The Google Maps and Adopt-a-Highway Approach to Systems

Newsletter 72 — January 19, 2023



From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Thinking Big

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with societal-level problems, such as political hyper-polarization, is dealing effectively with the scale and complexity of such problems.  Most of us are much more familiar with and attuned to small scale problems such as interpersonal or, perhaps, organizational conflicts.  We know (or at least we think we know) effective approaches for dealing with those kinds of situations, and many times, we just assume that the same approaches will effectively deal with conflicts at a much larger scale.  But they don't.  We need to do something bigger—much more far-reaching. But none of us individually is able to do that. And it is very hard to get all of us (or even many of us) coordinating effectively, as attempts to coordinate (i.e. meetings) can take more time than is left to do what we need and want to do. How do we get out of this dilemma?  One answer is what we call the "Google Maps Approach." 

Google Maps helps drivers navigate traffic in big cities (and rural areas too, of course). The traffic in cities is a good example of a complex system.  The way it operates is determined by the decisions of multitudes of independent actors driving their own cars, and trucks, as well as bicycles, and taking mass transit. No one person or organization is determining where people go, how fast, and what external impediments (such as accidents) might occur.  It used to be that all of us were left to our own devices to figure out when to leave and what route to take to get from place A to place B in the most efficient manner possible. 

But now we have Google Maps.  Google Maps collects speed data from everyone driving on the roads with a cell phone (which in most cities is most everyone) to determine how fast traffic is moving. Individual drivers can send in reports of problems: accidents, poor weather or road conditions, obstacles in the road, speed traps, etc. Drivers can use this information to choose the optimal route, and if conditions change, Google might even suggest an alternative route which will be faster.  It is a crowd-sourced approach to traffic, which is, in essence, a systems approach to a systems problem.

This approach helps individuals make better decisions for themselves, but it doesn't change the system all that much. (It does change it a little, as people won't keep loading more and more cars onto a backed-up highway if there are alternatives.)  But one can do more to change the system if one also adopts what Guy calls the "adopt a highway" approach to systemic problems.  In the United States, we have an "adopt a highway" program through which the adopting group or organization agrees to pick up litter from both sides of a highway for a two-mile section at least four times a year. In exchange for this service, the organization is given a sign on the section of highway they are maintaining which gives them good advertising. If one extends this approach to other kinds of systems, people, groups, or organizations could agree to provide a service to any complex systems to help solve a problem. Not litter in this case, but, for instance, in the case of political hyper-polarization, an organization could commit to holding a certain number of cross-party dialogues each year. Or an individual could make an effort to treat people on the other side with more respect than they had been doing. Or people could make an effort to understand the underlying interests of the other side, in an effort to find commonalities.  None of these approaches, alone, will significantly diminish hyper-polarization, but taken together, if everyone plays a part, it can begin to make a significant difference.

However, there's a hitch!  Some approaches to diminishing hyper-polarization tend to be much more popular than others.  For instance, dialogue is popular, and there are a tremendous number of organizations that are holding such cross-party dialogues.  But then there are other needed activities that very few people or organizations are doing. For instance, we are not aware of any organizations that are trying to help people and organizations on opposite ends of the political divide collaboratively develop a future vision of a society we would all like to live in. Most people and organizations form a vision of the future that THEY would like to live in. If half of the country wouldn't want to live there, it isn't considered a problem.  Rather, the assumption is that the other half will either "come around to realize we are right" or they will "put up."  Unfortunately, both outcomes are very unlikely. Instead, we get the political stalemates and continued polarization that we have now.  

Similarly, relatively few organizations (although here we do know of some!) are undertaking reliable analyses of problems using verified facts that are understood and accepted, again, by people on both sides of the political divide. Much more common, unfortunately, are "factual" analyses that are predicated on assumptions held by one side but not the other.  This leads to "studies" that prove, for instance, that climate change is causing all the storms and fires and other adverse events that are plaguing the world right now, and thus extreme measures (such as stopping all driving or switching to all-electric vehicles) is called for imminently.  Others, however, do not believe the underlying assumptions of those studies and assert that they massively over-estimate the extent of the problem, or alternatively, that they misidentify the causes and efficacy of solutions.  Until a common understanding of the problem can be developed, getting people to adopt effective solutions is going to be all but impossible.

Years ago, we went to an Alliance for Peacebuilding meeting where Peter Woodrow, then with CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, described an exercise they frequently did with clients in war-torn societies.  They'd have workshop participants list, up on newsprint on the wall, what challenges they saw their communities and countries facing.  He'd then have them list the challenges that each organization at the workshop was working on.  Almost always, Peter reported, all the organizations were working on one or two of the same challenges,and most of the challenges remained.  The same thing seems to be happening in the U.S. with response to political polarization.

If, however, we were to map all the challenges Google-maps style, and then each organization (or indeed, each person) were to adopt one or two of the challenges that were not widely adopted by others, that could have a much bigger impact.  The hyper-polarization matrix that we presented earlier is, in essence, a map of the hyper-polarization system as we see it.  It is not dynamic as is Google maps, but we are going to make an effort to start filling out the cells of the matrix to see who is doing what on what challenge, and what the outcomes have been.  Over time, this will give us and all our users a better image of the challenges ahead and where they might be able to make the most difference.

As we have started to work on this project, however, we have begun to develop an image of a simpler matrix, so we'll be sharing that shortly, along with our beginning efforts to put organizations and projects in the cells. We would love to hear from our readers about efforts you are taking to deal with one or more of the seven "essential elements of successful democracies" or anything else you are doing to strengthen democracy that does not fit into our categories (maybe our categories need to change). 

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