Why MPP Isn't Such a Crazy Idea


Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018


This video illustrates that there are parallel efforts that have been and are being implemented to solve large-scale and very difficult problems that show, first, that such large-scale collaborative action is possible, and two, that it can have significant positive effect.  Examples are the U.S. (and our allies') response to World War II, the civil rights and environmental movements, and the ongoing response to climate change.  All of these were, in a sense, massively parallel responses to pressing societal problems that illustrate Boulding's First Law:  If it exists, it must be possible!

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability. 

Slide 1.  This is Guy Burgess. For this post, I'd like to explain why we think that Massively Parallel Peacebuilding isn't such a crazy idea. 

Slide 2.  There are obviously lots of good reasons to be skeptical about a bold idea like this. There are real questions about whether or not people would actually contribute to something like this and certainly worries about what might happen if it doesn't work. 

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Slide 3.  To answer some of these concerns, we might start by citing Kenneth Boulding's First Law, "if it exists, it must be possible" and the corollary, "if it has been done, it must be possible." The truth is that there are lots of people doing things that, while they are not labeled "Massively Parallel Peacebuilding, that's really what they are. We just need to learn from and expand the work of these people. 

Slide 4.  Another example worth citing is Kenneth Boulding's story about the demise of dueling. There was a time when dueling was considered a perfectly reasonable way of resolving disputes. People trained to improve their fencing and marksmanship skills so that they would be more likely to prevail in such contests. Then society, as a whole, realized that this was a stupid way to handle conflict. So, instead of learning how to fight better, they found alternative ways of resolving disputes and dueling disappeared. We need to come to the same realization about today's destructive conflict handling practices and we need to find better ways of dealing with those same tough issues more constructively.

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Slide 5.  Still another way to think about Massively Parallel Peacebuilding is as an effort to strengthen society's natural learning systems. Ecological dynamics and, especially, the dynamics of social ecosystems have transformed human society from that of primitive hunter gatherers to today's modern industrial, information economy in the space of just a few thousand years. This is an astonishing accomplishment and it was achieved using a decentralized process through which humans continually learned how to deal with a wide range of issues more effectively.  Our goal is simply to try to find ways to strengthen this system and better extend it into the social realm.

Slide 6.  Part of the reason that we think this can work is that all problems create opportunities – necessity is the mother of invention and all of that. For each aspect of the destructive conflict problem, there are associated opportunities for people to actually make a living helping society deal with these issues. The key is to be able to persuade people that improved conflict handling strategies would actually be beneficial enough to pay for.

Slide 7.  Yet another source of our optimism is that Massively Parallel Peacebuilding could go a long way towards harnessing the "make-a-difference drive" of so many young people (and older people, for that matter). I know a lot of our students are very committed to finding a way to make a positive difference in the world.  Sadly, they been having a tough time finding places in which they can do that. We think Massively Parallel Peacebuilding outlines a whole lot of opportunities. It will just take people with an entrepreneurial spirit to figure out how to develop broad ideas into a fundable concept. 

Slide 8.  MPP can also appeal to and harness the sense of civic and patriotic responsibility as well as the military concept of "not on our watch." The phrase comes from the Navy where people had to stand watch and the big thing that nobody wanted to have happen is some disaster because they failed to fulfill their responsibilities when it was their watch. I think we all need to cultivate a sense that we've been trying to make this democratic experiment work for couple hundred years now and we can't let the flame go out on our watch.

Slide 9.  There are a lot of precedents for Massively Parallel Peacebuilding embodied in successful massively parallel efforts to do all sorts of big things. One example is the United States in World War II (which is obviously a pretty extreme case).  During WWII, virtually everybody in the society recognized that their survival depended on everybody doing what they could to contribute to the war effort. In thinking back on the many stories my parents and their friends told about the war, I can't remember anybody who wasn't, in some meaningful way, involved in the war effort.  Little old ladies spent their time knitting sweaters and caps for the soldiers and sailors. "Rosie the riveter" built the ships, airplanes, and tanks.  Young men fought an older men built the harbors, roads, and airports. 

Slide 10.  The phrase my parents taught me from that time was, "the difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a bit longer." That kind of collective can-do spirit is something that we need to find some way to cultivate (but, hopefully, not without the extreme provocation of a world war. 

Slide 11.  A simpler, but I think still very instructive, example of a massively parallel effort to do something is the open source software movement. The Beyond Intractability website runs on all open source software including Linux, PHP, MySQL, Apache, and Drupal. 

Slide 12.  Looking at Drupal in more detail gives you a sense of how this model for bringing volunteers together to do big things actually works. Participants are motivated by a sense of civic responsibility and the desire to have a high quality computer program available for their use. For the most part, folks are not paid for their contributions, though they might be paid by businesses or government agencies that they work for. In this case, it is the organizations that are "volunteering." Drupal (which is the content management software that Beyond Intractability uses) is actually a collection of modules or sub-programs that do all sorts of different things. When people feel the need for a new capability, they write a module to provide that capability. If you go into the "backend" of our website, you can get a list of all the different modules that we use. 

Slide 13.  You can, for example, then go to the website of one of those modules called CKEditor. There you will find a list of all of the different versions of the module that have been "released" over the last seven years. By clicking on each release you can see a list of all of the changes that were made with that release and links to more detailed information on each change along with contact information for all of the people that contributed to improving the module by actually making each change. You can also find a list of what they call "committers," people who have made a commitment to help write and maintain some aspect of the program. We think we need something like that for conflict.

Slide 14.  Drupal is just one example. There is this huge array of open-source software programs that have been all been written in this way.  The result is a collection of powerful, high quality software that underlies much of the computer revolution. 

Slide 15.  Another precedent is the environmental movement.  To start with, we should note that the environmental movement makes an important distinction between two kinds of environmental problems – point and nonpoint pollution sources. This is a distinction that also applies to the conflict field.  Early on, the environmental movement was focused primarily on cleaning up point sources – giant smokestacks that spewed out staggering amounts of terrible pollutants. Then people started to realize that a huge part of the pollution problem was nonpoint sources (e.g. millions of people driving cars). We began to realize that our individual activities were a major contributor to our environmental problems. 

Slide 16.  This insight is perhaps best summarized in the famous Pogo cartoon, "We met the enemy and he is us." The truth is that the enemy with respect to conflict is also us – everybody who in one way or another contributes to the destructive way in which we handle conflict.

Slide 17.  The environmental movement, as it evolved, is a response to all of this. It consists of a gigantic collection of environmental interest groups (active as local chapters and national and international organizations). This slide contains just a partial list with a the link to a much more complete list.

Slide 18.  These interest groups tend to specialize --both in terms of the specific environmental problems that they are concerned with, and with their "theories of change" that explain how they think they can push society toward more environmentally-sound practices. For example, organizations may focus on public education and awareness building, trying to promote voluntary behavior change, technological innovation, the promotion of "green" products, or they may try to push for the passage of laws against environmentally damaging activities. Organizations may also specialize in different conflict arenas – litigation, lobbying, regulatory action, electoral politics, etc. So you have a wide array of groups, using a wide range of theories of change, operating in a wide range of conflict settings. This is what makes the environmental movement the force that it is today.

Slide 19.  Yet another window into all of this is this Wikipedia page which lists all of the different organizations involved in the climate change issue. Again, this is an example of a massively parallel effort to deal with a global-scale problem that touches on most everything that people do. 

Slide 20.  Climate change is also a good example of the principle that problems create opportunities – opportunities that people can build careers around (and sometimes get rich pursuing). The development of wind and solar power to the point where it's now economically competitive with fossil fuels is an astonishing accomplishment and it's one that also advances a wide range of environmental goals. 

Slide 21.  As I mentioned previously, the distinction between point and nonpoint sources also applies to conflict. There are, of course, point sources of conflict problems. For example, in my lifetime, the Kremlin been the instigator of an awful lot of conflict. (Unfortunately, the U.S. White House has too.)  At the same time, much conflict emerges as that grassroots level among people or organizations--dispersed sources of tension, much like we all contribute to climate change by driving our own cars.

Slide 22.  Just like the environmental movement, there is a peacebuilding movement. This slide lists of a few of the organizations in the peacebuilding movement. In fact, these organizations are actually organizations of organizations that are bringing together a very wide array of groups that are each working on different aspects of the conflict problem. While it's not as extensive or dominant as the environmental movement, it's certainly a good solid place to start and there is much there that we can learn from, and build upon.

Slide 23.  You can also go to Vote Smart which maintains a giant list of interest groups and you'll find that there are already groups working on a wide array of other critical conflict problems that are adjacent fields to peacebuilding and conflict resolution. This is the beginning of the listing the folks who are working on campaign finance and election reform with the goal of limiting the domination of politics by those with an awful lot of money. 

Slide 24.  There is another of set of interest groups that are working on social justice, equity, and inequality by working to preserve entitlements and protecting the social safety net.

Slide 25.  There is yet another set of organizations that are working on governmental operations and trying to make our democratic government actually come closer to living up to the democratic ideal.

Slide 26.  Finally, going back to the constructive confrontation idea that we highlighted in an earlier post, there are a wide rage of advocacy groups working to defend the interests of their constituents. They could all benefit from a better understanding conflicts dynamics and how to navigate them in ways that would make their advocacy efforts more effective over both the near and the longer term. 

Slide 27.  The last thing I want to talk about as part of my effort to convince you that this isn't such a crazy idea is the resource problem. It's obviously going to be a challenge to get the resources needed to do all of this.

Slide 28.  Certainly the human resources are available (though training will be needed). I have already noted that a lot of young college graduates that are looking for ways to make a difference and they are entering a job market that isn't making very good use of their talents. I think that this represents an enormous opportunity. The trick is to figure out how to take advantage of it. Sometimes I tell my students that the next big thing is not going to be another smart phone. It will be series of institutions and organizations that figure out how to address the many different aspects of the conflict problem. Since it will be enormously valuable to society, it ought to be able to raise at least a modest amount of revenue. 

Slide 29.  Still, a big key to making MPP work is figuring out how to keep costs low. The iron law of supply and demand applies. Demand for more constructive approaches to conflict will be greater if costs can be kept down. So, it's imperative that we figure out how to do this as efficiently as possible. 

Slide 30.  One strategy for doing this is avoiding the temptation to construct an expensive set of alternative institutions for dealing with conflict. Instead, the focus needs to be on improving the behavior of existing (and funded) institutions. This was one criticism of the alternative dispute resolution movement and its effort to create an alternative set of processes that operated next to existing dispute resolution institutions. We argued then that focusing more on improved dispute resolution and making existing institutions work better would help get you out of a terrible turf war between alternative and business-as-usual practices.

Slide 31.  I also think that there's an opportunity for new funding streams. If you can demonstrate that 1) the conflict problem is as serious as climate change and 2) that there are realistic things that can be done to address it, then I think there is a good chance of persuading a few major funders to devote substantial (~$1billion) resources to the effort. Our goal in developing MPP is to offer a structure that might ultimately be developed (by lots of people, not just us) to the point where it could help attract such a grant program. 

Slide 32.  There is also an opportunity for civic action. We need people to just volunteer, roll up their sleeves, and figure out how to do what needs to be done. We need to tap into the same sort of spirit goes into community trail building and apply it to the conflict problem.

Slide 33.  As I mentioned in the last post, we have broken the kinds of things people can do to help into 10 major challenge categories. Within these challenges us are a lot of subcategories describing specific "things that need doing." Right now, we have over 100 of these items, which sounds pretty daunting. Remember, however, that we are talking about a massively parallel effort ultimately involving thousands and then millions of people. So, the thought of having so many people work on around 100 problems doesn't seem so unrealistic.  The open-source software movement and the environmental movement have tackled comparably daunting lists. In the next post we will go into more detail on what some of these action items looks like.

Referenced Resources:

Slide 23-26: Source: https://votesmart.org/interest-groups

Photo Credits. 

Slide 2: Group Silhouette – Source: https://pixabay.com/en/note-human-group-personal-881427/; By: geralt; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 3: Boulding Portrait – Used by permission.

Slide 4: Duel with Swords – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FrzDuellImBoisDeBoulogneDurand18... By: G. Durand; Permission: Public Domain  Duel with Guns – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gambetta-Fourtou_Duel_by_Henri_D... By: Henri Louis Dupray ; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 5: Hong Kong Skyline -- Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/18/Hong_Kong_Night_Skyl... By Base64, retouched by CarolSpears (Own work); Permission: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.  Primitive Man – Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic#/media/File:Glyptodon_old_draw... By Heinrich Harder; Permission: Public Domain.

Slide 6: Theatrical Masks – Source: https://pixabay.com/en/drama-comedy-and-tragedy-theater-312318/; By: Clker-Free-Vector-Images; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons

Slide 7:  Graduation – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/codnewsroom/14222458695; By: COD Newsroom; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 8: Navy Bridge – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_071127-N-4776G-069_Sailo...(CVN_76)_as_the_ship_navigates_through_San_Diego_Bay.jpg; By:  Kathleen Gorby; Permission: Public Domain.  Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tomb_of_the_Unknown_Soldiers.jpg; By: Sgt. Erica Vinyard, U.S. Army; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 9: “We Can Do It” Poster -- Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:We_Can_Do_It!.jpg; By National Museum of American History; License: Public Domain.Normandy Invasion – Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasion_of_Normandy#/media/File:Into_the_... By: Robert F. Sargent; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 10: Pearl Harbor Attack: Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_West_Virginia_(BB-48)#/media/File:USS_West_Virginia2.jpg; By: U.S. Navy, Office of Public Relations; Permission: Public Domain.  Dunkirk: Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dunkirk_26-29_May_1940_NYP68075.... Permission: Public Domain

Slide 12: Source: https://www.drupal.org/

Slide 14: Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_free_and_open-source_software_pack...

Slide 15:Traffic Jam – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miami_traffic_jam,_I-95_North_ru... By: B137; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.  Smokestack – Source: https://pixabay.com/en/global-warming-pollution-environment-2958988/; By: FastFlash; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons

Slide 16: Pogo Cartoon – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cleopatra69/24544914686; By: David (picture of the cartoon taken at the Newseum); Permission: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 17: Source: http://www.pbs.org/earthonedge/resources2.html

Slide 19: Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Climate_change_organizations

Slide 20: Wind Farm – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_close_shot_of_wind_turbines_wi... By: Winchell Joshua, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Permission: Public Domain.  Solar Farm Nevada – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mypubliclands/29720945372; By: BLM Nevada; Permission: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 21: Kremlin – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/larrywkoester/17351177068/in/photostream/; By: Larry Koester; Permission: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 22: Sources: http://www.allianceforpeacebuilding.org/,  https://acrnet.site-ym.com/,  https://www.bridgealliance.us/,  https://www.usip.org/,  http://www.gppac.net/

Slide 23-26: Source: https://votesmart.org/interest-groups

Slide 27: International Currency – Source: https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=20847&pictu... Permission: CC0 Public Domain 

Slide 28:  Graduation – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Governor_Delivers_Commencement_A...(14096445947).jpg; By: Maryland GovPics; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

 Slide 29: Source: Burgess drawing

Slide 31: Source: https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/fundraising-for-climate-change/

Slide 32: Employee Work Day – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/coconinonationalforest/36546540222; Permission: Public Domain