Introduction to the Conflict Frontiers Seminar Part II: Massively Parallel Peacebuilding

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This post reviews where we've come from in this seminar to show how we developed the notion of Massively Parallel Peacebuilding. After we explain briefly what that term means (more details will be included in future posts), we preview the coming posts in both this introdoctory section to Part II of the Conflict Frontiers Seminar, as well as what's to come after that.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. I would like to welcome you to the second part of the Moving Beyond Intractability Conflict Frontiers Online Seminar. This part of the Seminar will be devoted to a detailed look at an idea that we call "Massively Parallel Peacebuilding."

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See Syllabus for other MPP posts.
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Slide 2. As you may remember from the first part of the seminar, we spent a great deal of time arguing that intractable conflict constitutes the most serious threat to humanity because a wide range of conflict problems are preventing us from solving pretty much all of our other problems. 

Slide 3. The truth is that we've dug ourselves into a very deep hole.

Slide 4. Our destructive conflict handling practices have now gotten so bad that it is unclear whether our children will live in a democracy or an anocracy (a kind of a fancy word for anarchy) or some form of autocracy or tyranny. This used to be pretty much unthinkable!

Slide 5. There is also a very real possibility that our inability to handle conflict will escalate into some sort of catastrophic war.

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Slide 6. We had thought that the arc of history was bending towards some sort of democratic ideal. 

Slide 7. In this sense, we didn't mean democracy "as it is" or "as it has been" but rather democracy "as it could be" --- that is a government that truly is "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Slide 8. It now is starting to look like the arc of history may be bending toward autocracy or maybe just anarchy.

Slide 9. Trust in government in the United States has collapsed from a high in the Johnson administration of around 80% down to around 20% today. Sadly, reasonable observers of government in Washington have good reason for lacking confidence that the government will do the "right thing" most of the time. We have to fix our governance problems, not just have blind faith in a system that clearly isn't working. 

Slide 10. Internationally, there is also a declining commitment to democracy. A study from the Pew Research Center documents increasing support for non-democratic systems of governance around the world. This includes rule by "experts," "strong leaders," or the "military." These views imply a belief in the myth of the benevolent dictator. I find this really worrying because Lord Acton was right, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Slide 11. Another challenge facing democracy and systems of "power with" governance is the fact that they are under attack by those who seek power over others. This is Philip of Macedonia who, at least according to Wikipedia, is credited with having developed the "divide and conquer" strategy for oppressing others.  Right now we've got a high-tech version of this, with lots of actors trying to divide us and make democracy fail so that they can profit off the chaos.

Slide 12. Dystopian futures are becoming a real possibility. We could easily have some sort of high-tech version of George Orwell's 1984 based on sophisticated information technology, the global web of social networks, and sinister strategies for manipulating those networks. 

Slide 13. There's also the very real possibility that our inability to deal with practical problems like climate change, infectious disease, the management of the global financial system, or any of number of basic governance issues could lead to widespread chaos. Worse yet, there is the very real possibility that all of these tensions could come together in a catastrophic, "perfect storm" confrontation. Collective security agreements that have prevented large-scale war in the past now seem to be rapidly eroding. We could easily have a war with weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, or something new) or equally horrific wars using old-fashioned weapons like we saw in the genocide in Rwanda.

Slide 14. So we have been trying to figure out how to get out of this mess. We have put together what we think is a realistic (but certainly a demanding) strategy that we call "Massively Parallel Peacebuilding (MPP)." 

Slide 15. MPP is based on a scale and complexity-oriented approach that we have explained in a number of earlier posts in the Frontiers Seminar series.

Slide 16. One of the things that we have been trying to figure out is how we can better address the enormous scale of contemporary, society-wide conflicts. In an earlier post, we talked about the "order of magnitude" problem. Most conflict interventions are what we call "table-oriented." They are designed to build trust and allow people to collaborate by talking with one another, literally, across a table. Society-wide conflicts involve millions, tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of people. So we need to figure out how to scale up small-scale conflict-handling techniques to society-wide levels. 

To give you a sense of the order of magnitude challenge, the difference between conventional and nuclear explosions is four orders of magnitude. The difference between table-oriented and societally-oriented approaches to conflict is something like six orders of magnitude! Quantitative differences of this magnitude require a qualitatively different approach. 

Slide 17. We've also been trying to find better ways of dealing with the fact that society is composed of multitudes of independent actors that don't do what other folks tell them to do. They are simply trying to maximize their own self-interest. It's kind of like playing pool on a supersized pool table and trying to make the perfect shot when there are millions of balls and millions of players and everybody's trying to make the perfect shot at the same time. 

Slide 18. There is also the challenge of psychological complexity. In earlier posts we talked about how the human mind is not a spreadsheet and that people don't do a bunch of rational cost-benefit calculations before deciding what to do. Actually, they act on the basis of a complex array of cognitive biases (some of which are perverse and pathological, while others are insightful and very useful). We have been trying to imagine a strategy for dealing with conflict that does a better job of dealing with the way people actually think (and gets around the overly simplistic rational model). 

Slide 19. So the big question is: how might Massively Parallel Peacebuilding better protect and advance democracy in the context of complex, very large-scale, and very intractable conflict?

Slide 20. The approach we take starts by shifting away from an "engineering" model (that we talked about in an earlier post) where you have some sort of comprehensive, centrally-controlled, engineered solution where somebody works out the "grand strategy" and all the dominoes fall into place and the problem is solved. Instead, we focus on a "medical" model (which is much more appropriate for complex, organic systems).  What we try to do is to identify particular things that are going wrong (pathologies) and use a very decentralized process to try to address as many of these pathologies as possible.

Slide 21. The massively parallel idea comes from massively-parallel computing which underlies today's unbelievably sophisticated array of cloud-based computer technology. At the core of all of this is not some super-smart computer. Instead, it's a whole lot of relatively simple, every day computers. In fact, some of the big server farms use cell phone processors (because they are more energy efficient)! 

The thing that makes this all work is that they use them in a massively parallel way in which each processor works on part of a much bigger problem and they all wind up working in ways that are mutually reinforcing. Similarly, we think we need to get lots of people working on the conflict problem in a massively parallel way. We also think that the kind of "we can do it" spirit that characterized massively parallel efforts to win in World War II has a lot to teach us.

Slide 22. Another way of thinking about what we are trying to do with Massively Parallel Peacebuilding goes back, again, to an earlier post where we talked about the "Google Traffic Metaphor."  If you look at Google Traffic, you see that they draw a map of traffic patterns around a city and then put little icons where there are problems (construction, accidents, flooding, etc.) What we do is take that a step further and imagine making a map of the highway system that also highlights places where better law enforcement, new construction, or other things are needed. 

Or thinking more broadly in the conflict context,  we want to use a medical model to highlight all of the things that are going wrong (pathologies) and encourage people to "adopt a problem" within their sphere of influence to do what they can to help address the problem. The whole idea is to get lots and lots of different people working on different aspects of a larger problem within the context of the entire community and the intractable conflict of concern. Rather than expecting some super-hero to come in and save everybody, all ours is an emergent, grassroots approach.

Slide 23. Making all of this work is obviously going to be very, very difficult, but still we don't have much of a choice. If we continue to let things go the way they are going, we are in big trouble. It's a bit like a sailors trying to find their way into the harbor along a stormy and rocky coast. It's hard to do, but they don't have much of a choice if they want to survive. Sadly--we are in that sort of situation! 

Slide 24. So over the next many posts in the Conflict Frontiers Seminar, we are going to start looking at the details of our Massively Parallel Peacebuilding idea and look at what it will take for it to succeed. 

Slide 25. One of the next posts in the series is going to look at the continuum between peacebuilding and democracy building and the relationship between these ideas. We see peacebuilding as the effort to build a rule-of-law-based democracy with wise and equitable governance and the protection of human rights. War is the antithesis of all of those things. 

Slide 26. Next we are going to look at a synthesis between the idea of peacebuilding (which is something that outside intervenors or "third parties" do) to benefit others and constructive confrontation, which is something that the parties (advocates on both sides of a conflict) do to handle their own conflicts more constructively and in ways that wind up better serving their enlightened self-interest.

Slide 27. We will also have a post where we define in much more detail what exactly we mean by Massively Parallel Peacebuilding. 

Slide 28. There will be another post that argues that MPP is not really such a crazy idea. There lots of precedents for this sort of approach to complex problems and a genuine track record of success.

Slide 29. Then we will get into the detailed components of Massively Parallel Peacebuilding. Going back to my Google Traffic Metaphor of a few minutes ago, we will start to identify all of the things that tend to go wrong in a society's conflict system and that need people to help fix (or prevent). 

Slide 30. The core of Massively Parallel Peacebuilding (MPP) is a series of action items or things that need to be done which we have grouped into ten broad challenge areas with over 100 subsidiary actions. That's where the "massive" comes in. There is an awful lot to do. But, the other part of "massive" is that there are an awful lot of people to do the work if you can figure out how to mobilize them. 

Another way of thinking about MPP is that it is an "all of the above" approach. Rather than falling victim to the common trap of trying to pick one approach as the "solution," or "best practice," MPP recognizes that we have to find ways of simultaneously pursuing most of the good ideas that are out there. 

Slide 31. We will also have a post on what we call "2nd , 3rd , 4th … Order Problems." These are the problems that can prevent you from even trying to solve the "1st order" problems that are at the core of MPP's challenges and actions items.  As you will see, many of these revolve around capacity-building challenges. 

Slide 32.  Finally, and this is the biggest part of this part of the seminar, there will be individual posts on each of the hundred plus action items – things that we think people need to do.  We will also post materials to help people decide which actions might be best for them to pursue in their particular circumstances.

Slide 33. We don't yet have all of this together though we are working to assemble the materials as quickly as possible.  Finishing this work will, however require financial support. We need your donations. If you in a position to help support this, there is a donation page on the website. We would really appreciate your assistance. 

Slide 34. Finally, a quick explanation of why we call it the Conflict Frontiers Seminar.  While we are building on a lot of great ideas that have been developed over the last few decades by the peacebuilding field and the millennia in which people have struggled with conflict before that, there are still a lot of new ideas here and existing ideas applied in new ways.

We welcome your thoughts on how these new ideas might be developed and refined. We don't pretend to have it all worked out, but we do think we have some intriguing ideas for better addressing the conflict problems that are threatening our future and the future of our children and grandchildren.  But we need lots of people beyond us doing this sort of thing if this approach is to be successful.

Referenced Resources:

Slide 9: Graph Source:

Slide 10: Poll Source:

Photo Credits:

Slides 3 and 14: Group Silhouette – Source:; By: geralt; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 7: Lincoln Memorial – Source:; By: dcandau, Permission: CC0 Creative CommonsFree for commercial use No attribution required

Slide 11: Photo:Bust of Philip II of King of Macedon – Source:; By: Gunnar Bach Pedersen; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 12: 1984 Book Cover – Source:; By Laura Loveday; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic .  Global Warming Predictions – Source:; By GWart; Permission: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Slide 13:    BioHazard Icon -- Source:; By Marcin "Sei" Juchniewicz; Permission: Public Domain.  Badger atomic explosion. Source: By National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office; Permission: This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee.  Rwandan Nyanza Genocide Memorial Site – Source:, By: Adam Jones, Ph.D., Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Slide 15: Complex Network Diagram – Source: By: Martin Grandjean; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Slide 16: Badger atomic explosion. Source: By National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office; Permission: This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.   Mediation Silhouettes – Source:; by Gilbert Bages from the Noun Project; Permission: Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US)

Slide 17: Pool Table: Source:; Permission: CC0 Public DomainFree for commercial use No attribution required . Protest: Protest outside Trump Tower, Chicago on November 9, 2016. By Albertoaldana; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

Slide 18: Picture Source:

Slide 20: Naval Medical Center -- Source: By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chad A. Bascom; Permission: Public domain.   Oil gas station blueprints. Source: By: Joy Oil Co Ltd; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 21: We Can Do It Poster: Source:!.jpg; By National Museum of American History; License: Public Domain. Massively Parallel Supercomputer – Source: By:  Blue Gene / P; Permission: CC BY-SA 2.0. Group Silhouette – Source:; By: geralt; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 22: Adopt a Highway Sign: Source:; By the_rev; License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.  Map:

Slide 23: Lighthouse – Source:; By: Bonnie Moreland; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 34: Terra Incognita Map – Source:,_Hondi... By: Kattigara; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported