How Can Design Facilitate the Transition from Instability to Peace?

Cynthia E. Smith

The establishment of a sustainable peace, one that is transformative, long-term, and beneficial to all segments of society, requires an acknowledgment that “development, peace and security, and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing,” as the UN General Assembly has affirmed.[1] Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stresses that durable peace also requires the involvement of women, those on the margins, and youth at every stage of negotiation, creation, and maintenance.[2] Interdisciplinary design can play a significant role in bringing together disparate stakeholders and disciplines, engaging all sectors in this multifaceted approach to sustainable peace.

Architects, urban designers, and landscape architects propose alternative futures for postwar cities and conflicted landscapes, aiming to transform conflict into renewal. Peacekeeping—a contradictory concept, in that it generally involves the deployment of military forces—can create new insecurities within the populations it is meant to safeguard. It is turned on its head in BLUE: The Architecture of UN Peace Missions, a bold proposal that calls for typically closed and temporary peacekeeping bases to open up to the local civilian pop- ulation, providing services and remaining in use after the peacekeepers depart. Using 3D scanning, digital modeling, and recycled rubble, Recoding Post-War Syria is a new methodology for regenerating damaged post-conflict cities into advanced urban environments, starting with Damascus. A mixed-use tower in Beirut, Stone Garden, signals belonging for its refugee construction workers (whose handwork is visible in the building’s striated facade) and healing and renewal for its architect, who experienced the city in the aftermath of war. At a transnational level, in the Korea Remade studio, landscape design students envisioned a unified Korean peninsula, erasing borders, removing land mines, facilitating human resettlement, and instituting a complex reorganization of the landscape. A Middle East environmental peacebuilding organization teamed with two design schools to encourage cross-border cooperation in protecting a shared resource, proposing designs for a Jordan River Peace Park spanning the Israel-Jordan border.

As a record number of people around the world are displaced from their homes, numerous migration- focused initiatives are incorporating innovative design and technology into their humanitarian responses.[3] Most people fleeing conflict and disaster take few pos- sessions other than a mobile phone. The RefAid mobile app allows migrants to use their phones to identify nearby services and geolocate them on a map, transforming the delivery of aid. In response to the millions fleeing Venezuela, Casa Azul resource centers, located along popular migration routes, were designed to be clearly identifiable as welcoming and safe spaces offering humanitarian services, including culture and beauty as essential healing tools. To expand critical access to information and educational resources in remote locations, such as refugee or displaced people’s camps, an international nonprofit engaged a prominent industrial designer to create Ideas Box, a durable, portable library and pop-up multimedia center that is easily shipped and deployed. Residents of Lesbos founded the Safe Passage Bags Workshop at the Pipka solidarity refugee camp on the small Greek island. In addition to providing training and employment for migrants and locals, the workshop sends an important message to the world about the right to safe passage.

Gender equity is the top predictor of the peacefulness of a society, urban planner Chelina Odbert writes, but with women underrepresented in the design and planning professions (and their use patterns erroneously assumed to be the same as men’s), they are often left with an inefficient and dangerous set of options when it comes to urban public space. Responding to this reality in Cairo, four young women designed HarassMap, a location-based reporting system for the sexual harassment and assault of women that provides researchers around the world with a pool of anonymized, crowd-sourced raw data, a tool for instigating social and policy change. In the project Designing for Dignity, an industrial design and systems design student team reimagined Oslo’s sexual violence prevention and response structures, centering the needs of survivors by mapping and improving the service touchpoints they encounter on their journey through the medical and justice systems.

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 woman sits at a sewing machine working on orange fabric.

A worker sews at the Safe Passage Bags Workshop at the Mosaik Support Center in Mytilene, Greece, 2017. The center, run by Lesvos Solidarity, brings refugees together with local residents, providing a range of services as well as a way to make a living. Credit: Cynthia E. Smith © Smithsonian Institution


[1] UN General Assembly, Resolution 70/262, Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, A/RES/70/262 (May 12, 2016),

[2] “Like women, youth must be included in peacebuilding and post-conflict efforts. Not only do they deserve to have a say in peace, as they are affected by conflict, but youth often offer bold new solutions and innovations. They are a resource and can provide valuable support and fresh ideas to traditional peacekeeping efforts. Experience has taught me that those on the margins must be included for lasting peace to be achieved.” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Morning Plenary Speaker Address, October 2, 2019, PeaceCon 2019, Washington, DC.

[3] When tallied in mid-2021, 84 million people worldwide had been displaced from their homes by persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, or events seriously disturbing public order—the greatest number on record. Sixty-eight percent of them came from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. It is reported that 48 million were internally displaced, 26.6 million were refugees (the most ever reported), 4.4 million were asylum seekers, and 3.9 million were Venezuelans displaced abroad. In addition, 4.3 million stateless people were reported (although the true figure is estimated to be much higher). Refugee Data Finder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,