Creating Technology for Social Change

What We Learned From Build Peace 2014

Last month at the Media Lab, Helena, Jen, Michaela and I organized Build Peace, a conference to bring together practitioners from the worlds of peacebuilding and technology to talk about how the two fields could work together. It was an incredibly enlightening and generative three days, and before the first conference had even finished, we had already decided that there needed to be a Build Peace 2015. If you missed it, you can catch up by reading Helena’s lookback. We’re excited by the community that is starting to form around the technology for peacebuilding conversation and the many potential spin-off projects that are emerging. We were incredibly lucky to have such a diverse and talented array of participants and collaborators.

Now that we’ve had a few weeks to reflect on Build Peace, I wanted to share some of our thoughts on how we went about putting together the event.

From the start we had an experimental approach, because the core idea of Build Peace itself was experimental: we wanted to bring together two communities that rarely speak the same language, let alone go to the same events. The fact that we were starting from an unfamiliar place gave us the courage to believe that we could change the rules a little bit. We ended up breaking and remaking as many conventions of formal conferences as we could in order to try and lower the barriers to participation and conversation, and create an informal and fun environment. For instance, instead of holding a formal dinner, we organized a dance party soundtracked by a DJ who works in conflict zones.

But our experiments went a lot further than that. Here are four examples of our approach, and what we learned from each.

The Pay What You Want model. Having a conference fee was one of our lowest priorities for the event. We didn’t see fees as the best way to fund the conference, and we wanted to avoid fees being a barrier to participation. We knew that many of the folks working directly with communities would not have had access to organization-level financial support – most of them are small non-profits who rarely attend international conferences. We also felt that there were lots of attendees who did have access to funding and who would be happy to contribute to the costs of running the event. So we decided to use a Radiohead-style “Pay What You Want” model. Initially we offered free tickets or a pay what you want ticket (with a suggested amount of $100); lots of folks paid zero. After we made it compulsory to pay at least $1 and raised the suggested contribution to $200, the median contribution rose from $16 to $50. Next year we’ll offer a scale of suggested donations depending on participants’ occupations.

Scholarships. Getting participation from grass-roots organizations from around the world requires much more than outreach. We knew many participants would need financial support, so we set up a travel fund. We were inundated with applications, and we used a ranking system based on the relevance of applicants’ work to the conference and need. We awarded 20 scholarships to attendees from 14 countries. USAID OTI and the World Bank also partnered with us to provide scholarships to another half dozen attendees from different countries. One hard lesson we learned was that the three months we allowed for visa processing time wasn’t enough – one of our grantees from Zimbabwe and one from Myanmar didn’t make it to Build Peace because their visas weren’t ready in time. We’ll allow much more time next year. Despite that hitch, the scholarships were one of the most gratifying aspects of the conference, because we were able to bring people into the conversation who genuinely would not have been a part of it without our intervention. We’d love to expand the scheme next year.

Distributed reflection and critique. We were very aware that we were co-creating a new set of narratives around technology for peacebuilding with the participants of Build Peace. Participants were coming from different perspectives and would be gaining very different things from the experience. To try and capture the broad range of narratives and experiences among them, we invited a range of folks to contribute critical reflection notes on the conference. We saw this as a much richer output than a canonical ‘official’ account from the perspective of the four core organizers. The brief was very open – but we made it clear that these notes were a safe space to give honest critiques of Build Peace so to help us learn from the event and improve it in the future. We’re delighted with what people shared, and especially valued the thorough and constructive criticism from people whose work we admire.

Seed and then water. The first day of the conference was focused around panel discussions, ignite talks, keynote speeches and informal moments to socialize, all of which was intended to build a foundation for a second day in which participants took part in hands-on working sessions, collaborating on projects and exchanging ideas. The second day was very demanding, and it depended on participants having a common language and agenda, and being comfortable with each other. We felt that the first day did a pretty good job of building that foundation, but there is more we could do to have participants meet and interact with each other on the first day. We hope that as the language and ideas of technology for peacebuilding become more well-known, the task of building foundational knowledge will become less demanding, and we’ll have more time for building the interpersonal relationships.

We’re greatly indebted to all the participants and sponsors who made Build Peace possible and gave us the opportunity to experiment with the design of the event in these ways, particularly the Center for Civic Media. Thank you to everyone who contributed, and we look forward to doing it all again next year – there are plenty more experiments we can try and learn from, as we continue to grow a rich, deep conversation around technology for peace.