Thoughts on a PeaceTech industry

Two speakers at Build Peace 2015 put forward the idea that there is great potential for the private sector to lead innovation in the use of technology for peace. Sheldon Himelfarb spoke about how the global ubiquity of low‐cost, easy‐to‐access technology is enabling the emergence of a new breed of social entrepreneur, creating market‐based peacebuilding opportunities that move beyond the historic purview of governments, foundations, and NGOs. Mark Nelson described peace technology as mediating technology that acts as an intervening agent, augmenting our ability to engage positively with others. He explained that he believes there is a powerful potential for good implicit in these technologies.

There is of course much potential in collaborations between peacebuilders and the private sector. But it’s neither straightforward nor implicit – here are some questions I think we need to ask of the development of a PeaceTech industry.


Graphic recording by Claudia Meier.

PeaceTech company? Prove it.

Mark Nelson talks of Airbnb as the largest peace technology company in the world. By enabling millions of strangers from different cultures to host each other, it achieves citizen diplomacy at a scale no NGO could dream of. It may sound like a compelling example, but I’m not sure we have the data to prove it. As Rodrigo Davies recently wrote.

It’s possible, but unproven that Airbnb’s success has led to greater cross-cultural and cross-racial contact, and therefore has promoted peaceful international relations. On the other hand, use of the platform could replicate existing cultural ties or encourage homophily, a trend that Ethan Zuckerman has observed among many online communities.

The problem is we don’t have the data to prove that Airbnb is having a positive (peaceful) effect on relations between citizens. Do people from certain groups get turned down more often, reinforcing their sense of exclusion? Maybe Airbnb increases inclusion of marginalised groups, maybe not. Are people more likely to rent to people who are like them, encouraging homophily as Ethan suggests? Maybe Airbnb increases inter-group contact, maybe not. There is no implicit good in the platform.

As a point of principle, I think we have to stop calling any company a PeaceTech company unless they can prove it. Airbnb probably have the data to answer at least some of these questions. I’m not so sure they would willingly submit to this kind of scrutiny without an incentive though. More generally, in order to recognize PeaceTech companies, it would be necessary to develop a “peace standard” – a set of questions that companies need to answer before they can be recognized as contributing to a more peaceful world.

Let the mission drive problem selection.

One thing that (successful) technology companies do very well is to remain focused on the problem they are trying to solve. This is a critical principle in user-centered design: you don’t want to build a technology in search of a user. Rodrigo Davies summarizes this nicely as “let the problem serve the mission” and points to a useful lesson peacetech or civictech initiatives can learn from this approach:

You can’t solve peace or civic engagement because neither is a single problem. They’re both, quite obviously, made up of thousands of interconnected problems.

He goes on to illustrate this point by describing the excellent work he and his colleagues at Neighborly are doing: they are building a community investment marketplace to allow people to invest in their city through municipal bonds. The single problem they are solving for is transparency and accessibility of municipal bonds to the broader publicly. They see this problem as a component of their broader mission: to increase civic engagement in American cities. And thus solving for a concrete problem serves their mission.

In my view, there is an important difference between Airbnb and Neigborly. Neighborly’s mission is to increase civic engagement in American cities – and they are tackling one subcomponent of that (access to municipal bonds). Before working on municipal bonds, they were tackling another subcomponent of their mission: they ran a crowdfunding platform that helped citizens and organizations come together to invest in civic and community causes. I would argue their mission drives their problem selection. Airbnb’s mission is to provide unique travel experiences – and they do so by tackling one subcomponent of that (access to unique accommodation). Any peace or civic value-added is a (welcome) by-product.

The difference between Airbnb and Neighborly is how they arrived at the problem – and this matters to how a company choses to resolve conflicts of interest (do they put profit first?) and what problems they chose to tackle (only those whose solution has a monetized value?).

PeaceTech Industry = peace-before-profit

There may be no problem in principle with peace being a by-product of great service provision that improves people’s quality of life. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for spending most of our energy in solving concrete problems that improve quality of life and, as a result, also build peace. A great example of this is ethical banking: we all need banking services, if these services are provided in a way that also builds ethical trade and business, then all all the better.

The problem is that at some point the most efficient way to increase service quality or solve a concrete problem may go against a mission value. As anyone with a bank account in an ethical bank will know, the returns on investment are lower than in large commercial banks. For ethical banking, ethics come before profit. The natural corollary would be that in a PeaceTech industry, peace comes before profit.

When Rodrigo shared his blogpost about Airbnb on Facebook, someone commented:

My friend and his partner just got turned away from a bed and breakfast booked through Airbnb when they showed up for check-in and were clearly a gay couple.

Airbnb’s response to this kind of incident is critical to deciding whether we consider them a PeaceTech company. Here is the relevant policy from Airbnb, which goes in the right direction. I don’t know how effective their flagging mechanism is at rooting out discrimination in practice. At any rate, the policy just says the company will not allow hosts to do anything illegal – it doesn’t say it will actively work to promote hosts who have a better “inclusion” record. It would be interesting to understand whether Airbnb would be willing to take unpopular measures that damaged their bottom line in order to promote inclusion or other peace values.

It’s not all industry.

The above may all sound very negative – which is ironic given that I co-direct a social enterprise that works at the intersection of peacebuilding, civic engagement and technology. I certainly think there is much that NGOs, international organizations and civil society organizations engaged in peacebuilding can learn from the private sector and from tech startups in particular. The dependence of peacebuilding initiatives on donor funding can make it hard to test new ideas, sustainably scale them and remain credibly independent.

What worries me is that the idea of a PeaceTech Industry is so alluring that we lose sight of the value-based calling that  brings many of us to peacebuilding. Celebrating the value that certain companies add, building peace as a by-product of their services, is an important contribution to peacebuilding. But we must be very clear about what values are promoted and how they are upheld. Investing in social enterprises whose mission is to build peace and that model after startups can also be an important contribution to peacebuilding. But there are some issues, some contexts and some activities that do not lend themselves to an enterprise model – situations where social justice must be served to preserve peace, and only a public or non-profit actor is viable or credible.

So the next time someone talks about a PeaceTech company, ask them what values it’s based on, how those values are upheld, and how the alternative infrastructures it fosters can complement existing civil society and public sector infrastructures for peace.


4 thoughts on “Thoughts on a PeaceTech industry

  1. Helena — it is so good to see you raising the importance of not losing sight of the values based calling that leads all of us to this sort of work.As you will recall from my talk at Build Peace, when I first laid out a vision for the PeaceTech Industry, I offered a similar caution. Specifically, I said:

    “Of course, in making this shift in our thinking, we will also have to make sure that we don’t simply replace the tyranny of government funding with the tyranny of private commercial interests. If data coming from conflict zones becomes a product, we must ensure it isn’t used in ways that harm activists and vulnerable populations. But when I look around this room, I see the very people who need to not only build peacetech but also to build those rules and institutions that will ensure we create an industry that stays true to the principles that founded it.”

    I believe we have an historic opportunity in our field to change the way the world approaches violent conflict, thanks in part to the changing flows of capital and information, thanks in part to the failures of traditional government and military action. Rather than focus on whether one company (Air BnB) is a “peacetech” company, I hope we will walk through the door you’ve opened and, as a community, focus on defining those values and principles that peacetech companies should adhere to.

    To build a less violent planet, we need a modern day strategy for a modern day world of ubiquitous global communications and capital flows and increasing demands on government. The PeaceTech Industry could be a key part of that strategy.I look forward to the absolutely essential discussions ahead.

  2. Thanks for reading Sheldon! I agree we shouldn’t just focus on whether one company is “peacetech” or not – but I found it a useful exercise to question that example, a way to arrive at the values and principles I think peacetech companies should adhere to.

    What do you think of the values I propose in the post? In a nutshell, they are: (i) show impact with transparent data, (ii) peace-before-profit, and (iii) not for-profit (v. non-profit). I’m sure there are more, those are the ones that struck me from examining the Airbnb example. Maybe we could write a “peacetech standard” to capture some of these?

  3. My sense is that we are pretty much in alignment, although I can’t be sure without further discussion with you of exactly what you mean by #1 and #3. Moreover, I think there’s added complexity that these values don’t take into account when a company may do business in both conflict and non-conflict countries. Imagine for example a company that delivers a data service in some countries for a profit in order to be able to deliver a data service to those in conflict countries for no charge at all. Is that peace before profit? We are grappling with numerous questions like this and would welcome input from the Build Peace Community.

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