How Can Design Support Humane Forms of Peace and Security?

Cynthia E. Smith

Humane forms of peace and security may be achieved only by expanding our aspirations beyond the military definition of security promulgated by nation-states to encompass a condition characterized by respect for human dignity, cultural identity, and the environment, and in which individuals are valued and protected and their basic needs are met.

Design efforts that bring people together, creating dialogue across difference, are paramount in this approach. In the Netherlands, the Startblok Elzenhagen housing development—an innovative model for co-living—was designed specifically to build community between newly arrived young refugees and local youth. To facilitate conversations among returning child combatants, their families, and their communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a team of researchers and community members used the technique of body mapping to visually express the impacts of war and begin a collective healing process. In the United States, a Boston-based design studio created Social Emergency Response Centers, pop-up crisis centers that bring communities together for mutual aid during social rather than natural disasters. At an urban scale, as refugees settle in cities around the world, design can contribute to reinvigorated and inclusive neighborhoods, as architects Håvard Breivik-Khan and Tone Selmer-Olsen explain in their essay “In Transit Studio.”

Design approaches that incorporate participatory involvement and local values are critical to creating a more lasting and compassionate form of peace. To authentically reflect the experience of Tunisian youth, a local comic book design collective collaborated with young people on the graphic novel series The Adventures of Daly, building awareness about extremist recruitment. Oceanix City, a modular floating-settlement concept, is adaptable to hyperlocal conditions, considering the social, political, environmental, and economic aspects of each site. The success of the Colombian government’s Christmas Operations—guerrilla demobilization campaigns designed by a Bogotá-based creative agency—was due to their use of hyperspecific cultural material and their collaboration with friends and family members of the fighters.

Instigating empathy and embedding values in such works is essential. The digital game Papers, Please stimulates compassion in its players for border inspectors and migrants alike; it is one example from a growing creative movement aimed at driving real-world change through immersive media and social-impact games. As architect Michael Murphy describes, monuments and memorials are key sites of empathy and identification; the most powerful memorials, those that honor and connect with individual stories while also evoking the multitude of lives lost, will also be those that contribute the most to peace. For-profit companies can also participate in peace-forward design, researchers Jason Miklian and Kristian Hoelscher assert. By incorporating peace and development expertise into early design phases, technology companies may not only avoid unintended negative consequences but also create ethical, peace-positive products. And as urbanist Toni L. Griffin explains, the design of cities may contribute significantly to the cultivation of peace: she outlines a dozen values that help communities in redesigning their cities for “greater access, agency, ownership, beauty, diversity, and empowerment.”

Collaborative research and design teams are documenting and exposing activity in hard-to-reach locales to advance international dialogue on security and peace. Beth Simmons, Michael Kenwick, and Dillon Horwitz analyze satellite imagery collected over decades to reveal the steady thickening of international borders. The public-facing online tool Island Tracker reveals artificial island building and construction on disputed reefs and islets in the South China Sea. The Teeter-Totter Wall brought worldwide attention to the US-Mexico border wall, temporarily transforming a small section of the barrier from a place of separation and intolerance to one of dignity and hope for families on both sides.

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.

A hand draws two human figures in blue marker on white paper.

Body mapping enables former child soldiers and their families and communities to visually communicate the depth of their experiences, beginning a process of collective healing, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2011. Credit: Jocelyn Kelly