New Ideas for Old Challenges: Shaking up the Nuclear Security Sector

Believe it or not, the world is still burdened by the existence of more than 15,000 nuclear weapons. That’s right, the immensely powerful and devastating weapons we think of as part of “Cold War history” are in fact a present-day danger. They do not discriminate, and their existence threatens literally everyone on the planet.

There are a considerable number of nongovernmental organizations that work to reduce the risks from these weapons. Using expert scientists, field organizers, policy advocacy, and media tactics, they seek to reduce the numbers and reliance on nuclear weapons. There is also a small community of foundations who fund these efforts; and this group has been more or less the same for over 30 years. This community of philanthropists and practitioners are highly knowledgeable and highly skilled, but they are working, by and large, on a 21st century challenge using 20th century tools and thinking. For example, most attention and efforts are aimed squarely at traditional institutions like Congress, the United Nations, and the treaties and laws that have governed the “nuclear game” for decades. While necessary, such approaches are not sufficient to fundamentally change the game. In fact, these same institutions and arrangements often help perpetuate nuclear weapons as much as they limit or constrain them. What is needed is a more “disruptive” approach.

Enter “N Square.” Meant to evoke the notion of a “public square” of discussion and debate around nuclear threats, N Square is designed to attract new ideas, people, and approaches that address this existential threat. Drawing from different sectors like media, technology, business, design, and art, N Square seeks to diversify the ways in which we think about nuclear threats, and the range of possible approaches to eliminating them. It is meant to bust open the conventional thinking about how to change nuclear policy, and allow anyone and everyone to participate in the effort.

N Square is a collaboration of four foundations – the Ploughshares Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund. These four funders recognized the need to “shake things up” with respect to how we approach nuclear threats, to attract new, effective approaches, and to introduce the existing nuclear security community to innovative tools and methods for enhancing their work. 

It is a decidedly “two-way street approach”. That is, N Square’s activities, investments and network building are designed to build effective bridges between the existing nuclear security community and other sectors and skill sets. For example, one collaboration that has blossomed through N Square’s “matchmaking” is a start-up company that is developing exciting new satellite sensing technology that could – potentially – allow detection of nuclear materials everywhere on Earth. N Square has fostered a partnership between this company and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey to develop tools that would apply to needs in detection and identification of such materials as a way to monitor global nuclear activities.

Halfway through its third year of a four-year trial, N Square has already engaged scores, if not hundreds, of people through networks like TED, PopTech, the Norman Lear Center at USC, Singularity University, and others. In the year ahead, these early network-building activities will – it is hoped – generate compelling new ideas, tools, and partnerships among people and institutions that would not otherwise have found each other before. Specific policy achievements are not the mandate of N Square, rather it is growing the ecosystem of brainpower and ideas brought to bear on nuclear risks. N Square will be a success if after its initial four-year test phase, it has resulted in a network of people and organizations that are actively engaged in working on solving nuclear security challenges that represent a variety of sectors, skill sets, and—most importantly—mindsets. N Square is also interested in growing the number and amount of philanthropic dollars devoted to solving this truly existential challenge. While N Square is an experiment, it is one with undeniable benefits to humanity should it bear even small fruit.

The Ploughshares Fund is a member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, which just released the 2017 Peace & Security Funding Index, in partnership with Foundation Center. Click here to explore the Index and see who is active in the peace and security funding field.