Roundtable on Technology, Science, and Peacebuilding of the National Academies and the U.S. Institute of Peace

PeaceTech Summit Introductory Remarks

Engineering Durable Peace
United States Institute of Peace
September 19, 2014

It is my pleasure to join you and the Institute at this PeaceTech Summit today.

We have chosen the theme of this Summit, “Engineering Durable Peace,” with careful deliberation. Its central premise and that of the Roundtable is that engineering, science, and technology can be valuable assets to the peace building process. To appreciate the nature of these assets, we need to understand what they, how they were created, and the roles that science and engineering play in them.

The essence of science is discovery and understanding of the world around us; science is all about getting the understanding right. The essence of engineering is creating solutions to problems of people and society; engineering is all about getting solutions that work. And technology, as it is commonly used today, is a catchall term used to describe a technical outcome derived from many areas, often including engineering and science.

Engineering is a human endeavor that creates solutions that meet the needs and wants of people and society. Many people think of engineering in terms of things, such as artifacts, computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices or aircraft, water treatment plants, power generation systems, pharmaceuticals, and so forth.   But these are not simply things, they are solutions to human problems. The things are the pathway of engineering; the solutions are the destination.

Engineering solves problems using whatever it takes to do so—science, ingenuity, imagination, guess work, empiricism, experiments, experience, modeling, trial and error…. Scientific knowledge is very important to these endeavors when it exists. But even when it does, it often doesn’t cover all that is needed to solve the problem.  If the Egyptians had waited for science, they never would have built pyramids.

Besides science, an important element of engineering problem solving is systems thinking and analysis. Through experience and training, engineers learn to break down their complex problems into interrelated elements to examine their relationships.

Peacebuilding is a natural domain for systems thinking given the complex interplays of its building blocks: stakeholders, human and material resources, technological infrastructures, politics, and cultures among others.

Although engineering, science, and technology have not been thought of as first-order tools for building peace, they are integral to it and can certainly be helpful. Indeed, over the past few years, the Roundtable has validated important contributions of engineering to peacebuilding in several areas. Through workshops and other activities we have brought together engineers, computer scientists, social scientists, and peacebuilders to tackle significant challenges and opportunities such as:

  • We have advised the design of a data-sharing system to create more effective coordination within conflict zones and to facilitate the participation of federal agencies and nonfederal organizations in peacebuilding;
  • We have identified opportunities to use information technologies creatively to monitor emerging and ongoing conflicts and to provide better information and analyses that can be used to mitigate violent and deadly conflict;
  • And we have illustrated how systems engineering can enable more effective planning, coordination, management, and evaluation of peacebuilding activities through a structured development process that identifies needs, functionality, and requirements for success as stakeholders proceed from concept to design and then to operation.

In short, the objective of this collaboration is to help make peacebuilding a more strategic, systematic, technical enterprise in keeping with the human core of the problems we address, in keeping with engineering’s mission to provide solutions that serve people.

In the process, through increased focus on global grand societal challenges, such as energy, sustainability, security, and peacebuilding; through the curricula of engineering schools in this country and abroad; and through organizations like Engineers Without Borders, we hope to motivate new generations of dedicated engineers around the globe toward the mission of peacebuilding. If the progress to date prognosticates the future, both the timing and direction of this PeaceTech effort are very promising indeed.