Drones, games, virtual reality and other ways to build peace

The entrance to the 2015 Build Peace conference on the Turkish side of Nicosia, Cyprus

The 2015 Build Peace conference

Myself and the other Vignette Interactive founders just wrapped up a trip to sunny Cyprus to take part in the 2015 Build Peace conference. The conference was a fascinating convergence of people working in peace and development sectors, and groups like Vignette Interactive who strive to use technology and new media to further social good.

Here are some of my favorite ideas that were presented at the conference:

1. Drones for peace

Upon hearing the word “drone,” most people think of airborne surveillance or deadly airstrikes from the sky.  but Patrick Meier is trying to change how we think of drones.  He gave an excellent presentation outlining the various humanitarian uses for drones, including spotting endangered species, to mapping disasters.  A series of UAV’s are currently in operation over the skies of Nepal, and crowd-sourced mapping solutions are helping to identify the damage. There was also a presentation on using light weight drones to airlift aid into northern Syria. By the end of day 1, most of us in the audience wanted a drone.

2. Gaming for good

Personally, gamification is an area I’ve been excited about for a while. It has incredible potential for engagement of complex issues, and there are a ton of potential for strong narratives and story interaction.  Also, when done well, games are just plain fun.  I saw some great examples that I wasn’t aware of at the conference. Kognito helps train people in having difficult conversations about PTSD or suicide through a guided virtual conversation. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m told it can be emotionally powerful.  One of the PEACEapp awards went to a mobile app called Everyday Racism that exposes you to the types of racism you would experience on a daily basis depending on the avatar you choose.  And if you think that Games have to be technically complex, check out this BBC interactive where you play the part of a Syrian refugee trying to escape conflict and start a new life.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are people doing some really cool things with already existing games.  Games for Peace brings kids together in games like Minecraft where they can collaborate and communicate together.

3. The peace will be virtual

At the University of Barcelona, they are using virtual reality to allow you to spend a day in someone else’s skin.  What if you could look down and see a skin other than your own?  Apparently their research has shown that just looking in the mirror and seeing your movements in a body other than your own can help develop empathy.  Imagine the potential! Perhaps CNN could put Wolf Blitzer in the VR machine to walk around as a black man in Baltimore for an afternoon.

4. The emergence of peace tech

While the U.S. Institute for Peace has been around since 1984, I wasn’t aware of it until I saw the building go up in D.C. with the big dove wing that hangs off the front.


It’s not a surprise why. Sheldon Himelfarb pointed out that it’s total budget is significantly less than Google’s annual catering budget. Despite limited resources, they are doing some pretty cool things. In particular, the Peace Tech Lab (of which Himelfarb is president) is a group that works at “the intersection of technology, media, and data to devise means of reducing violent conflict around the world.”  Those are core areas for Vignette Interactive as well, so I look forward to seeing what they come up with in the future.

Matt Ford in the day one venue of bedesten on the Turkish side of Nicosia, Cyprus
Matt Ford in the day one venue of bedesten on the Turkish side of Nicosia, Cyprus

The fact that the conference was located in Nicosia, Cyprus, a capital that is still divided after a 40-year-old conflict, added a sense of urgency to the need for fresh ideas, but also a shred of hope for the possibilities that creative thinking and technology might bring to peace building.

If you’ve seen any cool applications of technology in the name of peace, please share them in the comments.

By Matt Ford

Matt is an avid experimenter of new forms of visual storytelling. He worked as a multimedia journalist for The Associated Press covering the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the Arab uprisings, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Before journalism, Matt worked in the Los Angeles film industry as a set and studio lighting technician on productions such as Spiderman 2 and The West Wing.

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