Embracing Complexity: The Key to Dealing with Intractability

By
Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

May 2017

 

 

Synopsis

This post introduces the next unit of the Conflict Frontiers Seminar. After arguing that embracing complexity is the key to more successfully addressing today's  big and seemingly hopeless problems, the post goes on to introduce the 11 posts that make up this unit: 1) Complex vs. Complicated Systems, 2) System Levels, 3) The Really Big Picture Ecodynamics and Planetary Evolution, 4) Meeting the Adaptation Challenge, 5) Social and Psychological Complexity, 6) The Evolutionary Choice: "Power With" or "Power Over,"  7) Our Most Important Conflict: Coexistence vs. Authoritarianism, 8)  Engineering and Medical Troubleshooting, 9)  Scale Up, 10) The Google Traffic Metaphor, and 11) The Decentralized, "Markets Plus" Metaphor. 

Full Transcript 

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.
 
This is Guy Burgess. I want to spend a few minutes telling you about the next Conflict Frontiers unit in our Moving Beyond Intractability Massive Open Online Seminar series.
 
Some of you may have been wondering how Heidi and I can spend so much time thinking about apparently unfixable problems without lapsing into a black funk of hopelessness. 
 
The truth is that the key to our sanity (and strategies for more successfully dealing with the intractable conflict problem) is to embrace the scale and complexity of the challenge.  We think that complexity-oriented thinking opens up a promising and hopeful new world of possibilities. 
 
We see this as a frontier of the field effort (and the reason we are calling this the Conflict Frontiers Seminar). We are talking about doing things that no one has ever really done before.
 
We are not, however, not talking about starting over and throwing away everything that's been learned before. We don't want fall into the "reinventing the wheel" trap.  We want to build on the wheel (what we already know) and develop something really new and exciting. The truth is that the evolution of the human society has always built on past insights. The history of this was something that Jacob Bronowski popularized years ago in his groundbreaking television series, the Ascent of Man.  At this point, we think we need to add a few chapters to his book explaining how humans our learning to better handle intractable conflict. 
 
We also need to remember both Kenneth Boulding's First Law, "if it exists, it must be possible" or its corollary, "if it's done, it must be possible."  The truth is that there are lots of great people with great ideas doing great things. The problem is that this work still only influences a small fraction of conflict interactions. The truth is that more destructive conflict interactions dominate.  So there is an urgent need to identify these more constructive projects and make them more visible so that more people can take advantage of there potential contributions.
 
In the last unit Heidi highlighted a number of folks who we see as having made major contributions to efforts to think about the complexity of large-scale conflict. 
 
In this unit we want to build on those ideas and offer, over the next 11 posts, additional insights that have come out of our work. 
 
The first post explores the critical distinction between complicated and complex systems. This is an idea that we learned about early in the Beyond Intractability project. A big part of what we have been doing for the last 15 years is figuring out how to change our approach to conflict from one built around complicated systems to one built around complex systems. In this post will explain how machines are complicated systems and how they are commonly talked about using mechanical metaphors. We will then go on to explain how complex systems, which include both biological ecosystems and social systems,  are so different that they require a completely different approach. 
 
Next, we are going to use Kenneth Boulding's idea of different levels of systems to further elaborate the distinction between complicated and complex systems. These are ideas that, years ago, came out of general systems theory.
 
Central to this view of complexity is a way of looking at the world that focuses on the evolution of ecosystems. Given this, we wanted, in this post, to step back and look at the really big picture --- evolution of the planet from the physical evolution to biological evolution to social evolution.
 
Next we want to focus on the adaptation challenge.  The truth is that the success or failure of any individual or species depends, in large part on their ability to adapt to changing conditions.  Ecosystems don't care. But, as individuals, and as a species, we do care. A big part about figuring out how to leave our children and grandchildren a livable future is figuring out how to increase the adaptability of the human race. 
 
For the next post we wanted to talk a bit more about what we mean by complexity. At the social level, complex systems are characterized by multitudes of independent actors, each pursuing what they see as their own self-interest using decision rules which may or may not be very rational.  This has big problem-solving implications. The traditional, complicated approach is a bit like trying to figure out the perfect pool table shot --- one that will get all the balls to go into the pockets just where you want them to.  This metaphor does not apply in a complex world. For that, you need to imagine a different kind of pool table – one with literally millions of balls and players. Instead of having one person lining up the perfect shot you have everybody trying to line up their own perfect shot at the same time. This is a recipe for chaos and something that requires a whole different approach.
 
There is also the problem of psychological complexity. A lot of the early work in the conflict field was predicated on the notion that people are rational creatures who can assess their costs, benefits, and risks and make decisions accordingly (as if life were a spreadsheet calculation).  The truth is that people are not really all that rational.  Psychologists have identified and described literally hundreds of biases – nonrational ways that people think about things and make decisions. The truth is that there may actually be quite a bit of wisdom (as well as folly) embedded in these apparently nonrational decisions.  
 
Next we are going to go back and ask the big evolutionary question, how might human society evolve at this point.  It  seems like we now stand at a juncture where society could evolve in one of two principal directions. One path would lead us to the kind of world that we would like to leave to our grandchildren, one in which everybody works to pursue the common good. It's a future guided by the "invisible hand" of constructive competition. This is also a world in which we all exercise "power with" one another. The truth is that we could easily go down another road, one governed by the "invisible fist" where folks fight to have "power over" others. This would lead to widespread oppression and terrible conflicts over who gets to be the oppressor.  That's not the world I want to leave to my grandkids.
 
This suggests a very different way of looking at the conflict problem. We typically think of conflict as a contest between Side A and Side B, the left and the right, or liberals and conservatives. While these issues are obviously very important, we think that it is even more important to look at the bigger conflict between those who favor "power with," coexistence, and compromise and those who seek "power over" others. Their future is one of authoritarian oppressors who are constantly fighting for dominance.  Focusing on "power with" versus "power over" conflict leads to a whole different way of thinking about the conflict problem which we will outline in this post. 
 
Next we will explore the distinction between engineering and medical troubleshooting models. Engineering models are great for dealing with complicated systems like a broken steam turbine. The medical model is, however, much better at dealing with complex systems because it doesn't try to fix the whole system, it just tries to identify and fix as many of the things that are going wrong (like an infection or a broken bone) as possible. 
 
Yet another post will focus on the "scale up" problem. The conflict field knows a lot about how to more constructively manage conversations around a table. It has traditionally been a small group-oriented field. We need to figure out how to scale up these direct, face-to-face conversations into constructive, mass media-based conversations involving tens or hundreds of millions of people. That's a really big challenge. It is also why we are so interested in mass media-based strategies for dealing with conflict. 
 
We will also explain a couple of metaphors that we think help illuminate more realistic ways of dealing with complexity. One is something we call the Google traffic map metaphor. One of the things that Google Maps (and Waze) do is use crowd-sourced information to make maps of the highway system (which is a complex system) that show all of the things that are going wrong (volume slowing, accidents, construction, etc.) so people can try to avoid them.  We take this map a step further by adding a fancy adopt-a-highway program. The idea is that people will look at the map, see the things that are going wrong, and take responsibility for helping to fix one of them.  We want people to be able to map intractable conflicts, identify things that are going wrong (or going right) and take responsibility for helping to fix problems (or reinforce positive dynamics). 
 
Another way of thinking about this same problem is in terms of markets. This is really the way that the complex system that is human society actually works. Basically, what human society is an organization in which people do things for one another. And. every so often somebody gets clever and figures out how to create a new market that makes it possible for people to arrange to do more things for one another. In other words, they make it easier for buyers to find sellers. This is the genius behind AirB&B, Uber, and eBay. All of a sudden it became possible to arrange transactions that were previously unworkable. The reason was that technology allowed the overhead costs of arranging each transaction to plummet. What we need is a system that will make it easier for people with ideas for more constructively addressing conflict problems to find folks who would like to make use of those ideas. Again, that is one of the reasons that we find the web so interesting. 
 
All of this sets the stage for the next unit in the Frontiers Seminar where we will start looking at all of the different "things that need doing" to fix the many destructive dynamics commonly associated with intractable conflict.  Here we are looking at something we call massively parallel peacebuilding. This term has its origins in the term, massively parallel computing. Today's super-sophisticated computer infrastructure does not rely upon a few, super-duper, ultra-smart processors. Instead, it runs on zillions of cheap processors running in parallel.  This is similar to the way in which society works with zillions of individuals undertaking specialized tasks according to Durkheim's classic division of labor.  You can get a window into how this works with an old-fashioned phonebook which is really a list of all of the specialized roles that individuals, businesses, and other organizations in a community undertake as their contribution to what makes society work. What we need to do is add a bunch new, specialized roles that do a better job of dealing with intractable conflict -related problems.
 
Obviously, there are lots of precedents for people coming together as part of the business transactions. There also lots of precedents for people coming together voluntarily to work on complex problem that everyone faces. Take, for example, the open source software platform that this website runs on (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and Drupal). Each of these packages consists of a library of programs voluntarily contributed by folks who saw the need for a capability and did something to meet that need. This is what we need to do what we need to do for conflict – get lots of different folks working to address the many different parts of the problem.
 
There is a potentially big upside to all this, especially for folks who are relatively young. You have probably seen the many articles talking about the coming massive changes in the job market including, for example the huge numbers of jobs are likely to be automated raising the specter of "superfluous people."  This also creates enormous opportunities for people whose traditional labors are no longer needed. The trick is to figure out jobs that don't yet exist that could make big contributions. We think one of the biggest areas of growth can and should be in jobs that help people manage conflict and cooperate more constructively.
 
The last slide I want to show you is the "We Can Do It" poster that came out of World War II – a time that was a lot scarier than what we now face. The phrase that my mom and dad taught me that reflected the spirit of the time was "the difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little longer." Today, we need that kind of can-do attitude.
 

Referenced Resources:

Photo Credits: