Massively Parallel Peacebuilding (MPP)


Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

June, 2018


This video gives an introduction to what MPP is, and how it is different from other approaches to peacebuilding. It also gives an overview of what will be covered in the second phase of the Conflict Frontiers Seminar, all of which is focused on implementing MPP.

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability. 

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. With this post, I'd like to explain a bit more about what we mean by Massively Parallel Peacebuilding. 

Slide 2. Maybe the best place to start is to talk about the big re-framing that is at the heart of this concept. We are trying to alter the traditional way in which parties to intractable conflict tend to see one another, as illustrated with the graphic. Basically, we have two opposing communities who see themselves as being in direct opposition to one another. (These are shown here as the red and the blue, but it can be whatever other communities and colors one might be interested in.) In escalated conflicts, they usually continue, in one way or another, to lob threats, insults, and attacks back and forth. 

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Slide 3. The first step toward making Massively Parallel Peacebuilding (MPP) work is to convince a sizable fraction within the two contending communities to re-frame their conflict. Instead of seeing one another as the enemy, they need to begin to realize that the bigger enemy is destructive conflict dynamics. This is illustrated with the yellow "explosion" graphic. Once you re-frame things in this way, the parties have a common interest in figuring out what is making their conflict so destructive and how to fix it. Basically, you're transforming people from being enemies to being on the same side of an effort to fight an impersonal, common enemy that that is the bigger threat to their vital interests – destructive conflict. 

Slide 4. Another way to think about what we are trying to do (which we think reasonable people on all sides could support) is to cultivate conflict as an engine of social learning. This way of thinking about the problem assumes that the basic conflict interaction arises when a "plaintiff" asserts that things would be better if the "defendant" would change their behavior. Assuming that the defendant disagrees and doesn't want to change, you need a process for deciding whether or not the defendant will be forced to change. Here what we need is a process that makes wise, equitable, timely, nonviolent, and reasonably-efficient decisions with reasonably low transaction costs that preserve and strengthen relationships. That's the goal of both constructive confrontation and massively parallel peacebuilding. 

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Slide 5. I also ought to explain the origin of the techie, computer term "massively parallel" and why we chose to use it.   This approach to computing is what makes the gigantic computer systems that have so transformed our world possible.  The "cloud's" big server farms consist of very large numbers of small processors working together on different aspects of a big computing job (like running Facebook). By specializing on different things and collectively working together, these processors are able to do astonishing things. This is what we need to cultivate with respect to peacebuilding. We envision a massively parallel effort with lots of different people doing different things, with all of it pushing the social system toward an engine of social learning that really works. 

Slide 6. Years ago, the Alliance for Peacebuilding produced a document entitled Peacebuilding 2.0, describing a major upgrade to peacebuilding strategies. Since then there's been talk of Peacebuilding 3.0, 4.0, etc. (I don't really know whether or not they actually produced documents explicitly describing these upgraded approaches but they have been talked about and there are lots of publications describing new ideas.) 

Slide 7. What we are trying to do is build on this tradition and propose a next-generation peacebuilding strategy that we think does a better job of dealing with scale and complexity than earlier strategies. Our goals are 1) to increase the number of people doing peacebuilding work, 2) to increase employment opportunities for peacebuilders and constructive advocates, 3) to incorporate insights from adjacent conflict fields (not just peacebuilding and conflict resolution, but also security, political science, etc.).  4) We also want to incorporate insights from cultural and religious institutions that can contribute valuable ideas and manpower to the MPP effort. Lastly, 5) We need to figure out how to lower peacebuilding costs. If you can lower costs and increase productivity, you can increase demand--the laws of supply and demand apply to peacebuilding efforts.  If we can make it affordable, we can encourage people to work on all aspects of the peacebuilding problem. Right now there is a tendency for peacebuilders to focus too much attention on a few high profile activities while neglecting other important things that need to be done and can be done at low cost by many people. 

Slide 8. As I highlighted earlier, MPP is a strategy for better dealing with scale and complexity. In an earlier post about the nature of complex systems we talked about the big evolutionary advantages that humans enjoy – language, conceptual thought, and the ability to make tools. Historically these tools have been complicated (not complex) systems. What we are talking about with MPP is the construction of a complex tool that works at the level of social ecosystems, not just the level of simple mechanical contrivances. 

Slide 9. This spaghetti diagram describing what it would take to win the war in Afghanistan has been widely derided as an example of what is wrong with PowerPoint. Still, if you look at it carefully, you will find that it raises an awful lot of the issues that any serious effort to try to transform and build peace in Afghan society would have to address. What we are trying to do is figure out some framework that would actually get people working comprehensively and in mutually-supportive ways on a complex problem like this (not just in Afghanistan but in the United States and any other society facing similar problems). In fact, our list of things that need doing, is even more daunting than the list the PowerPoint slide implies. 

Slide 10. Another way of thinking about what we are trying to do goes back to an old United States Institute of Peace publication: Herding Cats. This book came out of their effort to try to figure out how to deal with intractable conflict and the fact that people don't take directions or obey commands (like cats). Their image was to try to figure out some way to herd the independently-thinking cats who don't want to be herded.  We are trying to take this metaphor a step further. Instead of trying to herd the cats (which doesn't work very well), we are trying to make the cats smarter so they can do a better job of pursuing their enlightened self-interest, which then will actually benefit everyone.  This involves understanding and using more constructive confrontation strategies to protect their interests while, at the same time, transforming the whole system in more positive ways. 

Slide 11. Still another way of looking at what we are trying to do is reflected in this article on the "Strategic Corporal" which came out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The realization within the Department of Defense was that a command-and-control system couldn't get command-and-control down to the level of individual corporals on street corners in ways that would give them clear directions on what to do in every situation. So, instead, this article argues for giving a strategic corporal--individual soldier--the skills and knowledge they need to make decisions on how best to handle the conflict situations that they encounter (which are likely to be unpredictable) in more constructive ways. That's what we are trying to do with the kind of capacity building that's at the core of MPP. 

Slide 12. Yet another way to think about what we are doing is embodied in the "think globally, act locally" bumper sticker. People need some image of the big picture so that they can decide how best to act--but most of us only act locally. That's all most of us can do. Sometimes "local" involves connections with people far away (this is especially true in the Internet age). Yet this is still "locally" in that it involves the small circle of contacts with whom one has influence. The big question is how to do so most effectively and how to move people up the learning curve faster so that they can be more effective. 

Slide 13. MPP can also be thought of as pursuing a "directory-oriented," rather than a "table-oriented" approach to conflict. In a table-oriented approach, representatives of the various stakeholders come together around the table to hash out their differences and, if possible, come to an agreement. Though sometimes this can work, there are lots of cases where the complexities of the conflict mean that there are lots of other problems that need to be addressed that can't be addressed at the table.

What we are advocating is something that might be called a "directory-oriented approach" where there are lots of different folks doing different things in ways that are independent but mutually supportive. The idea is that all of these independent efforts would be listed in a directory. Years ago, for example, the United States Institute of Peace put together a directory of all the organizations trying to help build peace in Afghanistan. So what we need is a directory of all the organizations trying to do that in the United States (or any other country). 

Slide 14. MPP is also a decentralized, non-hierarchal approach that doesn't rely on a few leaders who give orders to everybody else. It recognizes that there are things that can (and must) be done at the grassroots level, particularly involving the way neighbors treat one another. There are also things that can and must be done at the mid-level of interest groups. Still other things are done by high-level leadership. All of these things together make for MPP.

Slide 15. MPP is an incremental approach that goes back to a critically important insight that came out of the work of Charles Lindblom that he called "remediality."  Lindblom argued policymakers shouldn't focus on grand utopian solutions. Rather, he said, they need a way of approaching social problems that  first, continuously monitors what's working and what's not. Then, when problems are encountered (particularly problems that everybody agrees are problems), they need to try to identify ways of fixing those problems. Ideally, you have small (but big enough) groups of people working on each particular problem. 

Slide 16. Going back to the Google map metaphor, we are trying to catalog the kinds of conflict problems that are likely to arise so that they can be mapped and put up for "adoption" (under our adopt a highway/problem metaphor) We have 10 major challenge categories and within each of these categories there are approximately 10 more specific actions needed to address each challenge. (Depending on how you phrase and conceptualize things, the list could certainly go longer.) 

•    The first challenge is to simply be able to figure out what's going on (the think globally part). 
•    Next, there are a lot of things that people need to do to defend and promote democracy, especially in the face of direct attacks from "divide and conquer" provocateurs. 
•    There is another challenge focused on helping people frame (or think about) their conflict in more constructive ways.  
•    Still another challenge explores issues surrounding approaches to dealing with "unrightable wrongs" of the past and envisioning a more desirable future. 
•    There is a section focused on limiting and reversing the escalation spiral and another one that looks at the promoting more accurate communication (and the limiting of misunderstandings). 
•    Obtaining and more effectively using real facts is included – we live in a fact-based world; if you don't pay attention to them, they are likely to come back and bite you.
•    Another set of action items focuses on helping people work together collaboratively and taking advantage of mutually beneficial opportunities. 
•    The promotion of good governance is next with a focus on situations where the parties can't agree and somebody has to make a tough decision. 
•    Finally, there is the promotion of the invisible hand that focuses on market economies and how they can be made to work for everybody (and not just for the benefit of a few).

Slide 17. Upcoming posts are going to include a post on "the things you can do" that will look at examples of specific action items in each of the 10 challenge categories. Our goal is to give you a better sense of exactly what we are talking about within the broad MPP rubric. Over the next several months we will be adding individual posts on each of these action items. (However, we are still looking for donations to help us complete this work.)

Slide 18. Another post is going to address is what we call, "second, third, and fourth-order problems." These are the problems that I can prevent you from being able to deal with the first order problems addressed in the challenge/action list. 

Slide 19. Another key post explains why we think that MPP is not such a crazy idea. The truth is, it is the way societies do big things and there are lots of precedents that I will talk about. Totally apart from anything we might do or be able to influence, something like massively parallel peacebuilding is going to occur as an emergent property of the entire system.  All we are trying to do is encourage and support the natural process through which societies have always tried to solve big problems. 

Slide 20. We are currently imagining four key settings in which the materials that we are producing might, over the near term, be used.  First, we plan to expand the section of the Moving Beyond Intractability website that highlights things everyone can do to help. These are not things that take huge organizations, but literally are things that most everybody can do. 

Slide 21. We are also going to be continuing the Conflict Frontiers seminar in ways that will get us into the underlying theory and the details of how all of these things work, and what needs to be done and why. As I mentioned earlier, we see this as a "frontier of the field" idea that could benefit from and very much solicits and welcomes your input. 

Slide 22. Still, another way of using the materials (which we are in the process of developing) is as a focal point for community dialogues that are taking place between people on both sides of the big social divide. Traditionally, these dialogues have focused on trying to get people to respectfully understand one another and with their underlying differences and commonalities. While this is still very much worth doing, the MPP materials might provide a different focus for these kinds of group discussions.  This goes back to my discussion of the great re-framing that underlies MPP – we want to get people to start thinking about the destructive dynamics that are tearing their world apart and how they might work together to address those dynamics. So, this goes beyond just talking about differences and actually gets down to working together.

Slide 23. Finally, MPP materials could be used as a primary or secondary text for college-level classes in peace and conflict studies programs.  It would also be appropriate for a lot of classes that deal with social issues and want to do so in a more constructive way that will actually be reasonably successful in advancing the interests of the various parties. So,  hopefully, this gives you a bit more of an idea of what we are thinking about.

Referenced Resources:

Slide 6: Peacebuilding 2.0

Slide 15:  Sources:,

Photo Credits:

Slide 5: Server Farm – Source:; By: Florian Hirzinger; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Slide 6: Source:

Slide 7: Complex Network Diagram – Source: By: Martin Grandjean; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Slide 8: Primitive Man – Source:,_cavemen_-_National_Muse... By Nathan McCord; Permission: Public domain. World Airline Map – Source: By: Jpatokal (Own work); Permission: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 9: Afghanistan Diagram -- Source:, By: US Government; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 10: HERDING CATS Multiparty Mediation in a Complex World; Edited by Chester A. CrockerFen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall; USIP Press Books; November 1999 .  Cats – Source:; By: Pixabay; Permission: Creative Commons Zero (CC0)

Slide 11:  Secretary Of Defense Hierarchy – Source:; By: T geier; Permission: Public Domain.  Source:\

Slide 13: Negotiation Table – Source: By: US State Department; Permission: Public Domain.  Yellow Pages – Source:; By: Katie; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 15:  Sources:,

Slide 22:  Discussion --- Source: By: NASA; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 23: