Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 19/01/2010

wickedness as a simulation design objective

In a now-famous 1973 article in Policy Sciences entitled  “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber outlined the notion of “wicked problems.” In contrast to the “tame problems” that engineers and scientists typically wrestled with, the wicked problems faced by social planners had a number of intrinsic paradoxes, challenges, and complex characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

When simulating peacebuilding and development, I think that most or all of these are very useful elements to build into the experience. By doing so–and, equally importantly, by designing a teaching and debriefing system that explores the judgements that participants made, how they came to those decisions, and the foreseen and unforeseen (and first and second order) consequences of their actions—a simulation can promote the sort of self-conscious critical thinking that is so important in highly dynamic, complex, and confusing conflict and post-conflict environments. Highlighting the inherent “wickedness” of development challenges in conflict-affected countries (and indeed, more generally) also discourages the notions that there are cookie-cutter approaches of universal usefulness, or that one can somehow develop a “conflict cookbook” with unvarying recipes for stabilization, peace,  social justice, and economic growth. Context is everything, and a central part of doing a better job of international engagement (or, for that matter, local initiatives) is to understand what sorts of questions need to be asked.

While on the subject of the need to avoid “conflict cookbooks,” I should perhaps flag the World Bank’s forthcoming 2011 World Development Report, which will address the theme of “Conflict, Security, and Development” (especially since both Gary and I are involved in the process). The WDR will explicitly attempt to avoid “trap that characterizes a lot of institutional development work by external parties (i.e. that it is based on prescriptive models and is insufficiently adapted to real-life situations of fragility and conflict)”  You’ll find the project team’s blog here.

SimCity Baghdad

The latest issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2010) has an interesting article on UrbanSim, the computer-based counterinsurgency simulator being developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, and which we’ve blogged about previously:

SimCity Baghdad

by Brian Mockenhaupt

A new computer game lets army officers practice counterinsurgency off the battlefield.

LIEUTENANT COLONELS Matthew Moore and Kevin Mindak repaired the airport, the bus terminal, and the water-treatment plant. They silenced three insurgent groups and won the support of many in Al-Hamra’. But the mayor, Anwar Sadiq, still spoke out against the U.S. Army battalion stationed in his town.

Sadiq was causing similar headaches for Lieutenant Colonels Brian Payne and Isaac Peltier.

“We may have to remove him from office,” Peltier said.

“Why is he not on board?” Payne wondered. “We fixed something for him. We went to visit him. And still, governance is going down.”

“We’ve done a lot for the Sunni people, too,” Peltier said. “He’s just corrupt.”

As Payne and Peltier debated what to do about the mayor, a female suicide bomber killed 20 police recruits, and the people’s anger shifted from the insurgents to the U.S. troops.

The Americans had met men like Sadiq before, albeit under different circumstances. Peltier had been to Iraq three times; Payne spent 26 of the past 40 months there. And they would likely be going back to Iraq or to Afghanistan. As part of their training, Peltier, Payne, Moore, Mindak, and five other lieutenant colonels in the Army’s School for Command Preparation, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, were wrestling with Sadiq in a new computer game called UrbanSim. Rolled out last May, UrbanSim allows U.S. officers to practice counterinsurgency without suffering real-world consequences.

As the men hunched over their computers trying to decide how to handle Sadiq and a range of other problems, Matthew Bosack, his crisp blue shirt a sharp contrast to the officers’ combat fatigues, peered over their shoulders with a slight smile. “The cocktail-party explanation: I say I make SimCity Baghdad,” said Bosack, a project manager at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, which developed the game. “You’re basically the mayor. But instead of tornados, earthquakes, and Godzilla running around your city, it’s insurgents.”

In recent years, the military has ramped up training at places like the National Training Center, in California, and the Joint Readiness Training Center, in Louisiana, where Arabic speakers play the parts of mayors, police chiefs, and townspeople. Although effective, these exercises are hugely expensive and logistically complex; any one officer might have just a few interactions with his “counterparts.” But computer games are cheap and can be played anywhere. And because the students all run the same scenarios, they can compare the efficacy of different approaches.

The full article is at the link above. h/t  to Surferbeetle at the Small Wars Council.

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