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Another Take on Wicked Problems

Because I used the term wicked problems in the subtitle of my recent book, I “have Google let me know any time someone else uses the term on thesec2.0 copyInternet. Until the last couple of weeks, I hadn’t received many notifications but then I got two from organizations that I had never heard of before–which is one of the reasons I signed up for the service in the first place.

Each drove home the importance of wicked problems and complexity theory of which they are a telling example.

imgres-3The first came from Gord Hotchkiss, who is a marketing constant with an abiding interest in the complexities of human behavior. He got my attention with his definition of a wicked problem, which is as good as any I’ve seen, including my own.

Wicked problems are thorny, complex, dynamic problems that defy black and white solutions. These are questions that can’t be answered by yes or no – the answer always seems to be maybe. There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is “good enough – for now.”imgres

As someone who works on security rather than marketing related issues, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, his argument that we need leaders who are more flexible, open to new ideas, and creative than has been the case in the past makes even more sense in the political world where I work than in his corporate milieu which has already seen considerable movement in those directions. It is hard to be optimistic about a future in which leaders address the complexity of daily life given the current presidential campaign or the debate on dealing with ISIS here in the United States.

Without going into the vast literature on international relations, there is no doubt that it is often harder to reach global security goals than those involving a single company. Nonetheless, it is hard to argue with the fact that there are “no black and white solutions” or “linear path” or, for that matter, any single, definitive way of addressing global wicked problems.

Just a couple of days later, Google sent me a bunch of notifications about sites that carried a story about the Human Computation Institute that had originally appeared in Science. On one level, the Institute’s work seems much narrower since it is primarily interested in crowdsourcing and related tools that help researchers deal with wicked problems. Nonetheless, their work is based on the assumption that we cannot make progress in dealing with any wicked problems—like all complex issues—unless the people involved work cooperatively with each other.coupled-672x372

When all is said and done, the two sites reminded me that we rarely seek cooperative solutions (via crowdsourcing or anything else) to wicked social, economic, and political problems. At the same time, it is hard to rebut their conclusion that we suffer from our failure to even think of wicked problems in those terms. That said, the recent Paris agreements on climate change do show that we can cooperate on what may be the ultimate wicked problem of our time and that, to succeed, such steps have to serve as building blocks for even more effectively and wide ranging cooperation down the line.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.



Implementing the SDGs

This month’s Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum dealt with ways the new Sustainable Development Goals could and should be implemented, especially “Goal 16” which deals with peacebuilding.

IMG_0364Each month, a group of DC-based NGOs and academic institutions organizes a forum on some aspect of peacebuilding. This month, it explored these goals that were recently adopted by the United Nations and included peacebuilding for the first time. The document has been widely discussed, but this was one of the first times that a distinguished group of experts explored how (and if) its peacebuilding goals could be met. Panelists Andrew Tomlinson, Cynthia Clapp-Wincek, and Lynn Wagner cast a broad net that honed in a number of conclusions about the agreements and their implementation, four of which struck me as fundamental for us all.

First, the very fact that they were accepted is a remarkable accomplishment. For the first time, the UN’s member states committed themselves to “The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to significantly reduce all forms of violence, and work with governments and communities to find lasting solutions to conflict and insecurity. Strengthening the rule of law and promoting human rights is key to this process, as is reducing the flow of illicit arms and strengthening the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance.”

Second, the goals were adopted as the result of an unusual and promising political practice for the international community. Unlike earlier UN policy documents, there was considerable grass roots involvement in the negotiations that led up to their adopting earlier this year, including the participation of all three panelists.sustainable

Third, as is the case with just about every UN declaration, it is one thing to announce a policy. It is quite another to see that it is implemented. Here, too, the panelists agreed that it is up to civil society, including NGOs, the corporate world, and the media, to hold the UN and its member states accountable.

Finally, the SDGs are not just about development “out there.” Unlike the Millennium Challenge Goals they replace, the SDGs are global in scope, which means that all countries are expected to make progress toward them. As moderator Liz Hume asked the panelists, “what does this mean for us here in Washington?” Although the panel could not deal with Liz’s question in any depth, it was clear that we in the United States fall far short of having a “just, peaceful, and inclusive society.”

In other words, the panel reminded us all that we have plenty of work to do.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.

A Sustainable and Peaceful Evening

Earlier this week, the Alliance for Peacebuilding co-sponsored an event on sustainable development at the United States Institute of Peaceusip to celebrate seventy years of peacebuilding at the United Nations.

elisassonThe event featured Jan Eiliasson, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN and Kristalina Georgieva, Vice President for Budget and Human Resources of the European Commision, who focused on the UN’s recently approved sustainable development goalsgeorgieava

Not surprisingly, they focused on Goal 16 that incorporates peacebuilding into the mission of the UN an its member states.

But even more importantly, both speakers stressed that the sixteen goals have to be treated as an integrated whole because development, peacebuilding, the promotion of human rights, and the rest of the goals cannot be addressed separately if we are gong to get anywhere.

Even more importantly yet, they stressed the need to create a global culture supporting sustainable development that goes beyond the UN to include national governments, the NGO community, and the private sector.

Perhaps because they are both Europeans, the discussion also turned to the current migration crisis there. Both cited the cliche that we should never let a good crisis go to waste. So, they see the crisis as an opportunity for the UN, the EU, and others to build on the momentum created by the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and find a way to transfer just a tiny fraction of the world’s economic output to helping the refugees achieve the kinds of success they had been able to achieve in their native Sweden and Bulgaria respectively.
In short, it was hard to not come away from the evening feeling encouraged and challenged at the same time. Yes, the UN took a major step forward in adopting the SDGs. Howerver, the UN alone can’t do the job. That’s up to the rest of us, starting with the three hundred or so people who filled the auditorium last night.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.

Community Colleges and Peacebuilding

I spent an exciting weekend learning about the way American community colleges are beginning to incorporate peacebuilding into their curricula.

I had been invited to give a presentation on the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s work at the third conference on peacebuilding at community colleges organized by the irrepressible and entrepreneurial David Smith who has spearheading such efforts for a decade or more.photo-4

Since this whole enterprise was new to me, I gave my talk and stayed for most of the weekend.

It was fascinating on two levels for me both as a peacebuilder and as someone who has spent the bulk of his career in higher education but had had next to no exposure to community colleges.

The thirty or so faculty members who attended the seminar come from a more diverse set of backgrounds that the AfP’s academic members, most of whom teach at schools that focus on MA and PhD students. Most of the people I met have little formal training as peacebuilders; some are not even social scientists. Therefore, some of them were being exposed to concepts and findings that are familiar to AfP members for the first time. At the same time, they do a far better job than I’m used to seeing in integrating their peacebuilding work across academic disciplines, including global studies, American politics and society, social work, and even math and music. Perhaps most importantly of all, they are introducing peacebuilding to students who have also never been to these kinds of ideas before.photo-2-2

At the same time, I had to think about the future of higher at education at what Smith calls America’s democratic universities. Most of my new friends’ students are the first members of their families to pursue higher education of any sort. Most of their students juggle financial, family, and aphoto-5-1cademic demands the likes of which I’d rarely encountered teaching at liberals arts colleges or research universities. And, these professors teach two or three times as many courses I ever did and do so without the resources I was used to.

I went to the conference with no clear idea of how AfP could or should work with community colleges. I will go back to the office Monday with a plan to continue working with Smith and the other conference organizers and to set up pilot projects with a few of the professors and their students.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.

An Evening with George Mitchell

I had the pleasure of spending last night with former Senator and permanent peacemaker George Mitchell, when he was honored by the Sustained Dialogue Institute (www.sustaineddialogue.org).

220px-George_Mitchell_in_Tel_Aviv_July_26,_2009I first met George Mitchell when he was the Senator for Maine where I was teaching at the time (I actually knew his brother far better). Even the, he struck me as one the most decent and humblest people I know.

Later, Mitchell went on to even greater accomplishments, most notably serving as the driving force behind the Good Friday Agreements that ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998. Throughout his career, Mitchell has been the consummate negotiator, which he recounts in his new book of the same name.

Sustained Dialogue gave him its second annual award precisely because everything George has done in his long career (he is still practicing law at 82) reflects its values. As Mitchell said in his remarks, one of the most important lessons he learned in Northern Ireland is that “there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended.”

Like Sustained Dialogue, Mitchell stressed the importance of active listening especially to people you disagree with. Sustained Dialogue works on the assumption that a good, extended discussion never leaves any participant unchanged. Or, as they put it on a listening stone they gave each of us, “listen deeply enough to be changed by what you hear.”logo

Both, too, stressed the importance of building strong interpersonal relationships, especially with people you disagree with, which is something Mitchell has done throughout his career and also inspired former Ambassador Hal Saunders to create Sustained Dialogue in 1999.

Mitchell wasn’t the only honoree. Sustained Dialogue also recognized the work of three leaders in its campus dialogue program and that of a start up that is trying to build common ground around aspects of health care policy.

My wife and I knew a lot about both Senator Mitchell’s and Sustained Dialogue’s work. That was not true, however, for the six people we brought with us or most of the 200 or so people who filled the National Press Club banquet room.

Everyone I spoke with afterward was amazed by the first glimpse they had gotten of the power of dialogue.

My real hope is that they find ways to act on what they heard, which is also at the heart of what I do for a living.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.

Dealing with the Refugee Crisis

Peacebuilders and the Refugee Crisis

What follows is one peacebuilder’s take on the refugee crises gripping Europe and the Middle East. Please don’t read it as the official statement of my own or any other organization. In fact, I’m writing it in part to focus our own thinking about how my colleagues and I at the Alliance for Peacebuilding should respond

In the last few days, more and more observers have realized that we have to focus on what caused tens of thousands (so far) to flee as well as on the consequences of their arrival in and for Europe. Frankly, as difficult as it will be to integrate them, that should be doable. After all, a far weaker and poorer Germany integrated millions of refugees at the end of World War II.

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Continue reading “Dealing with the Refugee Crisis”

The Silo Effect

I read a lot about a lot of different things that relate to wicked problems in one way or another. So, when I read something particularly useful, I like to bring it to other people’s attention.

In that respect, rarely have I read a book as thought provoking as Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect: The  Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers.

silo“Silo” is a buzzword for those of us who work in peacebuilding or just about any other public policy issue, the political versions of these agricultural structures are a constant and frustrating obstacle for those of us working for deep and lasting social change. Tett’s book is particularly useful for people like me because she deals with silos in three new, refreshing, and creative ways.

Gillian_Tett_FT_Autumn_Party_2014_cropFirst, silos are a problem everywhere, not just in government bureaucracy. In fact, Tett draws almost all of her examples from the private sector. Everywhere we look, companies are failing because they cannot or will not share information, ideas, and personnel across administrative lines. Whether you are worried about our failure to anticipate big events like 9/11 or the great recession we are now finally emerging from, rigid bureaucratic structures are an obstacle any organization has to overcome in a world in which rapid change is the only constant.

Second, Tett is an anthropologist by training. As a result, it is all but natural for her to cover people like a startup mogul turned police officer or a dyslexic physician who view the world through unusual mental lenses. Although she doesn’t use the term, each of her “heroes” has an uncanny ability to view a previously vexing problem from a new perspective that is more in keeping with the network based world we live in rather than one in which hierarchical, top-down models worked well.

Third, the book is filled with implications for readers who aren’t interested in big data, finance, pubic health, or the other examples she raises. Whatever your field, her conclusions about the fact that new ideas typically come from “left field” and are often introduced by outliers or what some public health experts call “positive deviants” applies to us all.

In closing, it might seem ironic that a book about sweeping change was written by a journalist at the Financial Times. However, it says something about the nature of our times that calls for sweeping change comes from a journalist at a newspaper known for its support of the status quo (albeit one that was just sold). But it also says something that the FT hired and promoted a writer who is as comfortably talking about courting rituals in rural France in the 1950s as she is about high finance.