking.

We divide these roles in to two broad categories, strategists and actors. This distinction is based on the scientific understanding that all animals, even the most primitive insects, have two hemispheres of their brains that allow for two fundamentally different, but complementary, kinds of intelligence.  One side seeks to understand the big picture and figure out what needs to be done in a particular environmental situation. The other side directs the animal to actually do those things. So with a deer, it is constantly is monitoring for predators. If it sees one, then the big picture brain kicks over to the action part of the brain that knows how to run, and it runs. The same sort of thing applies to social conflict and peacebuilding. Some people are needed to understand the problem, the challenges, and what needs to happen.  Others are needed to carry out those processes and make the solutions "happen."

We break the conflict strategists into four categories:

  1. Conflict Lookouts: Lookouts watch for things that are going wrong that are not widely recognized and they urge people to pay attention.  The scientists Guy worked with back in the 1970s at the National Center for Atmospheric Research were warning about increasing levels of CO2 significantly changing global weather patterns long before the notion of "climate change" or "global warming" became widely known.  Conflict early warning programs, such as the Early Warning/Early Response programs run by Peace Infrastructures and the Trust Network are equivalents in the conflict/peacebuilding realm.
  2. Democracy Firsters: This category relates to democracy building more than peacebuilding. It includes people and organizations who are arguing that solving our many intractable socio-economic and environmental problems (such as climate change, inequality, racism, etc.) first requires the strengthening of democratic processes that will enable us to successfully address these issues.
  3. Complexifiers: These are people and organizations who are seeking ways to deal with the scale and complexity that makes it so difficult for "good-faith" actors to address large-scale conflicts effectively. People such as Peter Coleman, author of The Way Out and Robert Ricigliano, author of Making Peace Last are two examples of complexifiers.
  4. Defenders: These are the people who are trying to defend democracy and peace from "bad-faith" actors who are deliberately trying to undermine democracy and inflame tensions. They are the people seeking electoral reforms to enhance the integrity and credibility of elections, the people trying to rid the media and social media of hate-mongering and fake facts, the people fighting corruption at all levels, etc.

The conflict actors are broken out into six categories. They include:

  1. Communicators: People who help all of us develop more accurate images of the world in which we live, and especially, the actions and motivations of others.  The most common and probably biggest sub-category of communicators are bridge-builders, who bring people together for dialogues and other similar constructive communication processes across divides. But there are many other sub-categories including information "bubble busters," mass-communicators, free-speech advocates, disinformation fighters, media reformers, and conflict educators.
  2. Peacemakers: These are the people who work to diffuse our escalated and hyper-polarized politics by replacing us-versus them demonization with collaborative efforts to address common problems. In addition to mediators and conciliators, we include crisis responders, peacekeepers and "escalation educators" in this category.
  3. Issue Analysts: These are the scientists and technical experts who provide the technical knowledge that is needed to understand today's exceedingly complex challenges. In addition to explaining their analyses to the general public, this group also works to assure the trustworthiness of its analyses through professional standards and conflict-of-interest protections.
  4. Power Balancers: These are the people who are focused on assuring power is fairly shared in any democratic decision making processes.  Sub-categories include civic skill builders, civic reformers, ethical politicians, constructive advocates, and network builders. 
  5. Visionaries: This group consists of people and organizations that help us imagine a future in which we would all want to live (and be willing to work toward), rather one in which a large portion of the citizens would feel estranged and disenfranchised.  Subcategories include healers who help people look backward to right the grievous wrongs of the past, and co-existers who help people look forward to a more equitable society in which wrongs of the past are not repeated.
  6. Problem Solvers: These are people and organizations who work with stakeholders to identify and successfully pursue realistic and equitable options for successfully addressing common problems. This includes consensus builders, constructive advocates (who advocate for their view while taking into account legitimate opposing views). and people we call "globalists" — people who help develop democratic processes that enable effective problem solving at a global scale. 

As we said, this video provides just a very quick overview of these roles and sub-roles.  Its goal was to show that there actually is a tremendous amount of work currently going on to build peace and strengthen democracy around the world. Rather than feeling defeated, as if the task is too big, the future too hopeless, we are hoping to encourage people to realize that there IS HOPE, and there is (as Peter Coleman or Bill Zartman say) a "way out" of the many intractable conflicts are are currently in.

But we all need to get involved, even if it is in a very small way. Everyone can read or watch or listen to more diverse information sources to find out what is going on related to the issues they care about. Everyone can try to stop stereotyping people on the other side as "evil," and try to find out what they really think and why. And many more of us need to get more deeply involved in one of these forty roles. We will be talking more about how one can do that in coming newsletters, and we are in the process of creating a major reworking of much of the Beyond Intractability site to create a "Guide" to Massively Parallel Peacebuilding and Democracy Building. So there is much more to come!


Please Contribute Your Ideas To This Discussion!

In order to prevent bots, spammers, and other malicious content, we are asking contributors to send their contributions to us directly. If your idea is short, with simple formatting, you can put it directly in the contact box. However, the contact form does not allow attachments.  So if you are contributing a longer article, with formatting beyond simple paragraphs, just send us a note using the contact box, and we'll respond via an email to which you can reply with your attachment.  This is a bit of a hassle, we know, but it has kept our site (and our inbox) clean. And if you are wondering, we do publish essays that disagree with or are critical of us. We want a robust exchange of views.

Contact Us

About the MBI Newsletters

Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam).  Check there or search for and if you still can't find it, first go to our Substack help page, and if that doesn't help, please contact us

If you like what you read here, please ....

Subscribe to the Newsletter