Reaching Consensus: The Evolution of an Idea

By Kevin Doyle

The world is increasingly interconnected by trade, even as many are divided over how to deal with its opportunities and challenges. With the growing complexity of modern trade agreements, it is more important than ever for new trade negotiators to cultivate the skills and expertise required to navigate the important issues at the heart of globalization and trade.

This is the founding idea of Consensus—to provide an effective training experience for the negotiators of tomorrow. Sprouting from this core mission, the project has grown to incorporate the efforts of stakeholders ranging from think tanks and app developers to trade practitioners and professors, working jointly to cultivate highly-skilled future trade leaders.

Addressing a Need

Consensus traces its origins to a classroom dilemma. As a former trade negotiator and professor of trade policy at Georgetown University, Consensus founder Andrea Durkin recognized a growing challenge in teaching trade negotiation: as trade policy becomes more complex, balancing practical skills, theory, and knowledge becomes increasingly difficult. Should trade courses focus on practicing negotiations over a few finite topics, or offer a broader survey of the growing number of trade issues?

Professor Durkin was not alone in facing this dilemma. Fellow trade educators, many of them colleagues and practitioners of trade policy, expressed the difficulty in developing best practices and effective case studies that appropriately balance specificity with breadth while engaging students. The field was calling for a breath of fresh air, a new way to teaching the topic to millennials accustomed to turning to their mobile devices.

Formulating a Plan

To establish a bench of expertise behind the project, Professor Durkin sought out the help of like-minded stakeholders passionate about improving education and understanding of trade. Fueled by encouraging conversations with the Koch Foundation, Professor Durkin worked with Katherine Hunt of Collaborative Communications, a DC-based communications firm focused on education and learning. Together, they conceived a project to develop an educational app to facilitate trade negotiations built on the needs of trade professors. It could be developed with the direct support of trade students and be housed on a website that offers resources and showcases student voices on trade.

In late spring of 2017, the Koch Foundation approved the proposal, lending its support to the core mission of promoting a better understanding of trade among millennials. The project needed an institutional anchor and found both an intellectual home and champion in the form of Scott Miller, Director of the Scholl Chair of International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC-based think tank. Bringing digital expertise to the team, developer LookThink joined the project in as the technology partner and developer of the trade negotiation application.

As the team came together, the project took off.

The Summer of Consensus

Early development kicked off in the summer of 2017. The branding team built an identity for the application that captured the essence of trade negotiation—the challenges of staking out a position, the give and take of negotiating, and the difficulty of coming to an agreement, or achieving Consensus.

To develop the features and functionality of the application, the development team conducted extensive intake sessions with Professor Durkin, some of her former students at Georgetown, and fellow professors to understand the requirements of a good trade negotiation simulation. For example: What should participants take away from an effective simulation? How do professors assess students on their participation in a simulation? How does this simulation connect to real-life negotiations? Working with Professor Durkin’s extensive collegial network of current and former trade officials and subject matter experts, the development team designed the wireframe for an interactive simulation application that could provide greater engagement to students and more robust teaching tools for professors.

Through the hard work of the Consensus team, the summer witnessed the birth of a new kind of educational tool—an application designed specifically for facilitating multi-student international trade negotiations.

The Road to Consensus

With the successes of the summer, the project is set to move into its Alpha prototype phase. The project team will collect various levels of feedback on an early “clickable mock up” version of the application through focus groups with students and professors, individual student user flow and action prompt testing, and a survey geared towards former students, professors, and stakeholders in the international trade community.

The project team will analyze this feedback and incorporate it directly into the live version of the game, which will be piloted as a Beta prototype in Professor Durkin and Professor Andrew Shoyer’s Spring 2018 trade negotiations course. Plans for further partnerships with trade professors at other universities are also in the works.

Through experimentation and determination, Consensus aims to become an innovative, valuable tool for teaching the vital skills of trade negotiation in the modern classroom. Providing more tools for teachers and better experiences for students, Consensus endeavors to promote a greater understanding of trade and cultivate the world’s future trade negotiators.

Throughout the course of this project, our blog will be a space to share lessons learned from the pilot experience and to highlight student perspectives on trade negotiations. Check back frequently to learn how the rest of the project unfolds!

Kevin Doyle is a 2018 Masters of Science in Foreign Service candidate at Georgetown University, and a former student of Consensus founder Professor Andrea Durkin.

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