In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Peace Engineering

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Author: Joseph B. Hughes and Philip Breedlove

Creating a more peaceful world is an aspiration shared by generations. Converting aspiration to achievement has been elusive. Creating peace is a wicked problem with no universally shared definition of success.

Peace engineering focuses on incremental, realistic, and compounding progress toward peace through applications of technology, the engineering design process, and system-based approaches. As a solution-driven field, peace engineering applies technologies from all engineering disciplines—from those behind basic services (power, water, and sanitation) to emerging capabilities (internet of things, distributed sensors, network analytics)—in an integrated framework for system-of-systems analysis and visualization.

Why Now?

Engineering strategies to improve the quantity and quality of positive behaviors and to reduce destructive behavior are now achievable. The rapid global growth and adoption of technology create this opportunity not afforded previous generations.

Peace, conflict, and violence involve human behaviors that were previously constrained to qualitative analysis. Today, however, technology detects, measures, analyzes, and influences human behaviors in real time with high levels of precision. Coupling these new quantitative capabilities with qualitative methods and existing engineering tools enables system-of-systems understanding never before possible.


Expressed in economic terms alone, the global cost of violence was an estimated $14.5 trillion in 2019—10.6 percent of world economic activity (GPI 2020). In human terms, the impacts of violence on individuals, families, and communities are enormous and impossible to quantify (Waters et al. 2004).

Peace, conflict, and violence are emergent properties of complex systems.

Near-future challenges, both local and global, present concerns about increasing conflict in the coming decades (Brown 2008). These challenges are created by an environment of finite/diminishing resources, exacerbated by climate change, human displacement, dense urbanization, and population growth, among a growing list of concerns.


To address the societal motivations for peace engineering in the context of technological opportunities, we propose a framework with three central premises.

First, problems require systems-based solutions. Peace, conflict, and violence are emergent properties of complex systems. A more peaceful world is possible only when a wide range of practices and professions are fully engaged. On a global level, diplomatic, informational, military, and economic institutions collaborate in these efforts. Peace engineering does not replace these functions: it is an additive capability made possible by the growth and adoption of technology globally.

Peace-enabling technologies are used, for example, to address the basic needs of power, water, transportation, and sanitation; improve security using personal sensing technologies and geospatial analysis; expand access to education and health care via the internet; remediate environmental pollution that causes public health disparities; and analyze and better understand human behavior through data analytics.

Second, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As noted above, the costs and impacts of conflict that turns violent are staggering. Reconciliation is fragile, requires generational time periods, and costs much more than the initial conflict. Engineering to avoid violence, address structural conflict, and take proactive measures is the priority of peace engineering.

Third, context is critical. It is essential to determine what peace should look like before entering any action or conflict. To help create a sustainable solution, peace engineers must understand the root causes of a conflict and address them using all tools available. And to dampen existing violence and create a durable reconciliation, peace engineers must address the current context.

Peace Engineering and the Engineering Process

Making or maintaining peace is more of an art than a science. Peace engineers follow the basic engineering problem-solving approach to bring objectivity, rigor, and quantitative analysis to this “art.”

Design Process

Peace engineers use the engineering design process to recognize and define the problem, build and/or adapt tools and processes to collect relevant data, and form courses of action (COAs) and test them with data to select paths for solutions.

For example, in eastern Syria hundreds of small towns are without basic services. Creating a COA that integrates the installation of distributed power systems, well water, household sanitation, and high-speed communications is a first step in reconstruction after violence has subsided and to avoid a return to violence.

Then, as every engineer does, peace engineers follow implementation with constant evaluation and adjustment of the selected COA to best find and sustain peace.

Scale, Intensity, and Dimension

For peace engineers, the problem formulation phase of engineering design considers the parameters of scale, intensity, and dimension (Schirch 2013).

Scale ranges from interpersonal conflict to group conflicts to multinational or global intergroup conflict.

Conflict intensity is typically bounded by structural violence and direct violence. There are many forms of structural violence that vary in scale and intensity. Inequity, greed, racism, limited access to critical resources (e.g., water), corruption, chronic economic stress, religion, and political challenges are examples of structural violence.

Peace engineering focuses on opportunity and innovation to target structural violence and create broad foundations for sustainable peace. For example, facilitating communication between individuals or groups in conflict is a longstanding method to address root causes of structural violence.

A new tool referred to as “Peace Data” (Guadagno et al. 2018) provides real-time analysis of communications—including group identity information, behavior data, longitudinal data, and metadata—that can be used to measure, analyze, and promote direct communications across group difference boundaries that are central to a conflict.

The transition from structural to direct violence occurs with triggering events that can move a conflict rapidly into a domain of active or kinetic conflict. Once active conflict begins, peace engineers focus on -deescalation. Without “off ramps,” active conflict grows, and the level of violence can become catastrophic.

The dimensions of conflict include time, numbers and types of actors, geography, culture, and technology.

Future Implications

Any field that professes the ability to solve substantial, intractable, societal challenges such as creating world peace, solving world hunger, or eradicating poverty should be met with great skepticism. We do not assert such a claim. Peace engineering will not solve or prevent all conflict in the world. But we believe it can contribute to measurable progress toward a more peaceful world by

  • changing how engineers think about conflict;
  • reducing the human, social, and economic impacts of violence; and
  • creating tested, replicable pathways for proactive, sustained, and scalable peace.


Brown O. 2008. Migration and Climate Change. IOM Migration Research Series, No. 31. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

GPI [Global Peace Index]. 2020. Measuring Peace in a Complex World. Sydney: Institute for Economics and Peace.

Guadagno RE, Nelson M, Lee LL. 2018. Peace Data standard: A practical and theoretical framework for using technology to examine intergroup interactions. Frontiers in Psychology 9:734.

Schirch L. 2013. Conflict Assessment and Peacebuilding Planning: Toward a Participatory Approach to Human Security. Boulder: Kumarian Press.

Waters H, Hyder A, Rajkotia Y, Basu S, Rehwinkel JA, Butchart A. 2004. The Economic Dimensions of Inter-personal Violence. Geneva: World Health Organization.



About the Author:Joseph Hughes is university distinguished professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering and founder of Peace Engineering at Drexel University. General Philip Breedlove, US Air Force (ret.), is former supreme allied commander Europe and commander of US European Command as well as distinguished professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.