The Business of Peace

Jason Miklian and Kristian Hoelscher

Even as the world faces conflict and pandemics, and chronic violence pervades the daily lives of billions, an unlikely new partner in building peace has emerged: the private sector.

Members of the group Tech Girls for Change work on their safety app Women Fight Back in Dharavi, India, one of the world’s largest informal settlements, 2016. Nawneet Ranjan, courtesy of PeaceTech Lab.

Businesses of all types are becoming peacebuilders, encouraged to do so by their shareholders, the public, and even their own employees. Nowhere is this promise more visible than in the technology sector. Digital technologies are proliferating as proposed solutions to complex social and political challenges, generating enormous excitement. Peace practitioners hope that these technologies can provide new service delivery or communications efficiencies and circumvent political barriers to enable a global leap forward in reducing poverty and suffering. Technology-based solutions are emerging in all corners of the globe, including everything from violence mapping and social activism in Kenya, to hot-spot policing and anonymous crime-reporting applications across Latin America, and blockchain-based development aid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of course, technology can have a dark side. Military generals used Facebook to promote and recruit for genocide in Myanmar. Twitter remains an effective dissemination machine for propagandist politicians. Artificial intelligence systems disadvantage minorities, reflecting the biases of their largely white and male designers. And technologies are increasingly securitizing our public spaces, further entrenching the global surveillance state. Pessimists believe that the very concepts of technology and peace are incompatible.

The gap between technology’s promises and its pitfalls shows that we’re right to be skeptical of technology as a cure-all for societal ills. But what if we could harness its good while reducing the likelihood that it will harm? After all, any digital product is at heart a tool, not a destiny—what matters is how we use it. The answer is simple, yet it diverges fundamentally from the way most technologies are designed: What if we valued social impact just as much as scalability and profit?

Currently, most firms developing new technologies—even those specifically created for peace and development—rarely spend valuable design-phase time studying the sociocultural contexts of where and how their products will be deployed. Behemoths like Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, and Twitter thought little about unintended consequences when they were fledgling startups. Myopic “tech-as-panacea” ideologies and the for-profit nature of innovation often consider the global poor as either the product or a promising new market.

This isn’t just some esoteric problem in Palo Alto. The next global innovation wave, driven by Silicon Valley but cascading to technology hubs worldwide, could create a societal shift unlike anything humankind has previously experienced. But while the technological capacity may exist to design products that measurably help to build peace, most technology firms still define peace in light of their own understanding of what is best for their company—not their users’ ideas. Caught between regulators in democratic countries who see them as a threat to democratic speech and dictatorial regimes who use their products to control their subjects, companies like Meta struggle to make themselves compatible with helping the world’s most vulnerable. The consequences are more dire than just another failed app. Outcomes may be much more detrimental: the tracking and imprisonment of human rights defenders, promotional outlets that legitimize subversive propaganda, data mining for corrupt gain. The world’s most vulnerable often bear the heaviest burden of such failures, as they are most likely to be the victims of them and least likely to have the resources or ability to escape from technological nets.

Thankfully, the fix may be simple. Start-up companies should ask themselves one question—How could a nefarious individual use this product maliciously?—and then ask it again and again, paying attention to issues of power, equity, and justice and to the consequences of failure and enlisting the help of peace and development experts until all conceivable societal loopholes are closed. It’s not a foreign concept. Nearly all technology firms do this for hacking and breaching risks—so why not do it for broader social concerns as well? It won’t completely prevent unintended consequences, but it will take us far beyond today’s models.

What then does socially responsible for-profit technology look like? For most people, it wouldn’t look that much different. But for the most vulnerable, it would be a game changer, in ways proven to build peace. It would be good business, too: integrating moral principles into the design stage reduces the risk of hand-wringing later—over whether to work with authoritarians to “access a market,” for example—and extinguishes in advance the reputational damage that would have come with such a partnership.

We can help start-ups integrate socially responsible principles into the digital architecture of their products and, more importantly, help innovation communities understand more clearly why the design stage is key for ethical, peace-positive products. Doing so will shape the collective technological future, as the next wave of start-ups engages with the world. A more peaceful world depends on it.

Jason Miklian

Jason Miklian is a senior researcher in business and peacebuilding at the University of Oslo.

Kristian Hoelscher

Kristian Hoelscher is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

Peace-Positive Business
  • $35 trillion in global investment is now earmarked to be peace and sustainable development positive, particularly through United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.
  • Tens of thousands of companies are signatories to various peace initiatives globally, including twelve thousand signatories to the UN Global Compact.
  • Business actions for human rights and peacebuilding have multiplied by over 300 percent since 2016 alone, including philanthropy in conflict communities, conflict-sensitive business practices, and even direct mediation.

A chart listing Microsoft, Face, and IBM with associated percentage data is positioned above four blurry portraits of women and men with various skin tones.

Gender Shades, a 2017 project by the Algorithmic Justice League, exposed algorithmic bias in facial-recognition software. Faces with darker skin tones and women’s faces were less likely to be correctly identified. Joy Buolamwini.

Digital technology must make positive contributions to society to be considered socially responsible, such as:
  • creating civic space (instead of shrinking it)
  • promoting equity (instead of exploiting inequality)
  • improving access to government and government accountability (instead of limiting them)
  • bolstering human rights and democracy (instead of undermining them)
  • battling misinformation (instead of amplifying it)
  • bringing communities together (instead of compartmentalizing them)
  • documenting and highlighting misdeeds (instead of burying them)
  • working with the poor as a partner (instead of exploiting them as a product)

A map of Syria is superimposed with variously sized red dots, each containing a number in white.

Syria Tracker, a project Initiated in 2011 by Humanitarian Tracker, combines artificial intelligence with crowdsourced information on topics from disease to human rights violations, accessed via an interactive map. Syria Tracker, a project of Humanitarian Tracker.

The private sector can contribute to digital peacebuilding through:
  • digital communications or mediation tools that support violence prevention and early warning of conflict
  • products that combat misinformation from governments or communities
  • planning or logistics applications that improve efficiency and effectiveness of delivering development aid and in crisis-response contexts
  • platforms that facilitate coordination between civil society and vulnerable communities
  • monitoring and communications services that facilitate natural disaster warnings and post-disaster coordination
  • tools allowing top-down and bottom-up monitoring of government accountability
  • services that facilitate secure and anonymous messaging

A computer monitor displaying a website that reads “A Tool for Conflict Prevention and Mitigation. OSRx gives peacebuilding organizations the ability to see conflict trends happening on-the-ground in real time, which can support strong insights and analysis and inform peacebuilding interventions.”

PeaceTech Lab’s Open Situation Room Exchange (OSRx) data hub provides critical insight into economic, social, and political conditions on the ground in conflict zones, incorporating digitally available information into customized dashboards for more than 150 countries. Cynthia E. Smith © Smithsonian Institution.