Detailed Introduction: The Beyond Intractability Approach-Part 1

The Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base and the new (2016) Moving Beyond Intractability Massive Open Online Seminar (MBI-MOOS) is the next step in the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium‘s 25+ year effort to dentify, develop, and promote more constructive approaches to the many intractable conflicts that are paralyzing society’s problem-solving abilities and commonly escalating into costly, destructive, and sometimes violent confrontations. The project recognizes that there is seldom a “peace table” where parties can sit down and realistically resolve big, society-wide conflicts once and for all. While dispute episodes within the context of these underlying moral, distributional, status, and identity conflicts are often resolved, the underlying long-term conflicts and tensions remain and have to be addressed again and again. Given this, we have focused our attention on the promotion of more constructive approaches to these conflicts — approaches that contribute to the long-term goal of human betterment by limiting destructive confrontations and promoting social learning. After all, conflict plays a critical, positive role in society; it is the mechanism through which we challenge one another to make things better.

The Scale and Complexity Problem

To be successful, efforts to promote more constructive approaches to intractability must be capable of dealing with the staggering scale and complexity of society-wide conflict. This is because the course of conflict is determined by the cumulative decisions of countless individuals operating in myriad conflict roles, all responding (as best they can) to the circumstances in which they find themselves. This means that the only way to successfully transform the big conflicts is to transform the way in which very large numbers of people think about conflict and behave in conflict situations. This requires an ability to improve skill levels of people in the full range of conflict-related roles (including adversaries and intermediaries, conflict professional and everyday citizens exercising their civic responsibilities). In other words, it requires what we call “massively parallel peacebuilding”, in which very large numbers of individuals in diverse conflict roles learn how to apply an ever more sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics to their work.

Learning Curve Accelerator

As the destructiveness of current conflicts becomes increasingly apparent (both in the US between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, and outside the US in Africa and the Middle East, for instance) increasing numbers of people are actively trying to learn — within the tight constraints of modern life — how to improve their conflict-handling skills. The problem is that the pace of this learning is so slow that people are commonly forced to fall back on business-as-usual approaches that they know are destructive and inadequate. To combat this, we need to make sophisticated “learning curve accelerators” more widely and easily accessible. This is what the Conflict Information Consortium’s knowledge-base systems and collaborative learning communities have tried to provide over the years, and what we are seeking to improve.

To do this, we are trying to build learning systems that help new generations of conflict actors understand and apply the field’s foundational insights. Some of these insights are applicable to a wide range of roles and situations, while others are highly specialized and apply in only a few, narrowly defined cases. The key is to provide an ever-larger proportion of conflict actors with easier access to the best available ideas for dealing with their conflict problems. This requires systems for matching individuals with genuinely helpful ideas — some of which may be innovative and new, while others are long-standing and proven. Also required is an ability to deliver those ideas during the short learning windows in which they are being sought, at a cost people that people can easily afford (preferably free), in a format they can understand and relate to, and from sources that they view as trustworthy.

Web-Based Knowledge Synthesis

The scale of the intractable conflict problem is so vast that it can only be successfully addressed by synthesizing contributions from a very broad range of institutions, disciplines, and individuals. Fortunately, the Internet now makes it possible to mobilize and synthesize contributions from a global community of people working in the field. Finally, it is possible to integrate these efforts on a scale that is commensurate with the problem. We believe that one of the most important keys to expanding the utilization of existing knowledge is to simply make that knowledge more readily accessible. We also believe that one of the biggest keys to advancing the frontier of the field and developing new knowledge is a system that makes the existing knowledge gaps more visible and helps coordinate and focus efforts to fill those gaps. The expanded Beyond Intractability project that we are pursuing seeks to provide a utility that supports such efforts.

The design of this Knowledge Base is based on the realization that an enormous amount of progress has been (and is being) made on the various aspects of the conflict problem. Unfortunately, much of this work has proceeded in relatively isolated communities of practice (sometimes called “silos”). While there has been some level of integration at the level of the field’s leaders, this fails to permeate widely in the consciousness of the vast majority of conflict actors. As a result, people tend not to see how the many ideas can fit together in a mutually reinforcing way. This, in turn, underlies the cynical belief that destructive, intractable conflict is an unavoidable fact of life. Our goal is to build a system that makes the availability of a comprehensive set of more constructive alternatives more widely apparent, thereby reducing the number of instances in which people pursue destructive conflict-as-usual practices in the belief that there are no viable alternatives.

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