As many of you know, over the last twelve months, since launching my new firm, I have been exploring ways to bring the art and science of social engagement to arenas where there is conflict, either at the social level (work in communities) or the organizational level (work for businesses, government agencies, NGOs). In part, this is in response to opportunities we saw to help organizations enter new markets that were disorganized, fragmented, or polarized. It was also inspired by my new colleagues, some of whom work for the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab. For them, it’s Peace with a capital P, inclusive of everything, from conflict between nation states to inner-city violence. But what many of you may not know is that long before I worked in marketing and social engagement, I was a student and practitioner of alternative dispute resolution. My first professional job out of college was working as a writer and editor for the American Arbitration Association, which was at the time undergoing an evolution in its field. In place of arbitration — by then a fairly mainstream and well-established method for resolving disputes out of court — a number of newer techniques were emerging. Chief among them: mediation, which was actually based on ancient arts, but which was getting a fresh look in the late 80s/early 90s. I became a devotee to the cause. Briefly, I even worked as a volunteer mediator in Upper Manhattan, helping to resolve landlord/tenant, marital, and civic disputes that had the potential to escalate into violence.
What’s happening to me now — both personally and professionally — is kind of a homecoming. I’ve always felt a calling for the work, but returning to the call in 2013 means going back with a new set of tools. With a new set of technologies, to be more precise. For what’s happened over the past two decades — between my early days in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and my work in offline/online social engagement — is that a number of technologies have evolved that can now bring a little bit of science to an older art. Over the next few months, I’ll be digging deep on this topic, but for now here are three reasons why ADR is poised for a big makeover.
Truth is, peace innovation is already happening. It’s just not getting as much airtime as it deserves. We often read about how social can be used to topple corrupt governments, and install others, but the larger work of building “civil society” is relatively obscure. But one of the lessons learned in this arena is that by combining offline engagement (interactive event design) with online engagement, organizations seeking to make peace can more effectively get to the issues. During my early work in ADR, the big book was Getting to Yes (Robert Fischer and William L. Ury), which advised people to resolve conflict by identify what they had in common. It still works. But what new interactive designs for offline and online engagement can do is surface the issues that both divide and unite. A good example is Israel Loves Iran, a largish campaign on Facebook that unbundles the unmanageable conversation between the two nation states into many conversations between its citizens (and other citizens; anyone can join the conversation). Go into this community and you will see many things that unite and divide. For anyone wishing to further better relations, the clues are visible.
Just as important, new practices and technologies in offline and online engagement enable organization to identify the leaders required to drive consensus, alignment, and resolution. An example of this is the White House Hispanic Initiative, which in Obama’s first term convened live meetings in dozens of cities to discuss issues that mattered to Hispanic communities. One of the by-products of that experience — gained only in part by design — was a good knowledge of leaders in a number of disciplines, and in a number of locations, that could be called upon to do more work for Hispanic communities. There’s an old saying in the world of interactive event design: the people who show up are the right people. By merely convening an event that’s positioned to get consensus, people with potential for leadership are more likely to make themselves known. And you want them to make themselves known. Peacemakers are special. We’ve known that for a long time.
But surfacing the peacemakers is not enough. The real opportunity is help train them, educate them, empower them to do the work of peacemaking … at scale. And here’s where technology can make a big difference. The Stanford crew and others in the budding peace sciences are developing tools that both enable people to take specific actions and capture data that shows that the work is actually getting done. The tech isn’t limited to peace innovation; as I will show in a follow-up article, it can be applied as the last mile in any advocacy campaign (where the last mile, of course, has to be action). But in a world that truly needs to learn to get along, I can think of no better application for this approach — known broadly as behavior design — than peacemaking. I’ll be back soon with more detail.
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