How Can Design Address the Root Causes of Conflict?

Cynthia E. Smith

Design can play a significant and active role in addressing underlying sources of division well before conflict arises.

This urgent work requires the engagement of science, technology, and culture to create opportunities for less traditional forms of mediation, such as cultural diplomacy, which builds relations between divergent groups through sports, language, ideas, and the arts.[1] CONIFA— a global soccer federation of around sixty teams representing stateless people, minority groups, and states unaffiliated with FIFA (the sport’s major international governing body)—builds bridges worldwide, with its players acting as informal ambassadors during its convenings. To provide an international forum for stateless, black- listed, and autonomist groups, Dutch artist Jonas Staal develops alternative parliaments around the world, melding art and politics in projects such as the New World Summit – Rojava in Syria. Michael Adlerstein argues that the UN Security Council Chamber, the room in which many of the world’s conflicts are discussed, has become obsolete. Designed before the emergence of our current borderless, Earth-threatening issues, he writes, it should be replaced with a new Climate Change Chamber. Similarly, science diplomacy, “an international, interdisciplinary, and inclusive (holistic) process, involving informed decisionmaking to balance national interests and common interests for the benefit of all,” provides opportunities to work together on pressing global concerns.[2] One site of concern is the Arctic Ocean, as melting polar ice exposes new sea routes and vast oil and gas reserves. The scientific and technology-based working groups of the Arctic Council provide research and partner with the region’s Indigenous people to inform environmental protections and sustainable development for this area of overlapping interests.[3] In sub-Saharan Africa, the Regreening Africa smartphone app enables local farmers to easily record and share their land-restoration efforts as citizen scientists in collaborative efforts to counter land degradation.

Aiming to transform mainstream narratives, collaborative teams of designers, artists, architects, and peace researchers are taking an active role in illuminating the invisible systems that counter peace efforts, from social media to supply chains. Anticipating conflict over resource mining on the Moon, a France-based design studio created Astropolitics, a map that visualizes and critiques the intertwined technological-industrial-economic systems of the Earth and its satellite. Another group documented and designed Rare Earthenware, ceramic vessels com- posed of toxic mud gathered from a remote mine tailings lake in China, embodying the hidden costs of high-technology products, including green technology. Hate Speech Lexicons, a series of handbooks developed to combat inflammatory language in the media, identify offensive terms in countries around the world and offer alternative words and phrases.

Working across disciplines, architects are examining the politics of the built environment and proposing design interventions that disrupt convention. Responding to the recent “bathroom wars” in the United States, the design and research initiative Stalled! seeks to transform gender-segregated restrooms into inclusive public spaces. Noting that India’s war histories are as much about peace as about aggression, Mumbai- based architects responded to a competition brief for a national war museum with a design for a Peace Pavilion. And in Denmark, rather than a monument to war and its heroes, the proposed House of Peace is an interactive landmark floating in the city harbor, welcoming visitors from around the world.

Frameworks for the attainment and maintenance of free, just, and peaceful societies are foundational in confronting inequity and building resilience. In California, instructors at a renowned design school used one such framing document to initiate a dialogue on human rights, asking students to visualize the ideals it expresses in Universal Declaration of Human Rights Posters. Another system, the Positive Peace Index, identifies the socioeconomic factors essential for durable peace. It has been put into practical use by local groups and international organizations.

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 dome-shaped structure is constructed by two cranes on a muddy terrain against a blue and white sky.

Rojava’s “People’s Parliament” under construction, Dêrik, Canton Cizîrê, Rojava, 2015. Part of the project New World Summit – Rojava, the structure is both a symbol of the stateless democracy’s ideal of collective self-representation and a forum for its day-to-day practice. Credit: Ruben Hamelink © Jonas Staal


[1] For more information about this form of mediation, see “What Is Cultural Diplomacy? What Is Soft Power?,” Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, php?en_abouticd.

[2] Paul Arthur Berkman, “Science Diplomacy and Its Engine of Informed Decisionmaking: Operating through Our Global Pandemic with Humanity,” Hague Journal of Diplomacy 15, 2020: 435.

[3] Trevor Haynes, “Science Diplomacy: Collaboration in a Rapidly Changing World,” Science Policy (blog), Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, October 12, 2018,