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Peace Engineering, a Budding New Discipline, May Spread to the Middle East

MOSUL—There isn’t much left of the Old City here. The newer suburbs of this northern Iraqi city didn’t fare much better. Now that the Islamic State has gone, the time has come to clean up and rebuild these neighborhoods. But some engineers say they shouldn’t duplicate exactly what was there before. Instead they should think carefully about how their designs could help to foster a lasting peace.

“The mission is to refine the existing goal of engineers to better design things for communities in or just out of conflict,” says Mira Olson, a co-founder of the Peace Engineering Program at Drexel University, in Philadelphia. “We want engineers to know more about how their designs are used in a social context.”

This is what the relatively new discipline known as “peace engineering” is about—helping professionals from across all fields of engineering to consider how their work could be used to further peace and social cohesion, and to understand how some designs could even limit it. The key is to start thinking about this from the beginning of the design process, says Olson, who is an associate professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering.

A Degree in Peace Engineering

Drexel University is thought to be the first university in the world offering a master’s degree in peace engineering, but already some experts in the Arab world are intrigued.

“When you Google peace engineering, you won’t find answers like you would for mechanical or chemical engineering,” says Talal al-Shihabi, an associate professor in the department of management and construction at Damascus University, in Syria. “It’s essentially the practice of engineering in conflict areas with an awareness of how to apply it to engineering in peace building efforts.”

How roads are mapped can be an example that illustrates the virtues of peace engineering, says Olson.

“How they’re designed within a city dictates how a conflict may or may not unfold. In a dictatorship, for example, the government would usually like big sweeping roads designed for a quick exit,” she explains. “They also tend to minimize smaller roads, sidewalk space and squares where people can meet and exchange ideas.”

Additionally, planners should look at whether road networks serve all areas of a city, she says. If a city’s infrastructure neglects whole neighborhoods, it’s likely to hurt social cohesion. Such weaknesesses in transportation infrastructure even affect Arab cities that aren’t recovering from conflict. (See a related article, “Arab Researchers Suggest Solutions to Slums.”)

“Where the roads don’t go also has consequences,” says Olson.

The concept of peace engineering doesn’t just focus on physical infrastructure though, says Bernard Amadei, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado–Boulder and founder of the humanitarian group Engineers Without Borders. “It’s also in the design of technologies that improve the livelihoods of people in general in crises and non-crisis situations.”

The development of peace engineering as an education concept is needed, says Amadei, because engineers have so much potential in their work to promote peace—by restoring community services, rebuilding or addressing development issues like access to water with more resilient, equitable infrastructure so the effects of conflict are less likely to recur.

“Yet engineering education does not address the role that engineers play in these efforts, which are critical in crisis situations,” he says.

The Risk of Urban Chaos

When there isn’t a considered and coordinated effort to reconstruct a city and its infrastructure, often inhabitants will take it upon themselves to construct new, informal  neighborhoods. These neighborhoods can come with a host of health and safety concerns and it can also make it harder for governments and nongovernmental organizations to bring about a city better designed for peace. (See a related article, “Iraqi City Displays Grassroots Urban Planning.”)

The master’s degree program in peace engineering at Drexel is hoping to change this. It’s a two-year program and is currently recruiting its first full class of engineering graduates that will enroll in September. Part of the curriculum focuses on the theory of peace building and how it overlaps with engineering.

“You quickly realize that it’s not just the engineer that’s part of the process,” says Olson. “An engineer needs to collaborate with others.”

“You wouldn’t expect the engineer to do the whole town planning,” she says, “so we also teach communication skills, so they can have conversations with the right people to get their designs taken seriously.” Governments, for example, may need convincing.

The students will also learn how to analyze data and can choose an area to specialize in, such as water sanitation or telecommunication networks.

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Those involved with the development of peace engineering as an area of expertise, like Olson at Drexel University, say it’s important that they aren’t seen as Westerners parachuting in with answers to questions that nobody asked.

“We’re building partnerships on the ground. This isn’t something we can do on our own,” she says.

Back in Damascus, al-Shihabi agrees.

“My colleagues in the U.S. are very aware of the fact that they’re studying from afar, and so they want and need input from less peaceful parts of the world, like where I am in Syria,” he says. “They’re not just sending their accomplishments to the Middle East. It’s a two-way flow of information and expertise.”

He is currently trying implement parts of what Drexel is doing at Damascus University, although it’s unlikely to be a totally separate master’s degree. He’s hoping the concept could be included in the university’s already existing engineering programs.

“We don’t have to wait for this to be fully developed in the United States before doing it here. There’s an urgency for it in this region,” he says.

Walking around Mosul, it’s hard to argue with him.


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