Incubating Peace

How One Earth Future Foundation, and its Future Labs leader Jon Bellish, are betting on networked coordination and open data as the keys to preventing nuclear war.

Interview by Paul Carroll / November 9, 2018

Over the past decade, the world of philanthropy has been significantly influenced—disrupted, even—by a large infusion of new money. This money is coming from new and often young philanthropists who have acquired it largely through dynamic, risk-taking entrepreneurship. These new entrants into the traditional field of charitable giving bring with them a decidedly private-sector attitude about risk and results—and a willingness to break traditions. Failure is not just OK but valued for the learning it fosters. So are partnerships with an array of institutions and people that extend beyond the world of nonprofits.

One Earth Future Foundation (OEF) embodies these dynamics. Founded by Marcel Arsenault and Cynda Collins Arsenault in 2009, OEF has a simple but audacious mission: to catalyze systems that eliminate root causes of war, effectively eliminating war as a means of resolving disputes by the year 2100. Central to OEF is its Future Labs department, where new projects and programs aimed at enhancing human collaboration in the interest of peace get developed and tested. One of these programs is the SAFE (Shared Awareness, Fusion, and Engagement) Network, which seeks to harness non-classified data analytics to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons. Jon Bellish, who runs OEF’s Future Labs, has been an N Square Innovators Network fellow since the network began. In this brief interview, he talks about OEF’s vision for creating structural changes in society, why he joined the Innovators Network, and why OEF has decided to help fund one of the network’s first pilot projects.

Q  What makes One Earth Future’s founder, Marcel Arsenault, different as a philanthropist?

A  Marcel is willing to be disruptive, but not for it’s own sake. Rather, he sees what he believes are missing elements to philanthropic endeavors and looks to address them. For example, he would be totally OK going to Davos and criticizing the way private philanthropy has been going about some aspect of its work. But he wouldn’t trash the whole system. Instead he’d say, “Private philanthropy is essential to our future. Here’s how we can do better.”

Q  Can you talk a bit about the SAFE Network, and why Marcel and other folks at OEF are so passionate about the program and the approach it envisions?

A  SAFE stands for Shared Awareness, Fusion, and Engagement. It is a project that will use open data from a range of sources and pair that with a network of people who can analyze it and decide if there is a risk of nuclear proliferation or crisis. If there is a crisis, an elite set of trusted third parties—international diplomats, nuclear security and operations experts, and former military leaders—will be called into action in order to deescalate tensions before it’s too late. All of these trusted third parties will have strong credibility with global leaders and a decidedly non-nationalistic role. The shared goal will be to prevent, then diminish, nuclear crisis from becoming a nuclear “use.”

We didn’t know a lot about the space when we began. But like all good designers, we don’t just dream something up ourselves and decide for everyone what they need or want. We go to the users or customers and interview them to learn what they need—and that’s what we did here. And we have the advantage of resources to bring. Ultimately, we determined that there was a potential value to deploying such a network and we have just done so. We’ll see if it gains traction.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation

Q  How does OEF see changing or improving global governance for the better?

A  We are living in a new landscape. There are many more relationships today than just nation-to-nation. We see more and more relationships between cities and nations, states and nations, cities and cities, etc. Not only are the levels of engagement more diverse, but the rise of tribalism has made multilateral approaches essential, and at these different levels. OEF’s central answer to what is needed comes from what we see as the three basic ways in which humans interact. The first is hierarchies, where someone has authority or power over you and therefore can make you take certain actions. This has been the typical approach in international relations. The second is markets. Since the Industrial Revolution, markets have been a powerful tool for effecting change, essentially coercing people to do things because they see it as being in their economic self-interest.

The third, though, is networks. In a network people can be influenced to do things because they identify as part of a group. They are connected in some way, and there is a strong sense of a shared goal and therefore shared value when actions are taken. We as a society are the least good at this approach, at least when it comes to making and implementing public policy. Networks can build trust, and yet they are not yet as powerful as markets or hierarchies. But most life outside officialdom and markets is through networks.


So OEF’s approach is to increase the emphasis and value of networked coordination as part of this equation. This is a little in the weeds, but it’s really networked coordination and not networks that’s key for OEF. Some of our best work happens within institutions—helping different parts of NATO work together differently, for example. I think SAFE will do at least as much to bring networked coordination within hierarchies as it will to create new networks per se.

Getting better at this is a key part of OEF’s theory of change. For example, nuclear arms control treaties came into being in part because of a network relationship. Sure, they are managed in a hierarchical system, but presidents and their advisors are part of a small, elite network and relationships at that high level are powerful. Nobody coerced these leaders into entering the treaty. These same treaties can later fail because the network component that existed when it came into being fades when new powerful players enter the stage and wield that power in a hierarchical fashion among nations. Witness the current administration’s track record of leaving a series of treaties more for ideological reasons than efficacy. There is no network to help defend them.

Q  Are you worried about proving that the SAFE Network is a viable approach?

A  What I think OEF and N Square share is the sometimes dicey position of not having to prove something works or has market value but rather demonstrates evidence that it can. Potential donors or partners like to see something new or innovative that has enough of a test track to give confidence and therefore gains partners or donors. That being said, I don’t think private-sector approaches always map well to non-private-sector endeavors. Marcel may disagree, but I actually think there are clear limits to where the private-sector tools and sensibilities translate.

But there are funders and philanthropies that understand the parts that can translate—the Omidyars, Skoll, Marcel, Gates, Soros. We can have a much bigger part of the philanthropic world taking this approach—risk-taking for a couple of years, refining and learning for two or three more years, then going to more traditional funders to say, “We are ready, and we know this works.” If we got more serious about measurement and evaluation, we could be far more effective as a sector. Ultimately, we could solve problems in ways that governments are not allowed to because of political or institutional constraints. That is the value of philanthropic investment in networks and collaboration—bridging the gaps we see with a more holistic approach to problem-solving.

Q  How did you learn about N Square, and ultimately decide to join the Innovators Network?

A  My first interaction was with a dinner in San Francisco with folks from N Square. At that point our work in developing the SAFE Network was about eight months old. Our big question at that point was, “Will this die if no one uses it?” You guys introduced us to the team at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. They had been doing similar work using open source tools. So there seemed to be a great opportunity to learn from them and to determine if there were synergies between us. N Square was actually modeling the way OEF does things—giving some modest resources for a small group to try new stuff. The way N Square nurtured relationships and utilized talent was also something we took note of. Essentially, your approach is to test specific things in order to learn from them, and to be prepared for failure. That work, though, is what fundamentally builds a network. That was impressive to us.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation

Q  OEF is going to help fund “Datayo,” one of the first projects to come out of N Square’s own version of an incubator, the Innovators Network. You were on the team that prototyped and tested the project. Why did you decide to help fund it?

A  Datayo was built on two propositions: that information about nuclear weapons is inaccessible and siloed, and that recent advances in the quality and affordability of open data present an opportunity that didn’t previously exist in the field. Datayo will be an online, collaborative data lab that complies open data and presents it in a useable form. We hope that it can improve dialogue within and across governments, add value to the private sector, and open public conversations about these weapons, both in and out of the media. We are funding it because it supports our own SAFE project. I don’t personally do a “lit review” of grant investments like a standard program officer at a foundation. I don’t need to be a subject matter expert. If regular grantmakers looked at our process, they wouldn’t see typical “rigor.” Instead, we like iteration, testing things, experimentation. This helps us learn. We start out “stupid” and become less and less stupid as we try things. Eventually, we get smart about a specific topic or technique. Then we’re ready to design and even deploy something new.


Q  What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years, and what could the future look like if everything goes well?

A  I see two competing forces that will play out over the next 10 years. The first is rising nationalism and geopolitical competition among nuclear armed states. As we saw last year between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, these risks are real and nuclear weapons are clearly implicated. The second, countervailing force is the potential for open data to open conversations in this space. I’ve compared it in the past to the Protestant Reformation. Just as the printing press created possibilities for individuals to interpret the Bible without the intervention of the clergy, open data can allow citizens to draw their own conclusions about the costs and benefits of these weapons without the intervention of the “high priests” of nuclear weapons. If we are successful, I expect we’ll see less awe and fear on the part of citizens and more accountability for those who make decisions about the development and use of these weapons systems. That’s the future we are betting on at OEF.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation