In over 15 years of travel, work, and trying to build a better world, I have come to this one conclusion: the world does not need peace.
It needs less violence. It needs less trauma. It needs more equality and equity. It needs less corruption. It needs more justice. It needs progress. It needs humanity.
But none of these are predicated on peace and none of them add up to peace. What we need are the building blocks of the solutions to each of those needs.
A decade ago I set out to answer a fundamental question: how can we build world peace in our time? I was wrapping up a dissertation on cultural values in non-violent political movements. I spoke with global leaders, farmers, activists, and researchers in South Africa, India, and the United States, looking to quantify UNESCO’s “culture of peace”.
I was looking for some insight into what it would take to build a peaceful world where atrocities and trauma would no longer feature. I set out looking for peace, but instead found something much more complicated, beautiful, human, and basic.
I spent long days conducting surveys in Khayelitsha, the largest township of Cape Town, South Africa. As part of my routine I listened to the stories of everyday heroes who had taken unimaginable risks to make small steps towards freedom. They humored me and took my survey, and many would stay after and share their personal stories.
A thirty-something former protester was sharing just such a story with me, and when he finished he said to me, “Please tell your friends in America about me.” As I sat there in admiration of his life and accomplishments, he asked me about mine. How did I come to be in his community, why and by what path?
I had pursued peace, focused on peace, tried to dissect peace, but peace was the wrong goal. The solution to the problem I had set out to remedy was right there in my conversation with this activist: we all want to understand others and be understood.
Being able to understand people is the key to humanity’s greatest opportunities; it unlocks our potential to solve our greatest challenges. Understanding people involves a broad, rich set of skills, knowledge, and attitudes that, when activated, can create the perfect environment for human progress.
Understanding encompasses a rich mix of empathy, social systems, history, current events, identity, social science, humanities, biology, communication, relationship, self-reflection, customs, and so much more – the mix that makes up what has been called the “ethnosphere”, the totality of humanity’s cultural output.
Understanding has real world applications that address the needs of a twenty-first century world. It underpins transformative diplomacy that can bring an end to violence. It informs the policies that lead to equality and equity. It is the backbone of true justice. It is a key element in ending corruption. It is the first step in innovation. It creates better communities and better relationships.
Understanding is not a panacea, but it is a fundamental part of the solutions to the challenges we face. It must be combined with other elements in order to build comprehensive, lasting solutions.
Yet, we leave its development largely to chance. We do not help children or adults learn how to contextualize the rich stream of media and information that has suddenly been made available to them. We do not equip teachers to prepare the next generation for a rapidly globalizing and interconnecting world. We do not help parents and families explain a world that is complex, nuanced and constantly in motion to their children.
We do not help people turn the outrage they too often feel at world events into productive action. We try to teach them peace or teach them tolerance, without taking the time to help them build the basic skills they need to understand people.
What if there were a place that did fill in these gaps? A place with immersive, interactive exhibits that helped people of all ages discover their own style of understanding and become masters of it. A place that curated events and brought people together to learn and share their own experiences. A place that used technology as a means to push learning out into the world so that people had a resource for learning anywhere, any-time. A place that built bridges from a mental space of outrage to a place of co-created change.
The Ubuntu Lab is building just such a place. We are working on “post-digital” exhibits that use technology as a tool to bring people together, not as a showpiece that isolates them further. We are building a set of apps that do not augment reality, but rather guide the exploration of it. We are building new theories of learning specifically to address the fundamentals of understanding. I started out working on peace, but now am working on progress. We are building people’s ability to understand themselves, others, and their social world.
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