by Jacob Lefton

When we talk about building peace through technology, arts, and research, whether it’s an app, a poll, a creative project, or anything else, how we do it is as important as what we do.

Engineering the Future

I represented Build Up at Mozilla Foundation’s IOT Design Sprint during the V&A’s Digital Design Weekend. The weekend’s theme was Engineering the Future. Projects on display were diverse and thought provoking, ranging from synthetic photosynthesis and home-made particle physics models to interactive art exhibitions to find solutions to global problems.

We kicked off the inquiry for the weekend with a magnificent essay collection, soon available free and online. I contributed How To Build Peace: Be Honest, about the design questions we ask when guiding an intervention into a more participatory space. At Build Up, our design processes is fundamental in understanding what we’re making. I would go so far as to say design is the essential starting point to any engineering undertaking, and must be iterated, the questions returned to throughout the project or process. The term ‘engineering’ can seem stale, neutral, and emotionless. We hope to guide the process from being directive — humans-shaping-nature — to how Jon Rogers from Mozilla Foundation defined engineering that weekend: empowerment.

Peace through Emancipation

Through technology, we’re currently experiencing a significant paradigm shift. Alejandro Garcia de la Garza explains it well.

“The superficial post-war dream that technology would solve the world’s social problems has transformed into a nightmare of electronically enabled global surveillance and suppression. Yet with consumer-oriented industries replacing the military as the main driver of innovation, citizens are acquiring tools through which they can co-ordinate their emancipation.”

This emancipation comes through the flattening of hierarchies, the creation of alternative infrastructures, and bringing alternative voices to traditional infrastructures. This task is particularly well suited to ICTs, arts, and participatory research approaches. It’s an opportunity to reinvent how we live together. We parallel peacebuilding with civic engagement — the two fields, it seems, share the same paradigm shift, and we have the opportunity to build, rather, engineer a new future, a new civic life together.

It’s hard for peace to be more poignant and pertinent in light of this week’s news, waking up to find that a slim majority of Colombian voters rejected the peace that was offered them after more than 50 years of conflict. We also experienced a similarly slim vote in the United Kingdom, when it rejected what some people describe as the great peace project of the European Union. Many of us feel these voters rejected the offer of a brighter future. We’re left asking why this happened

Helena Puig Larrauri of Build Up talks about her parents’ protests of Franco’s 25 years of Spanish peace, when they marched with banners that said “We don’t want the peace of the graveyards.” Franco’s idea of peace was not theirs.

For better or worse (bias: I think worse), a slim margin of Colombian voters decided they didn’t want this peace, because it also wasn’t their peace. A slim margin of UK voters rejected the EU, the new civic life Europe has been building. Whether we see these protesters as leaning toward peace, as in Spain fifty years ago, or leaning away, like today’s UK and Colombia, the core truths are the same: Peace is political. Peace is emotional. Peace is human.

Living Peace

When we talk about a peace, we’re really talking about people living next to each other and participating together in a society. Both victims and perpetrators, often after many years of violence and displacement need to coexist without falling back into violence, and hopefully moving out of oppressive systems. But it’s not enough to have an idea for peace, in our case, to simply build an internet-of-things for peace. It has to be implemented in conversation with people, and ultimately by the people in conflict. As we’ve said before, “In too many settings, peacebuilding is given over to technical experts, policy-makers, mediators, and peacekeepers, who neglect engaging with the communities on just what peace is actually being built.”

We’re starting to understand what these more participatory processes look like.

Michaela Ledesma and Helena Puig Larrauri just wrote about our work with creative arts spaces in the Central African Republic. We facilitated a community-based art methodology that served as both a form of qualitative research and a more inclusive method for participating citizens to share their perspectives with national leaders. Over the course of 4 weeks, 3,200 people in four cities across the country participated in the spaces, and we collected 585 pieces of content, including song, theatre, drawings, paintings, embroidery, interviews, and four films made using participatory video methodology from InsightShare.

Michaela and Helena say:

It’s much too early for us to assess what kind of impact these community-based arts activities might have had … We’re not sure we’ll ever be able to answer these questions.

What we do know is that people felt free to express themselves. People of all ages and backgrounds, ex-combatants, traumatized, Christian, Muslim, victims — felt welcomed and safe. As we heard over and over again in each location, the creative spaces gave them the opportunity to experience peaceful co-existence, not just be talked at about it.”

It’s this lived experience of peace that we think is important.

I don’t pretend to know the experiences of people in Colombia, nor voters in the UK, but we can look at a map to see divided societies. In Colombia, voters on the periphery of the country, who reportedly faced disproportionate effects of the conflict, voted for the peace agreement, while those in the center voted against it. In the UK, urban voters in more diverse and internationally connected communities voted strongly for staying in the EU, whereas rural voters wanted to leave. Often in my circles, we place judgements on diversity and internationality — that they’re better and more desirable — but this sentiment can diminish the lived experience of those ‘no’ voters, who feel threatened by this trend. Their voices are equally part of the conversation.

These societies are split so starkly across such important issues, which impact millions of people. Reconciliation is necessary if they’re going to have a stable, peaceful future, and we can’t just hand people peace on a platter and tell them, “It’ll be good for you, trust us.” They need to find the empowerment to build it themselves.

We are working on it. Diana Dajer, one of our 2016 Build Peace Fellows is bringing reconciliation into participatory budgeting processes in Medellín, Colombia. Citizens there are already engaged in a deliberative process about community priorities, and she’s wondering if it’s possible to bring together former combatants and victims of the conflict around common desires. Can we create the condition for a personal peace in civic life? She’ll be writing more about that in the coming weeks.

We’re working for a more peaceful future, whatever that looks like. If engineering is empowerment, then peacebuilding is parallel to engineering, on a similar axis to civic engagement — citizens coordinating their emancipation. However, in the context of engineering, peacebuilding is not just what we build, but how we build it.

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Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.

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