Now one of the problems that we run into when dealing with conflict, we’re really dealing with conflicts at the top level -- the human social level. But often the way we think is at the first level of static frameworks, or at most dynamics and simple feedback systems, mechanical systems. And the difference is enough that solutions developed based on complicated models don't work as well as we would like them to, because conflict isn’t a complicated system, it is a complex social system.

Now, it's also true that the nature of systems is cumulative. So even when you get to the level of human and social systems, a lot of the basic systems principles from lower levels--especially regarding dynamics and feedback loops – still operate at the social level. But higher level dynamics operate here too.

So a problem develops in terms of the way we think about social systems. We tend to think about conflict in static terms, using static frameworks. All too often, we just divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” and assume that the relationships between those groupings are static, much like the legs and seat of a chair.  And once you've done that, everything is very, very simple. But it is not really very accurate, and it doesn't allow you to really navigate the complex social world in ways that allow you to solve complex problems.

So, in order to solve this, some people have looked up a level to dynamic systems. This is this notion that the social system consists of opportunities for causal chains. So if you just have the right strategy, you can strike the metaphorical billiard ball (or make one change to the social system) and everything will do just exactly what you want. This assumes that in particular situations, people will react in the same deterministic, predictable way every time. We have a lot of social structures that are organized in one way or another around this kind of framework. You certainly have the standard military chain of command which assumes that everyone does what they are ordered to do, just exactly in the way they were trained to do it, like a machine.  This expectation extends into nonmilitary types of large-scale organizations as well. But such expectations generally don’t work, because social systems aren’t complicated systems, they are complex systems that are many levels up Boulding’s hierarchy of complexity.

So then you have the notion that the key to solving a lot of big problems is what has come to be called “unity of effort.” Here you get gigantic institutions and organizations of institutions (such as “whole of government”-type responses) which expect every person in every organization to all act out a predetermined plan. When they do, it is assumed that everything will work out as intended, assuming, of course, that you got your strategy right.  But things don’t usually work like that because social systems aren’t just dynamic systems; they are several layers more complex.

If we had another level to this, we can build in feedback loops and that starts introducing another more sophisticated element of reality into our models. We have simple little feedback loops, like this cycle of violence, and there are more sophisticated versions of this with lots of feedback loops interacting. C. Wright Mills and much later Thomas Piketty both used a set of relatively simple models that explain the stability of the power elite.  You can see the tendency of wealth to become concentrated in the hands of the holders of capital by looking at the feedback loops described in these books. There lots of social issues that seem to behave this way.

Rob Ricigliano and a bunch of other folks working on complexity-related issues in conjunction with Peter Coleman and the Dynamical Systems Group and the Innovation Lab have been developing much more sophisticated models of systems thinking.  They developed some software for doing this with Kumu that gives you a sense of how all the feedback loops operate, where all the connections are, and how the overlay of feedback loops on top of feedback loops affects the system.

So even though this is still down at the level of feedback loops, it is starting to move toward the kind of thinking that is needed to understand the workings of social systems.  It is what we call “systems thinking” which is more sophisticated than a lot of the more simple framework or static kinds of ways in which people thought about conflict before. But it is still down at Boulding’s third level, and social systems operate at levels 7 and 8. So we still have a long way to go to really understand social systems at the level of complexity at which they truly operate.

One of the questions that we want to pose in conjunction with this series of online seminars is whether there is anything we can do the push the model still further.  How can we move beyond a level-three understanding of feedback loops to a level 7 or 8 understanding of social systems?

Heidi and I think we need a new, complexity-oriented, ecosystem-based paradigm that would be built on the foundation of all the earlier ideas, but would help us operate a little more effectively at the higher level of systems, the gigantic large-scale systems that operate at Boulding’s top levels.

Biological ecosystems have lots of independent actors, each acting independently, according to their own interpretation of system status and their own decision making criteria.  Each of their decisions results in an action which then effects much of the rest of the system, either directly or indirectly.  But no one controls the whole thing.  That is true in human systems as well.  One of the things we might want is systems of systems thinker (which is what Boulding’s Hierarchy of Systems really was).

But short of that, if we can get individuals in these large-scale social systems, certainly individuals in prominent roles, to start thinking in more systemic terms, we’re likely to be a lot better off than we are when decision makers think simply in terms of level one, statics or level two, dynamic models.

More broadly, what we need, really, is a way of supplementing all the other paradigms that are out there, with an ecosystem-oriented paradigm that is focused on finding ways of encouraging very large numbers of independent actors to pursue their own self-interest, but doing so in a way that allows the system to approach conflict in more constructive, enlightened ways. Simply getting a lot more people working on the conflict problem, instead of relying on a few experts or leaders or “saviors” to fix everything, is a start.

So this is what we’re going to focus on as we get through this series of seminars and hopefully we will start to put together discussions on how we can really do that. For now the question I'd like to pose is this:

  1. Are you aware of successful, or maybe not successful, but instructive, efforts to promote more active involvement of a much larger array of citizens to work systemically (even if they weren’t aware of what they were doing) to promote more constructive approaches to conflict?  

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).