Interview with Professor Larry Susskind

MIT Professor Lawrence Susskind visited Finland in June 2014. His visit started with a two-day summit on Environmental Collaboration and Conflict Resolution in the Fiskars Village one hundred kilometers west of Helsinki in Southern Finland. The summit gathered twenty leading professionals from local and national government, the Sámi Parliament, large Finnish corporations representing energy sector, forest sector and mining sector, as well as researchers from four universities. The summit was organized jointly by Akordi Oy, the LYY-institute of University of Eastern Finland, The Finnish Environment Institute and Sitra The Finnish Innovation Fund. The summit produced a joint statement by the participants, referred to in the interview as the “Fiskars Declaration”. The statement will be published soon.

Professor Susskind’s visit to Finland was connected to the Aalto Course on Negotiation and Dispute Resolution – Preparing future leaders to face tough public problems, which was a pioneering class for 20 Finnish and international students organized for the first time in the Aalto University. The students participated in translating Susskind’s article that goes by the name “A Short Guide to Consensus Building” (Lyhyt opas intressien yhteensovittamiseen), which was published by Akordi in July 2014. Susskind also gave an open public lecture in the Aalto University titled “Is There A Better Way to Solve Complex Environmental and Land-Use Conflicts? Lessons from Thirty Years of International Experience”.

During their visit to Finland, professor Susskind and his wife Leslie Tuttle met with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish Minister of International Development Pekka Haavisto, and ministerial advisor Tuomas Kuokkanen from the Ministry of the Environment.

After an intensive visit, we interviewed Larry in order to provide an access point to his work and thinking to a larger audience. In the interview below, Larry sheds light on the origins of the field of environmental conflict resolution and public policy mediation, and explains what consensus building means. He discusses some concrete examples and key elements in processes of assisted negotiation. After reflecting on global challenges around food, energy and water, Larry discusses the role of climate change in environmental conflicts. At the end of the interview Larry reflects on how he sees the situation in Finland.

1. You are professor of urban planning at MIT, and the director of the MIT Harvard public disputes program. You work in the field of environmental conflict resolution and public policy mediation. Where did this field of practice emerge from, and how did you first get involved in it?

There have always been environmental conflicts, that is, disputes over the allocation of scarce resources or disagreements over resource management policies. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s scholars and practitioners involved in disputes like these got together to talk about the possibility of applying dispute resolution tools (such as facilitation, mediation and arbitration) which were already in use in other arenas like labor relations, international diplomacy, commercial business transactions, personal conflict and legal settlements. In 1982, as a planner involved in land use disputes, I joined in this effort, which led to the creation of the interuniversity Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School. I became the first Executive Director at PON. While research and scholarship are important, PON also focused on practice. With this focus in mind, I created the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program so we could apply what we were learning to actual environmental disputes in different parts of the world. I worked on international treaty-making, national energy policy disagreements, state/provincial level efforts to manage resources (with a specialization in water), local efforts to site controversial facilities and neighborhood redevelopment efforts. My research has always informed my practice. My practice has always provided grounding for my teaching.

2. You work with the notion of consensus building. How does consensus building differ from conflict resolution and mediation?

We are not just interested in finding a resolution (resolution defined as 51% of a large group of contending parties supporting an agreement). Rather, we measure our success by the extent to which we can come close to reaching unanimous agreement. Consensus building seeks unanimity, but settles (after all participants agree they have done all they can to respond to the concerns of holdouts) for overwhelming majority. Mediation is a way of getting parties to talk. We use it as a technique, along with facilitation, non-binding arbitration and other group decision-making technologies. Consensus building does not need a conflict or a dispute to manifest before we begin. In this way consensus building is proactive rather than reactive, as we often bring together groups to engage in problem-solving dialogue prior to the onset of a conflict or a dispute. Consensus building is a form of decision-making producing fairer, more efficient, more stable and satisfying results than traditional forms of public engagement or administrative efforts to resolve public disputes.

3. We have seen debates in the field of academic planning theory on the (im)possibility of consensus. What is your perspective to these debates and are they relevant for the practice of consensus building as you see it?

I’m baffled by these debates. They don’t take into account of what actually happens on the ground every day of the week all over the world. Groups with different points of view and conflicting interests work together (sometimes with the help of skilled facilitators) to formulate win-win agreements. That is, they find deals or packages that meet the most important interests of almost all the parties involved. They don’t do this in court and they don’t do this by accepting a bare majority vote in Parliament. They work out informal settlements (informed by scientific and technical input) that produce fair, efficient, stable and wise agreements. Sometimes planners are involved. Often they don’t know how to participate, so they remain on the sidelines. But, arguing for the impossibility of consensus is just silly. My colleagues and I wrote The Consensus Building Handbook (Sage, 1999) with many detailed illustrations of how this works. In 2012, I wrote Breaking Robert’s Rules (with Jeff Cruikshank). It was subsequently rewritten to take account of national differences and cases in 12 countries. The latter book provides a clear narrative showing exactly how planners have worked to build consensus on a wide range of public policy decisions. I guess there are theorists who don’t get out much and write to confirm for each other (without evidence) that certain things are true.

4. How does environmental conflict resolution work – and what does it look like, for instance, in conflicts around natural resources or energy?

Most environmental conflict resolution efforts begin with a Stakeholder Assessment requested by some agency or organization that has to make a decision concerning the resource in dispute. We call this actor the convener. The Assessment involves interviews with all the relevant parties so they can participate in designing the process that will be used to voice their positions. Then, the neutral (i.e. a facilitator or mediator) works with the parties to help them prepare to engage with each other. This often involves joint fact finding by drawing on the assistance of a range of technical professionals acceptable to all the parties. They also need an agenda, a timetable, a budget, final ground rules and a clear sense of who will represent the various stake-holding groups in whatever problem-solving forum is created. Once the dialogue begins, the neutral moves back and forth among the parties, often in spaces apart from the negotiating table, to generate draft agreements that can meet everybody’s interests. The neutral then conducts face-to-face meetings with the entirety of the negotiating parties and, following the schedule that the group has specified, reviews and revises the drafts until agreement is reached (as close to unanimity, as determined by the stakeholders, as is possible). The neutral presents the written agreement to the convener who then has a basis for making a final decision. So, for example, a federal environmental agency might use this method to generate agreement on proposed regulations before the agency issues them. Or, a provincial government might use this process to bring all the parties, who are locked in a political disagreement about mining or water allocation, together. The product is a proposal, which best represents all parties interest and carries their support, to the agency with the formal authority to decide.

5. You speak about the importance of third party neutral – or the N+1th party in negotiations. What can the neutral add to the negotiations?

Professional neutrals are trained to handle the processes I have already described. They are also trained not to impose their own views on others. That can be difficult, especially when mediators also have relevant technical training and may have ideas to suggest that can bridge differences among the parties they are working with.  But, like a judge, neutrals are trained to listen to what all sides have to say and to refrain from imposing their own views. Neutrals can help bring the right parties to the table by interviewing potential stakeholders to ensure their concerns are incorporated into the negotiating agenda. During the negotiations, the neutral can ensure the parties understand each other and manage problem-solving efforts parties are prepared to make. (This is especially important when there are multiple parties, working to bridge cultural divisions to overcome a history of bad relations.) Neutrals can help the parties “sell” whatever agreement emerges to their respective back tables. They can even allow themselves to be written into agreements to ensure that there is someone responsible for monitoring implementation of commitments. The list goes on. I detail the full list of mediator roles and responsibilities in my books Breaking the Impasse and Good for You, Great for Me: Finding the Trading Zone and Winning at Win-Win Negotiation.

6. Why do we need mediated processes? Aren’t democratic decision-making processes sufficient for dealing with environmental and public policy conflicts? Democracy only ensures citizens have certain minimum rights like the right to vote, the right to free speech, a right to freedom of religion and to petition their elected officials. They also have a right to a fair and speedy trial. There isn’t any constitution or tradition guarantying a right to work out public policy disputes in a way that ensures the interests of all stakeholders are taken into account go the greatest extent possible. Or, that officials don’t settle for what the majority wants even if that does nothing for a large minority. Mediation seeks to improve upon what democracy guarantees – finding ways to produce agreements that are fairer (in the eyes of all the parties), more efficient (reached more quickly at lower cost), more stable (because there is not an unhappy minority seeking to overturn whatever agreement has been reached) and wiser (because scientific and technical information is taken seriously rather than subject to attack in court).

7. Are there issues that should NOT be negotiated?

There are certain public disputes that can be used to set new legal precedents. These should obviously be allowed to work their way through the court. So, it would not make sense to settle these through negotiation. And, in some instances, when politically powerful actors can get what they want without paying any attention to the interests of others, they are not likely to agree to come to the negotiation table. Some value-based (as opposed to interest-based) disputes hinge on definitions of rights. It is inappropriate to mediate these (i.e. whether a poor person has a right to water and sanitation is something that needs to be determined in court or in government. It is not something that can or should be negotiated in some ad hoc fashion.). In general, the results of efforts to mediate public or environmental resource management disputes usually take the form of proposals (elected and appointed officials must then enact the proposals) rather than final decisions. In most democratic settings, public officials cannot delegate final decision-making authority to assemblies of stakeholders. On the other hand, if all the relevant stakeholders in a public dispute reach an agreement on an action plan, they have every right to expect their elected and appointed officials will enact the group proposal. And, those expectations are justified if all the relevant stakeholders had an opportunity to participate in a transparent consensus building process, facilitated by a professional neutral and produced a nearly-unanimous set of recommendations, informed by the best scientific or technical advice available.

8. You work globally – what do you see as the biggest challenges we face in terms of food, energy and natural resources? Where do you see hope?

The biggest challenges I see at the nexus of water, energy and food occur when transboundary resources and relationships must be managed. Our long-standing system of national sovereignty makes it hard for countries to build smart relationships to maximize ecologically, economically and socially sustainable development. In my new book Environmental Diplomacy (Oxford, 2015) with Dr. Saleem Ali, we spell out ways in which the logic of environmental dispute resolution can be applied to transboundary environmental disputes, including the management of climate change risks on a global scale. There is reason to believe this can happen and the long-standing system of national sovereignty can be softened for this purpose.

9. Does climate change complicate existing conflicts or create new ones? What are the implications for environmental conflict resolution?

Yes, climate change creates serious new risks that must be addressed both internationally, domestically. It will take concerted international cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a point where sea level rise, increasing storm intensity, extreme heat for extended periods in the summer, drought, and frightening disease vectors can be combatted. New global agreements will have to be negotiated. And, while we wait for that to happen, the immediate impacts of the sudden climate shifts that have already occurred (as in the Arctic) need to be managed, mostly by local governments. Coastal communities need to bring their population together to work out ways of adapting to climate changes that cannot be avoided. In short, what is needed is a move toward collective risk management. This will have to be the product of mediated negotiations at every scale.

10. Environmental conflicts are knowledge intensive. What would be an interesting example of successful joint fact finding in resolving an environmental dispute?

Most environmental disputes are science-intensive, requiring a careful understanding of the dynamics of socio-ecological systems. If we reach a political agreement on how much mercury to allow into the environment that doesn’t reflect a full understanding of the impacts that mercury can have on human health, we will kill people or make their lives miserable. A process of joint fact finding must supplement political conversations about this subject. Stakeholders need the help of a panel of scientists or subject experts to guide them through the existing body of technical knowledge on the subject. They also need the help of experts to forecast the likely success associated with various possible remedial or regulatory actions. No one should allow scientists to legislate what should be done. But, without a credible joint fact finding process we will only have political interests exchanging ignorances about what can and should be done. The recent Minimata Convention on Mercury was a product of more than a decade of work by a global team of scientists who worked closely with country representatives of the leaders of civil society groups to figure out what standards should be applied and what system of enforcement would be most effective.

11. Besides being a professor at MIT, you are a practitioner involved in mediated multiparty negotiations. You have founded the Consensus Building Institute 20 years ago. What kind of an organization is CBI and what does it do?

CBI provides neutral services around the world. We offer mediation and facilitation assistance in multiparty resource management disputes – but only when we are invited to participate by all the stakeholders involved in the process. Sometimes CBI is invited by government or multinational agencies. Often we are invited by business or civil society groups. Until we receive approval from all parties, however, we cannot and do not begin involvement. Usually, our work begins with a Stakeholder Assessment. We interview, privately and confidentially, all the parties who have been or want to be involved in a particular consensus building effort. Through these interviews we can help frame the upcoming negotiations and outline joint fact finding that might be needed and formulate ground rules to govern the collaboration efforts. CBI has a Global Network of trained and experience neutrals who are available to work on every continent and in most major languages. Over several decades we have tried to codify best practices in the consensus building field (   We work on a not-for-profit basis; that is, we only charge what is necessary to cover our costs. While we sometimes receive philanthropic support to support particular collaborative efforts, we usually work on a fee-for-service basis. And, even if the costs of mediation are not equally shared among all the participants, we try to involve all the participants in approving whatever payments we receive.

12. You visited Finland in June 2014. How do you see the need for new collaborative practices in Finland – and where do you see most potential for new initiatives? Who are key actors here? Could Finland play a role globally?

Finland is at a critical moment. The country has an opportunity to shift to the use of more collaborative practices to resolve environmental and resource management disputes. The need is certainly there (especially in the mining and forestry sectors). It would not be difficult to train a cadre of skilled mediators to assist with this transition. The meeting we had several weeks ago (involving government, industry, academic and civil society group) generated the Fiskars Declaration calling for a national commitment to encourage the use of environmental mediation. I hope that is something that happens soon.

13. During your visit to Finland, you met with president Ahtisaari. What issues did you discuss and what interests do you share?

I was delighted to visit with President Ahtisaari again. He committed his energies to providing mediation advice and assistance around the world in situations where unresolved conflicts, of all kinds, are hurting people. We talked about upcoming battles in the Arctic for control of mineral as well as oil and gas exploration in newly accessible areas in the Arctic Circle (caused by thinning of the sea ice). I think we both believe principles of environmental dispute resolution can and should be applied. We also discussed the work of my Consensus Building Institute (CBI) and his Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) pertaining to our shared belief in the need for expanded uses of the consensual approach to dealing with differences (as a way of avoiding violence and as a means of resolving disagreements more efficiently).

14. What would you say to people and organizations who want to build their capacity in collaborative processes, and to apply the Mutual Gains Approach?

I hope that the universities in Finland will begin to offer teaching and training to individuals who want to become skilled dispute resolution professionals. For individuals interested in moving in that direction, they may need to go to other countries in the short term to acquire these capabilities. But, I don’t think it would take very long for Finland to become a center of excellence in this domain. I also hope the government will begin small scale experiments to demonstrate the value of environmental dispute resolution. Over the next decade it should be possible to match the supply of dispute resolution professionals (through new teaching and training opportunities both inside academia and in the private sector) with a managed demand for this kind of help in your country.

Interview by Jonna Kangasoja & Lasse Peltonen