The State of American Democracy

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the first of five working conferences on the State of American Democracy held at my beloved alma mater, Oberlin College. It was organized by the college’s rock star level professor, David Orr, a long-time climate change expert who has realized that the problems we face run far deeper than the environment and extend to the ways we govern ourselves at all.

So, David assembled an amazing team of analysts and activists from the left and right to begin figuring out what we could and should do to address a set of issues that long antedated last November’s election and only have been exacerbated since.

We heard from well-known experts from the left (e.g. Reverend William Barber and Jane Mayer) and the right (JD Vance and Peter Wehner) as well as activists and analysts who specialize in political science, law, environmental studies, and social media.

More importantly, the 150 or so participants took advantage of the time together to network and develop strategies that we could take forward in our home communities and on the issues we particularly worry about.

My own takeaway was simple and added to urgency I have been feeling for the last few years. We live in a world of wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that we cannot solve them separately, easily, or quickly–if we can solve them at all.

At the very least, they require creative policy responses that are not likely to emerge from the American policy making system–whoever is in charge–given the dominant value systems in place today. We need to dig deeper and seek what Albert Einstein used to refer to as a “new way of thinking” that will spawn new social and political movements that, in time, will produce qualitatively new public policies.

We tried out a number of ideas, ranging from the kind of poor people’s movement that Reverend Barber and his colleagues are organizing to the kind of deep discussions within the Evangelical community that Peter Wehner is leading.

Some of those will take place in policy “silos” like the peacebuilding one I work in, David’s beloved environmental movement, and even the investments JD Vance’s Mithril Capital Management firm will be making in Appalachia. Some of those will take place as we create new movements and institutions that cross those silos’ borders.

Indeed, we will be continuing this effort by holding other events like the one in Oberlin. Plans are underway for workshops in Denver, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Montgomery.

If you are interested, please let me know by sending me an email at

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.


Public Support for Peacebuilding

The Alliance for Peacebuilding and Conciliation Resources recently conducted public opinion polls in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany.*

The results surprised us all.

Despite what the media and the pundits keep telling us, we actually are pretty much in agreement when it comes to  war and peace.  The survey demonstrated widespread support for peacebuilding efforts across all three countries.

Continue reading “Public Support for Peacebuilding”

Technology, Innovation, and Peace

In the last few weeks, I’ve had three opportunities to see the progress we’ve made in see how information technology can be used to spark innovation in peacebuilding and just how much more progress we still have to make.

First, we at the Alliance for Peacebuilding attended the second annual CalCon conference at the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. I helped organize the event, and my colleague Stone Conroy made two pitches. Most of our time was spent hearing critiquing, and building momentum behind a humber of pitches on such topics as mapping peacebuilding activities, developing games in conflict zone, and using the Internet to foster reconciliation. Following up on the keynote address by Shamil Idriss of Search for Common Ground, we spent the three days exploring how IT could revolutionize our work. There was one problem, however. We did not have enough people in the room with the financial resources to turn those ideas into reality. That said, I did get to meet Eva Dimitriadis of C5Capital who invited AfP to the second event in my three weeks of intellectual exploration. Continue reading “Technology, Innovation, and Peace”

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.