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IV Conflict resolution initiatives after the pandemic

Peace engineering in a complex pandemic world

Alpasian Ozerdem and Lisa Schirch

In this essay, two leading practitioners and theorists of conflict resolution explore the relevance of "Peace Engineering” - a holistic, evidence-based approach to peacebuilding - to a society sorely in need of innovative and healing methods of resolving disputes. Given that the period of recovery following the biomedical crisis is likely to be long and stormy, a key question is how to apply sufficient resources with sufficient intelligence to open the door to "positive peace.” The authors deploy practical ideas formulated by experts in community development to outline a multi-faceted approach to this complex problem.


Peace engineering is "the application of science and engineering principles to promote and support peace,” as defined by the International Federation of Educational Engineering Societies (IFEES). The primary goals of peace engineering are to prevent, mitigate, and recover from violence and to develop sustainable social and technological systems for community well-being.

An engineering project is never neutral. Whether designing a city, a building, a medicine, a machine, a social media platform, a mask or public transportation. new technologies and inventions impact relationships between people. One new engineered product or technology can alter the dynamics of a community, either creating more conflict or improving intergroup relationships. Peace engineering aims to anticipate and prevent unintended negative consequences of a new product or technology while maximizing social cohesion or positive relationships between groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the midst of multiple other crises, as described by other chapters in this book. Humanity faces a climate crisis, and a governance crisis with growing economic inequality and a precipitous decline in support for democratic leaders and institutions. In addition, the last decade has seen a significant increase in complex humanitarian emergencies from civil war and natural disasters with record numbers of refugees and other migrants moving across borders,1 and new awareness of the lasting impacts of colonialism, slavery, and institutionalized racism. On top of all that, or in part because of it, there are growing reports of individual depression and anxiety.2 A post-COVID world faces interconnected threats.

The triple threat of pandemic, climate, and governance crises creates both opportunities and risks for a planet requiring rapid social change. There is a pressing need for peace engineering that addresses the interconnection between human health and well-being, the environment, and governance through assessment and planning processes that reduce risks of unintended negative impacts and improve social cohesion. While peace engineering shares some common concerns related to the subfields of environmental engineering, or engineering for social justice, peace engineering includes a more comprehensive, systematic marrying of the skills and concepts from the field of engineering with the fields of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Peace engineering by necessity also includes commitments to environmental sustainability, social equity, entrepreneurship, transparency, community engagement, and economic development. Peaceful relationships between people require attention to the environment, the economy, and participatory governance.

Peace engineering’s three interfaces

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world and posed a wide range of human security challenges, peace engineering was already being considered as an emerging area of cooperation between the realms of engineering and building peace through their three primary interfaces.

The first cluster of peace engineering activities ensures that the perspectives of risk reduction and conflict sensitivity are included in every engineering and technology development project. As we have observed this throughout different eras, there is a clear interface within the nexus of technology development and peaceful societal relations. In broad terms, this type of interface would focus on how different technologies are impacting our sociopolitical and economic relations, and ultimately, contributing toward the environment of peace in that society. For example, how social media informs the way individuals relate to each other or how virtual communities of different focus and purpose are formed and mobilized in a wide range of sociopolitical settings, and ultimately their impact on peaceful relations.

Peace engineering in pandemic world 109

In line with this risk reduction and conflict sensitivity perspective, it is also essential to ensure that engineering is undertaken in socio-economically and environmentally vulnerable environments with the principle of "do no harm,” whether this is about building a housing project in Washington D.C. or a massive dam project in Turkey. As there is no neutral engineering project. the process of engineering should be undertaken with such awareness of the possibility of the exacerbation of existing conflicts or creating new ones.

The second interface also emerges from the conflict sensitivity perspective, but this time, the focus is more on how engineering or physical reconstruction could be used as a means or tool for peacebuilding in divided conflict-affected societies. Whether this is about building roads, bridges, hospitals, or irrigation systems in Afghanistan, Bosnia, or Colombia, the processes of the physical building could provide such opportunities. The methods of engineering could become as important as the result of such rebuilding and construction projects if they can address societal divisions. With that, the training of engineers with better awareness and tools of conflict resolution, for example, also becomes one of the most effective ways of rebuilding divided societies.

Finally, the third cluster of this interface could be identified as those activities focusing on the development and use of appropriate technologies for conflict prevention, humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding purposes. For example, the PeaceTech Lab of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) works on the intersection of technology, media, Big Data to reduce violent conflict. There is also now an increasing engagement with Artificial Intelligence (Al) in the peacebuilding space, such as the processing of vast information and data in support of peace processes, which is another emerging peace engineering area of focus. A wide range of humanitarian engineering initiatives such as the development of accessible and appropriate technologies for the provision of safe water and shelter in refugee crises, or early warning systems for humanitarian crises, for example, could also be included in this group of peace engineering focus.

We would argue that each of these peace engineering interfaces will be highly critical in the post-pandemic world, as all the predictions on the future world are particularly bleak with many socio-economic and political challenges. Moreover, we are in the view that to prevent conflicts and to build peace will be much more difficult in the post-pandemic world. To address these challenges and create more just and peaceful societies, engineering and the development of appropriate technology can provide humanity with new horizons and opportunities for peace.

Peace engineering opportunities in a pandemic, climate, and governance crisis

COVID-19 created massive and immediate lifestyle changes, some positive and many negative, that interact with the climate crisis and the governance crisis. Each of these changes created new peace engineering opportunities.

Lockdowns and quarantines required millions of people to work from home, creating a boom in online meeting platforms such as Zoom or Circles. Children were not able to go to school, leading to massive increases in the time spent on technology with computer games, videos, or television. Schools struggled to find alternate ways of educating, including sending written assignments home, airing lectures on the radio or through online meeting platforms. Universities moved classes online, expanding digital technologies such as Panopto and VbiceThread for interactive online learning. While online learning and virtual meeting spaces are not new, there is a pressing need for peace engineers to make these technologies better to enable more social interaction and to reduce the negative impacts of extensive screen time.

The lockdowns also impacted mental and social well-being. Surveys indicate a spike in reports of depression and anxiety resulting from the social isolation.3 Peace engineers could explore how technology can better address these personal crises, via free access to technology, facilitated digital mental health services and meetings like AA (Alcoholic Anonymous), matching people who are lonely with each other, or creating more public meeting spaces to enable social distancing and addressing isolation.

In the United States, protests against systemic racism, led by the Movement to Defend Black Lives, have surfaced because of a string of killings of unarmed Black men and women. These protests have taken place primarily in public. But computer engineers are creating new platforms that allow activists to meet and plan tactics online, to enable protest organizing and mass action to happen online.4

Carbon emissions have decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to international and domestic travel decreased as people worked from home.5 Bicycle sales have increased as people in large cities avoided buses and subways.6 Some cities and towns have closed off streets to enable more people to walk, bike, and eat outside. COVID-19 offers an opportunity for peace engineers to design cities that encourage walking and bicycling, and discourage driving not only in the short term, but as a test period and transition to long term urban design changes that can address the pandemic, the climate crisis, and the need for healthy exercise and social interaction to combat isolation and depression.

COVID-19 has had a range of negative impacts on the environment as well, and these too offer opportunities for peace engineers. During the lockdowns,

Peace engineering in pandemic world 111 farms were not able to harvest fruits and vegetables, which rotted in the fields. Animals raised for meat were not able to be slaughtered and processed, so they were killed and disposed of as waste. Single-use plastic masks, gloves, gowns, eating utensils, and packaging massively increased, creating greater threats to oceans, rivers, and landfills already choked with plastics. Restaurants and grocery stores had to redesign their spaces to allow social distancing.

Peace engineering could address each of these negative impacts by viewing these challenges as opportunities to improve social cohesion. How could new technologies connect farmers in new ways to communities that need food? How can new biodegradable plastics made from bamboo and com starch replace single-use masks, gowns, and food containers? What types of sustainable materials could be used to create gloves? How can technological invention of plant-based meats take oft’ in the midst of a pandemic that reveals again the mass cost to human and plant health of animal agriculture and mass farms? Here are some peace engineering design principles in tackling such COVID-19 world challenges.

Peace engineering design principles

in a COVID-19 world

The triple bottom line for socially responsible businesses includes assessments to measure the impact of a product on "people, planet and profit.”7 Engineers can maximize their positive impact on people, planet, and profit through assessments that will reveal, anticipate, and reduce their risks of unintentional harms to people or the planet. Engineers typically design products with principles such as ease of use, improving quality of life, costeffectiveness, and visual attractiveness. Engineers typically ask questions to identify a problem or opportunity for improving life with an engineered solution. Peace engineering introduces two additional sets of design principles: to reduce violent conflict and to maximize social cohesion or "peace.”

Peace engineering design principles begin with conflict analysis to assess the "who, why, how, what, where and when” of conflict. Conflict analysis tools provide a structured research method to determine who holds a stake in the conflict, what motivates them, what forms of power they leverage with or over other stakeholders, what grievances or interests they aim to address, and when and where they plan to take action.8

Design principles for conflict reduction include using assessment tools to ensure the design of any new technology takes into consideration the following questions.

Who are the stakeholders who will be affected by the problem? What is their worldview or interest in the problem?

  • • What in the wider context might change by addressing the current problem?
  • • What are the range of potential solutions to address the problem?
  • • What are potential second order, unintended impacts for each engineering solution to the problem?
  • • What can be done to minimize potential harmful impacts of an engineered solution?

Design principles for maximizing social cohesion and peace include the following:

  • • What are the divisions that already exist within the organization, community, or society that will be impacted by an engineered solution?
  • • How will an engineered solution impact those most marginalized in a society?
  • • How can an engineered solution help to foster social cohesion, human rights, and dignity of each member of the community?
  • • How can the opportunity for designing an engineered solution together with a community enable the development of a shared vision that might increase social cohesion?

Two examples illustrate how peace engineering can both reduce risks of conflict, and also intentionally include design elements that contribute to social cohesion in a complex COVID-19 world.

Engineers creating effective masks to prevent COVID-19 transmission would start with a holistic assessment. Surveys and focus groups of diverse stakeholders including health professionals, local government officials, and local populations in different regions might reveal the conflict dynamics around mask wearing. In the United States, for example, mask wearing has become highly politically charged with a president who refuses to wear a mask, and some associating mask wearing as a loss of freedom.9 A survey might also surface design obstacles to mask wearing including physical discomfort, inability to breath, overheating, and condensation on glasses. An analysis of the context could also use big data collected by scraping Twitter, Facebook, and other social media as well as legacy media coverage of mask wearing to reveal. Engineers designing masks can combine this social analysis of mask wearing in combination with the technical requirements identified by health professionals such as types of fabric, layers, and filters that maximize health protection. Mask engineers could establish a rating system in conjunction with health experts to ensure the masks filter the maximum amount of virus particles. Mask design could also consider

Peace engineering in pandemic world 113 how to reduce further polarization or conflict. Masks with political messages such as "Make America Great Again” might be more appealing to Republicans who think mask wearing is only for Democrats. But such political messages on masks would reinforce existing political cleavages. Mask engineers that want to foster social cohesion could dream a bit bigger. Masks with messages that enforced cross-cutting identities, "Masks are for Patriots,” "I wear a mask for you, you wear one for me,” or "Love Your Neighbors, Wear a Mask” might inspire a more unifying social impact. Engineers might use recycled fibers or sustainably grown fabrics to reduce impact on the enviromnent.

A second example includes the design of public handwashing centers to prevent COVID-19, particularly in regions without running water. The climate crisis has made access to water scarce, and more conflictual.10 Engineers could begin with a stakeholder assessment to find out the locations in a community that would benefit from handwashing centers. Engineers might first apply design principles of conflict reduction by ensuring that all members of community will have equal access to water. Engineers could also apply design principles for maximizing social cohesion by intentionally forming a diverse water management committee who will work together to ensure different ethnic and religious groups, ages, and genders will each have access to water.


Peace engineering is an emerging area of the interface between engineering and peacebuilding. As a concept, approach, and application, it has so far primarily been developed in engineering schools.11 However, the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution of George Mason University has just initiated a peace engineering program within its Carter School Peace Labs. The program will be focusing on the earlier mentioned three interfaces of peace engineering to address the post-pandemic challenges in peace and human security realms. It will be incubating projects whether they are about the application of Big Data for conflict prevention or the exploration of how fear influences peacebuilding from a neuroscience perspective. It might be too early to call peace engineering as the savior of the post-pandemic world, though it is inevitable that it could be pivotal in the realization of a more just and peaceful society. Also, for peace and conflict studies specifically, peace engineering presents a gate to a new world for a more multidisciplinary approach and application to both protracted and new peace and security challenges across the globe.


  • 1 “Global Humanitarian Overview 2019 - Trends in Humanitarian Needs and Assistance,” Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), November 30, 2018.
  • 2 Carol S. North and Betty Pfefferbaum, “Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic,” The New England Journal of Medicine 383 (April 13, 2020).
  • 3 Kate Kelland, “U.N. Warns of Global Mental Health Crisis Due to COVID-19 Pandemic,” Reuters, May 13, 2020.
  • 4 “Social Movement Technologies,”
  • 5 C. Le Quere et al., “Temporary Reduction in Daily Global CO, Emissions During the COVID-19 Forced Confinement,” Nature Climate Change 10 (2020): 647-653,
  • 6 Susanne Rust, "Bicycles Have Enjoyed a Boom During the Pandemic: Will It Last as Car Traffic Resumes?” Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2020.
  • 7 Harvard Business Review, “25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase ‘Triple Bottom Line": Here’s Why It’s Tune to Rethink It,” October 23, 2019.
  • 8 Lisa Schirch, “Conflict Assessment and Peacebuilding Planning,” https://www. 15c.pdf.
  • 9 Tovia Smith, "The Battle Between the Masked and the Masked-Nots Unveils Political Rifts,” National Public Radio, May 29, 2020.
  • 10 “Climate Change and Covid-19 Increase Pressure on Potable Water Resources,” Sustainability Times, May 20, 2020, accessed July 1, 2020, www.sustain
  • 11 Engineering schools around the world are offering new courses and graduate degrees in peace engineering (e.g. Drexel University, University of St. Thomas, University of New Mexico. University of Colorado, University of Texas at El Paso).
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