Larry Susskind and Shafik Islam on Complexity

by Heidi Burgess, for Larry Susskind  

June 30, 2022

In response to our request for information about discussion-related resources, Larry Susskind suggested that his article with Shafik Islam on "Using Complexity Science and Negotiation to Manage Disputes Over Shared Waters" in Journal of Hydrology 2018 was relevant to our exploration of complexity and ways of dealing with it.   Indeed, it is.

The paper combines key ideas from complexity theory with key ideas from negotiation theory, and suggests that by putting those two approaches together, better water management decisions can be made.  While all of the examples are focused on water, the same principles apply to any other complex public issue, which encompasses almost all major public conflicts today. 

Susskind and Islam define complexity as follows:

Complex problems are those where cause-effect relationships are ambiguous; uncertainty, nonlinearity and feedback are inherent; and emergent properties dominate the system evolution. For this class of problems, there is likely to be very little agreement about what the definition or cause of the problem is, let alone the best way to resolve it. (p. 590)


Complex problems, they say (as we do, too, in the CRQ paper) cannot be solved in the same way that simple or even complicated problems can be solved.  They cannot be analyzed by experts who will find the one "solution." They cannot be "fixed," as a broken machine or human-designed system can be assessed and "fixed." And even when apparent "fixes" or "solutions" are found, these solutions may not last, as the nature of the "problem" will likely continue to evolve.

What does work, Susskind and Islam argue, are ideas and tools drawn from negotiation theory and practice, and they describe several examples of negotiations that illustrate the success of this approach in complex water conflicts such as that over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), California water use, and the water elements of the Israeli/Jordan 1994 Peace treaty.  

Susskind and Islam focus on three distinct aspects of negotiation as being most useful in complex problems: stakeholder identification and participation, joint fact finding, and creative option generation.

For instance, they assert that:

There are numerous benefits to engaging stakeholders in water management decisions. Effective stakeholder engagement tends to improve the quality and durability of agreements.  Even when agreement is not reached, stakeholder engagement can lead to a better understanding of the implicit conflicts due to competing stakeholder interests; increased political buy-in and legitimacy for decisions; better relationships and more trust among contending parties; identification of mutually advantageous proposals; and learning that has value beyond the process of direct consultation.

Regarding joint fact finding they say: 

Joint fact-finding (JFF) brings experts, policymakers and stakeholders together to analyze scientific or technical data and try to draw conclusions. Instead of each party or participant generating evidence or arguments to support their prior assumptions (and political interests), the stakeholders jointly select one or more qualified advisors to help them sort through various sources of evidence. This increases the chances that “science” will not be pushed aside in favor of politically convenient arguments favored by the most politically powerful parties. JFF requires face-to-face dialogue and movement toward consensus by continually narrowing areas of scientific disagreement. It usually precedes or is part of a larger collaborative decision making process in which the results are agreements in the form of recommendations to elected or appointed decision-makers. JFF can also be a helpful way to build trust and enhance relationships among parties, even those who have a long history of disagreement and mistrust. This is sometimes key to the success of subsequent joint problem solving efforts.

Susskind and Islam's last suggestion is the well-established notion of creating options for mutual gain instead of struggling through a fixed-pie (zero-sum) distributive negotiation. For a start, as the previous discussion makes clear, the amount of water (or any other desirable good) is never known, so there isn't a fixed amount to divide up. But beyond that, it is possible to create options for mutual gain by widening the field of goods available to distribute. They use the examples of adding in facilities for water storage or electricity generation as additional bargaining chips that increased "the pie," and allowed for mutual gain for all the disputants.

In the case of boundary crossing water negotiation, value creation may occur in several ways: first, by redefining the issues on the agenda (i.e. scale, scope, number, etc.); second, by "creating" more water; and third, by recognizing the full bundle of benefits (sometimes on a range of related issues) that could be gained by new levels of cooperation.

Although this paper focuses entirely on water conflicts, the same principles apply to the negotiation of any other complex problem. Their assertion that negotiation is a superior approach to engineered solutions is consistent with our notion that conflict resolution practitioners are in a unique position to tackle the complex problem of political polarization (and all the sub-conflicts within that large rubric). This paper is worth reading as an example of how negotiation and consensus building can be highly useful tools in complex situations.

Heidi's Question to Larry and Shafiqul on Getting Distrustful People Together

The question I'd like to raise to Larry and Shafiqul, however, is.. how do you get parties that are as highly polarized, as highly distrustful, even hateful, as the American political parties are, to the negotiating table in the first place? And, how do you do that when bad-faith actors are actively trying to undermine such efforts, and when the general public has not had an opportunity to participate in the trust building efforts that typically surround such negotiations, so they are likely also to be deeply skeptical about anyone who agrees to talk to the "other side" ? I happen to know that Larry, at least, has addressed that some of these questions in another paper that he shared with us, so I'll be writing about that (and linking to it) next!

Larry's Answer:

We have used informal devising seminars (See my 2015 Negotiation Journal article on this).  In that, we give a detailed picture of how an informal devising seminar helped to move problem-solving discussions along in the Arctic.  I can promise you that the indigenous communities (i.e. Mapuche) left out of key discussions in Chile over the future of water and proposed hydro facilities were eager to participate in an informal problem-solving session. The idea is not to ask, “Will you come to a formal session to meet and talk with people you are fighting with (and hating) to work things out?   Rather, would you be willing to come (in your personal capacity) if all your costs were covered to a facilitated sessions (with a facilitator you have met and trust where the focus will be only on “good ideas” that will help to meet your interests in the current situation (as well as the interests of others)?  Please read the detailed account of the Arctic session. You can also read Carri Hulet’s Master Thesis on the idea of "devising seminars” in the MIT D-Space.  She is a graduate of DUSP.

My point is, those who want to promote dialogue or peace-making among parties who are “at war” are inviting the wrong people to the wrong kind of event in the wrong way.  There are clear alternatives that work.