Events Geneva Peace Week Coverage

Systems Thinking and Complex Challenges

By Aineias Engstrom

What does peace look like? This question seems simple and yet infinitely complex; worthy of discussion and at the same time unanswerable. “Systems Thinking & Complex Challenges” a podcast produced for the Geneva Peace Week, explores the “crucial, yet misunderstood concept of global peace” and how a more multifaceted, systemic view of the problem may help us achieve more sustainable peace.

A shared sentiment among all speakers was the need to view peace not just as the absence of guns and missiles, but as a journey that includes working toward justice and reconciliation, building stable and effective political institutions, and fighting poverty, hunger, and disease – what we may call “positive peace.”

Positive peace is not created just through peace agreements or arms control. Instead, it is infused in “the attitudes, institutions and structures” that provide the foundation of our societies, described Steve Killilea, Executive Chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) and creator of the Global Peace Index.

The process of building and maintaining these foundations is by no means straightforward. The IEP’s index indicates that global peace has achieved progress, but has also faced challenges over the past decade. According to Killilea, there have been improvements in addressing global structural issues, such as life expectancy or income per capita. However, institutions and attitudes that could foster peace have often stagnated or even regressed, with trends like democratic backsliding and fractionalization constituting growing obstacles to global peace.

To better promote positive peace around the world, Killilea wants to see a change in the organization and decision-making processes of international institutions. “If we look at the structure of international agencies, they are built along different lines,” he criticized. “One is interested in health, another one is interested in refugees, others work on education. We need agencies built up which look at a specific area and bring together all those different functions.”

Ambassador Thomas Greminger, former OECD Secretary General and current Director of The Geneva Centre for Security Policy, added to the discussion a call for re-framing our understanding of security in order to achieve positive peace. When thinking about solutions to threats of peace and security, he said, we should not start with the question “who should we defend ourselves against?” but rather “who do we need to cooperate with?”

According to Greminger, the many transnational threats that we face, such as the impacts of climate change or advanced technology on our lives, can only be tackled with this more cooperative conceptualization of security. Strategies to defend peace, he emphasized, should be rooted in joint, rules-based action while also fostering equality and empathy between countries and cultures.

Building a positive peace strikes close to home for Juan José Ruiz Quintero, an international law student at the Graduate Institute and co-director of the Peacebuilding Initiative, who has seen his home country Colombia work to overcome the legacy of a decades-long conflict.

Colombia’s transitional justice movement facilitates reparation and reconciliation between perpetrators and victims, employing what Quintero called a “very comprehensive approach to close the wounds in the society and achieve sustained peace through different mechanisms.” Lasting peace, this approach recognizes, is not just achieved in parliaments or NGOs, but in communities and cultures.

The many puzzle pieces that need to come together to create positive peace make peacebuilding a complex endeavor. For the Peacebuilding Initiative at the Institute, this complexity means that a “diverse array of events” is needed to “introduce many different peace dynamics,” as co-director Miranda Barker emphasized on the podcast.

The various events at Geneva Peace Week also highlight different dimensions of peace. On their own, each of these events may not give us the definitive answer to the all-encompassing question of what peace looks like. But taken together, they may help us recognize more and more of the avenues that we need to walk down in order to move closer to sustainable peace around the world.


Geneva Peace Week 2021 will be held between November 1st and 5th covering four thematic tracks: Creating a Climate for Collaboration, Moving beyond Securitization, Harnessing the Digital Sphere for Peace, and Confronting inequalities and advancing inclusion, peace, and SDG16. Find more information and registration links here.

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