If somebody were to ask me (actually somebody did ask me) about the future of conflict resolution, my answer would have to include technology. Technology is already enabling us to do things that would have been unimaginable only, say, 20 years ago. We now carry devices in our pockets that enable access to virtually any available information. I can tap my cellphone to pinpoint my location on an interactive map and find out instantly how long it will take me to get anywhere by any available mode of transportation; I receive updates on appointments or plane schedules without even asking for them; and I can instantly communicate, via Twitter, or Linkedin or Facebook, or any number of other means, with virtually anyone.
Technological change has already started to revolutionize the legal system. Tools like RocketLawyer and LegalZoom are enabling people to perform many functions themselves they previously could not do very well without a lawyer. Companies like eBay and Amazon have already set up online dispute resolution procedures that are handling many times the number of conflicts between buyers and sellers than can be handled by any court. New software is being developed every day to create forms and negotiate agreements. Because technology enormously increases the efficiency of generating legal documents, automation is already putting lawyers out of work, while creating new opportunities for some. Thus far these technological advances seem best designed to deal with smaller scale conflicts that people have not traditionally been able to bring to court anyway. For the most part, these changes help people manage legal problems that they would otherwise have had to handle on their own. But they also have the ability to scale up to problems that currently tend to go to court.
We can also already see that even the traditional court system is slowly automating more and more of its functions. Electronic filing is becoming the norm.Web interfaces are becoming more user-friendly. Eventually these more streamlined case processing functions should allow the courts to update antiquated rules and procedures and make the justice system more efficient.
Given the rapid pace of change, it would be perilous to predict what technology might allow us to do, say 20 years from now. But one prediction I would make about the generation that is growing up with access to all the world’s knowledge in their pockets, a generation that understands the power of crowd-sourcing, that is adopting the sharing economy, that believes in do it yourself solutions, and that demands instant answers to almost any problem: that generation is not going to have much patience with ways of doing things that were more appropriate to the 19th century.
That generation should be open to experimenting with non-traditional methods of resolving both simple and complex conflicts that people currently still associate with old-fashioned lawsuits. The good news for mediators is that the tech-savvy generation should be receptive to mediation as a way to resolve conflict. This generation has grown up expecting instant gratification, empowerment, and cooperation. They would be expected to embrace ADR processes that are faster than court; more centered on the needs of the disputants; and less adversarial.
But to retain the favor of tomorrow’s clientele, mediators themselves are going to have to embrace technology or we might get left behind by even more efficient ways of resolving disputes. We think of mediation as an advanced form of conflict resolution compared to the creaky old court system, but how advanced will mediation seem when someone comes up with an algorithm that decides cases for disputants? People who are used to being able to get an instant answer to any question from the palms of their hands, are going to be receptive to those kinds of solutions.
For now, I don’t even have any particular “mediation apps” to recommend, though it seems obvious that mediators, like everyone else, will increasingly be doing more business online and using the tools their clients are using to schedule and conduct meetings, and to share information. But part of the challenge for mediators in the future will also lie in persuading disputants of the value of old-fashioned talking remedies for conflict–methods that can be traced back to traditions like sitting around the campfire smoking a peace pipe. We have to work even harder to persuade people to slow down and try methods as ancient as that, while at the same time remaining open to new techniques, because we live in a rapidly-changing world that puts a premium on innovative solutions.