Our Approach

We at The Earth Institute at Columbia University have brought together a top team of scientists with diverse areas of expertise to develop new ways to understand, build and sustain peace. We are working in 5 ways.

( i ) Click circles to explore the scheme

We are gathering together all the relevant science on peace in one place and developing a view of how it functions as a complex system.
Peaceful Societies
We are taking sustainably peaceful societies seriously by studying and analyzing case studies in order to learn, validate and refine our understanding of how they sustain peace. Read More
Mathematical Modeling
We are translating our understanding into mathematical equations and computer simulations to learn how the many variables we have gathered from science interact and function together as a system to sustain peace.
New Metrics and Methods
We are developing new ways of measuring patterns and trends in communities relevant to sustaining peace. That may allow for the real time tracking of risks and opportunities for peace. Read More
Engaging Communities
We are engaging directly with peaceful communities. This entails holding dialogues between our scientists and local community stakeholders around the world. Where the scientists mostly listen, learn, and ask questions – and at times offer insights from science for exploring new pathways for peace. Read More


What creates a peaceful society? A myriad of factors ranging from the degree of transparency of institutions to individual's degrees of perspective-taking interact and influence each other to create complex dynamics and systems which contribute to levels of peace within a society.

Our project employs models and methods from complexity science to study and visualize the dynamics of sustaining peaceful societies, and has been developing a comprehensive causal loop diagram. Developed through surveys of experts on peace and conflict and through reviewing empirical literature, this diagram maps the science related to sustaining peace. Causal loop diagrams help us to identify factors that influence peace, and the connections between them, serving as an interactive tool which can lead to new insights for peacebuilding and for mitigating the unintended consequences of well intended interventions. Our current map can be viewed here.

Peaceful Societies and Peace Systems

We take studying peace seriously, and we recognize that peace may look different around the world.

What leads to peace may be different in Costa Rica and in Norway. At the same time, it is important to ask, what do these peaceful societies have in common?

That’s why we have identified countries that have been able to sustain peace for long periods, and have spent time researching a range of peaceful societies like Iceland, Mauritius, and New Zealand.

We are also working to understand peace systems. Peace systems are groups of neighboring societies that do not make war on each other. Member societies of a peace system may or may not engage in war outside the boundaries of their peace system- so some are completely non-warring, and others are not.

Examples of peace systems include the Iroquois Confederacy, the tribes of the Upper Xingu River Basin in Brazil, the Indian societies of the Wynaad Plateau, the Swiss Cantons, and the European Union. EXTERNAL LINKRead related publicationsEvidence for peace on ac4.columbia.edu

Mathematical Modeling

In physical science, mathematical models can be used to determine how micro-scale individual interactions between parts of a system produce the macro-scale system properties of the entire system. In our mathematical model, each peace factor has a quantitative value determined by its own properties and its interactions with all the other peace factors. Thus, the interactions of all the peace factors can be computed together at once.

By running the mathematical model of sustaining peace, it was found that, over long periods of time, this system reaches only two stable configurations called "attractors": either the positive peace factors (such as Positive Intergroup Reciprocity or Positive Intergroup Goals and Expectations) have high values and the negative factors (such as Negative Intergroup Reciprocity or Negative Intergroup Goals Expectations) are zero, or vice versa. Theoretical and trial and error studies of the mathematical model have told us that the stronger and longer lasting effects of the negative peace factors can be restrained either by including the influence of many additional positive peace factors in the system, or by strengthening "gateway" positive peace factors that play crucial roles in how interactions spread through the whole system. Since there are different ways to achieve a successful peace system this also implies that the best choice of an intervention may be situationally dependent.

New Metrics and Methods

Violence costs the world over $14 trillion annually and affects millions of families. Peace also likely has an immense effect, but it is currently difficult to quantify its impact. Peace measures often track the absence of conflict, but to promote peace, we also need to measure what fosters harmony and maintains peace. The way peace is measured has important implications for research, funding, and policy. It is thus imperative that we develop metrics which offer a nuanced, comprehensive, and accurate representation of components of peace.

Creating reliable measures of peace is challenging, especially since peace is often manifested differently in diverse societies around the world. Current widely used indices tend to focus on analyst-driven indicators which often fail to account for context-specific meaning. In these indices, economic measures often have a great deal of weight, and other critical aspects of peace can be overlooked. Additionally, current metrics often imagine a linear and often static relationship between factors, ignoring the dynamic ways a constellation of elements influence how peace is embodied.

To confront these challenges, we are working to develop new metrics for measuring peace. Key questions we are navigating include:

  • How do we move beyond measuring peace as the absence of conflict, and start assessing peace as a positive state?
  • How can we account for the context specific and idiosyncratic ways peace manifests around the world and merge both analyst and community-driven measurement approaches?
  • What sorts of measures of peace are granular enough to be meaningful in specific local contexts, but generic enough to have value for a wide variety of people around the world?
  • How can peace measures capture dynamic rather than linear relationships? EXTERNAL LINKRead related publicationsNew metrics and methods on ac4.columbia.edu

Engaging Communities

Increasingly, research is finding that top-down one-size-fits-all approaches to policymaking in peace and development are often ineffectual and unsustainable (Wessells, 2015). However, local initiatives are not without their drawbacks (Boege, 2006), and can benefit from the lessons and insights from the science of peace. The Sustaining Peace Project team has been developing a community-science dialogue process that employs questions derived from evidence-based research on sustaining peace to facilitate community discussions on issues of interest and concern to communities. As part of the process, stakeholders are asked to reflect on a series of questions related to sustaining peace, such as: What would sustaining peace mean here? What are the main elements that you believe would be vital for peace to be sustained? The team calls this ground-truthing.

Ground-truthing is a term derived from work with remote sensing data where satellite data is validated through comparison with grounded imagery. The project views ground-truthing as a novel method of qualitative data collection and dialogue facilitation that a) relies on direct observation and engagement with community stakeholders to verify, refine, or challenge models derived by inference; and b) employs evidence-based scientific models to structure community discourse on issues of concern to communities. The purpose of the Sustaining Peace Project’s ground-truthing method is to validate and refine academic understanding and assumptions against stakeholders’ lived experiences in their communities about peace and intergroup relationships, and then to incorporate the insights gleaned from this process into the project’s map of the factors and processes that help sustain peace (hyperlink to Visualizing Sustainable Peace). EXTERNAL LINKRead related publicationsEngaging communities on ac4.columbia.edu