Viewing entries tagged
Economic Development

Technology Determined Cities or Strategic Design for Tomorrow?





Imagine if urban planners had more knowledge about cars long before automobile traffic was a common issue. Imagine if they had better understood chemistry or environmental sciences. How could that have changed the transit landscape? Could today's problems of automobile pollution or over-dependency on oil been curbed at the outset? Maybe, maybe not, but urban planners can change the future if they change their relationship to technology and the processes by which technologies are created.

Urban and socio-economic development are continually framed as a top-down or a bottom-up system of human decisions. Either the messiness of political action informs and determines the form and function of our lives or policy choices are made by experts reliant on consultation data. Yet this model fails to describe how the environment and the objects around us shape and structure our lives.  Development is not purely determined by people but also by places and things. We might believe we are designing our future, but much is predetermined by what we have designed in the past, by the technologies presently in development, and by the physical conditions of our designing. As long as urban professionals and policy makers ignore such factors, strategic design and policy will rarely accomplish what is intended.

Humans can synthesize DNA, break the sound barrier, and investigate distant galaxies. We wear computers that monitor our bodies and transport information at the speed of light. In the meanwhile, we compose our urban visions in massive paper books of zoning code and render aerial maps on a digital screen to shape the future.  Interesting technologies pop up almost daily that can provide value to urban planning and design, yet as a whole, these technologies are not thoughtfully integrated within planning practice. Certainly planners might use a given technology, but that is not the same as building a mindful socio-technical practice with the technology. Case in point, when I hear the words "how can a planner use a drone?" it is the engineer and the robot that is carving the pathways of our urban future - not the urban professional. There is also a particular moral imposition within the design of a drone - aside from the thinking of the engineer - wherein the design of the artifact delegates use and consequence.

Last week I was interviewed by a journalist on the subject of drones in urban planning and was surprised that all of the questions were focused on how planners should use these technologies. There were no questions about the possible negative results or externalities. There were no questions about the responsibility of planners to design new technologies themselves, or to work with groups of software engineers in the same way we work within community groups.

In its current form, the entire field of urban planning is reliant upon the visions of engineers at companies like ESRI, Autodesk, Microsoft, and Google. These companies showcase their products to urban planning departments stating "now you can do this thing we think is important." If the message is not clear enough, planners look at the technology and say "what do we do with this?" in an attempt to fit the solution to an unknown problem. The search by planners to incorporate drones into their work is a good example.  Certainly there can be a use, but does the drone solve a known problem or does it require the formation of a new problem? Do we want or need that new problem? The answer varies by time, place, and circumstance but I suspect these new problems often distract from more essential demands.

Consequently the technology startups, major corporations, product supply chains, and DIY hackers are designing our future cities - not designers, developers, or policy makers.  Any time a planner asks "how can I use a drone?", they are placing faith into the mind that designed the robot, the design of the robot, and the capability of the machine. Consequently we need urban professionals who are proactive in the technology creation to say "I want X to do Y so I can get Z," and sufficiently understand the technology to see this vision become reality.  If we are truly in touch with urban systems, we should have the vision and capacity to design our own tools to work with those systems.  The ability to make informs the ability to vision, and more importantly, it is the basis to executing that vision.

Planners have long been at fault for separating vision and implementation. In Yves Deforge's essay Avatars of Design: Design Before Design, the author recounts how renaissance inventors and designers for several centuries generated detailed plans with little understanding on how to implement them, leaving that task to another class of producers.  By the time of the 20th century, the role of artistry in mass production had been squashed, eclipsed by the rise of the Eiffel tower, embodying mathematics and engineering in place of design. The role of the designer whose job was to conceive new ideas fell into the shadow of the engineer who gave form to the possible.

In recent decades, the field of design and the planning profession has shifted toward human-centered methods as mathematics cannot alone solve all problems or generate positive human environments. Yet unlike planners, most of today's UX designers are more tightly connected to the DNA of their tools. They can write software and scripts to automate processes and they can construct new tools to make new visions into realities. When they are limited to produce something they envision, they share common vocabularies with engineers to give form to their intentions.  These designers do not need to be engineers, but their tacit knowledge and skills are sufficient to inform new ways of thinking, designing, and making.

So what of the future concerning new technologies in robotics, big data, and AI? Will humans be replaced by intelligent and superior machines? If the outcomes of the Darpa Grande Challenge are sufficient indicators (below), we are not at risk right now of any threats from these emerging technologies. Notably, none of the robotics teams included an architect or planner, even though every robot was tasked with managing the built environment. There is a clear demand for urban professional among the machines.

Will planners continue to react to the work of engineers, forever a decade or two behind the technology?  Already there is a deluge of books, podcasts, and news specials describing how new breakthroughs will change the economic landscape. People will lose their jobs to robots.  Cities will smolder amid collapsed economies. Or in contrast, planners could create a new preferable future, by repositioning their relationship to technology, taking hold of the materials, engaging the engineers, and embed themselves into the processes that shape our economic landscape. They can make digital tools and participate in the working groups that build the machines. They can take the lead in designing tomorrow and not just react to its arrival. They can design the future.




The Emerging Future of Cities



I travel a lot, and just in the last year I've spent time in some of the worlds wealthiest cities, its poorest, and its most rapidly changing.  London, Dubai, Bangkok, Istanbul, Detroit, and Mogadishu are just a sample.  I also am a constant reader and love to learn new skills in computer science and business strategy.  So out of this mix I have some observations and some proposals on how these observations will evolve.  Is it an optimistic future? For those who can adapt it will be incredible. And for everyone who refuses to do so... not so much.

*Edit: Please note this is not a prescription for future cities.  My objective here is to identify variables and perceptions that are currently not central in discussion yet are central to the realities of tomorrow.

Dynamic Urban Interface
For many years we have described the cyber world as separate from the physical world. This way of thinking needs to stop. There is an interface between the cyber/physical, and this interface is of critical to the future world. As found in a timely piece in Science Magazine, the internet is about to get physical.  Or maybe it has been for awhile. For example, a new post from Brookings Institution suggests that humanitarians should consider the implications of cyber warfare upon mass displacement.


Interaction is Experienced Through Environments
The form of this interface is changing at a rapid rate and accelerating. Only 10 years ago the primary way to use a computer was with a keyboard. Now you can shake it, throw it, walk past it, or swallow it.  This will continue to change and more quickly.

Physical environments are likewise responding to the transformation of the digital interface. The digital urban interface is essential to the future evolution of urban planning, architecture,  and design into a broader field of urban experience design. How we choose to embrace Urban Experience Design in relation to economic policies, organizational systems, and business strategy will continue to be disappointing. While the world is changing quickly, people are not changing with it fast enough to create better policies, markets, or in general, a better world.


Shifting Infrastructures
Robust digital urban infrastructures are the key to making the best use of the digital urban interface. The digital urban infrastructure exists as an interconnection of hardware (physical networks, physical computing sensors), software, and data as input in the form of GIS data, core urban analytics (traffic, pollution, security, water). The speed of these systems to acquire input and process it into a meaningful output (forms vary) will distinguish the ability for one city to embrace greater economic growth than another. Today we have smart cities... so consider how much computing has changed in the last 25 years and apply this same rate of transformation to the year 2039. The curve is exponential.


The New Slum is a Digital Wasteland
The 20th century observed the rise of the middle class and the 21st century is giving way to its demise. The cities with the most optimistic futures are the ones that can connect its citizens to the information and tools needed to compete within a global market place. A good example is this forward-thinking library in Chattanooga that has invested heavily in equipment and seminars for 3d printing and product fabrication technologies. Of course when I asked a librarian in Detroit about this, her response was "it will be very difficult for me to convince the board to put our 300 dollar budget for acquisitions toward new technology since we have so little to work with." Communities that adapt to the speed and interconnectedness will thrive and communities that do not will die. More importantly, communities of data creators will thrive, while concentrations of data consumers will collapse inward, as winner-take-all markets continue to thrive.


Integrated Supply Chains
Even today it is difficult for most companies to track each element of a supply chain. The Conflict Minerals Trade Act has provided incentive for technology companies to shift their practice of component sourcing. Interest in companies like FoxConn have pushed for better treatment of workers. Ultimately this trend will continue. Companies must have better monitoring mechanisms, and our physical environment will transform in response to the demand. Yet this will be expensive. Obtaining a granular level of information will generate new opportunities to cut cost and increase profits. The cost of this refinement will be passed to consumers, exerting more pressure upon a shrinking middle class.


Kanban Urban Management 
Extreme socio-economic polarization combined with integrated supply chains and robust digital infrastructures will create new city management models.  Kanban management methods focus on just-in-time implementation and production. Zero overhead.  Zero waste.  For example, digital sensors in the street will notify the city of a pothole, its dimensions, and location. A service worker is immediately dispatched with the appropriate amount of filler. Problem solved with precision. We won't be perfect at this for a long time - there is a steep learning curve - but the future financial constraints will ultimately demand the emergence and implementation of this technocratic model.

Cairo Egypt - A Contentious Veneer of Political Nothingness



This last weekend I was in Cairo, Egypt thanks to a 12 hour layover on my way to work in Ethiopia. Having previously lived in Egypt, I was excited and nervous to see what developments have occurred in Cairo since the Arab Spring.  I must admit, I was somewhat disappointed.

Here is what I found:

One, there has been an incredible explosion of street art throughout the city.  Not only in Tahrir, but everywhere one can find evidence of artistic expression and protest.  This is rather incredible.  Below is a photo from the old social science campus for the American University of Cairo, located on Mahmoud Mahmoud street.  The quantity of texts and imagery that adorns the building is not unique, but such messages can be found elsewhere in the city.



Admittedly however, Tahrir is the focus of more extraordinary works. On the wall of the original American University campus one can find massive murals and other large-scale works which are less clear in their political intent, but remain aesthetically striking.



Beyond the presence of street art, near Tahrir is an extensive array of defensive fortifications.  Large concrete blast walls and stone structures are arranged for about 1 or 2 blocks in every direction around the Ministry of Interior.  Concave walls line some of the streets, striking because their design would be clearly ineffective against explosives (such as the role of the traditional T-wall) but make human access nearly impossible.  Furthermore, large steel gets have been erected near the Mugama on the edge of Tahrir which can be used to close access to the square.



Yet beyond Tahrir, the city remains fairly unchanged.  Vegetables are sold, donkeys pull carts, and traffic barely moves.  Only one block from Tahrir, one can see that daily life has remained the same as before the uprising.  After meeting with some Egyptian friends, I voiced my concern that nothing has truly changed.  The jobs are the same.  There are still police posted on every corner.  There is still a large quantity of easily identified secrete police scattered throughout the city.  In terms of formal political systems, it appears no different than when I left in December of 2009.  They agreed.



Yet one change remained clearly observable.  The divide between the rich and poor has continued to grow.  Outside the city in Qahira Jedida (New Cairo) the suburbs have exploded in size.  Massive malls, large water fountains, and sweeping grass lawns (in a desert!) stretch as far as you can see. There is even a massive, brand new Ikea located nearby in New Maadi.

In the meanwhile old Maadi, which has been the longstanding neighborhood residence of the elite, has grown old and tired.  There remain some beautiful houses, yet much of the neighborhood has lost its upper class allure.  The rich have vacated for the suburbs and the poor have struggled to fill the gap.

In addition, large scale construction projects can be found everywhere.  Capitalism has run rampant in the interest of the upper class.  Just below is  photo from Tahrir, where on the very edge, massive new office buildings are under construction.



In the end, government has remained unchanged, the security of the common people no different, and capitalism has had its way.  Even the revolution has been co-opted.  Below is a photo-synth of 2 images I took of Tahrir with the Mugama in the background.  Perhaps the revolution was televised, but today it is bought and sold, to no benefit of those fighting for change.


Scaling Tools and Hacking Methods for Urban Development and Reconstruction



Case 1:
Last year an organization analyzing tribal conflicts in the Pashtun belt hired an outside consultant.  He had never been to Afghanistan before, had no familiarity with the issues, but had instead spent a lifetime studying patterns of gang violence in South and Central America.   I was optimistic about his role in the project as I hoped he would bring some keen insight and a new point of view that would revolutionize everyone's understanding of systematic violence in Afghanistan, creating a pathway toward viable solutions.   In contrast, the consultant made a series of irrelevant observations but charged a hefty sum, and left behind only a drained budget and a frustrated research staff.

Case 2:
In the latter years of Albert Einstein, he became obsessed with discovering GUT, the "grand unified theory" that will provide a scientific basis to create a total explanation for everything.  He approached the problem by trying to fuse theories on electromagnetism with relativity.  Not only did he fail in this endeavor, but his pursuit of it made him removed from the newer discoveries of his discipline, in particular the new field of quantum physics.  


The Pursuit of Universal Solutions
I mention these two examples as a consequence of a conversation I had last week with a professor from Columbia University. At this moment I'm loaded down with some deadlines over the next few days so I have little time to spare, but with  a new project on the horizon, I called her hoping to find the cliffs-notes version on relevant industry toolkits and best-practices to save time and ensure success.  Surprisingly, she didn't really have any answers for me.   

Initially I was annoyed, as I'm one forever interested in particular issues rather than specific geographies, and thus have a compulsion to study broad trends to glean useful cross-disciplinary and cross-geographic kernels of knowledge.  I too would likely have hired the Latin American violence expert for the project in Afghanistan.  In my own practice, I make a point to not be geographically specific in my abilities.  Yet over the last few days, my ideology has begun to shift.  Universality is a myth.  

Institutions are forever trying to build toolkits to bolster resilience, establish sustainability, or ensure economic development.  Development interventions, such as technology and business incubators for economic growth are often formulaic.  Certainly these projects can succeed, but how often and under what conditions?  While these are valuable tools, one of the first rules of carpentry is to use the right tool for the job, so we must ask, are these the best tools available?  If they are the only tools, then we need to modify the tools we have to better fit the tasks at hand.

When I was a graduate student, I spent years examining the viability of Sphere Humanitarian Standards for shelter creation within protracted refugee settlements.  Sphere outlines methods for disaster relief and reconstruction, making it a fairly useful tool for cross-coordination among stakeholders and relief organizations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  At the time, I questioned if it was well suited for upgrading in displacement camps that had been in place for decades since the tool is also used in that manner by some ngos.  After conducting extensive field work in Dadaab Camps of eastern Kenya, I learned that Sphere failed to fully account or accomodate the complex socio-economic mechanisms that developed overtime within the camps.  Consequently interventions crafted with Sphere, when applied to long-term settlements, were foreign and arbitrary to the matured local systems.  

Nowadays I question if the very essence of Sphere, as a framework designed for widespread and global application is perhaps entirely flawed upon conception.  While a tsunami will wreak the same kind of damage anywhere in the world, the levels of preparedness, the available social capital, and the legal structures in place will differ dramatically.  Within the current Sphere guidelines, it informs actors to examine and utilize local laws and customs but it does not explain how to do so.  How does this guidance, which is painstakingly obvious, actually helpful?  Rather than construct a universal Sphere, why not begin crafting Sphere guidelines at the country-level, so that all laws and mechanisms can be accounted and introduced in greater detail?  This will not work perfectly and an iterative process is also necessary on the ground, yet it will likely work better than the Sphere guidelines we have at the present.

Rather than focusing on the universality of our outcomes, we can better ensure our outcomes by refining the precision of our tools.  Are all intervention and research methods applicable anywhere?  One might initially think so, given that these methods are empirically designed.  Yet I would say otherwise.  Hence one cannot effectively conduct standard social research in hostile landscapes.  Due to the limitations imposed, the tools can become diluted to the point of uselessness.  For example, In Afghanistan, I would go so far as to say that all social research is flawed on account that it is "perception-based," which is nothing but a delicate phrase to describe indeterminable validity.   

Researchers working in Kandahar and other regions cannot carry any mobile technology to assist in data collection.  Nor can they probe deeply in local issues (at risk of becoming part of the problem) or maintain strict oversight of the data-collection staff.  Individuals who are paid to provide responses have no incentive to be accurate or tell the truth.  Notably, people are often questioned on issues to which they have no direct knowledge or experience, so they can only provide assumptions or guesses as answers.  

Conflict is not the only variable that shapes the effectiveness of our research tools and methodologies.  Language, social conventions, and insider-outsider relations all shape our abilities to do our jobs as researchers, planners, or policy-makers. This isn't new information.  These are typically the concerns discussed with an "Intro to Anthropology Class," but it is essential to question the foundations of our disciplines so as to avoid the pitfalls of chasing after a grand unified theory when the data itself is evident of something entirely different.  

Navigating the Interface between Global Problems and Design Solutions

BodyPrint. Graphite on Rice Paper. On exhibit at Current Residence in 2004. Drawing by Mitch Sipus.
I finished art school in 2004 with a bachelors of fine arts in art and design and a desire to use my skills to drive major changes in the world's most difficult environments.  Over the next few years I learned that the biggest challenges were not the issues of underdevelopment, or necessarily learning about the problems, but rather the disciplinary mindset of other professionals.  As many design schools are now training designers to be social problem-solvers, not just product producers, I wonder how many others have encountered this problem.

As a designer working with issues of poverty and conflict, my greatest asset is the ability to look at problems from multiple perspectives and to utilize alternative methods to develop ideas and solutions.  When it comes to understanding the issues, this problem is easily addressed as it is a matter of self education and direct experience.  A trip to the library, a web connection, a plane ticket, and a thorough grasp of social research methods is generally sufficient for one to get a fundamental grasp on a particular problem.  But I found that as a designer with a direct and competent understanding of social policies, environmental challenges, economic concepts, and international law the biggest challenge was and remains working among professionals from those fields.  

No matter how articulate would communicate my expertise on a topic, when asked about my background and hearing the words "art and design," suddenly the conversation would fall apart.  Multiple times I had job interviews in which the HR recruiter kept asking questions about my art and architecture degrees, failing to see the next 5 years of work experience in development. The words "art school" somehow undermined my credibility time and again.

Over a few years,  I needed to make a departure from working as an artist and designer, to gain traction in a discipline dominated by analysts, lawyers, and regional specialists.  I had to work in institutions and gain a direct grasp of their experiences to understand the context in which many solutions to global problems are crafted.   This experience was valuable because I could also see the flaws within those systems. 

Today I am well-accepted among professional circles concerned with global conflict, poverty, and economic development.  The challenge has in some ways begun to reverse, as I continue to pull the problems into the studio, and other designers see my background as a strange departure.  

Personally I find the question of background completely irrelevant.  My work succeeds because it successfully connects disparate methods and concerns, creating opportunities where no one else sees them.  I do not worry about the interface between design, planning, conflict stabilization and development.  As far as I'm concerned, the interface doesn't exist at all.

Back from Mogadishu - The Fastest Changing City in the World

New Construction Underway in Mogadishu, Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2012.
I always intend to write at least twice a week, but lately there has been a delay as I've been on the road.  I recently returned from Mogadishu and am amazed by how quickly the city is changing.  Although journalists continue to tout it as the worlds most dangerous city, I believe it is time to shift the title into something about how the city of Mogadishu has undergone the most radical transformation in the world.  It hasn't even been one year since my first visit, and yet many parts of the city are unrecognizable today.  And new construction is everywhere!  Hotels, travel agents, import/export businesses and even a new petrol station are up and operating.

In the past, the only way to secure fuel for automobiles was through sharing containers of poor quality fuel, now today a modern petrol station is under construction with modern functioning pumps.  A mall constructed in the 1970s was recently renovated, and the Somali National Theatre, the site of a violent suicide bombing last spring has been restored again into a magnificent state.  Certainly problems within the city remain however if the pace continues and can expand throughout the region, the problems have a limited future of influence.

Somali National Theatre. Sutika Sipus. March 2012
Somali National Theatre. Sutika Sipus. November 2012.


An Integrated Process For Better Urban Planning



Urban planners frequently believe their projects maintain the most efficient balance between demand, costs, and utility.  A project may be result of community discourse, technical analysis, review by the local business community, and a fusion with the most cutting-edge theories.  Yet when the proposal sits before a local planning commission or city council, too often it is torn to shreds. Heavily debated and politicized, if the proposal ever emerges from the other side of the gauntlet, the final outcome is a shadow of it former self, too weak to do anything effective.  There is a pressing demand for an Integrated Planning Process that accounts for the organizational machine of local government and decision makers.

I once heard a story about an urban planner who taught at the University of Cincinnati. The story goes that the planner spent everyday of 30 years studying a particular neighborhood, Over The Rhine, which has historically been a concentration of poverty and crime.  Everyday he walked the streets, spoke with residents,  befriended local businesses, studied the history, conducted economic research and over 3 decades acquired a thorough understanding of the internal and external forces that shape the neighborhood.  But when members of the local government asked for his input to create jobs, reduce crime, or improve the quality of the streets, he was incapable of providing realistic solutions. 

Certainly he had ideas.   Many of them were brilliant.  But the problem was that his sophisticated understanding of OTR also resulted in highly sophisticated proposals.  Many of these solutions were outside the interests of some decision makers, beyond the means of the local government, or required the overhaul of dominant frameworks such as state laws or county budgets.  The proposals that were acceptable were then diluted through tedious meetings, city council debates, local commissions, and ongoing budget cuts.  By the time his solutions actually hit the pavement, they lacked the means to create actual change.  Does this sound familiar?

Urban Planning has become increasingly complex with the rise of big data, inflating costs, diverging politics, and the advent of new technologies.  Given the historic challenges to balance all the demands of planning and development, it is a wonder that anyone can integrate all the new elements at all.  The process becomes unwieldy, and it is therefore no surprise when the final outcome fails.  It doesn't necessarily take decades for many of us to find ourselves faced with a scenario similar to the one described above.

But perhaps we can learn from the field of Product Design, an industry that has also become increasingly complex.  Imagine creating a new mobile phone.  Multiple departments must work together to compile a functioning design, some departments have to create new technologies to meet the demands of the co-workers across the hallway, and once everything is assembled it must also be mass produced, marketed, and sold.  But the process is not strictly linear.  There are limitations for mass production and supply-chain challenges to acquire the necessary parts. There is often a need to create the tools and technologies to assemble the product and then to sort out the logistics of packaging, shipping, and retail.  All these variables have a cost, all these variables entail the energies of thousands of people, and all of these variables must be delicately balanced to result in a working final product for mass consumption.  And if the item doesn't work as well as a competitor product, then no one will buy it. 

To ensure that the product can meet an array of expectations and capacities, every variable is recorded and investigated from initial ideation to the point of consumer use.  In the samer manner, the Integrated Planning Process maps the array of variables to create, design, modify, and implement a solution.  This procedure can reveal to stakeholders and participants what is essential, what is not, impose more clarity, and save time by providing alternatives for individual components.  

This process allows decision makers the ability to look beyond what needs to be stripped down, there is a means to prioritize what is essential, non-essential, and what adds value.  The project will of course change, but the planner is taking responsibility for the forces that impose change, and therefore holding more control over the outcome.  This improved capacity to understand and measure flexibility, will result in higher-value outcomes.

There are several ways to utilize an Integrated Planning Process.  Here are just a few possibilities:

 1.  Simple info-graphics to articulate the processes of decision making reveal the degrees of flexibility in the planning process.  These can be shared publicly (suggested) or for internal use only.

2. Presenting a comparative "teardown" of similar projects in other municipalities can provide a platform for critical engagement to document costs for optimization.   If you identify teardown components in relation to the outcome, you can better isolate the variables that matter most.

3. In addition to itemized costs, planners can provide details for alternative options with the clear cost/benefit of each alternative.  Instead of letting city council decide what works and what doesn't, or too demand more research, simply provide 2 or 3 options for each element of the plan that will have a similar outcome but with a clear cost/benefit.  These variables can then be reconfigured like Lego Blocks.  In this manner it is possible to find ways to quickly reduce cost while maintaining performance.

4. Planners can submit a list of prioritized alternatives or suggestions for modification to the entire proposal,  to better control the outcome of political committees. I do suggest you have this ready and waiting, but do not offer it up in the beginning.  Expect that your proposal will be changed according to the whims of dominant power systems.  There is nothing you can do about this so it is best to factor it into your planning process to create a more viable solution.

5. Planners must recognize that the organization implementing the project (doing the construction work for example), maintain their own level of influence upon the success of the project, such as their ability to finish work on time and under budget.  Map it.

The Integrated Planning Process maps the variables informing project design,  the influence of those who hold authority, and the influence of those who implement the work, and will provide planners the means to propose solutions that are resilient to the political machine.  An Integrated Planning Process results in flexible proposals designed to contend with external demands and will always create a more robust outcome. If a development scheme consists of the insights of stakeholders, but has the ability to fluidly accommodate the organization structure of government and implementing partners, the final result will be more value-laden for the target population and for the neighborhood.

Will such an integrated process always work?  Absolutely not.  There are too many variables, and it is incredibly difficult to measure how much influence each variable will impose upon the outcome.  To borrow from Nate Silver's book, it is a challenge to separate the signal from the noise.  But product design is no different.  There are always glitches, a necessity to release updates, and to release a next generation product based on the precursor.  The Integrated Planning Process does not result in a single one-off solution to later abandon.  Rather it sets the foundation for sequential upgrading.

There are many planners who already work in a similar fashion, but do so intuitively. Integrated Planning thus becomes a skill acquired through experience and therefore is not universally upheld. But if Integrated Planning can be  can be more directly implemented by practitioners (and not just in their minds), or utilized in university curriculums, the benefits will soon become obvious. Planners will typically be more satisfied in the outcomes of their work, but ultimately it is cities who will benefit the most with better projects conducted amid less debate, in shorter time, and for less money.

After the War: Why Inflation in Mogadishu is Not a Problem

Rapid Development in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Mitchell Sutika Sipus. 2012.
Over the last 24 hours, the interwebs have been buzzing over an Al Jezeera Report about the disproportionate rise in property values in Mogadishu.  Suddenly, after months of positive gains in Somalia, there is panic that those who have suffered so long at the expense of war and poverty will again be abused, but now by the forces of capitalism.  Returnees and speculators are blamed for rapid inflation, making housing and property costs far from accessible for displaced and impoverished populations.  This is a valid concern given that free markets typically facilitate the accumulation of capital faster than the distribution.

But this criticism is wrong.  Inflation is not a problem in Mogadishu.

Certainly many are returning to invest and property prices are rapidly changing.  This is necessary.  The only way for Somalia to rebuild from 21 years of war is for outside investment to facilitate change and for the quality of life to improve, so does the price tag.  

While Somalia does have some natural resources, its greatest asset is its location between the Middle East, South Asia, and all of Africa.  It was founded because it was an important link for international trade, and in recent years Somali pirates were able to poach billions of dollars from international markets because they exploited this strategic location.  With a geography founded on international trade, the recipe for Mogadishu to become a successful city and for Somalia to become a stable nation is to rebuild accordingly.

After the Transition
Rebuilding from the War. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
Within every post-war reconstruction process, rapid inflation occurs.  The sudden influx of foreign money distorts local markets and in most cases creates a two-tiered economy.  Typically, as in the case of Kabul Afghanistan or in Phnom Penh in the 90s, you will find a wealthy foreign class paying exorbitant prices, a rapidly growing class of wealthy business owners, and the bulk of the population stuck with low incomes, low prices for basic goods, high prices for real estate, and an increased ability to acquire luxury goods.  When the wealthy foreigners leave the cities struggle to adjust, and in the best circumstance, distribution of capital becomes a little more even.  This scenario is brutal as the intentions of reconstruction are only partly established and the process is economically painful to local populations.  But Mogadishu has multiple advantages.


The Mogadishu Advantage

1. Lack of High-Level Foreign Interests
There is evidence that Mogadishu will not follow the typical same formula as other post-war cities. Foremost, the collapse of al-Shabaab is the consequence of many different phenomena  some being military, but many also are economic and environmental.  The concluding war in Somalia is not entirely due to outside actors.  

Likewise the reconstruction process taking place has very little to do with outside actors.  So far I have yet to encounter another westerner while walking down a street in Mogadishu, unless the person has returned from diaspora.  I have met many people who work in Somalia with NGOs or foreign aid agencies, but compared to most global development hot-spots, there is barely a humanitarian/development presence in Somalia.  In that same regard, there is funding from EU, Turkey, USA but the budgets are far smaller than for other countries, so at the political level there is limited foreign involvement.

2. Investment by Somali Returnees not foreign expats
Mogadishu at Work. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
At the local level, the situation is similar as outside investment is obtained primarily through individuals who have a committed personal interest in Somalia.  These individuals will not disappear from the landscape with their pockets full of war profits, nor will their presence create a dual economy.  

3. Reclamation is first issue among returnees
Many of those returning to Somalia are less interested in buying new property and are more interested in reclaiming the property they owned prior to the war.  This becomes contentious with the massive quantities with internally displaced persons occupying many of the homes.  There are no property records and the result is clogged courts over property ownership disputes, not rising costs of land.  However I have been working with the Benadiir Regional Administration on this issue and have a feasible solution, it is just a matter of working with the proper ministries to implement the program. Notably, speed is a critical factor in this area.

4. Broad Multi-sector growth and regulation offset inflation
Inflation is only an issue if there is no access to employment or no means to regulate the growth so as to make the benefits accessible throughout the population.  But this is not a problem in Mogadishu.  While Al Jezeera argued that there is an "emerging economic divide" in the population and referred to a single estate at the cost of 8,000 USD per month to rent as evidence. the reporter had the situation backward.  
Within a conflict, there is always rapid rise in prices for luxury housing, because there is so little of it.  In the case of Mogadishu, there are were maybe 5 available properties like this among thousands of bombed out buildings, so 8,000 USD per month is actually  a real deal!  

Now that other housing options are emerging, supported by the construction boom (employment), luxury estates will cost less and populations will have more options.   The widespread economic growth is evident in other sectors, such as the increase in internet access, and there are ongoing efforts to regulate growth, such as the developing initiative to register automobiles.  In Mogadishu, rapid property adjustments is offset by widespread economic gains in employment and improved governance.  As long as the rate of inflation is consistent with overall growth trends (assuming the distribution remains similar to now) an improved quality of life will be attainable to most the population in a matter of years.

Naturally there are other problems.  Lack of maps, no land titles, no business registration, no functioning tax system.  But these are on their way and will be implemented over time.  Trust me, I'm working on it.

5 Insights from Conflict Zones for Urban Planners


I've never been to a public hearing on zoning issues or argued with city council over a transportation project.  But I have spent my fair share of time negotiating access to local communities with militia leaders for research and drinking tea with warlords to understand informal justice systems.  Although trained as an urban planner to work in American cities with issues of sprawl, brown fields, and  economic development,  I ended up working with urban planning problems barely touched upon in grad school.

I am an urban planner who works in active warzones and complex environments dealing with issues varying from conflict stabilization to physical reconstruction. These problems  are layered, difficult to engage, and in great need of new creative ideas.  Most people think foremost about the physical risks of the job, but that is actually the easiest obstacle to bypass. Rather, the greatest challenges are usually more cumbersome, like having to decipher local power structures from within the surrounding chaos. After all  the people who appear to have the most decision-making authority and power rarely have the means to implement their will, the most powerful people are hidden from view, and the real stakeholders are somewhere hidden in the shadows.

Technology-Based Economic Development in the Dadaab Refugee Camps, Kenya
Most of the planning literature available, both popular and academic, do not deal directly with the issues I face and therefore my toolbox is a collage of information drawn from multiple disciplines.  Yet am a frequent reader of major planning and urbanism sites, all the while asking, "how is this applicable to the work that I do?"  There is typically some level of application, given that cities such as Kabul, Mogadishu, Juba, or Abuja may be faced with the same problems in the very near future unless different kinds of decisions are made.  If we follow the recipes prescribed by planning texts books and academia, the problems currently found within  American or European cities will become the problems found in Africa or Central Asia very soon.

While I have the advantage of drawing on so much work and research from advanced economies and post-industrial cities, it seems not enough urban planners have the advantage of learning from cities in conflict.   I work in extreme conditions but many of the the lessons learned have widely applicable value.  Here are 5 lessons I've acquired over the years that I apply to almost every job and believe other planners should consider:

1. Organizational Structure.  
There is a reason good planning dies just as quickly as bad planning.  The more sophisticated an organization, the more sophisticated the chain of command and the process for implementation becomes.  Likewise, complex plans require complex organizational structures and  long periods of time.  All plans are also resource exhaustive, but the more resources consumed, also the lower probability of project success and the higher probability organizational structure will modify the utility of the plan.  

The most applicable plans are the ones that are so streamlined in their design that they cannot become contorted by the shortfalls of organizational structure, while also minimizing resource use.  These plans can also be tailored to accomodate the weaknesses of the organization and implementing partner so as to maximize efficiency.  In this manner, the plans become low-input and high-output with a higher probability of success.

Snow Removal in Kabul, Afghanistan
2. Critical Points
If the water is dirty, the streets are broken, the buildings collapsed, the schools are empty, recruitment by militia groups have increased, and no one has any food, what do you do?  You could craft a project for each of the problems but nothing will change fast enough and new problems will emerge.  The solution is to design one or two small, focussed projects that can contend with all of these problems to some degree.  For example, the recruitment of children and the access to education are connected, likely this is also connected to transportation and possibly to food (perhaps the family needs the children to work).  

Planners know how to do the research, so the trick is to find specific geographic locations where all the issues overlap.  Consistent with point 1, it is also important to consider each sector as having an organizational structure, so as to visualize how these dynamics interact in geographic space.  Sorta like working with 4-dimensional legos right?

3. Rapid Appraisals
Often in America it is easy to determine if you have walked into an unsafe neighborhood because of tell-tale signs such as broken windows on cars, drug dealers on the corner, and bars on the windows of every residence.  But what if your sense of danger is actually just an assessment of poverty or a subconscious racism?  Is this neighborhood truly unsafe, or do you only think it is?  Or more so, is it only unsafe for you and other outsiders?

In a very poor country it can be difficult to isolate an area as dangerous when the general level of poverty is extremely high and widespread.  To contend with this, rapid appraisal techniques have been around for decades, and while they are plenty flawed, they also are highly underused.   There is typically not enough security or means to conduct big surveys or arrange for community meetings, but decisions have to be made and time is not available.   Also big surveys are flawed, asking a family about monthly income says nothing about their comparative wealth.  The development of rapid appraisal techniques can save time and lives. Perhaps the wealthiest households all have walls of mudbrick while the others have wattle-and-daub construction?  Maybe the dangerous neighborhood is the one with no street vendors compared to the vibrant markets a few blocks away?  But maybe its just empty because everyone is at work?  The best thing to do is ask questions, develop a formula, and apply it.  It won't be perfect, but you'll understand the landscape better than your counterparts.

Social Conflict Indicators
4.  It has become common knowledge over the last few years in Afghanistan that fluctuations in market prices are frequently a tell-tale sign of impending conflict.  It makes sense however that farmers having difficulty getting their goods to market will raise their prices and violence is a viable obstacle.  But how does this apply in the US?  One thing I've noticed over the years is that place making efforts do not always align at critical junctures (see point 2), and yet if place-based development was tied to physical economic spaces, we could better determine future socio-economic trends.  Lets take more responsibility to create conditions as spatial tools for analysis.

The Political Minefield
5. I lived for many years in Cincinnati, Ohio where I repeatedly witnessed great ideas and proposals get watered down and drawn out until no longer important.  Attempts to develop the waterfront, to install street cars, and to renovate historic buildings have all but dissipated so that when the project actually happens, it is 10 years too late and a mere shadow of itself.  If these plans never see the light of day or emerge true to their intent, then I blame the planner, not the city.   

First the planner should have recognized how the organizational structure of dominant power structures would manipulate his/her work.  Furthermore, the planner failed to acquire the moral argument and collective media support to direct the process from the outside.  When working in a war zone, there are plenty of bad ideas and plenty of poorly designed or executed projects.  Funds get wasted and corrupt individuals abuse the system.  But the sense of emergency and moral imperative that something must be done frequently overrides the political rhetoric and aggression.    Not to mention the role of the media frenzy in determining spending patterns or the popularity of a project.  

Planners in the US could certainly learn something from this process.  By utilizing a morally superior vernacular to back their arguments and acquiring an observable network of support,  professional planners might be able to find the strength needed to get their projects through.  Isn't that what Robert Moses did?  He made a fair share of mistakes, but his influence over the city was not an accident.  Will this result in good plans?  Absolutely not.  But it also won't weaken the goods ones beyond recognition.

En Route to Mogadishu


I will step off the plane in Mogadishu in one week.  Under most circumstances that would be a strange experience, but coming from Kabul it is all the more unusual.  I hope to make the most of my layover in Dubai to freely wander around the streets, enjoy the feeling of entering a restaurant without being checked for weapons, or having to analyze surrounding buildings for sight lines and escape routes every time I sit in traffic.  Kabul isn't all that dangerous, but one has to be constantly vigilant of their surroundings and Mogadishu isn't really all that different.

The other strange thing has been the experience of thinking about Kabul within my pre-departure ritual.  Over the years I've developed a process to prepare mentally and physically before entering complicated places.  I like to take up an exercise regimen, consume copious amounts of powdered weight-gainer from the health food store, and spend weeks slowly packing my back before departure.  I start by accumulating everything that I think would be worthwhile, from flashlights and pocketknives to socks and candy bars, then over the last few days chip away at that pile to determine what is essential, what is not, and how it all fits in my bag.  I like my back to be no more than 50% full, leaving room to pick stuff up on the way, do my best to keep it light. But Kabul has me questioning the necessity of this whole process.  After all, I can find all of those things here, so why did I bring any of them in advance?  It has me questioning what to bring to Mogadishu, and what to leave at home.  Especially strange since this time home is Kabul.

For years I've dreamt of working in postwar reconstruction and urban planning in Mogadishu, but I always imagined it would be far into the future.  I am grateful to my project partners for the opportunity, and while wide-eyed at timing, I feel good about it.  I look forward to working with local officials to solve various infrastructure and population problems.  Right now the issue of land ownership claims among returnees is a major issue for the city and I look forward to tackling this problem among others.  Will definitely update the blog a couple times before leaving but the story doesn't end there.  If this first visit goes well, I'll be back quite a bit over the course of the year.

Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia: #urbanplanning, #mogadishu, #somalia, #design4dev

Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu
For the last 7 years I have labored to understand as much as possible about the city of Mogadishu and to determine viable strategies for reconstruction when the opportunity is presented.  I now have the opportunity to implement these concepts and look forward to introducing simple, yet tangible solutions to many of the city's complex urban planning problems in cooperation with the city government.  Some of the solutions are dependent upon traditional planning and humanitarian initiatives such as concerns with historic preservation and sanitation.  Other concepts are far more innovative, relating to processes in data collection, crowd-sourcing, and GIS.  My business partners and I are presently developing a series of phased low-input, high-input initiatives for the city and will begin implementing these projects in the streets of Mogadishu this March.  I look forward to the project unraveling with some fantastic partners at every step and sharing our progress online.

Yet when I tell others about my work, they often ask, "why Urban Planning in Mogadishu, Somalia?"

The answer goes back a few years to 2004, when I spent 90 days hitch-hiking across Northern India, where I lost my money and acquired malaria in the swampy state of Bihar.    I chose to commit my life to reducing poverty, not with a vague belief that I can make the world better, but rather with the sense that I can make it less inequitable through precise, technical solutions.  It was from that experience I was determined to work in development and to build upon my initial training in art and design through the study of architecture.  After I began my studies, I met Aarati Kanekar, an architect who had worked in post-war reconstruction in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Upon meeting her, I expanded my studies to go beyond architecture, and to focus on urban planning.

In 2005, I completed my first year of graduate school in Urban Planning and Architecture, and was faced with the seemingly massive task of choosing a thesis topic.  Overwhelmed by the task, I thought hard about my essential priorities and determined that I should attempt to locate, define, and focus my lifework upon the world's most difficult problems, to work for the interest of the world's most marginalized and vulnerable populations as this is where the utmost improvement is needed.  Uncertain how to proceed, I turned to Google.  

Concise and innovative urban planning solutions
 are in clear demand in Mogadishu Somalia 
I more or less typed all of my priorities into Google in hope that it would reveal something new to me. Success.  It was from that simple search that I first learned of the Dadaab Refugee Camps.  Embarrassingly, at 23, I was quite ignorant to the problems in Somalia and knew next to nothing of the decades of violence, famine, poverty, and displacement.   As I began to invest more time into learning about the situation, I came to two conclusions. First,  I decided that I would find a way to go to Dadaab to research and work directly with the problems of refugee camp design and planning. Secondly, I also decided that eventually, one day for whatever reason, that circumstances in Somalia would change and the city of Mogadishu will need to rebuild.  

After decades of conflict, it is difficult to be entirely optimistic, but in many ways, the prediction from 6 years ago has begun to manifest.  After al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu several months ago, they have had little success in a multi-front battle against AMISOM/TFG, Kenya, and drone attacks from the US.  Although other forces may have strategic limitations, the fact that Shabaab has continued to change their tactics is evidence of continuing instability on their end.  For the first time since its founding, the Transitional Federal Government has full control of the city of Mogadishu.  With al-Shabaab primarily limited to the Kismaay region, there is even an effort underway to begin relocating refugees from the Dadaab camps back to Somalia.

Mogadishu is an ancient city.  Since the 14th Century it has flourished from its strategic location, an epicenter for trade between the Gulf and the Swahili coast.  It is this strategic location that also facilitates regional piracy.  It also serves as an ideal conduit for the trade between internal production and export.  Although dominated by an array of colonial powers over time, from Oman to Italy, it nonetheless retains an internal, structural capacity to again become a major economic hub.  Its urban density, coastal location, european roadways, and interconnection with other cities such as Afgooye or Kismayo have contributed to an urban resilience of the city.  Perhaps one could conjecture that so much physical destruction has taken place in the city because the structural resilience made it too difficult for armed groups to conduct combat, and consequently only through degrading the city could military accomplishments take place.

Now that city is beginning to stabilize and the Somali people are beginning to return to Mogadishu.  With the massive influx of returnees, the city is faced with new tasks.  Jobs need to develop, roads need to be cleared and repaired, sanitation improved, access to water, and systems need to be developed to deal with property ownership and acquisition.  Without the funds to cover the costs, and with the lack of urban planning for a city in conflict, it will require creative and innovative efforts to stabilize and rebuild.  Of course there are greater regional challenges, as many are also returning to Mogadishu because they fear the dangers of living outside the city.   Obviously the key to the success of the city is connected to the stabilization of the region as well.  But for the first time in decades, there is a chance that something can change.  There is an opportunity.  

Part I of II: Central Place Theory and Informal Economies


In 1933 Walter Christaller made a ground breaking contribution to the understanding of economic geography with the founding of Central Place Theory.  This theory seeks to explain the spatial structure, scale, and quantity of urban settlements as an inter-connected system.   Determined by studying settlements in southern Germany, Christaller noted that many settlements of similar scale and composition were equidistant from one another.  While his model is founded upon a collection of unrealistic assumptions such as the expectation of markets to function in equilibrium and for transportation between cities to have equal costs, he nonetheless established some valid conclusions.

Christaller determined that each human settlement functions as a central location to provide services and goods from the core to its peripheral threshold.  The distance to that periphery will very for the quality of goods, where as common place items, items of the lower order such as common produce, have a smaller geographic sphere of influence and high order goods - gourmet items -  maintain value across greater distances.  At a certain point, the value of the item reaches a threshold, where it is no longer to the advantage of the consumer to spend time/money to travel the distance and acquire that item.  This  process is also observable within a previous post, wherein I discussed the presence of Coca-Cola as a socio-cultural and economic indicator.  The cost of Coke is high in the center of the city (because of the stronger markets) and as one travels into the hinterland the cost drops until a threshold is crossed and the price begins to escalate due to rarity.  In America or Europe, the threshold would overlap with another marketplace and the cost remains constant.  However in many developing countries, the market reaches its threshold and the product is simply no longer available.



Central Place Theory 4x
Although a product's area of influence is assumably circular from the point of origin, Christaller modified the model as the juxtaposition of circled regions would leave gaps with no service.  By adapting a hexagon, one is able to adjust the scale of the model, isolating single settlements and zooming out to identify how settlements of higher order (large cities such as Chicago, New York, London, Paris) are few and far between, interwoven and interdependent economic landscape. The distribution of markets and market centers reveals that each city center shares 1/3 the market of the adjacent market of equal scale (the K=3 principle); the market of the highest order dominates all adjacent markets, and this dominance promotes efficient transportation of goods by working from a central administrative hub (the K=4 and K=7 principles).


Yet how does this same concept apply to alternative human settlements?

Presumably other human settlements function in a similar manner.  The same geometric spatial pattern may emerge among administrative centers or military bases while an inversion of central place theory also highlights urban settlements of tactical significance within a military operation.   Administrative centers and economic hubs may take multiple forms, and it is no surprise that the changing of government regimes, political power, ethnic composition and market transitions often witness the imposition of new systems on top of the previous systems.  Classic examples may be found in ancient cities such as Jerusalem, Rome, and Cairo, however more immediate examples are easily found.  Of course the act is typically symbolic, to display the replacement of power and the dominance of the ruler.  However the process is just as often logistical, as these cities frequently maintain economic advantages.

Recently in Afghanistan, one can find a similar example as an al-Queada militant training camp now functions has a rural development hub, while the primary Counterinsurgency strategy of NATO and US Forces in the nation has consisted of establishing secure administrative centers for reconstruction and development.   In contrast, al-Queda linked militants in Yemen have targeted military bases throughout the south of country at nearly equidistant locations from one another.   Both NATO and the militants are ultimately attempting to do the same thing, but clearly different reasons.

As Central Place can provide insight into the economic sub-structure of a settlement, it also provides tools to illuminate gaps within service provision, governance, and economic markets.

What is unclear however, is the  the role of Central Place Theory within Informal Economies. As informal economies dominate the global south, and illicit economies often function in a parallel or overlapping nature to support militarization and criminal networks, it is unclear how these less measurable systems may comply or conflict with Central Place Theory.  Demand for weapons, drugs, and sex workers is subject to economic constraints, yet these goods are also traded by complex means, often taking great effort to avoid formal institutions and legal authorities.

Please return for Part II of Central Place Theory and the Urban Economy.

Kenya's Superhighway


super-highway through Kenya is under construction, complimented by the development of a new trucking industry and ocean port.  Chinese investment in the region is spurring such projects, leading the construction of the Thika Road. By expanding an existing route, this development will connect Kenya's local economy with the surrounding region, ease traffic, and facilitate the movement of roughly 80 million people.

The road construction includes the expansion of existing roadways to interconnect the new project with preexisting infrastructure, improving access to universities, cinemas, and the national museum.   It also includes flyovers, underpasses, and a full drainage assemblage. Construction hasn't been entirely smooth, as tensions over hiring processes have led to large scale protests. Many land owners were also dissatisfied to lose their land to the project. The project will take three years and three construction companies to complete the project, but will have large scale impact on the regional economy.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs once stated that one of the greatest projects our world could pursue to overcome poverty is to build an efficient transportation route throughout East Africa, "rather than a two-lane, broken-down road," that presently serves as the only transit corridor from Mombasa to Burundi.  Perhaps the Thika Road expansion is will lead to other such projects, and Sachs' vision will become a reality.

The New Sphere #Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Response Standards 2011


I am quite excited to see that the new edition of the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Response standards are coming out this April.  Although the printed edition is not yet available, the pdf is may be directly downloaded from the website here.  After a cursory glance, there is a significant improvement within the new edition, as it presents information in a more concise manner.  The new standards are not perfect of course.  As Under Secretary General of the ICRC says in the video below, there are times that meeting the standards may not be feasible, such as the provision of adquate space for shelter within Haiti, however, it is important that humanitarian actors utilize the Sphere standards to understand the repercussions of planning settlements with overly concentrated density; such as furthering gender divisions and escalating health dangers.


I have a particular interest in the Sphere Settlement Standards, having previously researched the feasibility of such standards to meet the demands of refugee camp planning in a protracted settlement.    My previous research concluded that Sphere lacked the tools to facilitate protracted communities within refugee camps as it did not engage the tools, assets, and networks that developed over time.  Furthermore, I felt that it was insufficient for meeting the needs of populations displaced by violent conflict, as it failed to tie the needs of the population to the pyscho-social conditions of their legal status and departure.  By not considering how the roots of displacement are reflected within new social and settlement patterns, intervening agencies arguably provide less benefit than may appear.  

Fortunately the new Sphere Minimum Standards covers many similar issues, or at the very least, many of the of the emerging issues facing the humanitarian community including: civil-military relations, the role of protection and vulnerable populations, a discussion of rapid and long term assessments, monitoring and evaluation, aid worker performance measures, and most importantly, a recognition of the relative values of these standards depending on circumstance.   All of these new tools and frameworks accommodate a more community-centered approach and demonstrates the new Sphere 2011 as a significant improvement.  Of course the real value of its improvement is to be demonstrated over the following years through implementation.

The Capacity for a New Egypt


There have been countless discussions and analysis' in the last several days regarding the future of Egypt.  As I have a rather personal relationship with Egypt, I have paid great attentions to these discussions.  Most often, they have focused on the lackluster stance of the United States, the omnipresent power vacuum, and the pivital role of the military in securing the state on behalf of the people or on behalf of Mubarak.  Facebook, blogs, and twitter posts have also been quick to point out all the things not being discussed: the role of women in the protests, the socio-economic conditions that led to this uprising, and a discourse on what exactly is the identity of the Muslim Brotherhood within the political landscape.  While Al Jezeera has done an excellent job of providing constant coverage, it seems that most American media have spent their time focussing on hypotheticals.  Not to simply add another analysis to the already cluttered pool, but there is one startling observation that remains heavily undiscussed: what are the assets in place for a better Egypt?  

I'll never forget a couple years ago when I went for a job interview with a non-profit founded and operated by Egypt's former Minister of Culture.  He had many impressive credentials, a nice office in a wealthy neighborhood, and project committed to improving relations between Egypt and Sub-saharan Africa.  In short, I accepted an agreement to do a lot of work and in the end was left stranded with with a rather bad situation.  Ultimately I concluded that the agency was simply a corrupt operation for this guy to siphon funds from the government.   The first thing that tipped me off, however, was the fact that this guy had no understanding of the broad scale of non-government organizations situated in Cairo to assist the most vulnerable populations and facilitate capacity building.

A quick google search alone will show one the variety of NGOs that have been long established in Egypt.  Notable agencies include The Egyptian Center of Human Rights, the NGO Support Center, Caritas, and St. Andrews Refugee Services.  Egypt is likewise full of Universities training engineers, scholars, researchers, and technicians at places such as Cairo University, Ain Shams University, American University in Cairo, and the The Future School.   While there certainly tens of millions of Egyptians without adequate access to education or viable livelihood options, there are also millions of Egyptians who are talented, business savvy individuals who have sought opportunities for self advancement their whole lives.

I'm not going to pretend to know what will happen to Egypt - but the possibility is part of the excitement.  Whereas in the past extremist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were the only viable alternative to Mubarak's government, there is now the means for many other players to enter the field.  In a country that restricted the movement and access to services of its own people, there is now the possibility that a new generation of Egyptians could engage ladders for social mobility.  In contrast to living beneath a 30 year suspended constitution on the grounds of a "State Emergency," the people may express their opinions in newspapers and media outlets - including the internet - without fear of the police taking them away in the middle of the night.  

In contrast to news reports, the people I personally know in Cairo right now explain that the protests have remained generally peaceful.  That many citizens have been actively removing trash from Tahir square and other parts of the city to show this is no longer the downtrodden Egypt of Mubarak. That the crowds are overwhelmingly shouting slogans of universalism to overcome perceived hostilities between Christians and Muslims or rich and poor.  

The struggle for Egypt will remain for sometime.  But I do not perceive this struggle to be frightening, rather it is simply an honest expression of its people, as founded by necessity.  And hopefully, soon, when the country is able to pass over the present precipice of tensions and protest, and move toward resolution in the form of a new government, there will be some recognition of an easily over-looked, yet pre-existing infrastructure.  An infrastructure of longstanding mosques, churches, business owners, academics and non-profits all equally committed to a better Egypt.  This commitment is not new, it has always been there, but  like a plant bursting through the soil to see the sun for the first time, this commitment has the space to live and grow.

The Role of Land Use Laws in Architectural Planning and Design for Reconstruction, Refugee, and IDP Camps


When the earthquake immediately happened in Haiti, I recall having several conversations about the creation of IDP camps and popular criticisms regarding a slow reaction by aid agencies.  Time and again, as natural disasters strike, displaced populations are forced to seek temporary shelter  while various actors struggle to put the pieces beck together.  A key, yet heavily under discussed element of this process, is the role of land use laws and ownership.

Land ownership is a messy situation in impoverished countries, as formal systems of documentation and ownership found in the wealthiest countries simply do not exist, or are incredibly corrupt and complicated.  Economist Hernando de Soto even advocates that much of the world is trapped in poverty primarily because populations lack access to the articles of ownership and leasing of property.  Without deeds, leases, or contacts to facilitate transactions of property, the greatest commodities are the least utilized.   Without these mechanisms, land use and ownership laws vary by culture and economy, such as in Somalia where the traditional Xeer system is founded upon the interests of nomadic pastoralism. In much of Somalia, Xeer works alongside  secular state law and Islamic Sharia law to form a loosely understood system of Somali Common Law.  While it is a challenge for outsiders to penetrate these complex, informal systems, it is often just as difficult for residents to pursue the formal channels of land ownership in their on countries.

Given the range of land use laws that exist in a single site, it is no surprise that humanitarian action can be slow and difficult.  In an emergency, the rights and regulations of land use and ownership are not suspended, but must be integrated in the recovery process.  This of course does great disservice to the most vulnerable populations, who are left seeking safety along public transportation roots and government land.  To complicate matters further in Haiti, many citizens to not hold land ownership but rent or sharecrop land from an often absent landlord via informal agreements that have been in place for several decades or longer.

If informal arrangements dominate the settlement of displaced persons in Haiti, how can designers, architects and planners advance the reconstruction of Port Au Prince and surrounding regions?  Whereas the city organically developed by means of these loose arrangements, can a western system of design and planning facilitate the reconstruction?   Clearly it is possible to introduce new housing and urbanism solutions, but then a new complication will arise, as it demands the finding and rightful compensation to existing land owners.   Of course this process takes time, and under the constraints of a pending crisis time always appears to be the one resource that is never available.

The Seemingly Impossible is Possible




Today I am sharing Hans Rosling's presentation at TEDTalks, wherein he uses a wealth of statistical data to show how the world is changing - for the better.  He begins this by presenting an excellent analysis of aggragated data, comparing the GDP of countries vs. their infant mortality rate over the last 100 years.  The data reveals the discrepancies between economic growth and social development, for example, in 1957 the United States had same economy as contemporary Chile, yet only in 2002 does the quality of health with the United States reach the quality of health within Chile. As the presentation advances, he introduces the lessons learned from his long experience as a public health researcher and strategies toward mitigating the obstacles toward further advances.   What I love most about this presentation is that he deconstructs the industrial/developing mindset and shows that many of the countries in the world we consider 'developing' have actually advanced more in the last 50 years than any other country in the world if one were to accurately consider the circumstances these countries were facing 50 years ago. Not only is the presentation insightful, but it is incredibly entertaining as well.  Enjoy.

Building a Bridge to Africa

I've recently initiated research on the socio-economic impact of a bridge presently under construction between Djibouti and Yemen, also known as the Bridge of Horns.  While this small stretch of water is already a major trade route between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, the development of this 16 mile bridge will make a major impact upon intercontinental trade by creating a direct linkage between the oil import producing nations of the Gulf with other production sites such as Sudan, and streamlining consumption by emerging economies such as China.  However I'm looking at what other externalities the construction of this bridge will establish, in particular its role among informal migrants who steadily attempt to access Yemen at great risk.  As Yemen presently developing into a formidable conflict zone, I am curious how back-linkages will additionally occur, feeding militant assets such as weapons and ideology into existing African conflict zones.   I will be writing more about this project in upcoming blog posts.

Mogadishu, Photo by Frank Langfitt/NPR
Speaking of spreading conflict, NPR hosted a decent  4 part series this last week on Somalia.  Journalist Frank Langfitt went to Mogadishu to assess the current state of things within this war torn city.   There were two aspects of his story that I found interesting, one about how political corruption slows the process of payment to Somali soldiers who are willing to join the AU and fight against Al Shabaab, the other regarding the influence of Al Shabaab within the Kenyan neighborhood of East Leigh.   I was just talking to a Somali friend of mine who lives in that neighborhood, and while I've found it a welcoming environment at the times I've been there, its interesting to hear that some of the businesses are now owned by Al Shabaab who has slowly permeated their influence within the neighborhood. 

The Something that went Bump in the Night

Today blew my mind.  Not in the immediate way, but in the slow burning manner, where you know that something crazy is happening but can't quite describe it.  I suppose the phrase 'the calm before the storm' would better describe my thoughts, but in all honesty there is nothing calm about it.  Perhaps ' the storm before the storm' would be a better metaphor.

Things started out normal enough.  I woke up, drank some tea, read some emails, made some phone calls.  Nothing unusual.  I went into my office and again pretty much did the same thing.  I had an appointment with a large technology outsourcing company this afternoon, and looked forward to their driver picking me up at 2:30.  As Nairobi is a massive sprawling city on par with New Dehli or Amman Jordan - far larger than Cairo, thats for sure - I thought the offer for transportation was a simple courtesy and that the firm was simply sending me a cab, maybe even footing the bill.  Greatly appreciated as the company is located about 20 minutes outside of downtown and taxis are expensive.  

At 2:30 my phone range, and I could hear the sounds of traffic and wacky music in the background.  A man with a strong non-western accent told me he was nearby and to meet the car at the sidewalk.  I smiled, imagining some rundown taxi with smoke pouring out the back and loud afro-reggae blaring on blown-out speakers.

I step out into the sunlight, when suddenly  a bright shiny minivan pulls up with tinted windows, adorned newly painted company graphics wrapped around the entire vehicle.  Inside were three Indian guys with blue-tooth ear pieces, a stack of freshly printed marketing materials on irrigation systems, and the loud pulsating beat of Cher's greatest hits - the Techno Dance Remix.  For the next 30 - 40 minutes these guys whipped this van around the side streets of Nairobi like it was central New Delhi.  Pulling into oncoming traffic, swerving around slow vehicles, nearly clipping pedestrians as it backed up a one way street, I had flashbacks of India while gritting my teeth in modest terror.   It was truly bizarre, as I looked out the window at a landscape iconographically African, and yet felt somehow transported further East.  Somewhere between the cigarette smoke and the men singing along to Cher's "Do you believe in Love after Love" with thick Indian accents, I had the feeling that today was no longer just any ordinary day.

When we arrived at the office building (ahem, office complex), I was struck by its massive size, empty floor level rooms, vacant hallways, and sprawling parking lot.  Not sure where to go, I followed one of the guys from the van.  We made small talk in the elevator while I tried not to stare at the 4 shiny gold earrings in his left ear, that matched his massive wristwatch, and assortment of rings.  We stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby of tomorrow.

While of recent years America has struggled with the issue of unemployment, it is arguable that many of the other countries in the world have instead been battling the issue of under-employment.  Hungry for an opportunity to succeed within the global economy, more and more people have sought to acquire the skills and knowledge to be at the economic forefront.  Some economist have described this process as having occurred "while America slept," but however you look at it, the global playing field has leveled.  India for example, has more universities and a higher enrollment rate than any nation in the world.  We all know that China has expanded its industrial production along the entire coast line and is presently building its mineral and natural resource sector within its interior.  Certainly America has worked to advance its own position as well, most notably with the recent Stimulus Plan, but under the constraints of a privatizing education system and hard-line free market position, the US just doesn't have the same mobilized labor force nowadays.  At least not for the higher order of labor that actually will build income in the contemporary marketplace. 

What I saw today was only a peak at what is out there, and thats the crazy thing.  I walked into a multi-million dollar operation that employs 100's of  people, twice per day, to write software, handle large accounting portfolios, language translation, transcription, data input, software testing... you name it.  If you have a project in mind, and they don't have the means at the moment, then they are more than happy to acquire those means within a matter of hours.  Within days or hourse they can train their staff on new software, or even custom write software if the task is unusual.  The manager told me of a recent development in which a client asked for a tele-marketing service within America - but that the phone number on the caller ID is to be displayed as an American phone number, not Kenyan.  This request was able to be accommodated immediately.  In fact, if you live in the US, you might have already spoken with one of these people on the phone, as they handle some MASSIVE accounts over there.  Oh, and don't forget about the accounts in Britain, Australia, Canada... 

When I asked if they have difficulty obtaining qualified employees, I was told that the situation is in fact, just the opposite.  There is such a massive labor force of qualified individuals within East Africa, that they really can hire as many people as they choose, and whenever they choose.  The general manager then made a joke, that of course the people don't quite have much experience and so this is only a medium scale business in Kenya - light years behind the capabilities of India. 

I smiled, as if I knew what he was talking about.  But all the while, I knew that I was actually clueless about the capability of India.  I still am.  Sure, I might of taken a dip in the Ganges river, but I never went to Bangalore.... I'm starting to think it might be like visiting a different planet.

I stayed for about 2 hours, talking with administration and associates.  Everyone was very friendly and there was a lot of energy in the room.  Hip hop music blared in the background while the sound of typing cut through from cubicle after cubicle after cubicle...

I  walked around the facilities - training rooms, cafeterias, voice centers, programming, hardware... - with my tour guide.  Every room was separated by a solid metal door, with a lock that reads your finger prints to open.  I was told that the locks also keep track of individual employee entry and exit times, which may be important as a security measure as they handle a lot of banking, finance, and investment projects.   I also noticed the occasional poster of a Hindu god or the smell of incense.  If it wasn't for the large room full of Kenyans diligently working or the booming African hip hop in the background, I might have begun to think I was somewhere else.

Around 6 the director of the company was kind enough to drive me back to my office. We spoke for a little about the company and his own experience.  When I asked how long he has been doing this, he said he got into the business about 6 years ago in India, and worked for someone else.   As for the operation I saw today, he started it about 2 years ago.  He told me that the biggest challenge to starting this sort of business is access to sufficient start up capital, because you must start big.  That too compete in the information market of today, you need several hundred employees who can begin working immediately, with back up support systems, IT and hardware infrastructure, the ability to purchase all the necessary software and space... while no job is too big or too small, it is always possible for your operation to be just too small, and so you must go from non-existant to gigantic simply overnight. 

I asked "Is this difficult to do here?"

He responded, "No, not at all."

Afghanistan: Communication & Development

Earlier today I was reading a blog entry by Peter Bergan, the CNN Security Analyst, about the improvements Afghanistan has experienced within the last couple years.  He highlighted various improvements in security, mine clearance, education, economic development, and refugee repatriation.  There was also a great deal of applause for the construction of a large, modern airport.

Reading this column initially made me cringe, as it brought to mind a story I once heard from my grandfather about an experience he had in Vietnam in the early 60's.  In short, the Americans had constructed a massive modern airport while the Russians provided instruction to the local population about better ways to fatten and breed chickens.  It doesn't take much thought to recognize why the general public, who could never see themselves ever riding in airplane, were more receptive to the Soviets.

However one additional point mentioned by Bergan was that "One in six Afghans now have a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system."  With a population of over 32 million people, this means that nearly 5.5 million people have access to cellular communication within this generally rural province.  While its likely that most Afghans remain uninterested in the new airport, with 5.5 million users in about 5 years, mobile phones are clearly a winner.

Certainly the expansion of cellular networks posits significant social benefits for the Afghan population. Prior to 2003, it was common for many villagers to have never once used a telephone. Now it is possible for this family-centric culture to maintain ties over greater distances. In addition, this cellular network may be a key component with the ongoing stabilization and development of the nation.

Cell phones and Security
One of the major benefits to arise from the establishment of mobile technology within Afghanistan was the capability for armed forced to locate Taliban insurgents by tracking phone signals within the countryside.  And lately, as mobile phones became more prominent throughout the public, individuals have been more willing to provide authorities with information regarding insurgent activity because this information can be provided anonymously.  Although Taliban fighters have made efforts to destroy cell towers, the general public has been frustrated as such destruction now interferes with their own lives.

Lessons from Grameen Phone
Established in 1996 by Iqbal Quadir, the founder and Director of the Lagatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, and Nobel Laureate Mohamed Yunus, the Grameen Phone company has served as the primary cellular phone provider within Bangledesh for the last 13 years.  In addition to standard phone services, Grameen Phone was further created with the intention of utilizing mobile technology as a tool for economic development.  Most notably, Grammeen established the program Village Phone,  assisting interested entrepreneurs in rural villages to sell telephone services to villagers.  Additionally, phones had been made available by means of micro-finance projects, while internet access could be acquired by means of community information centers.  With enhanced connectivity, individuals could better operate their own businesses, such as by determining the going market price in advance of goods delivery, or by knowing the upcoming weather conditions.  Individuals may also start businesses selling phone credit, mobile phones, or providing battery charging services

Capitalizing on Remittances
Nearly all migratory populations are dependent upon, or in some way participate within, the ongoing international flow of financial remittances.  As displaced families, unable to obtain sustainable incomes, remain dependent upon relatives and friends for financial assistance, it is obvious that cellular communications serve an important role within the stabilization of the Afghan economy.  With over 3.3 million displaced individuals within and outside of Afghanistan, the ability for these individuals to access  cellular technology now provides financial services well beyond the use of traditional money wiring services.

In the near future Afghans could utilize this technology to buy goods, pay bills, and move cash in the same manner found throughout the African continent.   By establishing bank accounts via mobile providers, Afghans will have the ability to secure their finances and easily transfer funds for the purpose of remittances by uploading purchased phone credit, transferring it to another account, and then exchanging that credit for cash or goods.

SWOT
Although increased cellular connectivity strengthens family ties, improves security, and could provide a means for future economic development, there are nonetheless major obstacles.  The prominence of low incomes and illiteracy greatly undermines the distribution and use of cell phones, yet with innovative programming by international agencies these problems may be mitigated.  Through the distribution of cell phones via micro-finance and entrepreneurial services, and in coordination with the further development of the nationwide education system - which has been noted as improving - the role of mobile communications may continue to serve an important role within the reconstruction of Afghanistan.