Let’s ask better questions
The move from theoretical to strategic and operational questions is the next step needed in our field’s conversations about digital technology and peacebuilding. On March 15th, we were invited to present at a UN DPPA hosted panel on Digital Technologies for Women’s Inclusion, a side event to the 67th Commission on the Status of Women. We said something like this:
Mainstreaming Digital Peacebuilding
For the last nearly 10 years, as an organization we have been essentially asking versions of this: “how can civic activists and peacebuilders get smarter and stronger, to maintain pace with the increasing complexities of global interconnectivity, weaponized or exclusionary technological advancements, and ideological polarization?” We’ve worked with others responding to that same question, learning and building networks between global peacebuilders and innovation pioneers along the way.
Ten years ago, digital peacebuilding and/or peacetech was a niche. An interesting and exciting but ultimately separate set of processes to traditional peacebuilding initiatives. Acceptable maybe for grassroots initiatives, but irrelevant for higher levels of political influence.
We now posit that this once niche is now the norm. Digital technologies are fundamentally altering conflict dynamics, and they have also expanded the peacebuilding toolbox. As offline and online worlds continue to flatten and/or influence and impact each other, digital peacebuilding is just peacebuilding with some new tools and a lot of new questions. We need to continue mainstreaming it into the levels and scales of conflict engagement.
…digital peacebuilding is just peacebuilding
As a peacebuilding community, we keep asking ourselves the same questions
If we are to meet the needs of today, we have to be better question askers. Right now, many of us are still asking the ‘can’ questions. They sometimes take different forms, but when examined, have ‘can’ at the heart:
- Can tech serve peacebuilding goals?
- Can there be risks involved?
- Can this be done in low-tech contexts?
- Can technology increase inclusion?
The answer to all of these, of course is yes. There is now a large body of work and use cases that make answering in the affirmative easy (just see the wealth of examples here).
There always has to be a start, so the ‘can’ questions are valid and open minds to possibility: But we need to collectively shift to the questions that open minds to strategy: when, why; with whom, how; and what tools? If our question is, ‘can technology increase inclusion,’ we continue to put technology — vaguely defined— as the subject of the story. We may decide that we can do an opinion poll, and voila, yes, more voices were included. This maybe is a minimum standard of inclusion, but only just, and where is the innovation? We’ll write reports and think pieces, tweets and policy papers about the potential for technology to impact inclusion, while continuing to miss the mark. If we instead ask what processes and digital mechanisms would be safer, more inviting, or enable more access to resources and power — and critically ask this with the people we’re pursuing it with? This is where we’ve seen design and peacebuilding with impact. Grounded questions lead to grounded answers.
…’Can’ questions are valid and open minds to possibility: But we need to collectively shift to the questions that open minds to strategy.
A plug: If you’ve just arrived (hello!) and are still excited about the questions of possibility, our free Digital Peacebuilding 101 course shares many concepts and examples that will have you ready to ask, ‘what next?’
Here are questions we need to ask instead
Speaking of questions, we’ve implemented this one in our Build Up team meetings. When we’re excited about concepts, brainstorming possibilities, or ranting about risks or frustrations, any one of us can pull us back to the ground with a “so what?”
This shift in peacebuilding doesn’t require that everyone become a data scientist, an app programmer, or a social media expert. (Though there are some functional bare minimums these days). In fact, while this post argues against getting stuck in simplified notions of potential, there is another world we wish to avoid where the bottom-up affordances of technology are lost in the technocracy of contemporary peacebuilding.
It does, however, require that our field — specifically those working in peacebuilding and conflict response — are able to increase and improve our repertoire of questions.
Can technology be used for peacebuilding? >> What digital tools in this scenario could increase inclusion and participation in the peacebuilding that is already happening?
What are the benefits of digital technology in a peace process? >> What strategic purposes or current needs can be met by data, communications, or networking-related tech?
What risks does technology pose? >> Who needs to talk to who, and how can they do so with access, trust, and informed consent?
Other questions could be: why are we not doing this if it’s common sense and obvious that it’s needed? What barriers are preventing more impactful digital peacebuilding? Or, where something worked, why did it work; what conditions or mechanisms can we replicate?
The questions and answers we’ll get here can be complex, but untangling complex problems is what mediators and peacebuilders are used to. We can start by recognizing the changing nature of peacebuilding and conflict in the digital age, and asking good questions as we research, analyze, design, and/or implement today’s peacebuilding initiatives.