Everything big starts small. Last month, I stopped by Stanford’s Peace Innovation Lab and had a great chat with Margarita Quihuis and Mark Nelson, which I’m sure is the start of an ongoing dialogue. The Lab’s approach to peace is rooted in the concept of captology and goes something like this: Positive behaviour changes can be designed through persuasive interventions, and these interventions can be technology driven. In other words, machines can be designed to influence human beliefs and behaviors in a way that increases peace. Interventions that use persuasive tech can be carried out by a small group of peace entrepreneurs, galvanizing a crowd to change their behaviour and work for peaceful outcomes.
There’s no point getting stuck on the idea of machines changing behaviour. Yes it’s a scary thought, yes it’s already happening all around us. What’s interesting is how we make sure digital tech is also working for peace. And in this respect there are three ideas from the folks at the Peace Innovation Lab that are particularly important. First, the future of peace is not with institutions but with flexible crowds. As with many areas for public action, peacebuilding has traditionally been dominated by big organizations (governmental or not) that had both the reputation and the reach to make a significant impact. Digital technology breaks down both these barriers to entry. The internet, mobile phones and social media make it possible for an individual to reach thousands instantly, and for messages to be amplified by informal networks that spring up around an issue or event of interest. Furthermore, these digital social networks have the tools to build and share reputational information. This is crucial, because it can make one individual’s tweet about how you should behave not only go viral but also be credible and influential.
So the second idea: a tweet can change the actions of a crowd. The key to captology is to focus on designing triggers that lead to behaviour change. In her TEDxMonterey talk, Margarita focuses on identifying what behaviours people already like to engage in digitally, and building on that. People like to socialize using digital tech, so can we engineer digital socializing that promotes peace? One of the Lab’s initiatives, Peace on Facebook, shows how Facebook friending is contributing to building bridges across geographic, religious and political divides. Peace on Facebook is a reflection of the side-effects that an existing social digital technology is having on peace. It also illustrates the kind of social intervention that could be designed to promote peace digitally. (Another example, from the conflict prevention world, is crowdfeeding for early response.)
This takes us to the Lab’s third idea: who builds these interventions that can influence flexible crowds to build peace? The designers of persuasive peace technologies are peace entrepreneurs. Margarita and Mark described a peace entrepreneur as someone who designs digital tech to trigger peaceful behaviour. (I would expand this to also include those who utilize digital tech in ways that trigger peaceful behaviour.) The Lab hopes to promote the development of peace entrepreneurs by setting up Peace Innovation Labs in several locations, bringing together individuals with the right mix of tech and social skills. We also discussed whether peace entrepreneurs could benefit from some kind of online HQ, taking from the model of the Standby Task Force. Either way, peace entrepreneurs will be important players in the future of peacebuilding.