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The Google Maps and Adopt-a-Highway Approach to Systems
Newsletter 72 — January 20, 2023
From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors
Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
The massively parallel strategy for limiting hyper-polarization that we been talking about over the last several newsletters offer what we see as the most promising strategy for dealing with the staggering scale and complexity of the challenge. In this newsletter, we want to explain two metaphors that we think make it easier to visualize what we are talking about. We are all familiar with and feel reasonably comfortable dealing with the small scale interpersonal and organizational conflicts that characterize everyday life. We know (or at least we think we know) effective strategies for dealing with these situations, and many times, we just assume that the same approaches will enable us to effectively deal with conflicts at a much larger scale. But they don't.
We need to do something bigger—much more far-reaching. But none of us individually, or in small groups, is able to do that. And it is very hard to get all of us (or even many of us) coordinating effectively, as we all have different goals and concerns that are difficult to reconcile. Plus, attempts to coordinate (i.e. meetings) can take so much time that, even if they are successful, there will be little time left to do what we want and need to do.
As we have been arguing, massively parallel approaches offer a way out of this dilemma. In trying to explain how, exactly, this could work, we find it useful to refer to two metaphors. One is based on the Google Maps software that most all of us use to get around. And, a second is based on all of those "Adopt a Highway" signs that we see along highways giving credit to the people and organizations that have volunteered to take responsibility for cleaning up a stretch of highway.
Google Maps: Helping Us Visualize and Navigate a Truly Complex System
Google Maps helps drivers navigate traffic in and around big cities (and in rural areas too, of course) by helping people better visualize and understand a very large and truly complex system. The way traffic flows is determined not only by the structure of the streets, the timing of the stoplights, the laws (such as speed limits and prohibited left turns), as well as by the decisions of multitudes of independent actors driving their own cars and trucks, as well as bicycles, taking mass transit and walking. No one person or organization is determining where people go, how they get there, how fast, and what external impediments (such as accidents) might occur.
It used to be that all of us were left to our own devices (and our paper maps) to figure out when to leave and what route to take to get from place A to place B in the most efficient manner possible. But now we have Google Maps to help us find what is the quickest route to our destination at the time we want to go.
The other important thing to understand about Google Maps is that it is crowd sourced. We all, to varying degrees, contribute the information that makes it as accurate as it is. Information from pretty much everyone's cell phone is compiled to give us color-coded, real-time maps of exactly how fast traffic is flowing most everywhere. Reports from individual drivers take this a step further by warning us of accidents, debris on the highway, and even speed traps. Government agencies, that we all support, provide additional information about the exact layout and the names of streets and highways, as well as the locations of particular addresses. Of course, Google adds its own information from aerial photographs and street view images. Still, the biggest thing that Google adds is its ability to compile all of this information and display it in an intuitive, "looking through the windshield" format that gives everyone easy access to what they need to know, when they need to know it
In short, Google's crowd-sourced approach to traffic is, in essence, a complex-systems approach to a complex-systems problem. It helps individuals make better decisions for themselves. But it doesn't immediately change the system all that much. (It does change it a little, as people won't keep loading more and more cars onto a backed-up highway if there are alternatives.)
Still, it does allow everyone to see many ways in which this complex system is failing us. In addition to short-term warnings about temporary slowdowns, it also illuminates chronic bottlenecks — places and times when the system is regularly breaking down in very costly ways. (Take the above screenshot of rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles, for example.)
This is where the second, "adopt a highway" metaphor comes in.
"Adopt a Highway" Programs — A Strategy for Improving a Complex System
In the United States, we have "adopt a highway" programs that encourage individuals and organizations to volunteer to help maintain a stretch of highway (usually by picking up litter). Their volunteer efforts are then publicly acknowledged and thanked with a sign (which is sometimes also seen as good advertising). Less visible, however, are the efforts of countless similar individuals and organizations that look at the traffic system breakdowns illuminated by Google Maps and decide that they should take steps to help correct some aspect of the problem.
Some of these these actions are relatively modest, like letting the city know about a traffic or streetlight that doesn't work or a chuckhole that needs repair or carpooling or working at home. More ambitious people try to create or staff programs that encourage carpooling and help people find carpool partners. Still others focus on improving mass transit systems by helping establish more useful routes and schedules, setting up more park-and-ride locations, lowering (and sometimes subsidizing) fares, and improving service. Complementing (and often responding to) these efforts are transit agency employees who are paid to maintain and expand the system (and figure out the most useful way of spending inevitably limited budgets).
These volunteer and professional efforts extend further into the public policy realm where individuals and interest groups actively lobby and campaign for even bigger changes in the structure of the community and its transportation system. Campaigns for mass transit systems, higher density / mixed-use housing, new carpool lanes, or new freeways entirely are examples of changes that benefit citizens, as well as businesses that can profit from these new developments.
The transportation systems that we live with on a daily basis emerges from the continuing interplay of all of these efforts. The same, of course, can be said for other aspects of society where there are lots of people who see the need for improvement and ways of making those improvements.
The Moral of These Two Stories
The massively parallel approach to hyper-polarization and intractable conflict that we have been advocating envisions a need for both of these elements. We need much improved conflict mapping tools for helping the population as a whole see the many places in which the system is failing and, especially, how those failures are undermining our ability to get where we want to go in life. While there are, fortunately, many people who understand how the system is failing us and are taking steps to help fix things, there are many more people who are not focusing on contemporary democracy's inability to constructively handle disputes. Instead, they see the problem as the "other side" and they focus their attention in ways that make things worse, rather than better.
What we need to do is to build a system that can help people better understand that the problems they face include profound distrust between the left and the right, disrespect and dehumanization, political stalemate, lack of confidence in our electoral process, lack of "voice," etc.
More people and organizations can then commit to working on one (or more) of these problems. For instance, some might hold more cross-party dialogues to help people on both sides of the political divide learn to understand and respect each other more.While these dialogues might not build trust immediately, they can be expected to slowly diminish levels of distrust between the groups, especially if lots of them are held. (For real-world examples of organizations doing this, look at the members of The Bridge Alliance.) Other people and organizations can make the an effort to understand the underlying interests of the other side and, especially, find commonalities between the right and the left. Other organizations can host consensus-building efforts to try to find consensus-based solutions to local or even national problems. (For an example here, look at the work of the Consensus Building Institute.) Others could work on electoral integrity programs. Individuals can also make an effort to treat people on the other side with more respect than they had been doing. And they can diversify their reading so that they get information from and about the other side, not just from their own side's preferred media sources, but from neutral sources such as "All Sides" as well. None of these approaches, alone, will significantly diminish hyper-polarization, but taken together (and expanded) they can make a significant difference.
However, there's a hitch! Some approaches to diminishing hyper-polarization tend to be much more popular than others. For instance, dialogue is popular, and there are a tremendous number of organizations that are holding such cross-party dialogues. But then there are other needed activities that very few people or organizations are doing. For instance, we are not aware of any organizations that are trying to help people and organizations on opposite ends of the political divide collaboratively develop a future vision of a society in which they would all like to live. Most people and organizations form a vision of the future that THEY would like to live in. If half of the country wouldn't want to live there, it isn't considered a problem. Rather, the assumption is that the other half will either "come around to realize we are right" or they will "put up." Unfortunately, both outcomes are very unlikely. Instead, we get the political stalemates and continued hyper-polarization.
Similarly, relatively few organizations (although here we do know of some!) are undertaking reliable analyses of problems using verified facts that are understood and accepted, again, by people on both sides of the political divide. Much more common, unfortunately, are "factual" analyses that are predicated on assumptions held by one side but not the other. This leads to "studies" that prove, for instance, that climate change is causing all the storms and fires and other adverse events that are plaguing the world right now, and thus extreme measures (such as switching to carbon-free electricity and all-electric vehicles) is called for immediately. Others, however, do not believe the underlying assumptions of those studies and assert that they massively over-estimate the urgency of the problem, or the efficacy of proposed solutions. Until a common (and jointly derived) understanding of the problem can be developed, getting people to adopt effective solutions that will work at the scale that is needed is going to be all but impossible.
Years ago, we went to an Alliance for Peacebuilding meeting where Peter Woodrow, then with CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, described an exercise CDA frequently did with clients in war-torn societies. They'd have workshop participants list, up on newsprint on a wall, what challenges they saw their communities and countries facing. He'd then have them list the challenges that each organization at the workshop was working on. Almost always, Peter reported, all the organizations were working on one or two of the same challenges, while most of the other challenges remained unaddressed.
The same thing seems to be happening in the U.S. with response to political polarization.
If, however, we were to map all the challenges Google-Maps style, and then each organization (or indeed, each person) were to adopt one or two of the challenges that were not widely adopted by others, then we could have a much bigger impact. The hyper-polarization matrix that we presented earlier is, in essence, a map of the hyper-polarization system as we see it. It is not dynamic as is Google maps, but we are going to make an effort to start filling out the cells of the matrix to see who is doing what on what challenge, and what the outcomes have been. Over time, this will give us and all our users a better image of the challenges ahead and where each of us might be able to make the most difference.
As we have continued to work on this project, however, we have begun to develop an image of a simpler matrix, so we'll be sharing that shortly, along with our beginning efforts to identify the many organizations and projects that are making a positive difference in the hyper-polarization landscape (and hence will help us fill in the cells of the matrix). We would love to hear from our readers about efforts you (or others you know) are taking to deal with one or more of the seven "essential elements of successful democracies" or anything else you are doing to strengthen democracy that does not fit into our categories (maybe our categories need to change).
Photo Credit: Adopt-a-Highway sign source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adopt-A-Highway_sign,_CSU_Pueblo_Athletics.jpg; By: Xnatedawgx; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
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