The Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California is doing some very interesting work with software-based simulations, ranging from “virtual humans” to immersive environments to improved technologies for narratives and storytelling. One of their current projects for the US military which may also be of interest to those in the peacebuilding and development communities is UrbanSim.
This UrbanSim—not to be confused with the similarly-named and completely-different UrbanSim urban planning simulation software first created in the 1990s—is intended to be training simulator that will enable military commanders to develop their skills for counter-insurgency (COIN) and stabilization missions. The primary emphasis here is not on traditional military means–although the simulator does seem to allow for so-called “kinetic” operations, and maintaining and enhancing local security is a key objective. More important, however, is the simulation’s emphasis on the complex “non-kinetic” aspects of such operations, including mentoring host country security forces, intelligence collection, information operations, providing essential services, increasing local employment, capacity-building, respecting local religious, ethnic, and other sensitivities, and so forth. Students are encouraged to learn and manage a variety of intertwined lines of effect, engage in social network analysis of their area of operations, and understand the importance of unintended and 2nd and 3rd order effects. The simulation includes in-game tutorials and a series of learning modules, as well as opportunities for post-game debriefs with instructors.
There are several interesting things here. Before discussing them, however, I should make it clear that I haven’t seen, much less tinkered with, the software—rather I’m basing my reflections wholly on presentations that the designers have made available here and here and here, so I could well be more than a little off-base.
One of the most interesting issues, of course, is the very use of these sorts of technologies for these sorts of purposes, with the military (with high demand at the moment, and large R&D budgets) leading the way. A second fascinating component is the technology of this sort of simulation, with its combination of triggered events and narratives (that is, events which may occur if certain contextual conditions are met) as well as the modeling of behavior of key actors (whether they be insurgents, tribes, sheikhs, religious leaders, neighborhoods, the local police, etc)—each represented by a series of algorithms that determine what sorts of variables shape the agent’s behavior, in turn generating a complex array of interdependent goal-seeking behaviors.
As a political scientist with more than a passing interest in insurgency and political violence, however, there are two other aspects that particularly interest me. The first is how we derive the underlying social, economic, and political models that are embedded in the simulation. To be frank, social scientists are far from a consensus on what spurs political mobilization and violence. Does economic growth and employment reduce radicalism? In many places, yes. In other places, no—indeed, it might even generate it, whether through redistribution of social resources, the growing availability of lootables, other forms of economic empowerment of challengers, grievances generated by inequitable social distribution, or simply because the population isn’t primarily motivated by economic concerns. Do tribal and religious leaders matter? In some places yes, in other places and times, less so. Is corruption bad? Yes, although in some cases quasi-corrupt neopatrimonialism may be a primary stabilizer of the political order.
Related to this is the current debate over COIN doctrine. The December 2006 release of FM 3-24, the US Army’s Counterinsurgency doctrine, was rightly regarded as a substantial change shift to a military approach that now emphasized the importance of “armed social work,” with an emphasis on changing social and political conditions and attendant warnings that “sometimes the more force you use the less effective it is” and “sometimes some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot” (FM 3-24, p. 1-27). The so-called “COINdinistas” have been in the doctrinal ascendency in recent years, exemplified by CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, FM 3-24 coauthor John Nagl (now at the Center for a New American Security), and former Australian army officer (and anthropologist) David Kilcullen, all of whom have stressed the importance of population-centric COIN. (For a lively discussion of all this, check out the Abu Muqawama and Small Wars Journal blogs.)
There have been criticisms, however. Some of those criticisms relate to the question of how the emphasis on COIN may be distorting the institutional and doctrinal development of the UA armed forces; others relate to US national interests, and whether those are best served by fighting counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan (or elsewhere). For the purposes of the discussion here, however, the most important critique is one that argues that COIN efforts, including the capacity-building and developmental aspects of them, are far more contextually dependent than a superficial reading of COIN doctrine would suggest. Simply put, what works in one case (or, for that matter, one town, village, or valley) may not work in another, because of underlying social dynamics. The ongoing debate over why violence in Iraq has declined highlights the indeterminacy of all this. Was it because of FM 3-14 type tactics, the “surge” of US combat power, the prior mistakes of al-Qaida, a realignment of Sunni leaders caused by the threat of growing Shi’ite militias, or some combination of all of these (and if so, in what measure)? There is simply no agreement, either within the military or among outside subject matter experts.
This problem of variability, contextuality, and indeterminacy can be illustrated by one of the apparent (beta?) review quizes included in UrbanSim, which I’ve reproduced on the right (click to expand). I think I could argue, on sound theoretical and practical grounds, that the correct answer falls somewhere between “it depends” and “none of the above,” depending on the social and political context. It is certainly not as clear as any of the four choices would suggest.
Of course, there are ways in which software-based simulations can reduce the risk of positing an over-deterministic model of how insurgencies (or peacebuilding, or conflict-sensitive development) ticks. One way would be to randomize some of the starting conditions and relationships in subtle ways, and bury clues and cues to this in the pre-game/mission briefings. In some siminsurgencies, therefore, tribal leaders might be powerful social actors; in others, increasingly marginalized representatives of a discredited old order, playing on the ignorance of outsiders in the hopes of gaining allies and regaining their power. In some cases, individuals might be motivated to join the insurgency because of lack of economic opportunities; in others, political grievances might be so powerful as to render them largely unresponsive to economic blandishments (or even alienated by them). I’m particularly wary about reducing behavior to rational utility maximization, and reminded that in experimental trials with ultimatum games that they only ever appear to be played that way by other economists (and certainly not members of my classes, who consistently produce results that affirm the importance of normative issues of fairness). I’m not saying UrbanSim excessively emphasizes the material, by the way—indeed, reading between the lines it would appear that some agents are designed to value what might be considered intangibles—but it is an intrinsic risk when you’re looking to reduce human actions to mathematical formula reproducible in software coding.
By now, I suspect that many PaxSim readers who are professionals in the aid and humanitarian assistance communities may be rolling their eyes at the notion that this sort of software-based training can ever be valuable, or can even begin to capture the complex web of social interactions and economic and political relationships which they deal with on a daily basis. It is not just an issue of budget and available tools, I suspect, that lead most people in these communities to emphasize the sorts of role-playing training simulations that we’ve often highlighted on the website (and, indeed, that Gary and I both run for different client sets in our regular jobs)—it is also an almost instinctual aversion to trying to use computer simulations for this purpose.
I must admit that I’m sympathetic to much of this cynicism, just as much as I am intrigued by the possibilities of an UrbanSim-type approach. However, that very tension provides some fascinating opportunities for learning. Software like this—reflecting as it does all of the embedded understandings of military COIN experience, and undoubtedly a long process of reviewing apparent best practices—would be an intriguing way of teaching people in the development community how folks in the military see the developmental and capacity-building aspects of peace and stabilization operations. The former might well disagree with the latter just as much after playing Urban Sim (and perhaps even more so!) At least, however, they would have a better understanding of where they are coming from. In operational environments where there are frequent and very real negative consequences of the operational cultural disjunctures between the military, multilateral agencies, and the NGO community, increasing the level of mutual understanding like this before deployments could be a very useful thing.
Ironically, therefore, UrbanSim—designed as a command training tool for US officers—could well have a valuable secondary use as a cultural awareness trainer for those in the peacebuilding community well outside of the military.