Synopsis:

This video compares the Google "Traffic App" and other traffic management approaches to the way one might deal with conflict taking a complexity-oriented approach.  You can map conflicts--just as google maps cities--and show "trouble spots," just as google shows traffic problems.  You can "adopt a problem," just as people or companies "adopt a highway" in the U.S. You can get people to police themselves, just as "friends don't let friends drive drunk," you can stop friends and associates from making stupid conflict mistakes as well.  The parallels are extensive...because both conflicts and traffic...are complex systems.

Full Transcript:

Includes minor editing to increase readability.

This is Guy Burgess. I wanted to follow up on my last discussion of the scale-up problem and explain what I meant by the Google Traffic, or the traffic system metaphor, as a way of thinking about a complexity-oriented approach--scaling up the field's efforts to really operate at the enormous scale that conflicts involving millions of people require.

So we start with the metaphor of the traffic system. Any big city, or small city for that matter, has this gigantic system that's been created that allows people to move around. What I want to do is look at some of the new  high-tech ways that we have developed for making this system work better. And then I will ask whether or not these approaches might realistically be applied to conflict problems. I think we can adapt a lot of these ideas to the conflict problem, actually.

So we'll start with the traffic system as a metaphor. And it's a complex system. The way that it operates is determined by the decisions of multitudes of independent actors driving their own cars, and trucks, as well as bicycles, and taking mass transit. The system is designed and built by professionals, like the Institute for Highway Engineers, here.

Now one of the more interesting things that's emerged in the world of traffic and how we can improve the way in which it flows around big cities is Google Traffic. What Google does, is they produce these maps. And not only that, they produce bulletins that they send out to your phone indicating that you should take a different route because there is a problem with the original route that you've chosen. They give you assessments about how much of a delay you'll have and alternative routes.

And so you've got a map here which summarizes what they're able to accomplish. You have  ittle red circles which are accidents that are reported into the system. You add red lines which are places where the traffic isn't flowing very well. And then you have a bunch of yellow exclamation marks which are all additional comments that's come in through their crowd-sourced system.

They build these maps out of a combination of data from millions of cell phones that are traveling around the city at any one time. And those cell phones radio into Google where you're going and how fast. And that's used for making these traffic maps, which are astonishingly accurate.

Then you have, of course, the official highway operation system where they know where the construction is. And they've got all of their sensors and they have reports of accidents too. And then you have the WAZE system, which is a crowdsourced system, where people can submit information about all sorts of problems. This also enables people to illuminates problems on the system, whether construction or accidents ,in time for other folks to take detours so they can avoid it.

So this is improving the operation of the traffic system, but from the perspective of narrow self-interest. You're showing people how they can get to where they want to go as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then you're also improving the aggregate system. Because you're channeling people away from bottlenecks caused by accidents or other problems.

But there are other ways in which the society as a whole contributes to the, more or less, effective functioning of the highway system. Certainly drivers that develop better driving skills are a big addition. Drive around the Colorado mountains in the winter versus in Washington, D.C. in a snowstorm and you'll discover what a difference the skill of driving in snow really makes.

Technology makes a difference too. We've got a new Subaru that has astonishing technology in terms of warning you of obstacles or that there's somebody in your blind spot.  If you drift out of your lane, it pulls you back in.  It will even stop you automatically if the traffic in front of you has stopped.

So technology helps improve the highway system, as do driving skills.  Both of these are individual characteristics.  But it also serves aggregate interests because the more people that have these, the safer and more efficient the system is for everyone else.

But the other thing that makes the highway system work better is when you start to shift over a bit from narrow self-interest into altruistic interests.  Here one good metaphor is the Adopt-A-Highway program. All over the country, a lot of the clean up of highway litter is now handled by volunteers in exchange for a minuscule amount of publicity for their good work. These people not only contribute to highway functioning by driving safely, but they give back with their time and energy too. 

And there are lots of other ways in which people make active contributions to the functioning of the highway system. For instance, friends don't let friends drive drunk. The taboos against drunk driving are now serious enough that it's a real deterrent. You have good Samaritans that come to the aid of people who are victims of accidents. Or people with flat tires. You have programs like this one to report every drunk driver or dangerous driver immediately. Again, it's sort of harnessing everybody to improve the operation of the system.

And then you also have professionals--folks who actually get paid to design and build better highways, to maintain emergency response, to figure out how traffic flows. This still doesn't produce a perfect system,  but you have, a whole series of charts like this that track increasing or decreasing aggregate safety, and travel times, and that sort of thing.

So in a sense, the way that you measure progress in the highway system is are things getting better or worse. And in a real sense, we need to do the same thing with conflict. Well, how can we do things to make the overall system slowly get better and not worse?

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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). www.beyondintractability.org