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Conflict Management: A Multi-level Practice For Managing Major Changes In Territories

Conflict Management: a multi-level practice for managing major changes in territories

Carrying out major changes in territories is getting even more complex. Whether it is an infrastructure, an industrial plant, a work of public interest or even an innovative policy, local stakeholders – Institutions, associations, private companies and individual citizens – will see both risks and opportunities in the changes that will interest their territory. This may result in conflicts which, in turn, often stop entrepreneurial or public interest initiatives.

This dynamics is not only due to the “Nimby syndrome”, as is often claimed. In territories there are both “Ideological Nos” and actors who try to gain political consensus by exploiting local protests. However, in addition to plain opposers, there is also a complex network of local interests, some consistent and some incompatible with the proposers’.

Who are the actors? To realize a major work on the territories, proposers should consider several actors and stakeholders, such as:

  • Political decision makers: i.e. Institutions from national Government to Regional and Municipal administrations;
  • Economic actors: from companies proposing an infrastructure and/or an industrial project to the local companies composing the productive fabric;
  • Intermediate bodies: from trade associations to trade unions, each representing a collective interest;
  • Citizens living in the territory: from local activists’ unions to individuals willing to express their own idea.

Each of these actors plays a specific role. The likelihood of a project’s success depends largely on how the proposal is received within this network of local interests, which can grant, but also deny, the essential “social license” that pre-exists the formal authorization procedure. Therefore, to maximize the likelihood of success for the proposal to be implemented in the area it is crucial to manage the complexity of local interests. These interests are not always immediately visible, but they constitute the essence of the status quo that a project can change even radically. 

Conflict Management is a set of activities that manage conflict and consensus in a more or less large context with respect to a choice of public importance. It is, in other words, the activities that facilitate the insertion of works. It is characterized by:

  • Transversality and multichannel, with actions including institutional relations, strategic communication and mediation;
  • Context-sensitive approach, with a special focus on the interests that may be activated for or against each project;
  • Management of major changes, on the environmental level but also on the development perspective of an area concerned by a projec.

An integrated approach to consensus building

The Conflict Management service proposed by Comin & Partners consists of a mix of advocacy, institutional relations, stakeholder engagement and participatory activities in the territory. To carry out the latter, C&P relies on a partnership with Avventura Urbana, a leading company in the implementation of participatory processes, and professionals such as its founder Iolanda Romano, an expert in conflict mediation and former Extraordinary Government Commissioner for the major railway project Terzo Valico.

Who needs Conflict Management? Any industrial, institutional or associational actor who needs to present projects and decisions that have the potential to generate resistance from other stakeholders (typically, but not necessarily, at the local level) can be supported by Conflict Management actions. At the corporate level, primary targets for this activity can be infrastructure stakeholders, including those supporting Public Debate procedures, energy, waste management, highly impactful industries (e.g., steel, chemical, pharmaceutical), construction and real estate, and telecommunications.

Infrastructure. There are many complex conflicts that can affect the infrastructure sector. Not just Nimby or “Ideological Nos” dynamics. In fact, alongside the resistance of those who are ideologically opposed to the works, there are very diverse interests: from those of the residents to be expropriated, to those of urban centers affected by the construction sites, to those of actors and associations engaged in environmental protection, to those who are not affected by the route of the infrastructure but do not want to be excluded from the development connected to the new works – the so-called Pimby (Please In My BackYard) dynamic. Strategic management of the conflict between interests can thus be crucial for the success of an infrastructural project.

Energy. The need to bring together ecological transition, energy security, and environmental and landscape protection, but also the increasing “grassroots” involvement of citizens demanding a different approach to sustainability and industrial issues, has made energy one of the most relevant issues of our time. Energy production facilities – whether powered by renewable or traditional sources – as well as transmission and distribution infrastructures are the focus of intense local controversies, but also of a growing awareness of their importance for the National system. Conflict Management activities can help compose local interest with national and European goals of energy security and sustainability.

Environment and waste management. Waste management facilities are among the projects that most frequently lead to conflict in territories. Alongside European policies that focus on increasingly sustainable and “circular” management by acting on the level of materials used, reducing disposability and stimulating the adoption of innovative technological solutions, individual communities often prove unwilling to accept the necessary disposal and management facilities in their territories. Conflict Management, applied to the waste and environment sector, aims at reassuring the public by avoiding the spread of inaccurate or worrying information, and even to agree with stakeholders on project solutions that can minimize any negative impact on the local communities.

Impactful industrial sectors. Balancing environmental preservation, public health protection and the need to ensure the operativeness of important production hubs (and the related jobs) is another major cause of local conflicts. In our country, there are numerous cases of plants that have never “reconciled” with the territories that host them, as well as industrial plant projects that are as strategic as they are opposed by local communities. In both cases, companies whose importance goes even beyond the territory in which they arise are in danger of coming to a halt due to a lack of communication with communities. Implementing a Conflict Management strategy focused on the needs of proponents and local communities can facilitate this relationship, allowing to find solutions beneficial for both the company and its local stakeholders.

Construction and Real Estate. In cities all over Italy, inhabitants, their needs and the way they experience spaces-public and private-are changing in line with new socio-economic models. Entire neighborhoods and urban areas are undergoing processes of transformation and regeneration, in step with new trends related to sustainability and efficiency, the transformation of cities from an industrial to a post-industrial model. In this context, it appears to be an element of competitive advantage to adopt good governance practices, capable of stimulating communication and sharing relationships, based on development, innovation and sociality principles. In this kind of project, Conflict Management can play a key role in facilitating dialogue between residents, operators and institutions.

Telecommunications. Digitization, a central piece of the PNRR and in general of Italy’s future ability to compete on the international stage, requires the creation of adequate infrastructure. These infrastructures benefit the territories that host them, for example by ensuring increasingly widespread fast connectivity, but they are also at the center of even very strong opposition from the territories. Here again, Conflict Management activities serve to prevent and resolve resistance from the communities affected by these works, offering a solution that benefits all concerned and enables faster realization of these important public works.

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