Most people I know who live or work in Washington DC have never even noticed an unusual building with a roof that swoops like a dove in flight just north of the Lincoln Memorial. This is the United States Institute of Peace, a 32-year-old department of the federal government. You can glimpse the wings in flight from the southwestern vantage point above, and if you reach the building by walking across Constitution Avenue from the Lincoln Memorial you may imagine you see the dove's serene head.
Why do so few people know of the existence of this building, and this organization? It's not that the people who work at the US Institute of Peace are not friendly, because I and more than a hundred others were greeted with genuine smiles, nice "My name is" badges and a sumptuous pastry spread when we showed up on February 4 for an annual event, the PeaceTech Lab Summit. PeaceTech Lab is the most exciting and most visible project currently emerging from this federal department.
"The PeaceTech Lab will work at the intersection of technology, media and data to devise means of reducing violent conflict around the world," reads their charter. As a career technologist with a deep personal interest in the subject of global peace, I felt that this event was tailor-made for me, and I showed up hoping to be blown away and filled with new ideas. I was also curious what kind of culture and mindset I would find inside the headquarters of the United States Institute of Peace. I attended the day's full schedule of events, including a working lunch and an intensive breakout session, and I also chatted up a lot of interesting folks over coffee and blueberry and strawberry bagels during session breaks. Here's what I found out:
Peacebuilding is a thriving field, and a distinct career
On our Taxonomy of Pacifism we identified "peacebuilding" as a facet of peace activism that keeps its ear close to the ground and its eye focused on tangible results. Peacebuilding involves fundraising and field work: planning and execution of programs for hands-on crisis management and conflict resolution in some of the most troubled areas of the world. This, it turns out, is what most of the people at the US Institute of Peace spend their time doing.
It was thrilling for me to mingle with so many people who actually oversee or manage critical peacebuilding programs in places like East Africa, Central America and Southeast Asia, though as the day wore on I began to feel out of place in this homogenous crowd. Unlike most people in the room, I don't have a career in peacebuilding, didn't study international affairs at American University or George Washington University, did not intern at State or the World Bank. I also did not know anybody else there, and when I tried to introduce myself as a techie and a "peace blogger" I quickly began to feel out of place in this professional and insular crowd. I also discovered that ...
There's a lot of peace going on at PeaceTech, and not much tech
In the course of my full day at PeaceTech Lab Summit 2016 I met a lot of economists, lawyers, venture capitalists and consultants who understand the importance of emerging technologies. I also met several people who had been involved in running regional "hackathons" or prize competitions around the world aimed at encouraging young people in crisis regions to use technology in innovative ways. The only thing I didn't meet were any of the actual techies who participated in hackathons or other regional events, nor other American professional techies like myself. As far as I could tell, I was one of the few career technologists in the room.
I gradually began to sense that PeaceTech was straining to bring a culture of fast-moving innovation and youthful energy into the field of peacebuilding — which is certainly the right idea — but that it had not yet gotten very far. It was heartening to hear Nanjira Sambuli of iHub Nairobi talk about hacker/maker events in Nairobi in a panel discussion entitled "Challenges, Prizes and Exponential PeaceTech", and yet a sense of exhaustion and frustration with the actual experience of working with hackers and makers pervaded this discussion, as well as a sense that these fun regional "hackathon"-type events often went off the rails in disappointing ways, and were not yet producing even remotely satisfactory results.
We hear about, for instance, a rape-prevention iPhone app developed by three 13-year-old girls in Mumbai that integrates location services and alarms, which sounds awesomely great. But these achievements appear to be rare flagship success stories amidst vast barren landscapes of hopelessness, and it's easy to see that innovative tech ideas are currently generating more excitement than results out in the field. "Go to a hackathon," a later panel discussion participant said with a tone of irritation and exhaustion, "and you'll see a lot of teams building map-based apps." Earlier in the day, the inspiring and dignified mapping guru Jack Dangermond of Esri made a poignant point: "Today with Google Maps we can walk around and never get lost. But the world is still lost."
I would suggest that PeaceTech Lab invite more actual hands-on techies to future Washington DC events. I'm familiar with a certain geeky wonderful kind of software conference (say, DrupalCon) in which freaky nerds let their defenses down for three days and swirl around each other in joyous Aspergers-inflected group-meld activities. PeaceTech, in contrast, felt like a sophisticated Dupont Circle cocktail party. I think I was the only one in this room wearing sneakers ... and it should be against the law to have a conference with the word "Tech" in its title in which I am the only one wearing sneakers.
PeaceTech is a very important idea
My favorite speaker of the day was Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar and author of Peers Inc: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, who nailed home the point that tech/business success stories like Uber and Airbnb are prime movers in our culture today. If we don't yet understand how to leverage these waves of change in the field of peacebuilding, that only means we'd better think harder about it, because the trend towards change will not be denied. Robin Chase's speech was particularly moving for the combination of heartfelt hope and extreme despair that she expressed, and for her tenor of urgency about the choices we make today. I wish Robin Chase would run for elective office: her message needs to be heard, and not just at insular professional events.
Perhaps the most substantive technical discussion of the day was a panel called "Data to Drop Violence", at which Adrian Gardner of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spoke of the impressive work the federal government is doing in growing the open-access Data.gov service. Because I have actually attempted at times to integrate with sources from Data.gov, I know that this initiative is currently highly raw and incomplete — and yet under the Barack Obama administration open data is clearly a priority (let's pray that we always elect presidents who feel comfortable with open source culture, or Data.gov may go away). It's great news that projects like PeaceTech Lab are looking for ways to squeeze actual value out of public services like this, even though it's not clear whether or not they've found the answers yet.
Money is the elephant in the room
By the time I left PeaceTech Lab Summit 2016 I figured out why I felt out of place amidst all these well-dressed professionals. It came clear to me during an afternoon breakout session introducing a new startup accelerator called 17 that pledged to aggressively seek out high-growth investment opportunities in the field of peace/tech. There was a palpable energy in the room during this breakout session, but I was not the only one who felt perturbed as the discussion devolved into an intensive and solipsistic question-and-answer session about Series A funding structures, the difference between VC incubators and accelerators, and how 17's percentages would compare to Silicon Valley. After a dispiriting long round of smug money talk, one questioner in the room finally asked what I felt too dispirited to ask myself: "What makes you think that the things you're talking about will actually help, say, prevent genocide?"
But even at this depressing moment I could feel a glimmer of hope, because the six dark-suited and light-skinned males who made up 17's presentation team (happily, they knowingly made fun of themselves for being six white guys, so we didn't have to) did seem earnestly interested in helping the world while making money doing so — and as an outsider to the world of high-stakes global fundraising I suppose I would be the most innocent of rubes if I ever fooled myself into thinking that schools and hospitals and basketball courts could be built in Myanmar and Nigeria and Honduras without a whole lot of involvement from bankers and venture capitalists and high-minded donors from the one-percent.
PeaceTech Lab Summit was a bracing experience for me because it helped me understand the extent to which peacebuilding is a high-growth and high-intensity business. I'm not interested in peacebuilding because it's a business, but I should not disdain those who are here in hope of profit, as long as the world profits by their activities as well.
My full day at PeaceTech Lab Summit 2016 was eye-opening in many ways, and it was an honor to meet and talk with many hardworking and deeply dedicated peacebuilders from around the world. As an "amateur" activist and peace blogger, my vantage point is far from that of the hardbitten professionals who filled this room, and that's why I'm so glad I was there. I know I have a lot to learn from many of the people I met in Washington DC on February 4, and I look forward to following up on several contacts I've made, and keeping you in the loop about future peace/tech developments as well.
Thanks for the report!
¿Do I hear some resonance with the impact investing / social capital movement, which emerged in 2009, going beyond SRI (socially responsible investing) / ESG (environmental, social and governance criteria)?
Three media sites reporting from this emerging space:
(I've been following it, for a couple months now)
* named after the Triple Bottom Line : people, profit, planet
... 4th = peacebuilding?
Keep us posted!
Thanks for the links, Gary. I will follow up!