How do you ‘engineer’ peace? New initiative at S-CAR aims to find out.

Picture of an arched bridge over a river with buildings on the banks, including the minaret of a mosque.

The historical Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina after its post-war reconstruction. (Photo courtesy of Edo Kurt)

By Audrey Williams

For students of conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University, it isn’t difficult to imagine careers as peacebuilders. But what about careers as ‘peace engineers’?

With a new award from the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President at George Mason University, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) will set out to show that the leap between peacebuilding and engineering isn’t as large as it may initially seem.

In Fall 2020, S-CAR will begin hosting PhD fellows in peace engineering thanks to the Provost PhD Award. The grant will provide the funding needed to support a total of four fellows through 2023, with two expected to enroll during the 2020-21 academic year and two additional fellows expected to join in 2021-22.

The International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES) defines peace engineering as “the intentional application of systemic-level thinking of science and engineering principles to directly promote and support conditions for peace.”

Photo of a man from the shoulders up with gray hair and a gray beard and glasses

Alpaslan Özerdem, Dean of S-CAR

S-CAR’s dean, Alpaslan Özerdem, notes that peace engineering is such a new field that its parameters include many different elements.

According to Özerdem, on one level it explores “how engineering can be done in a more conflict-sensitive way,” especially in societies that are currently experiencing violent conflict or rebuilding in its aftermath.

From this perspective, the term ‘peacebuilding’ takes on a literal tone, with the built environment—everything from hospitals and schools to roads and bridges—playing an integral role in placing societies on a path toward peace and justice.

On another level, peace engineering can also include the development of technologies for conflict prevention and peacebuilding. In this way, peace engineering incorporates the study of digital and other types of technologies and how they can be leveraged to support the pursuit of more peaceful societies.

This latter area of study is particularly pressing given the rapid evolution and incorporation of different types of technology in everyday life across the world.

“It's important to understand that we don't live in a bubble as a society, that with every advancement in technology, there's always the potential for harm and potential for good,” said Ziad Al Achkar, a doctoral student at S-CAR whose research focuses on understanding the impact of digital technologies on humanitarian response efforts, human rights, and peacebuilding, as well as exploring how these technologies figure into relationships between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

His fascination with the impact that technological advancements can have on conflict response and resolution began when he worked with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative on the Satellite Sentinel Project, which used satellite technology to track the human security situation in Sudan and South Sudan.

“Satellite imagery is a wonderful thing. It can help us document drastic changes that are happening in the Amazon and help us document human rights violation[s and] wars,” Al Achkar said.

However, “in the wrong hands, [satellite imagery] can also be used to do harm. It can be used to track where refugees are setting up tents or vulnerable populations are present,” he added.

According to Özerdem, who leveraged his civil and built environment engineering background for his PhD research exploring the intersection of physical reconstruction and peacebuilding, peace engineering can provide peacebuilders, engineers, and technologists with the tools they need to mitigate the dangers of technological advances while cultivating their use in building more peaceful societies.

S-CAR initiative will explore the nexus of technology and peacebuilding

The arrival of the Peace Engineering Fellows will mark a deep-seated commitment at S-CAR to better understand the use of new and fast-changing technologies to serve social, political, and economic progress rather than fragmentation, division and destruction.

In addition to supporting the doctoral studies of the Peace Engineering Fellows, the Provost PhD Award will support the school as it develops research and practice synergies with partners at Mason, including the Volgenau School of Engineering (VSE), the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES) housed at VSE, and the newly founded Center for Resilient and Sustainable Communities (C-RASC).

This focus on peace engineering will also offer opportunities for collaboration outside of the Mason community, including with the PeaceTech Lab at the United States Institute of Peace and the Centre for Technology and Global Affairs at the University of Oxford.

Existing peace engineering programs are primarily based in engineering schools and departments, including at Drexel University’s College of Engineering. S-CAR will be one of the first peace and conflict studies schools to focus on this nexus of peacebuilding, engineering, and technology, particularly at the PhD level.

“The boundaries of this nexus will be expanding in the coming years, because technology will be providing us with more opportunities to do effective peacebuilding,” Özerdem said.

The growing study of this nexus means that S-CAR has the opportunity to serve as a pivot between the field of peace and conflict studies and the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

“Ultimately, peace studies is quite interdisciplinary,” Özerdem said. However, while the field has traditionally done a good job of incorporating knowledge and practices from the humanities and social sciences, engagement with STEM disciplines has been more modest.

As an institution with a reputation for helping to bring the field of peace and conflict studies into existence, S-CAR’s commitment to innovation and interdisciplinary work is at the core of its programs, which include bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, as well as graduate and professional certificates.

The school’s interdisciplinary faculty is already engaged in cutting-edge research in peace engineering. Sara Cobb, the Druscilla French Cumbie Professor at S-CAR, is part of a team of researchers at Mason that recently won a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to study the impact of increasing industrialization and commercialization in the Arctic on the region’s communities and its natural environment. The research initiative is being led by Elise Miller-Hooks, a professor at VSE, and also includes Celso Ferreira, an associate professor at VSE.

According to Miller-Hooks, who was quoted in an October 2019 article by Mason's John Hollis, commercialization in the Arctic could lead to human population growth, which will require an increase in infrastructure—and which will almost certainly lead to an increase in conflict.

That’s why Cobb will be working with her team of researchers at S-CAR to develop an early warning system framework designed not only to assist in the prevention of conflict but also to support local resilience as dynamics in the Arctic change.

Peace engineering focus to contribute to Mason’s Arlington expansion 

Efforts like Cobb’s research in the Arctic and Al Achkar’s study of technological impacts on humanitarian and human rights responses will get a boost with the arrival not just of the Peace Engineering Fellows but also the Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA) on Mason’s Arlington Campus.

The university plans to invest $250 million in a transformation of the Arlington Campus to bolster student education, research into technological innovation, and public programming for the Arlington community. This number includes $235 million in funding that Mason is receiving from the Commonwealth of Virginia to “support Mason’s role as a producer of graduates in high-demand fields and spur the expansion of the Arlington Campus,” according to a Mason press release.

With the Arlington Campus expansion from 700,000 square feet to 1.2 million square feet, as well as the establishment of a new School of Computing, Mason is seeking to grow its enrollment of students in computing programs from 6,500 currently to 15,000 at the undergraduate and graduate levels by 2024.

The arrival of Amazon’s second headquarters, known as Amazon HQ2, in the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, is expected to offer these Mason students ample internship and career opportunities both during and following their studies.

However, Amazon’s arrival in the area has also sparked concerns of rising rents and their impact on economically vulnerable communities in Arlington County and the City of Alexandria.

Researchers at the Brooking Institution found evidence in November 2018 that suggests that while current renters in the area surrounding Amazon’s planned headquarters are likely to be able to absorb the impact of these rent increases, individuals and families with moderate and lower incomes, among whom communities of color are more greatly represented, are more likely to be negatively impacted.

The case of Amazon HQ2 and the opportunities and challenges it will bring to Northern Virginia provides just one example of how technology and conflict intersect. Peace engineering aims to offer peacebuilders, engineers, and technologists with the expertise and conflict sensitivity needed to address cases such as these.

To jumpstart conversation around the impact of technology on society, Mason is hosting the Arlington Forward 2020 event series on the Arlington Campus throughout 2020. As part of the series, S-CAR will host a panel on “Peace Engineering: How Technology Can Prevent Conflict and Spur Peacebuilding" on March 17, 2020.

The panel will be chaired by Özerdem and feature remarks from Sheldon Himelfarb of PeaceTech Lab, Dr. Mira Olson of Drexel University’s College of Engineering, and S-CAR’s Dr. Sara Cobb.

Photo of a smiling man from the shoulders up in a blue suit and tie and glasses.

Ziad Al Achkar, PhD student at S-CAR

“I think peace engineering has to play an important role,” Al Achkar said of Mason’s commitment to technological innovation. “It has to be a pillar of the work that's going to be done by those researchers, by those departments, simply because I think you can no longer think of technology as [not having] an impact on our societies. And so, it's important for S-CAR to bring in the conflict lens to how these technologies are operating, are developed, and to bring [in] the conflict sensitivity that is often lacking.”

A key element of the crucial role that peace engineering must play, according to Al Achkar, is in being attentive to technology’s potential to “level the playing field” for communities seeking to achieve peace and justice.

“As we do this work here at Mason, [it’s important] to remember [that] we're not doing it on behalf of somebody,” Al Achkar said. “If we're doing any type of work when it comes to peace engineering, it's about empowering communities, empowering groups, and empowering societies themselves to do this work.”

With the development of peace engineering as an innovative area of study at S-CAR, there will be many opportunities for multidisciplinary research and practice in both Northern Virginia and beyond. Crucially, through this initiative, the future peacebuilders graduating from S-CAR will gain an effective understanding of how to use technology and engineering in their conflict prevention and peacebuilding work throughout the world.