Over the past few weeks, multiple colleagues have asked me about my goals, vision, and where all my work around conflict resolution is headed. Through these conversations, I’ve realized a lot of the work I’ve done to set up pathways forward has been behind the scenes. I hope that this post will at least summarize the current state of my world.
Note: The following post is my vision for complexity-informed conflict resolution at the Carter School, but it is not the official stance of the Carter School or the Peace Engineering Lab. As the Peace Engineering Lab develops, I hope that some of what follows proves to be a viable pathway forward and one of many successful trajectories for the Lab that will strengthen our peace engineering portfolio.
My vision is for the Carter School to become a powerhouse for complexity-informed conflict resolution and peace engineering with:
- A packaged approach for complexity-informed conflict resolution for practitioners who seek to use SenseMaker to map conflicts and develop intervention strategies
- A public-facing Distributed Conflict Analysis Database consisting of SenseMaker micro-narratives and self-signification data hosted by the Carter School that can be a resource for peacebuilders and conflict scholars
- Joint research and projects with the Peace Engineering Consortium on peace technology and decision-making support
- Thought leadership in peace engineering and a community of like-minded scholars and practitioners
- A stable budget/funding source to incubate experimental peace engineering approaches and accelerate the development and prototyping of innovative peace technologies
Below I’ll explain my efforts to make this dream a reality:
Carter School Peace Engineering Lab
In my capacity as Peace Engineering Fellow at the Carter School, I’ve taken on the task of developing the Carter Schools Peace Engineering Lab under the guidance of Dean Alpaslan Ozerdem with a group of other interested students. In Fall 2020, our Peace Engineering group worked on bylaws to establish some basic Lab structures and develop the mission and vision. Although the bylaws have been tabled for the moment to give time for areas of work to emerge, it has given me a lot of time to reflect on what I hope to contribute.
During this start-up phase of the Peace Engineering Lab, I have been struggling to place where conflict resolution practice fits within the larger Peace Engineering frame. The core question for me is- How can the Carter School best position itself given its expertise? I’m not an engineer by trade, although I’ve dabbled in ‘systems engineering’ and design work through past projects.
Peace engineering has been defined by the Peace Engineering Consortium as, “The application of science and engineering principles for transdisciplinary systemic-level thinking to directly promote and support conditions for peace, and the safe and ethical deployment of emerging technologies.” Two parts interest me: the first being “transdisciplinary systemic level thinking” and the second being “emerging technologies.” The first half lends itself to complexity thinking and the second plays to my SenseMaker work. My colleagues are also interested in things like the ethics of technology in the humanitarian sphere, technology for negotiations, TechPlomacy, and designing digital spaces for conflict-resolution. These threads point to a focus for the Peace Engineering Lab on peace technology.
My vision is for the Peace Engineering Lab to become a place where Carter School students can actively engage in (paid) projects that contribute to a research cluster around complexity-informed research methods, SenseMaker, and emerging technologies for Peace Engineering.
The packaged approach will be developed through an initial flagship program: an overarching SenseMaker framework that is oriented toward mapping conflict in the United States, with an orientation to supporting better decisions for a future with more stories that we want to see. This framework will be the foundation for the Carter School’s Distributed Conflict Analysis Database- the first conflict database of self-interpreted micronarratives.
I’m prototyping this design, which might become part of my dissertation, and am hoping to have a draft completed by mid-March. Carter School Peace Week will mark the first participatory SenseMaker design workshop which will focus on designing signifiers that will contribute to racial healing and equity (Thursday, March 25th, from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm). This will be the first of several opportunities for the Carter School community to shape the design and ensure that the final framework is one that can scaffold conflict resolution practice from every cluster of expertise at the Carter School. The project will only be successful if the data informs practice for multiple subfields.
After establishing the framework, the next step will be collecting the initial stories. To this end, I’ve been talking with my cohort about designing research projects using the Peace Engineering Lab’s framework. For example, a colleague interested in religious conflict resolution might collect stories from a religious community and then see how their experiences and perceptions contrast with other groups. A partnership with the TRHT initiative might provide a bottom-up approach to using stories for racial healing. Etc. etc. Each of these projects would contribute to the larger Carter School data set and the project as a whole.
To ensure that there is also an academic component, I’ve had conversations with colleagues about working with a publisher to create an edited volume where each chapter would be from someone in the Carter School community that used SenseMaker to collect stories and use them to add sensemaking to their practice. This book would then provide the academic foundations of a Carter School approach to complexity-informed conflict resolution and benefit everyone who needs to publish along the way.
A major Peace Engineering component of the work will be exploring different applications for SenseMaker data in decision-making support. Initial ideas include:
- Data observatories: Combining SenseMaker data visualizations of peoples’ perceptions of their lived experience and population, outcomes, or geographic data in a coherent decision-making platform.
- Weak signal detection and early warning systems: With SenseMaker data, we can create training sets of experiences that represent the predisposition for violence or peace, contextualized at the local level. The next stage of SenseMaker development would be to utilize these training sets for early warning. For example, through community sensemaking workshops, the SenseMaker practitioner identifies stories where people experienced violence (or were about to). The quantitative signification of these stories is run through the machine learning algorithm to identify the high-dimensional patterns in the signification. Then, as new stories are entered into SenseMaker, the algorithm could test the signification against the training datasets and alert the researcher if there is a pattern match. This would then enable decision-makers to take preventative action or further investigate trends.
- App integration: Integrating SenseMaker data collection into other apps with the SenseMaker API. (i.e. in UNM’s Peace Engineering ECHO platform or government surveys)
- Data Ethics: exploring ethical issues around SenseMaker data collection, public story data, and developing policy.
The next goal is to build capacity within the Carter School to run SenseMaker projects and analyze SenseMaker data. There are two goals I’m working toward: training from the Cynefin Centre for Applied Complexity and teaching a SenseMaker course.
Yearly training slots will be made available to students through the Carter School’s Cynefin Centre SenseMaker license. I will also provide guidance and training for anyone taking up SenseMaker in their research projects.
In spring 2022 (if everything goes as planned), I will teach a course on SenseMaker and participatory narrative inquiry. The course will position SenseMaker methodology as an intervention strategy for structural and complex conflicts. How can peace researchers utilize participatory narrative inquiry and SenseMaker to map complex conflict systems through self-interpreted lived experiences of people? How can the research process support “fractal engagement” by empowering people to take action by asking themselves “what can I do tomorrow to create more stories like the ones I want to see and fewer like the ones I don’t?” Throughout the course, students will develop coherent theory of change that understands the participatory narrative inquiry process as both a valuable research tool for understanding complex systems and a peacebuilding intervention.
Students will learn about how to approach conflict analysis and resolution from a complexity-informed perspective and gain the skills to use the innovative SenseMaker approach to narrative research for distributed conflict analysis. The course will cover the theoretical underpinnings of anthrocomplexity, naturalized sensemaking, and participatory narrative inquiry. Over the course of the semester, students will complete one cycle of the participatory narrative inquiry process using the Peace Engineering Lab’s SenseMaker framework for conflict resolution efforts in the United States (In development). The stages of the cycle include: project planning, story collection, catalysis (pre-analysis), sensemaking, return, and intervention. The semester project will consist of activities related to these different phases and a final reflection essay about how the SenseMaker approach would impact practice in the field. The course will also feature guest lectures from SenseMaker practitioners and complexity scholars from around the world who will share their practical experience in designing SenseMaker projects, developing story collection strategies in development contexts, and conducting analysis.
Establishing a Community of Practice
To become a powerhouse for complexity-informed conflict resolution, thought leadership is essential. The network of SenseMaker and complexity scholars and practitioners has consistently helped me in my own journey to becoming a complexity-informed conflict resolution practitioner. I hope to expose Peace Engineering Lab members to some of these thought leaders through multiple events hosted by the Peace Engineering Lab. I’m bringing in Angela Hanson and Piret Toñurist from the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation to discuss anticipatory innovation governance. Graham Day will be sharing his experiences in applying a complexity approach to post-conflict reconstruction as a high-level UN official. Dave Snowden will share the Cynefin Framework, anthrocomplexity, and his unique approach to conflict resolution with SenseMaker. I hope that the Peace Engineering Lab will be a place where practitioners go to hear conversations between people at the cutting edge of the field.
Note: An update will be posted next week with the links to register for these public events. If you are interested in presenting your work on complexity/SenseMaker to the Carter School Community, please shoot me an email at email@example.com
Establishing a new Lab and building a new peace engineering field requires resources. I believe that people need to be paid for their work or that there should be reciprocity for any labor. Unfortunately, the Peace Engineering Lab is still in its early development where the sources of stable funding are still uncertain. This is normal for any entrepreneurial project. I have been exploring the following models to make the Lab sustainable:
The first and most obvious route is applying for sponsored projects and grant opportunities that further the Lab’s mission. The second is applying for opportunities internal to George Mason and the Carter School. The third, a social enterprise model, is by far the most interesting and easiest to achieve in the current phase.
I am developing a fee-for-service model for the Peace Engineering Lab so that students and other Lab members can provide consulting on SenseMaker projects and anything else that falls under the purview of the Lab. The Peace Engineering Lab would be able to develop proposals through a menu of options (i.e. packaged SenseMaker project implementation, conflict-resolution training for engineers, data ethics consultation). This gives the Lab flexibility in taking on projects and also would allow for some savings that could then be re-invested into the Labs incubator/accelerator (which are currently aspirational). Additionally, students working with the Lab would have the benefit of gaining real world experience as paid consultants, practitioners and researchers.
I hope that this clarifies some of my designs for bringing complexity-informed conflict resolution to the Carter School. Every week in the PhD. program brings new opportunities and horizons and is truly a gift (although I must be careful not to work myself into the ground). I feel fortunate to be working on building a community around the work that I love in the best conflict resolution program in the world.
If you have any thoughts about anything that I shared above, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is all a work in progress and any comments, criticisms, or ideas for partnership are welcome!