Welcome and Introduction to the Frontiers Seminar


Guy M. Burgess

Heidi Burgess

March, 2018


This introduction to the Conflict Frontiers MOOS (Massive Open Online Seminar) explains its history and the philosophy behind it, as well as a little bit about how to use it.  Topics addressed include an introduction to the intractable conflict problem, the importance of helping people move up the conflict learning curve more rapidly, the role that we hope that the MOOS can play, and an introduction to using the system. 

Full Transcript

Edited for readability

Hi, this is Guy Burgess.  Heidi and I would like to welcome you to Moving Beyond Intractability and the Massive Open Online Seminar Series. In this video we want to give you a quick overview of the rationale for the project and a bit of a preview of what you might expect.

First of all, the Moving Beyond Intractability project is the latest in a thirty-year series of intractable conflict-related projects that the Conflict Information Consortium at the University of Colorado has pursued. These projects, go back to the earliest days of the Internet.

The first question you might ask is, what do we mean by intractable conflict? As you'll see, as we get into the seminars, there are a lot of different ways to define intractability, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps the simplest is that intractable conflicts are those that stubbornly resist the best available, agreement-based dispute resolution processes, the kind of thing that you would learn about from Roger Fisher and Bill Ury's best-selling book, Getting To Yes

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Another way to think about intractable conflicts is that they involve irreducible zero-sum, win-lose interactions. When somebody has to lose, then things tend to get pretty dicey. 

Still another factor that contributes to intractability is the psychological complexity of human thought.  A lot of our dispute resolution models implicitly think of people as rational, cost-benefit calculating machines. They assume that people should act a bit like a spreadsheet that tallies up costs and benefits and then rationally selects the most beneficial course of action. Mari Fitzduff is part of a growing effort to better understand the neurobiology of conflict decision-making. Much of the intractability we see arises from the fact that we have yet to adequately account for this complexity in our conflict handling processes.

We also need to think about social complexity. One of the things that we will talk about over the course of the seminar is the importance of thinking in terms of complex adaptive systems (biological and social ecosystems).  The key thing about complex ecosystems is that their character is determined by the cumulative actions of countless individuals who independently act based on their own image of the situation and decision rules. The behavior of a flock of birds is, for example, determined by the complex interactions between individual birds and the larger environment. Cities and, human society more generally, operate in the same way with the course of society determined by the decisions of millions of people each making decisions using complex social psychological processes.  The result is a chaotic system where conventional conflict resolution models break down.

One way of seeing how social complexity makes conflicts intractable is to visualize a pool table. Making good decisions is a bit like trying to make a perfect pool shot where the cue ball bounces off all the other balls producing the desired, "ball in the pocket" outcome. You can think of social complexity as a gigantic pool table with zillions of balls and lots and lots of different people trying to make the perfect shot at the same time. In this context, making the perfect "conflict resolution" shot borders on the impossible.

Yet another contributor to intractability is simply scale. Years ago, I was on a panel with a scientist from the Manhattan project who helped develop nuclear weapons. He explained that four orders of magnitude (factors of 10) was the difference between conventional explosives and nuclear weapons. One of the really daunting things to realize when considering large-scale societal conflicts is that even a modest conflicts (like the one between Israel and Palestine) involve almost 30 million people. That is roughly seven orders of magnitude bigger than your simple mediation triad--a mediator and two opposing parties (and a thousand times bigger than the difference between conventional and nuclear weapons).  When you are talking about quantitative change of this magnitude you are also talking about an enormous qualitative differences. It's no wonder that strategies designed for a table don't work very well at a societal level.

We should make clear at the onset that this is a US-based project and we look at the world from our perch here in Colorado and where we are deeply immersed in the kinds of conflicts that we face in the United States and, inevitably, less engaged with the way in which our friends and colleagues around the world our struggling with their problems. We also don't think that we should be telling the rest of the world how to handle their problems when we are doing such a poor job of handling our own. What we our offering instead is a US-based perspective presented with a lot of humility and in the spirit of cross-fertilization and collaborative learning.  Our hope is that the exchange of information and discussions that emerge from these seminars will be able to help advance the frontiers of the peace and conflict fields.

At the root of the United State's conflict problems is the increasing polarization of our society. The Pew Research Center, which has lots of great opinion poll data that I highly recommend, visually summarizes the problem in this great graphic. Note that in 1994, when we were already pretty far into the polarization of US society, only 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat and only 70% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republic. By 2014 those numbers had shifted to 92% and 94% respectively.  And, a second Pew chart demonstrates that things have only gotten worse between 2014 in 2017.  We've now reached the point where polarization is threatening viability of the whole idea of democracy.

The conflict problem is much bigger than the Red/Blue divide. There are lots and lots of threats to which we need to pay attention. One of the things we'll talk about over the course of the seminar is the "perfect storm" conflict problem where you have a confluence of factors that come together and things really explode. This is what led to World War I and World War II and what threatened a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. There are several different ways in which things could "go bad." We could easily see an updated, high-tech version of George Orwell's 1984 – 2024?  Our Conflict in Context system contains lots of articles highlighting the seriousness of this threat in China, Russia, and even the United States. It also seems increasingly likely that we are heading toward renewed superpower confrontations as these two articles point out.   

Come on It's also clear that intractable conflict-related issues are preventing us from wisely and equitably dealing with a whole range of other problems like climate change or the renewed threat of infectious disease. Over the course of the seminars will be highlighting a lot more problem-solving areas where destructive conflict dynamics are making it impossible for society to function adequately. 

One of the arguments that we will be making is that intractable conflict is what we call a "climate change-class" problem.  Like climate change initially, the conflict problem poses a great, and largely unrecognized, threat to humanity. Just as a small group of climate experts were able to place climate change on the global agenda, we need we need a group of people with conflict expertise sound the alarm and outline realistic steps that could be taken to address the problem. 

I have always liked the line from the movie Apollo 13, "failure is not an option." Following an explosion on board one of our early Apollo missions to the moon there was a desperate rescue effort that required NASA engineers to use all of their ingenuity to save the crew. What we are talking about now is obviously much more serious, it involves  the very future of human civilization. Failure really is not an option that I want to leave to my grandkids.

If we are going to reverse the current, downward trends, we are going to have to get really fired up and fight harder. Still, that won't be enough, we need to learn how to fight smarter.  A lot of things that people are doing to address the problem are making things worse rather than better. We also need to be aware of and avoid something that a local county commissioner used to call the "primal scream syndrome" where people just get mad and want to make everybody know that they are mad. Still, they refuse to take the painstaking and difficult steps needed to actually address the problem. Good intentions aren't enough. This is a time for some very serious thinking. It is clear that, in many respects, the world no longer works in the way that we thought it did. Business as usual solutions aren't working, we need something better.

Over the years we have had the privilege of working with a lot of folks from the Alliance for Peacebuilding and the United States Institute of Peace as they have gone out and tried to help people in other parts of the world work through some of the most terrible conflict problems imaginable. The time is come to start applying these ideas in the United States and other developed democracies before things deteriorate further. 

In doing this, however, we have to recognize that those skeptical of the peace and conflict field have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed and that the field sometimes champions naïve "Kumbaya" solutions.  At the same time, however, the belief that we simply can't handle conflict more constructively is also naïve and unrealistic. There is much that can be done, we need to do it.

The conflict field needs to do more than "walk the talk" it needs to "improve the talk." The Alliance for Peacebuilding has been working its way through a series of publications, Peacebuilding  2.0, 3.0, 4.0 as they have tried to find better ways of dealing with the problems of scale, complexity, intractability, or what is more simply called "wicked problems."

As we do this, it's important that we don't fall into the trap of "reinventing the wheel" (relearning what's already been learned). We need to learn and build on what the field already knows and then try to adapt those ideas to the complexities of contemporary intractable conflict. 

Everyone has a role to play in addressing the intractable conflict problem. The course of history will be determined by the cumulative decisions of people throughout society and not just the actions of a few leaders (though they obviously can have an outsized impact). It really is true that, if you are not part of the solution, you are (to some significant degree) part of the problem.

We also need to specialize. Durkheim was right, the only way that humans of ever been able to do big things is through a system of specialization with an extensive division of labor. As we will talk about many times over the course of the seminar, there are lots of things that need to be done and lots of opportunities to "make a difference." 

Doing these things will require us all to improve our conflict-handling skills and this, in turn will require something of a "learning curve accelerator." The truth is that the business-as-usual ways in which people learn about conflict are pretty inadequate (partly because we don't address these issues very well in primary or secondary schools or in higher education). We have to find ways of speeding the rate at which people learn. 

This is why we have been so fascinated with the promise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The idea is simply to make learning materials freely available online where anyone, anywhere can instantly access them for free. These courses are designed to convey a fixed body of testable knowledge and then certify the student as having mastered that information. Our situation is somewhat different, however. We are dealing with tough problems for which there are no clear solutions and what we need to do is work through these problems together. That's what you do in a seminar as opposed to a course. What we are trying to do with our Massive Open Online Seminars (MOOS) is to make a quality seminar experience freely available to most anyone.

We will be focusing the seminar on practical theoretical ideas or general principles. Kurt Lewin has, for years, been widely quoted as saying that "there is nothing so practical as a good theory" because it can be easily adapted to a wide range of situations. We are dealing with problems for which there are no "cookbook" solutions – do X, Y, and then Z and everything will work out. There is simply too much variation in the way in which intractable conflict problems manifest themselves.  The best we can do is to help people understand the various dynamics that are at play, the things that are making things worse, and the things that could make things better. So the whole focus of the seminar is going to be on the development of practical theories that are relatively easy to adapt to specific conflict situations. 

We have also tried to design a seminar that works for people with very busy schedules. While students might be able to devote a fair amount of time to something like this, we recognize that everyone else will have two find a way to fit into the time that they spend reading the news (and complaining about the way things are going).  

So, we have set up as a system that you can follow on social media (follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn).  You can sign up for weekly email newsletters or simply visit our website where can you can easily see everything. 

Our semester-length, one or two a day, short-post format it is designed to work within today's tough time constraints.  Most posts will be shorter than this, often 10 minutes or less. (Our goal is to move toward shorter but more frequent posts.) We expect that seminar participants will review the short "tweets" announcing each post and follow-up, when they have time, on those that seem interesting. Each post will also have a little inset box that provides links to related posts. So once you find something interesting, it's easy to browse around and find out how each idea fits into the bigger picture. 

The system is set up to meet the needs of five key audiences: everyday citizens, advocates and activists, students and educators, conflict resolution and peacebuilding practitioners, and expert scholars (and practitioners) who are interested in helping us think through these tough problems. 

So there are lots of different levels at which you can participate. So please join us. There is lots more information on the website.

Finally, you might look at our new Constructive Confrontation Initiative, which outlines what we will be doing over the next three months. The idea is that in these contentious times, not many people think that compromise is a realistic possibility. Still, we believe that many people recognize that we simply must figure out how to more constructively confront one another over today's tough issues.  We need to preserve, strengthen, and improve democracy in ways that protect us from anarchy, authoritarian rule, and the prospect of violent and potentially catastrophic conflict. So, take a look, get involved, and let us know what you think. We would love to hear from you. 

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