How to hack dystopia in our current global mess

Martin Waehlisch
Futuring Peace
Published in
6 min readJul 24, 2020


Illustration by Mario Wagner for UN DPPA

Diplomacy in a world without handshakes

The present looks grim and the future sober: COVID-19, a looming global recession, widespread mistrust, and unsolved armed conflicts around the world. O brave new world, one can only wonder about the pandemic aftermath. It is hard to imagine what future peace might look like at a time when the world is in disarray.

Meanwhile, the world of war is anything but still. Battles are raging in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. With the corona virus invading conflict zones, the sad choice many face is deciding which death would be worse: staying at home because of the virus and getting hit by a missile, or leaving home to escape the missiles but getting caught by COVID-19. N95 masks have become common gear of fighters in many theaters of war. The UN Secretary-General has called for a global ceasefire, which was finally endorsed by the UN Security Council in early July, but its implementation still remains work in progress.

Secretary-General António Guterres holds a virtual press conference, 30 April 2020, United Nations, New York (UN Photo)

In the face of this dystopian reality, innovative approaches to peacemaking, preventing and mediating conflict, and peacebuilding are essential more than ever before. The situation has made direct interaction, including shuttle diplomacy, with conflict parties and peace constituencies difficult. This puts new technologies for secure dialogue at the forefront. On top of this, the spread of dis- and misinformation, hate speech and scare-mongering highlight the urgent need for new human-centered approaches to conflict prevention.

Security Council members hold an open videoconference to announce the vote on a third draft resolution on cross-border humanitarian access in Syria, 10 July 2020 (UN Photo)

New science-based methods for peace

In early 2020, the United Nations’ Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA) founded its first-ever dedicated innovation outlet, an “Innovation Cell”. The Cell’s initiatives include using AI-powered digital focus groups and large-scale dialogues to expand inclusivity, social media mining to diversify information resources, virtual reality to enhance the situational awareness of diplomats and decision-makers, and satellite imagery analysis to improve early warning of potential conflicts. These efforts started before the pandemic but are now even more critical because of the COVID-19 constraints on peace processes. Expanded work on science- and evidence-based methods for conflict analysis and modeling has become an important facet of this endeavor, at a moment when data-driven decision-making is vital.

“The UN: Innovating for Peace”, UN DPPA Innovation Cell, August 2020

“Futuring peace” means…

Leveraging the power of new technologies

When we say “futuring peace” we mean three things: leveraging new technologies, using human-centered approaches, and thinking at a systems level.

As the response to the COVID-19 outbreak shows, digital applications and virtual briefings have become the new diplomatic normal, with the UN and its Member States having to adjust. “Peace tech”, including AI, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and the use of data for the global good, will radically change the art and science of peacemaking. For instance, technological advancements are on the verge of allowing us to better understand at light-speed what is said around the world, in multiple languages and dialects, and simultaneously interact with various communities of a peace process. Yet we are mindful of inequalities of access in terms of the digital divide and know that the leverage of new technologies has its limits.

Social humanoid robot Sophia with UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (UN Photo)

Fostering human-centered design

While technology can be an enabler for peace, helping us to connect and better analyze data, social and human aspects remain at the forefront of crises and need to be tackled. Insights from Behavioral Science are key in this regard. Just take the example of “optimism bias” and “overconfidence effects” that have led to an underestimation by some of the risks posed by the COVID-19 virus, particularly in places where there were initially only a few reported cases. Or consider the fear that has caused some citizens to overreact, leading people to clear shelves of hand sanitizer like it’s a magic elixir. As a member of the United Nations Innovation Network (UNIN), we are exploring the application of Behavioral Insights to the prevention, mediation and peacebuilding context. New discoveries in cognitive and neuroscience in particular are starting to pave the way for innovation in the peacemaking field and need to be tested further with the aim to put an end to violent conflict.

Mankind’s struggle for lasting peace mural by Jose Vela Zanetti at United Nations Headquarters (UN Photo)

Transforming systems

Lastly, innovation can hack dystopia by applying cross-dimensional perspectives. In other words: we need to do new things together, learn from multiple disciplines, and be future-leaning. As systems theory suggests, acknowledging interactive and interdependent external and internal factors is key to achieving success in nonlinear dynamic processes such as peace negotiations. Old school causal calculations of input-output peacemaking are no longer sufficient, as we see in many of the world’s protracted and complex conflicts.

“Futuring Peace” Concept, UN DPPA Innovation Cell, July 2020

In the spirit of strategic foresight, it is important to think systematically about various scenarios of moving futures while managing the immediate present. For instance, in light of COVID, state fragility is on the rise. Futurists have warned that the aftershocks of the pandemic could push half a billion people into poverty. In one way or the other, the “coronavirus butterfly effect” will change parameters of the global order, including monetary, mobility and human security aspects. At the Innovation Cell, we embrace foresight methodologies and investigate their practical limits to peace mediation processes to make sure we can meet any future with some sense of preparedness.

The United Nations is marking its 75th anniversary at a time of great challenge, including the worst global health crisis in its history. Will it bring the world closer together? Join the conversation:

To the past: Thanks. To the future: Yes.

“Futuring peace” is an invitation for a conversation about the new possibilities of innovating radically to end wars. With 2020 its 75th anniversary year, the UN is beating the drum for progress. Listening for ideas on how to do things differently is more important than ever. For the peace field, this means that we need to better connect with talent, thought leadership and solutions both outside and inside the UN cosmos. For our species, global messes are recurrent; we can do nothing but innovate — like the very creation of the UN in the first place — to stay ahead of them. In short, as the former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld said: “To the past: Thanks. To the future: Yes.”

“Futuring Peace” is an online magazine published by the Innovation Cell of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA). We explore cross-cutting approaches to conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding for a more peaceful future worldwide.

About the author: Martin Waehlisch is a founding member of the UN DPPA Innovation Cell. Twitter: @MWaehlisch



Martin Waehlisch
Futuring Peace

@UNDPPA #UN #FuturingPeace #ConflictPrevention #PeaceMediation # Diplomacy #Innovation