More, Better, Faster: PeaceTech in Review (By Sheldon Himelfarb, PeaceTech Lab CEO)

This guest posts by Sheldon Himelfarb, PeaceTech Lab CEO, is in response to Jacob Lefton’s post “Scaling Peacetech – A Growing Conversation”.

In his blog post, reviewing the February 4th PeaceTech Summit in Washington DC, Build Peace’s Jacob Lefton does a great job of distilling a lot of complex ideas that have been presented on how best to scale peacetech. However, one particularly significant and controversial topic – namely the role of profit in achieving scale – deserves closer examination here.

First, some context: the PeaceTech Summit was a unique opportunity to bring together visionaries and pioneers in the emerging peacetech industry. With over 300 participants, panelists from Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Brazil, Australia, DC, and Silicon Valley, and breakout sessions ranging from “Gaming to ScalePeace” to “Engineering Conflict Solutions at Scale,” it was certainly the most exciting undertaking in the PeaceTech Lab’s short history and we are grateful to all who made it possible.

With the success of the event, however, comes the ongoing challenge: how do we talk about the theme “Scaling Peacetech: More, Better, Faster” not as a tag line but rather as a modus operandi that underscores everything we in the PeaceTech Lab, and others in the field, believe and work towards? Lefton’s piece tees up the complexity by asking: “Who is invited to participate in industrial peacetech, and how do we ensure input from a broad range of peacebuilders and innovators?”

At the Lab, we firmly believe the voices of local peacebuilders are paramount to the success of scaling peacetech. Days before the Summit, we hosted a “Voices from the Field” Twitter Chat using the hashtag #scalepeacetech and were pleased by the participation of activists in Burundi, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and South Sudan. In addition, we were lucky to have iHub Nairobi Researcher Nanjira Sambuli with us on the opening panel, and the voices of other peacetech leaders from conflict countries represented throughout the day.

Lefton’s piece also highlights the important questions: “What does a peacetech company actually look like? How is it funded? Is profit for innovators a foundation of peacetech?”

Our vision of a thriving peacetech industry includes governments laying out seed money and awarding contracts for research and development. The resulting projects would attract investors, and businesses would discover overlapping interests with peacebuilding professionals. Profits would be realized in many cases, by leveraging the power of scale that comes with tech, data, and media work, creating a public-private win-win through more peaceful societies and sustainable economies.

There was one assertion in the piece, however, that was misleading: “For the PeaceTech Lab, the way to scale peacebuilding is through profit.” On the contrary, the Summit was designed to present an expansive array of scaling opportunities, some involving profit and many that did not. We showcased a non-profit peacetech accelerator being launched in Colorado to support in their own words “12 new startups that use technology to reduce violent conflict.” We applauded the work of Drexel University, this nation’s largest private college of engineering, for creating the first peace engineering degree program to help expand development of peacetech, among other goals. We listened to a panel of broadcasters from Nigeria, Pakistan and Netherlands with whom the Lab has recently signed agreements to co-develop peacebuilding media online and for broadcast.

In other words, the PeaceTech Lab is passionate in our belief that scaling peacetech and peacebuilding is a cross-sector undertaking that requires not-for-profit, government, and for-profit practitioners. We also believe that the for-profit sector has been woefully under-utilized — particularly now when low-cost, easy-to-access technology is changing the way information and capital flow. This new normal has unleashed unprecedented opportunities for social entrepreneurship in the use of tech, data and media for peace and prosperity.

For 2016 to be the year of truly transformative peacetech, we must, as Jacob Lefton suggests, employ laser-like focus on delivering impact faster “with more sustainable and broader reaching outcomes.” Media, data, and technology are important aspects of this goal, but to achieve scale requires we also get the people, partnerships, and processes right. To that end, the Lab will continue to work as a convener and strategic partner for businesses, non-profits, and peacebuilders alike, until #scalepeacetech goes from being a goal to being a given.

Continue the conversation. How do you scale peacetech?

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Go Deeper: Cultural Strategy for Peacetech (by Jacob Lefton)

Note: I wrote this essay in part to help frame the arts program at Build Peace 2016. One of the questions I seek to answer is why arts and cultural work are integral to the development of peacetech processes. This year’s conference theme is Toward Transformation, with focused inquiries in political and socio-cultural transformation and ethics. It’s clear to me that arts and cultural work are a series of tools and methodologies that can broaden the engagement and outcome of transformation in political and socio-cultural arenas, and aid people in working through ethical questions. This essay takes the long view: arts and cultural work broaden and deepen transformative processes over long, generational periods of time—and we should plan for that.

Emerging technology continues to be a powerful tool in peacebuilding initiatives, but given a lack of cultural strategy, peacetech’s long-term impacts are unknown at best and destined to fail at worst. Understanding and engaging cultural contexts in peacebuilding processes is vital to their success—the renowned peacebuilding scholar, John Paul Lederach, says, “peace is seen not merely as a stage in time or a condition. It is a dynamic social construct.”

Peacetech is also a political force in its ability to flatten hierarchies and create the conditions for massive, nuanced citizen participation in governance. Use of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring movement is one example. It is a stark reminder of the old adage, “politics follows culture.” As peacetech connects the halls of power to grassroots movements, cultural context is everything. Helena Puig Larrauri, co-director of BuildUp, characterizes these peacebuilding implementations as “civic engagement processes that deal with conflict.” Peacetech’s broadening influence on peacebuilding requires understanding and utilization of cultural strategy.

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Cedaria: Blackout – Play for Peace!

This guest post is by Marie Madsen & Josep Garcia from Search for Common Ground.

Search for Common Ground (SFCG) has developed its first ever video game together with the game developer Matsuko. Cedaria: Blackout aims to provide youth in the Middle East with a platform to learn and practice how to manage conflict, solve community problems collaboratively, and understand the perspectives of the “other”. At a time of escalating violence in the region, gaming can be an effective and innovative tool to reach out to young people and promote the experience of non-violent conflict transformation ideas and concepts. SFCG aims to demonstrate that videogames can be a fun and creative way to engage more young people towards collaborative problem solving.

Cedaria: Blackout is a steampunk game set in an imaginary Middle Eastern context. The island of Cedaria used to be a centre for advancement and prosperity. However, the desire to dominate the island gave rise to trouble. Bonds between the different inhabitants shattered, fights ensued, skirmishes broke out around every corner and threatened to collapse the very foundations of the island. It is now the player’s job to help Cedaria leave behind its conflicts and regain peace and prosperity.

Screenshot from Cedaria: Blackout.

Screenshot from Cedaria: Blackout.

In regular video-games players normally fight against evil enemies in order to win. Here they will have the option to experience how it is also possible to win through cooperation with others. By reinforcing the values of cooperation and practicing negotiation and mediation skills, players will be able to change their attitudes towards conflict and learn some more constructive ways to deal with it in their communities. SFCG brings here a long experience in training and empowering communities with non-violent conflict resolution tools in a variety of contexts. Individual attitudes towards conflict and ways to deal with it on the personal level have a relevant impact on both community and national peacebuilding processes. Cedaria: Blackout aims at empowering a new group of individuals in these processes.

While SFCG has a long experience in peacebuilding, we are new in the gaming universe and therefore we kindly call on all peacebuilders and gamers out there to try out the game and give us your feedback! Cedaria: Blackout is not only to be played alone in front of a screen; we want to trigger discussions on alternative ways to address conflicts with the youth of the Middle East.

Download and give your feedback to Cedaria: Blackout.
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We look forward to hearing from you!

Edited 10:56 CET March 07, 2016 with insight into SFCG’s experience in the field.

Scaling Peacetech – A Growing Conversation (by Jacob Lefton)

In February, I attended the Peacetech 2016 Summit, Scaling Peacetech: More, Better Faster, at the United States Institute of Peace’s PeaceTech Lab. They brought together visionaries and pioneers from a variety of industries and government to discuss how enterprises can become collaborators in growing the impact and reach of peacetech.

At Build Peace 2015, Sheldon Himelfarb, the president of the PeaceTech Lab, delivered a keynote “From Innovation to Industry,” making a case for scaling peacetech through industrial methodology.

The forward thrust of PeaceTech Lab’s proposal is that impact goals in peacetech can be reached and exceeded by using for-profit industry models in design and implementation of peacetech processes. This peacetech industry, built to rival other industrial complexes, would be aligned around social values to further peacebuilding objectives. At the Summit, Himelfarb presented supporting discussions, including presentations on the power of GIS, the peering economy, video games, and some innovative media companies, to name just a few. The Summit seemed to frame scaling in peacetech as a profit-motive problem. Tech entrepreneurs are less likely to be drawn to peacebuilding applications for their work, because the current peacetech funding models that exist are not attractive enough.

For the PeaceTech Lab, the way to scale peacebuilding is through profit. This approach to scaling, they argue, would build a bigger tent to bring in innovators who are drawn more strongly to fiscal growth than more traditional peacebuilders seem to be.

peacetech summit

As I attended the Lab’s summit, it seemed the Lab’s investigation on scaling peacetech through profit intersects with inquiries we hope to explore during Build Peace 2016: Towards Transformation. As we said earlier, Build Peace 2016 asks why we use technology to build peace. What are we trying to change, and what can technology affect in these processes? We defined three areas of inquiry: political transformation, socio-cultural transformation, and ethics. Profit models for scaling peacetech raise significant questions in all three, such as:

  • How do we scale peacetech in an effective manner that leads to true transformation? Is profit for innovators a foundation of peacetech?
  • How does industrial peacetech—the peace-through-profit model—work to allow under-resourced stakeholders to participate in on a level playing field?
  • There were few grassroots organizations mentioned, and fewer grassroots voices represented at the PeaceTech Summit. Who is invited to participate in industrial peacetech, and how do we ensure input from a broad range of peacebuilders and innovators?
  • If industrial peacetech is driven by traditional economic structures of capital and investment, how does it address or subvert inherent political and socio-cultural power dynamics associated with private enterprise today?
  • What does a peacetech company actually look like, structurally? Is the peering economy a key ingredient? Build Peace’s Rodrigo Davies looked into that last year when answering the question, ‘is AirBnB a civic tech company, a peacetech company, or neither?’

As we prepare for our three-day conference in Zurich in September, scalability is one of the forefront questions on our mind. Our focus at Build Peace is to deliver on impact faster with more sustainable and broader reaching outcomes. In Zurich, we will continue the conversation as we explore possibilities and pitfalls in various models of transformation through peacetech.

Do you have an answer to one of our questions, or a question of your own? Please share it with us.


We look forward to hearing your voice in the ongoing conversation.