Ernest Thiessen has relaunched his Smartsettle website. It is one of the most beautifully designed websites in the ODR field I have seen to date. Smartsettle itself is not a web based solution (more on that later) but the new website presents information on the system clearly and in a very engaging manner. Enough to make a potential customer even out of someone skeptical of ODR and in that sense, very nicely done.
Design aside, I have some deep reservations on some of the content on the site from the perspective of someone deeply interested in Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) applications for peacebuilding / conflict transformation. I guess a certain degree of hyperbole is expected and necessary when marketing a product. However, I am confused by the expression in The Perfect Mediator.
“Smartsettle quickly becomes the ultimate unbiased intelligent mediator once it learns how all parties become satisfied.”
“You remain in control of a process that produces an outcome that is not only fair but surprisingly more valuable than you could achieve by other means.”
“Adversarial approaches are stressful and costly and simply don’t work well”
For me, that first assertion is the most bizarre along with the title of this section. There is nothing perfect in this world. If so, SmartSettle would freeze all product development as of now and customers of Smartsettle would not have any suggestions for improvement or negative feedback, because you know, the system’s “perfect”. And ultimate unbiased technology? Really?! I’ve rebutted this at length in a previous post Is technology neutral.
There’s an effort in the new site to link Smartsettle to peacebuilding, but it fails because it isn’t a system designed for the support of peace processes or peace negotiations. It is here that simplistic assertions made on the site really break down. What is fair, what is a valuable outcome and how parties get to it are all deeply contested in complex peace negotiations arising from protracted violence. What of spoiler dynamics? What of splinter groups in non-state actors who are part of the negotiations who have their own fluid ideas of what’s fair and what’s not? What of the value of an elder statesperson like Mandela who is able to bring parties to the table more cohesively than any technology I have developed, worked with and know of? Is the ultimate unbiased technology of Smartsettle (that smacks to me of IBM’s outlandish claim recently) a replacement for the myriad of other human interactions vital to the progress of conflict transformation?
Finally, it’s one thing to say that adversarial approaches are stressful, costly and simply don’t work, quite another to actually prove this in the real world to warring factions. Here’s an open challenge – use Smartsettle to convince any warring faction in the world today which profits from war that peace through peaceful means is a more cost effective, less stressful option that stands more chance of success than violent conflict.
The other concern I have is that Smartsettle only runs on Windows. Having said that, the system requirements for the programme are incredibly low (64Mb RAM, Windows 98 and Pentium) ensuring that this will run on almost any PC out there. However, it is still dependent on one or another flavour of Microsoft Windows, which is unfortunate when juxtaposed with the trend of web based models such as Juripax that are equally competent in ODR. Again, it may well be the case that the target audience for Smartsettle (in North America) all run licensed copied of Windows. Yet it’s application and use in other parts of the world, esp. in light of the very real growth in FOSS and the likes of Ubuntu, suggest that SmartSettle would do well to move into the web services model (or at best a thin client model) in the future, whether or not they make their source code open.
All said and done, in terms of a product, this is one of the most mature and robust there are around in the ODR world. I’ve seen it been demonstrated and marvelled at how its algorithms do help parties with disputes map out their options. I’m not convinced as much as the makers of Smartsettle of how it will scale with complexity (multi-party, multi-issue violent disputes in a constant state of flux and in a context of open war) but for most other disputes, this seems to be a powerfully simple tool to use. I found The Orange Quarrel particularly interesting to read as one that gave insight into how SmartSettle works.
I can only call for a measure of restraint in promoting the virtues of Smartsettle from its makers. You have something good here. There’s really no need to venture into the outlandish and absurd to convince us of its value.
UPDATED – 24 May 2008, 11:11am
When I checked back, Smartsettle has taken my points into consideration and re-worked the expression and aspects of the site I found problematic. The page earlier called The Perfect Mediator is now called The Essential Mediator.