Securing Our Collective Future

Cynthia E. Smith

There are dozens of ongoing conflicts around the world, including internal insurgencies, civil wars, long-standing armed standoffs, and new territorial disputes.[1] Yet most of humanity values peace; it is one of our most sought-after human conditions. Internationally, Goal 16 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls directly for peace, justice, and strong institutions. More broadly, the SDGs outline a pathway to greater peacefulness worldwide through the elimination of hunger and poverty, improvements in health and education, the building of more resilient cities and infrastructure, the fostering of innovation, action on climate change, and more. Even a small diversion of the estimated $1.9 trillion in annual global military spending could mean a huge reinvestment in the peace initiatives delineated in the SDG blueprint.[2]

At the opposite end of the scale, organizations like Peace Direct support the power of local action. Their research has shown that community-based efforts involving excluded groups, including women, youth, displaced people, refugees, sexual minorities, and ex-combatants, contribute significantly to a more durable peace.[3] Elevating local knowledge—geographic, cultural, Indigenous—and coupling it with open dialogue builds trust and strong relationships, which are paramount in creating a more just and inclusive peace.[4]

A shift in perspectives, priorities, and approaches is urgently required at every level in many disciplines, including design, if we are to secure our collective future. Of the multitude of questions that arise around the potential of designing for peace, here are several to consider.

Cynthia E. Smith

Cynthia E. Smith is Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design. She integrates her training as an industrial designer with her advocacy on human rights and social justice issues, organizing a humanitarian-focused design exhibition and publication series, serving on international design juries, and lecturing widely on socially responsible design.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions


16.1 Significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere

16.2 End abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against and torture of children

16.3 Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all

16.4 By 2030, significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets, and combat all forms of organized crime

16.5 Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms

16.6 Develop effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels

16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory, and representative decision making at all levels

16.8 Broaden and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance

16.9 By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration

16.10 Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements

16.A Strengthen relevant national institutions, including through international cooperation, for building capacity at all levels, in particular in developing countries, to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime

16.B Promote and enforce nondiscriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development

Peacebuilding vs. Military Spending in the United States

In 2020 the United States directed a massive $718 billion[A] to military spending, more than three times that of any other nation, while allocating only $2.1 billion[B] toward peacebuilding.


[1] According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, a key provider of data on armed conflicts, in 2020 there were over 160 conflicts worldwide: fifty-six examples of state-based armed conflict, over seventy deemed non-state violence, and more than forty categorized as one-sided violence against civilians. See UCDP conflict tracker,

[2] Nan Tian, Diego Lopes da Silva, and Alexandra Kuimova, “Military Spending and the Achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs Occasional Papers, no. 35 (April 2020): 21–29.

[3] Local Peacebuilding: What Works and Why, Peace Direct and the Alliance for Peacebuilding, summary report, June 2019,

[4] For more on the value of local peacebuilding knowledge, see “Local, National, and International Peacebuilding,” special issue, Peace Science Digest, October 2020.

[A] Defense Budget Overview, United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request, Appendix A, Table A-2 DoD Total,

[B] Peacebuilding spending included funding for the Complex Crises Fund, the Human Rights and Democracy Fund (State Department), the Democracy Fund (USAID), Reconciliation Programs (Conflict Management and Mitigation, USAID), Transition Initiatives, the US Institute of Peace, the Atrocities Prevention Fund, the Prevention and Stabilization Fund, and contributions to international organizations. Ursala Knudsen-Latta, “Congress Supports Peacebuilding in FY2020 Spending Package,” Friends Committee on National Legislation, December 17, 2019,