Bob Lamb is the founder and CEO of the Foundation for Inclusion in Washington, D.C., with academic affiliations at the Army War College and the University of Maryland. He has been a scholar and strategist on peace and conflict issues for more than 15 years.
Aiming to collectively evaluate strategies to counter ‘violent extremism’, here’s Bob’s perspective after using Ethelo to engage over 250 experts in a strategic evaluation for the International Peace and Security Institute.
Q: How did you hear about Ethelo and what interested you in it?
Bob/ I was introduced to it by someone I met at a conference. When I looked at the website and case studies I immediately understood the value and potential of the technology because of my peculiar background. I used to be a business and finance journalist focused on startups in the tech sector and the consumer experience of digital platforms. In graduate school I studied participatory and deliberative democracy and the pros and cons of various forms of collective decision making, especially in high-conflict situations. And in my professional life I’ve often had to find ways to aggregate different views into useful frameworks that had credibility with people who otherwise disagreed with each other.
For these reasons Ethelo resonates with me. It solved the problem of how to scale deliberative processes in a way that people who otherwise disagree with each other can live with the outcome. deeply with my work, because it has the ability to scale up the process participatory decisions in a deliberative, efficiently way. I haven’t found any other decision platform that can do that.
Q: What’s your prediction for how digital collaboration technology will change the face of democracy in the future?
Bob/ There are technologies that will affect collective decision-making. I’ve done research looking at trends in organizational and technological innovation that suggests some really interesting possibilities in the future. The international state system makes it possible for governments to coordinate action and reduce tensions, and it has been on the whole a boon to humanity’s progress on poverty and war worldwide. But a lot of people still fall through the cracks, people shut out by their government or not represented by any government at all. Most of them just want a normal life, but some bad actors like traffickers and extremists know they’re in a bad situation and try to recruit or exploit them. Those bad actors are innovating ways to get around governments and undermine the system. Wouldn’t be better if we could help marginalized people innovate ways to get access to the system or build their own systems in the name of the common good instead of the more destructive outcomes we’re seeing?
I think that’s possible, and I think technology is inevitably going to be the enabler of that. But as we develop collaborative or democratic platforms, we’ll need to be sure we’re accounting for hard issues like the role of experts, and norms to minimize vote manipulation and groupthink (and even how to be sure access to technology doesn’t just become another way to further marginalize the marginalized). But these technologies have a great deal of constructive potential. Large groups of people will always disagree over something and there’s always a risk of growing polarization over time. So a platform like Ethelo can help them identify common interests and help them feel the outcome is legitimate because they were able to participate in a real and transparent way.
Q: What were some results (and surprises) of using Ethelo’s digital collaboration platform for IPSI’s symposium?
Bob/ A lot of conferences end up wasting a lot of time arguing over basic definitions instead of making progress on how to solve real-world problems. For something like “countering violent extremism” that’s a particular risk, because not everybody agrees on what those words mean, individually or collectively, or what those meanings imply for how to prevent terrorists from killing innocent people. So we decided we’d offload those discussions onto the Ethelo platform. That way, it’s not just a couple of experts and a couple of extroverted audience members giving short versions of their opinions about what those words should mean, or in some cases hijacking the conversation, like you see at a lot of conferences and roundtables.
Instead, everyone at the conference had a chance to share their full set of views. So the panels and workshops were able to focus on solving problems, and everyone at the conference still got the benefit of the definitional conversations. And it was interesting, because despite (or possibly because) of the strong military presence, the clearest message that came through the Ethelo discussions was the need for greater attention to nonviolent approaches, like building more inclusive relationships with marginalized communities.
The Foundation for Inclusion is using Ethelo now to try to demonstrate that Americans actually can have civil conversations with people they disagree with, even on difficult and complicated topics. We did a pilot last summer and are planning a bigger rollout this spring once we have the right partners and land the funding we need. It’s called the American Town Hall and you can read more about it at usatownhall.org. We’re planning to give Americans a wide variety of controversial topics to engage in: trade, immigration, guns, abortion, terrorism, you name it. Ethelo already helps identify outcomes everyone can all live with, but we’re also interested in finding more ways to keep the conversations civil. There’s a lot of demand for that now, and that would be a powerful combination: civil discussions leading to legitimate outcomes. I think that’s kind of the new American Dream!