Detailed Introduction: The Beyond Intractability Approach

The Inevitability of Continuing Intractable Conflict and the Need for More Constructive Approaches


Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

The Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base and the new (2016) Moving Beyond Intractability Massive Open Online Seminar (MBI-MOOS) is the next step in the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium's 25+ year effort to dentify, develop, and promote more constructive approaches to the many intractable conflicts that are paralyzing society's problem-solving abilities and commonly escalating into costly, destructive, and sometimes violent confrontations. The project recognizes that there is seldom a "peace table" where parties can sit down and realistically resolve big, society-wide conflicts once and for all. While dispute episodes within the context of these underlying moral, distributional, status, and identity conflicts are often resolved, the underlying long-term conflicts and tensions remain and have to be addressed again and again. Given this, we have focused our attention on the promotion of more constructive approaches to these conflicts — approaches that contribute to the long-term goal of human betterment by limiting destructive confrontations and promoting social learning. After all, conflict plays a critical, positive role in society; it is the mechanism through which we challenge one another to make things better.

The Scale and Complexity Problem

To be successful, efforts to promote more constructive approaches to intractability must be capable of dealing with the staggering scale and complexity of society-wide conflict. This is because the course of conflict is determined by the cumulative decisions of countless individuals operating in myriad conflict roles, all responding (as best they can) to the circumstances in which they find themselves. This means that the only way to successfully transform the big conflicts is to transform the way in which very large numbers of people think about conflict and behave in conflict situations. This requires an ability to improve skill levels of people in the full range of conflict-related roles (including adversaries and intermediaries, conflict professional and everyday citizens exercising their civic responsibilities). In other words, it requires what we call "massively parallel peacebuilding", in which very large numbers of individuals in diverse conflict roles learn how to apply an ever more sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics to their work.

Learning Curve Accelerator

As the destructiveness of current conflicts becomes increasingly apparent (both in the US between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, and outside the US in Africa and the Middle East, for instance) increasing numbers of people are actively trying to learn — within the tight constraints of modern life — how to improve their conflict-handling skills. The problem is that the pace of this learning is so slow that people are commonly forced to fall back on business-as-usual approaches that they know are destructive and inadequate. To combat this, we need to make sophisticated "learning curve accelerators" more widely and easily accessible. This is what the Conflict Information Consortium's knowledge-base systems and collaborative learning communities have tried to provide over the years, and what we are seeking to improve.

To do this, we are trying to build learning systems that help new generations of conflict actors understand and apply the field's foundational insights. Some of these insights are applicable to a wide range of roles and situations, while others are highly specialized and apply in only a few, narrowly defined cases. The key is to provide an ever-larger proportion of conflict actors with easier access to the best available ideas for dealing with their conflict problems. This requires systems for matching individuals with genuinely helpful ideas — some of which may be innovative and new, while others are long-standing and proven. Also required is an ability to deliver those ideas during the short learning windows in which they are being sought, at a cost people that people can easily afford (preferably free), in a format they can understand and relate to, and from sources that they view as trustworthy.

Web-Based Knowledge Synthesis

The scale of the intractable conflict problem is so vast that it can only be successfully addressed by synthesizing contributions from a very broad range of institutions, disciplines, and individuals. Fortunately, the Internet now makes it possible to mobilize and synthesize contributions from a global community of people working in the field. Finally, it is possible to integrate these efforts on a scale that is commensurate with the problem. We believe that one of the most important keys to expanding the utilization of existing knowledge is to simply make that knowledge more readily accessible. We also believe that one of the biggest keys to advancing the frontier of the field and developing new knowledge is a system that makes the existing knowledge gaps more visible and helps coordinate and focus efforts to fill those gaps. The expanded Beyond Intractability project that we are pursuing seeks to provide a utility that supports such efforts.

The design of this Knowledge Base is based on the realization that an enormous amount of progress has been (and is being) made on the various aspects of the conflict problem. Unfortunately, much of this work has proceeded in relatively isolated communities of practice (sometimes called "silos"). While there has been some level of integration at the level of the field's leaders, this fails to permeate widely in the consciousness of the vast majority of conflict actors. As a result, people tend not to see how the many ideas can fit together in a mutually reinforcing way. This, in turn, underlies the cynical belief that destructive, intractable conflict is an unavoidable fact of life. Our goal is to build a system that makes the availability of a comprehensive set of more constructive alternatives more widely apparent, thereby reducing the number of instances in which people pursue destructive conflict-as-usual practices in the belief that there are no viable alternatives.

Long-Term Focus

We also try not to underestimate the difficulty of the conflict problem. While there are important improvements that can be made over the relatively short term, it will take decades of sustained effort to produce the kind of large-scale shift to more constructive alternatives that is so desperately needed. Still, we believe that the long-term future of human society is ultimately dependent upon its ability to make this shift (and that successfully doing so is as important as addressing other big, long-term, social challenges like climate change and infectious disease.) We see Beyond intractability as a long-term project designed to promote and support this effort.

Knowledge Base Design

 Beyond Intractability has been designed to serve the large community of people who are actively seeking better ways of handling a broad range of conflict-related problems. In its broadest sense, this community includes anyone seeking to learn about any aspect of the field through any of the field's various learning institutions (regardless of whether they are directly associated with Beyond Intractability).

In a narrower sense, the learning community consists of those who currently consult Consortium systems (currently over 200,000 unique visitors each month) or who might consult the enhanced system that we are trying to build.

At the core of the project is a Knowledge Base that currently contains almost 20,000 resources in our various resource catalogs, including:

  • Over 400 "encyclopedic articles" explaining the big ideas behind the field's core topics,
  • Summaries of over 600 books and journal articles,
  • A searchable database with full-text indexing of over 15,000 Web-accessible peace- and conflict-related resources, and
  • Over 100 hours of audio interviews.

All of this information can be accessed by: 1) searching the knowledge base; 2) browsing "virtual bookshelves" on over 1000 topics; 3) consulting diagnostic checklists; 4) using "guides" to resources likely to be especially useful to those with an interest in a specific aspect of the field, and 5) utilizing online courses and educational materials.

Collaborative Learning Community 

In an effort to transform BI from "just a knowledge base" to a "collaborative learning community, we used to include a variety of interactive elements in the project design. For instance, we provided opportunities to comment on all articles, write or edit essays, affiliate with BI and sponsor BI activities.  A large number of graduate students and a few faculty members did submit papers for publication on BI, and we continue to welcome such submissions. However, none of the other opportunities were heavily used, so we are moving most of the other interactive elements over to the new project, the Moving Beyond Intractability MOOS


The project design is also built around a recognition of the field's chronic funding constraints (which we hope this project will eventually help to alleviate by putting together a more comprehensive and, therefore, compelling case for supporting the field's efforts). Our approach uses a very low-cost project design with a highly diversified array of funding options, including both "fee-for-service" options and appeals for philanthropic core support.

Some support for the project comes from the sale of competitively-priced Beyond Intractability services and online publications designed to increase the effectiveness the field's many independently-funded research, practice, and teaching projects. 

Still, this support is not enough to assure continued operation of the system. We also need modest amounts of core support funding to provide the steady funding stream needed to weather the ups and downs associated with the above funding options. More specifically, we need enough core support funding to be able to: 1) maintain the computer system and ensure that it can meet demand; 2) Update and add to the articles in the Knowledge Base and 3)  administer the overall effortAt this point, our immediate goal is to raise $50,000 to fund these activities for the next year.

Contact Beyond Intractability for more information about the services that we can provide in return for your support. You can also donate online through our account at the University of Colorado Foundation.