Innovators and scholars can meaningfully collaborate to shape peaceful societies. We offer five steps they can take together.
Peace and conflict studies knowledge has expanded dramatically over the last 25 years, and we know much more about why conflicts start and how they can be prevented. At the same time, innovation and technology startups have started to try to tackle peace and conflict issues, beginning new efforts to create more peaceful societies. But innovators have thus far had little interaction with peace scholars as they try to build peace, even as many express a deep interest to positively improve the lives of those in fragile and conflict-affected regions across the globe.
While allocating tech billions for future moonshots seems commonplace, it’s much harder to get funding for projects that actively help those suffering from conflict and violence today. We contend that there is untapped value in promoting joint efforts between academics and innovators to build new violence prevention and peacebuilding tools, and being guided by state-of-the-art peace research will maximize their chances for positive societal impact. By integrating researchers’ deep knowledge of the economic, political and spatial dynamics of peace and conflict processes with innovation and entrepreneurship, we can develop new technologies that support human security and peacebuilding around the globe.
In support, we outline here several opportunities for those working in innovation spaces to become peacebuilders, and call to for innovators and scholars to dramatically increase collaboration. Highlighting the state-of-the-art innovations that are trying to build peace today, we examine select challenges that actors in this space currently face, and outline how innovator-academic partnerships can help address some of today’s most intractable global peace and conflict problems. We call for five ways to take peace innovation forward:
- Build the scholar–entrepreneur–policy triad of peace innovation
- ‘Disrupt Conflict’ – but do so with informed purpose
- Promote ethical innovation through culturally-sensitive engagement
- Make innovations that deliver specific positive impacts in conflict environments
- Globalize the peace-innovation playing field
Build the scholar–entrepreneur–policy triad of peace innovation
Peace innovations –new technologies, inventions, and tools strategically designed and specifically implemented to attempt to build peace – can have real-world, transformative impacts for vulnerable people. We also know that multi-stakeholder approaches including academics, policymakers and local communities give us the best chances for success, in everything from refugee integration and urban violence concerns to private sector contributions for early warning systems in conflict zones. Therefore, providing contextual conflict-sensitive guidance to peacebuilding innovators will measurably help their products have greater impacts for affected communities. As such, strategic partnerships between innovators, businesses, scholars, governments and philanthropists – including funding measures that formalize peace within existing innovation platforms – can meaningfully contribute to conflict reduction and global peacebuilding efforts.
We propose the creation of inclusive peace-innovation spaces that bring complementary actors together in houses of joint invention, located at universities or peace research institutes, or within start-up communities themselves in order to better incubate unique ideas and make such interactions more valuable. These spaces will unite unique constellations of actors who understand commercial interests, yet recognize that new approaches and solutions are needed for entrepreneurs to engage with core peace and conflict issues more effectively. Patterned upon social enterprise models that equally prioritize human development and societal impact with profit, these new spaces will build innovation strategies in a manner that is both good for beneficiaries and users of new technologies in conflict regions and good for business.
Dedicated spaces for personal, cooperative interactions are necessary for generating innovation impact. Such interaction also delivers more substantial guidance for companies or entrepreneurs than what private political risk consulting or other social assessment impact advice might offer. Existing social development and technology incubators like IDEA London, the Grameen Creative Lab, ICT4Peace and BUILD Peace are promising locales that bridge technology and peace, but tend to only offer places for like-minded innovators to congregate or focus more upon humanitarianism than peacebuilding. By extending the scope of these incubators to include academic leaders, stakeholders can tease out ideas that are more sensitive to local needs, thus making it more likely to discover actionable solutions.
For example, the Tech Challenge was a 2014 contest sponsored by USAID and Humanity United that funded 15 ideas responding to specific challenges for atrocity prevention. Winners have launched algorithms for predicting future atrocities, war crime reporting and verification systems, communications devices which function despite disasters or infrastructure damage, electronic tracing for conflict minerals, and social media support for accountability in truth and reconciliation processes. But these innovations were hampered by inadequate mechanisms to scale from pilot to broader public adoption (a common concern), and few had real incentives for those in conflict settings to adopt products as they were developed on ‘innovation islands’ heavily influenced by tech communities alone without business or scholarly insights from target communities. Without the synchronicity effects that academic guidance could have provided, many projects were simply rolled out and ignored.
We believe peace innovation is too important to simply be housed in one-off contests. Given the increasing pace and scope of tech innovation, such initiatives should be coupled with systematic supportive environments, and use best practices on peacebuilding to guide the next generations of innovators. Linking peace and conflict expertise with innovation agents can profoundly influence innovation thinking, particularly in reframing how meaning and value is created. More concretely, incorporating peace scholarship with innovation processes can promote the merging of commercial and social value, reshaping how companies and startups see their roles as positive change agents.
‘Disrupt Conflict’ – but do so with informed purpose
Perhaps the biggest cliché in Silicon Valley is that a new ‘disruptive’ innovation is going to ‘change the world’. Yet clichés are born of truth, and there is little debate that Silicon Valley innovations have dramatically changed the lives of billions around the world. However, change alone does not always equal improvement, or even true impact, as concerns peacebuilding. In order to develop innovations that can improve the lives of those in areas of conflict and crisis we need to better harness existing knowledge to ensure that these impacts are as positive as possible.
Peace scholars can offer substantial value, helping to explain why certain innovations might work and/or should be supported, and why others that promise to ‘disrupt’ conflict dynamics might just make things worse. For example, many social media tools were celebrated as providing the kindling for Arab Spring democracy movements, but since the wave of promise in 2012 the Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan governments have all used these same networks, apps and tools to track down and punish activists and dissidents who used their services.
While the notion of ‘disrupting conflict’ is often used simply as a trendy synonym for ‘stopping conflict’ as in the ‘Disrupting Conflict is Good Business’ report, as supported by many American NGOs and the UN. We can take this concept further. Essentially, disruption in the sense of peace and conflict means thinking about the causes and consequences of violence in new ways, and exploring new (or neglected) markers and drivers for conflict itself to illuminate new innovation opportunities. This could include developing social media apps to promote non-violent action or community-level peace education, toolkits that offer mediation services to hard-to-reach conflict-affected communities, a Kiva for conflict victims and demobilized rebel fighters; or other notions of ‘disruption’ that imply informed purpose to innovation.
To use a thematic example, urban violence affects both state and non-state actors, including businesses, government, and citizens. Peace-positive innovation can integrate public and private approaches which support urban security and resilience in public policy and business models. One potential solution is a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral ‘Urban Support System’ that integrates sustainable growth and non-violence solutions in cities by addressing prevention, mitigation and response to urban violence through urban design and construction, planning, housing, transportation, health, and education. This system could map how urban violence occurs or is opposed to at the micro-level; identify how this shapes dynamics of urban fragility or resilience; and support public and private responses.
More substantially, innovation actors could even unite with a business like Coca-Cola, which has one of the most sophisticated and penetrative distribution networks in the world. Peacebuilding scholars could help to guide innovation actors to outfit Coke distributors with a mobile app (or similar), allowing them to ping back if they witness signs of conflict in their distribution areas. The anonymous geo-coded data would serve as an early warning indicator, helping to alert and reduce conflict before it is amplified. Such ideas show how ‘Big Data’ can be used in the pursuit of peace by business and government actors, and encourage peace innovations that speak equally to business, governments, and civil society in a positive way.
Promote ethical innovation through culturally-sensitive engagement
When developing innovations for life-or-death situations, ethical considerations should be mandatory. But many tech innovators continue to seek better tools to understand the deeper ethical consequences of their innovations, including unintended side effects and dual-use eventualities that could make their products not only ineffective but even malevolent. Worse, existing law struggles to resolve the ethical quandaries that arise when the use of advanced technological equipment collides with rights such as privacy and freedom of speech, or basic concerns of safety and security. These concerns are magnified in fragile developing countries. While principles for ethical humanitarian innovation have recently emerged alongside broader calls for ethical innovation in development, the ethical responsibilities of innovators developing tools in conflict and other fragile contexts must be taken more seriously.
More problematically, there exists in some tech circles a belief that the ‘right’ innovations can ultimately resolve moral issues, or that technological advances are outside the realm of morality as only end-users are to be burdened with the consequences of their use. We call for a reversal of this thinking, to make ethical issues the first – not the last – phase of design in peace innovation. Peace innovations and applications inherently raise ethical questions, including who can access materials, how it is used, and to what ends. Under-considering such concerns is a well-worn critique of many tech firms, so partnering with experienced peace and conflict scholars provides a critical value-added to help ensure guidance on socially-responsible, conflict-sensitive usage and implementation.
In fact, many peace and conflict scholars have already deeply problematized similar interactions through grounded research. These include what we coin here as the ethics of intent (before one goes into a conflict setting), the ethics of action (researcher action while in the field) and the ethics of outcome (responsibilities after leaving conflict areas) as three distinct stages of research design for social science fieldwork within conflict zones. More comprehensive guidance for innovators and entrepreneurs incorporating such considerations could greatly improve ethical thinking about innovation.
In practice, this means creating a knowledge base for culturally-sensitive peacebuilding entrepreneurship across innovation lifecycles in order to ensure that local user needs are as important as those of the developers. This would incorporate conflict-sensitive business practices and/or rapid knowledge acquisition on conflict or crisis events. Existing documents on conflict-sensitive business practices by SwissPeace and the United Nations Global Compact, among others, can serve as an initial template, particularly after the special needs of innovation actors are addressed and internalized. This knowledge base can encourage thinking about cultural impacts beyond product-specific adoption, enabling innovations that are better attuned to local cultural needs.
Make innovations that deliver specific positive impacts in conflict environments
Beyond the scholar-entrepreneur-policy triad, how can we institutionalize peace innovation? Delivering peacebuilding expertise across the vast scope of innovation actors (including entrepreneurs, tech companies, governments, development consultancies and philanthropic organizations) will be a considerable challenge. While socially progressive startups increasingly desire to deliver simultaneous financial and social benefit, we need to move beyond seeing social awareness as brand risk mitigation and instead integrate reward-based social innovation into product design itself. This philosophy can appeal to both for-profit and non-profit operations to address social change and development issues in a sustainable and scalable manner.
For-profit peace endeavors are possible, but ‘profitable peace’ business implementation requires deeper guidance on local contexts for innovations to deliver true positive impacts in complex conflict environments. Innovation adoption by end-users is a strong predictor of success, and if one believes that positive impacts of social innovation are just as valuable as profit for a socially responsible 21st century business, the two are in many cases mutually reinforcing. The conditions for failure in the traditional startup sense are also the case in our framework (e.g. if a product isn’t adopted by the community it is not valuable), with the caveat that certain types of failure risk exacerbating harm to vulnerable populations and need to be problematized before rollout. Moreover, the acquisition of a promising peacebuilding product by an international organization can be every part as beneficial – and profitable – as acquisition by a corporation as a way to leverage new technology and innovation trends for peace.
However, innovations can be used against citizens as well, as internet and mobile tracking tools have shown in authoritarian-leaning states, and even good intentions can have disheartening consequences. For example, drone warfare is often presented as a ‘more humane’ alternative to traditional conflict, with fewer casualties and/or collateral damage. Yet studies of the psychology of conflict have taught us that when conflicts are so asymmetrical as to be ‘unwinnable’ – as a local insurgency or community facing a drone army might feel – then conflict actors seek out other means of fighting. In practice, drone warfare facilitated by ‘disruptive’ conflict innovations may actually increase recruitment to terrorist groups; while the ubiquity of these technologies may also facilitate attacks against western targets.
Encouragingly, we can leverage many positive examples of innovation. Philanthropic precursors include the rollout of innovation tools in challenging environments (e.g. Gates Foundation efforts to eradicate polio), and the Omidyar Network and the Carnegie Foundation, among others, have facilitated and/or funded local societal change for development in conflict-affected areas. Networks like the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation show how similar ideas have taken root in the humanitarian space, but far fewer innovators have built transformative, socially progressive pro-peace perspectives into their operating models. We lack peace-specific innovation in such a systematized manner, to the detriment of both scholars and innovators.
As a counter-weight to state-centric, technology-dependent, and commercially-governed security research, we consider peace innovation’s potential in assessing, analyzing, and articulating human security needs as a key opportunity. Positive impacts for peace innovation must thus begin by benefitting first and foremost the most vulnerable who are less able to voice their experiences of insecurity. Such access to the means of expression and communication is essential to reducing societal insecurity, especially as its withdrawal is often a precursor to conflict. Therefore, systematic attempts to make all segments of target societies benefit from such innovations must be considered.
Globalize the peace-innovation playing field
The merging of business, tech, and societal values towards peace-positive aims (e.g. Creating Shared Value) has led to dramatic shifts in supply chain management, subcontracting, and other corporate interactions within and for developing world citizens. Firms working in conflict settings as varied as Colombia, Cyprus and the Congo have been encouraged to engage more deeply in ‘corporate diplomacy’ in conflict-prone or unstable areas of operation, as policymakers hope to leverage their local clout to support peace or prevent backsliding into war. As post-conflict and conflict regions also often represent some of the world’s last ‘untapped’ markets for extractive firms in particular, corporate and political interest in peace-innovation offerings are growing rapidly.
But big gaps remain. There is a fundamental difference between developing solutions that are designed to bring long-term development than those that are designed to address the more acute challenges of peacebuilding, and that the expertise on developing countries claimed by many social development innovation actors does not necessarily relate to skills needed to work in conflict specifically. Further, such claims may even be detrimental to insightful analysis or innovation recommendations that are desired and/or beneficial to conflict-affected stakeholders. In the context of a tech sector that is increasingly concerned about the ‘why’ not ‘what’ of product offerings, we need to internationalize and globally contextualize the growing societal pull for innovators to act as global change agents.
Global opportunities in peace and conflict innovation are tantalizing, but existing networks like Stanford’s Peace Innovation Network tend to focus upon Global North network hubs instead of emerging cities like New Delhi, São Paulo, Cape Town, Shanghai or Buenos Aires. And proximity matters, whether concerning issues of research or innovation. This is why the most innovative firms conglomerate in global hubs, finding that the value of proximity to other change agents usually outweighs any financial benefits of dispersal. Thus, while Europe and the USA are at the forefront of global innovation, finding the most insightful regional and sub-national peace innovation is likely to be germinated outside these hubs.
For example, conflicts in remote settings often do considerable damage to lives and livelihoods before the international community or even national actors are able to respond. This is especially the case in several conflict settings of central Africa due to poor infrastructure and unreliable media reporting. While there are nearly always early warning signs of conflict, securing this information in a timely, actionable manner remains a major hurdle. Further, while many innovators have attempted to crowdsource or scrape social media for signs of trouble, these efforts have often been contingent on extensive local use of social media, which is a tenuous proposition in less physically and digitally accessible crisis settings. A globalized peace-innovation approach can reduce response timeframes, provide contextualized understandings, and ultimately enable more rapid engagement of ideas and innovations to help build peace.
Inclusive alternatives to Global North-centric development and security mechanisms (and peace research itself) are needed to bring new ideas into this space. Given challenges of promoting peace in complex crisis environments, we should encourage innovations that both (i) improve business accountability and efficiency in conflict reduction and peace promotion; and (ii) reduce the likelihood that unintended consequences of business activities (or those of subsidiaries) will exacerbate conflict. Businesses increasingly want to contribute in this space, and the framework here enables them to meaningfully participate rather than simply engaging in ‘peacewashing’ or choreographed public relations campaigns.
Taking the Peace-Innovation Agenda Forward
New opportunities and insights in the peace-innovation sphere are already reshaping how we dream the research questions and agendas that will drive peace innovation. Now is the time to leverage desire into action. With existing social development and innovation organizations struggling to overcome institutional and social challenges inherent in conflict contexts, the deep thematic and area-based research expertise and acumen that peace and conflict scholars provide would help to bridge this gap. Our aim is that the five points presented here can generate new frameworks to integrate stakeholders and move peace innovation forward, and inspire new thinking among entrepreneurs as they seek to develop socially valuable advances