[This blogpost is cross-posted from the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.]
Last week in Nairobi, a group of Somalis sat in a room trying to figure out how to make the most convincing infographic. They have been working for the past 15 years to build the trust and dialogue necessary to make democracy in the Somali region a viable alternative to violence. Recently, they’ve been using a combination of new tech-enabled tools to run participatory polls and visualize perceptions data in new ways. My colleague Michaela and I were there, helping them to navigate these new tools – and we were reminded yet again of why, together with Rodrigo and Jen, we decided to put on the Build Peace conference.
Build Peace 2014 explored how information and communications technologies, games, networking platforms and other tools can enhance the impact of a broad range of peacebuilding, social cohesion and peace advocacy initiatives. Most discussions on technology and peace focus on early warning and crisis response. Few pay attention to the use of technology for attitude and behavior change, collaboration, dialogue, or policy advocacy. Build Peace aimed to complement existing forums by expanding the discussion to encompass other important areas of peacebuilding practice, and to do so by drawing both on the expertise of academics and technologists and on the lived experience of practitioners working to transform conflict.
From the start, we wanted to organize the conversation in a way that would allow several parallel narratives on technology and peacebuilding to emerge. With this in mind, the conference had four broad lines of inquiry, each representing a function technology can play in peacebuilding: information, communications, gaming and networking. For many practitioners, practical considerations about how to integrate technology into programming are critical, so we also structured some discussions around the three stages of peacebuilding programming: conflict analysis, program design and impact evaluation. Finally, we recognized early on that many conference participants would have great experiences and ideas to share, far beyond what we could envision as organizers. The conference had open spaces in a variety of formats – short “ignite” talks, longer working sessions and a technology fair – to showcase this collective knowledge. You can read about what we learned as organizers in Rodrigo’s post.
The Start of a Community
We put a lot of thought into the structure of conference sessions, but it’s the quality of participant engagement that really made Build Peace a special event. We were blown away at the depth of knowledge and breadth of experience. Conversations ranged from measuring polarization, to capturing voices from the Rwanda tribunal; from hacking the border in the Dominican Republic to designing the constitution in Egypt; from teaching activist power in a video game, to building peace villages on Minecraft. We were humbled by the candid approach of practitioners, academics and technologists alike. When I opened the conference, I asked people to be tough on ideas, but gentle on people. It really felt like people headed this call, and created a space that allowed for honesty and creativity to flourish. As Sanjana Hattatowa of the ICT4Peace Foundation put it: “Over the weekend, you managed to create the space for structured dialogue, but also the kind of interactions and sharing that you’ll never even know of, leave aside capture the value of, but happened nevertheless between so many of those who attended.”
Build Peace 2014 was the start of a conversation and of a community. It was also the start of a small organization – Build Up – made up of the conference organizing team. Through Build Up, we’ll be pursuing a variety of projects to continue this conversation and support this community. The most developed to date is the Build Peace database, which aims to document uses of information, communications, networking and gaming technologies in peacebuilding programs around the world. We hope it will not only be a useful research tool, but will also continue to reflect the diversity of the Build Peace community.
Three Key Conversation Threads
There are also a few new trends or conversation threads that emerged during the conference that we’re particularly interested in exploring. Here are three of them.
Power, intervention and technology. Despite our attention to diversity in speakers and participants, some of the power dynamics of international conferences still played out at Build Peace. Too often, the North speaks and the South listens. From the start, we noticed many of our participants calling out this dynamic, rightly complaining about the “us-them” language. A debate on how to reverse this raged through the conference twitter feed. Both Sanjana Hattotuwa and Ethan Zuckerman referenced this issue in their keynotes (which you can watch here and here). Next year, we hope to have more scholarships and to create a space where we can unpack this issue explicitly. But we also want to do something to get many more voices into a dialogue about how to build peace, particularly voices that have a hard time being heard. This is why we are partnering with the Institute for the Future to explore ways we can facilitate mass online and offline conversations about the future of peacebuilding. We’ll be running a pilot game some time this year.
Creativity, art and peace. As we put together the conference program, we realised many of the projects and ideas showcased related to art and creativity. It’s a natural connection. One of the reasons that peacebuilders turn to technology is that digital spaces can allow for new narratives to emerge and new identities to be explored. This kind of creativity is central to arts for peace projects, which use various artistic tools to to deliver small, transcendent moments to people who live in conflict. As we prepare for next year, we’re hoping to reach out to more artists to curate and promote projects that bring together arts, technology and peace.
Evaluation, data and impact. One of the conversations that generated most interest started with a panel that explored how practitioners can assess the impact that technology is having on peacebuilding, and how technology can be leveraged to facilitate impact assessments. The discussion continued through a working session that explored a number of methodologies that might help us run better evaluations – from double-loop learning to process tracing. This blogpost by Jonathan Stray summarizes the working session. We hope evaluation will be a key theme at Build Peace 2015. In the mean time, we’re partnering with Susanna Campbell, Mike Findley and (hopefully) a large international organization to run a rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of crowdsourcing as a tool for monitoring peace agreements and peacebuilding activities.
We’re greatly indebted to all the participants and sponsors who made Build Peace possible and gave us the opportunity to experiment with the design of the event in these ways, particularly the Center for Civic Media. Thank you to everyone who contributed, and we look forward to doing it all over again next year. We’ll be thinking of ways to further expand and deepen this conversation – and we’d love to hear your ideas on this.