Viewing entries tagged
Geography

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.




Seeing Like A State (into the Future of War)



For over a decade, the non-state actor has held the world captive. Non-state actors can take many forms. Militant groups, criminal gangs, and drug cartels have risen to power in fragile states though rarely — if ever — with the intent to replace the role of state. They have generally pursued other interests. Some urban and conflict experts predicted that the erosion of the state by non-state actors will set the path for future wars. But at some point, state-like forms of organization are prone to emerge as these groups conquer larger territories and appropriate capital to such a degree that they must now take responsibility in generating new capital. The specific intent to formulate and replace the state will emerge out of sheer necessity. There is no other path for the non-state actor once the state has eroded.

Perhaps while the late 90s and early 2000s were the era of the non-state actor, the world is now witnessing the emergence of new state models in which geography is secondary to technology and the traditionally disruptive elements of governance such as religion and migration will serve as the corner stones. The components often ignored by governments as valuable, such as the activities informal economies and social relations, are the key components of a new political order. The new state is the government of outliers. ISIS might have territorial control to assert power, but it acquired this territory by distributed networks of information and people.


Three Observations on the Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

1. The Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL/IS  - daeish- controls more land than the government of the UK.

2. Tens of thousands of people have migrated from around the world to join Daeish which also uses mass migration (from Libya to EU) as a threatening tactic.

3. Daeish generates at least 90,000 (perhaps even more than 200,000) social media impressions each day.

Indicators of A Changing Conflict Landscape
History is saturated with case studies of large, formal states invading and fighting fragmented assemblages and non-state, militant social groups. It never goes well. States struggle to construct an asymmetrical fighting force to engage non-state actors, and non-state engagement never permit a clear resolution. There is no one to sign a peace treaty or to surrender on behalf of all actors. There is insufficient coordination, authority, and agreement by non-state actors to conclude war with tidy endings. These systems are resilient because they are distributed.

Notably, ISIS is not an accident. It is a strategically planned institution that builds that leverages distributed networks to establish social capacity. Recently Der Speigal uncovered a collection of documents highlighting the explicit planning of ISIS by a former Iraqi Air Force Officer. This new state was not founded on Islamic values, but on identifying and structuring informal social relationships into concrete forms of land ownership and occupancy.

The founding of ISIS began with opening non-profits in targeted locations, collecting information on local families, and building small organizations than could integrate themselves into the local fabric. Alienated youth and foreigners were specifically targeted for recruitment and militarization. By building the organization into the society, traditional community assets — such as the influence of important families — could be undermined through subterfuge.


Like A State
In its formation, ISIS may have relied upon different social elements than one would expect necessary to construct a state such as a formal constitution or codified rule of law. But notably, to appropriate the concepts of James Scott in “Seeing like a state,” ISIS has from the outset used all of the same strategies and methods of a typical, planned, and ordered society.

ISIS leverages relationships, assumptions of Islam, and private details for citizens, but at its core, ISIS is an “administrative ordering” of society. Whereas most western societies rely upon empiricism and technology to guide the organization and production of knowledge, ISIS promotes a message of religion to do the same, but in contrast mobilizes its own identity as the underpinning of social order (like a cult). This isn’t exactly high modernism (as Scott asserts), but perhaps could be considered something akin to high medievalism.

ISIS is an authoritarian state that coerces and manipulates civil society. According to normative conceptions of state building, marginal members of society must be organized into to the state, and here within ISIS, we see the state goes beyond organizing its margins so as to make them central. Alienated youth around the world are the core soldiers of ISIS.

Building on Scott’s concepts, we can make some assumptions about the future of ISIS:
  1. If ISIS continues to expand using a local grass roots model of expansion, so as to always give the impression that its territorial control emerged locally, it will persevere.
  2. As long as ISIS continues to localize and centralize the peripheral actors to function at its core, it will continue to advance rapidly.
  3. As long as ISIS lacks a state-like objective — such as agricultural productivity — it will not be crippled by the necessity to build robust institutions. Note that in the 1990s, the Taliban was able to rise to become a government by means of informal channels, but it struggled to operate as a state (at least in the way most nation states are measured externally).
Long Term Horizons
In general, an organized military is designed to engage in state-to-state classical warfare. With the rise of the non-state actor, there have been attempts to transform military organizational structure into agile units, relying extensively on special forces and similar specialists, to engage distributed actors. This strategic shift to agile teams has given States the ability to win battles but not to win wars.
States, in contrast to insurgencies, are conquerable. A state can be engaged symmetrically, it can be modeled, and it can be undermined. In consequence, perhaps the key to defeating ISIS is to wait for it to grow up.

Maybe the most efficient way to defeat ISIS, unfortunately, is to waif for it to mature. This sounds counterintuitive because a more stable ISIS means it will have more robust supply chains, resilient command structures, and organizational capacity. It is risky. But as a state, it is also aligned to the capacities of global militaries. When the US invaded Iraq to defeat Saddam Hussein, it was able to take control of the entire country within only 6 weeks. The bigger problem is then what? 

Themes of Future Wars
Future conflicts will be distributed systems (like today's global war on terror), but concentrated foremost where digital urban infrastructure spatially correlates with vast gaps in wealth and hindrances to social mobility.  This exemplified by the strategic locations in which ISIS was able to gain a foothold, as social capital provided local leverage while technological connectivity provided a unique mix of autonomy and organizational structure. By slamming these two oppositional forces into the same space, we can identify immense pressures on a digital urban interface.

The significance of in geography in has forever been proportionate to the ability or inability to communicate, operate, and interact across distance.  For example, Genghis Khan was successful because he used a system of fires to distribute messages vast distances very quickly.  Or in more recent decades he US military has struggled to supply fuel to FOBs in challenging terrain, whereas the cost of fuel distribution is generally far higher than the value of the fuel itself.

Likewise the creation of the internet has revolutionized economies who no longer need to focus on industry or exports, but rather can focus on pure brainpower (such as found in India's thriving BPO industry).  For centuries whoever held Afghanistan controlled the world because it was the link between the East and West, but today it doesn't matter because we can send an email from one side to another. Everyday, the role of physical geography grows smaller.

Regarding the development of conflict, distribution of small groups will initially be affected by physical geography, but it becomes secondary to the virtual geography. If the process of actor clustering and distribution is fast enough, the physical geography melts away to leave intact high-speed, highly-connected, sprawling digital networks of semi-autonomous groups (like ISIS). The resulting threat levels are relative to the organizational capability of the group to manage these networks. Some will succeed and many will not. If you start a terrorist group, make sure to have a strong IT support team.

Predicting The Location of Future Conflicts
I suspect that in 30 years, a city like Lagos, Nairobi, or Mexico City is more likely to confront a civil war than Mogadishu. The physical terrain is completely irrelevant to the location of the conflict, thus Syria is the preview of future wars. Syria was by all means a nice country with decent infrastructure and extreme polarities between classes, though enveloped by an oppressive government. It had the right mix of technological capacity, social tension, and political corruption/ineptitude to ferment into blazing war. Syria will not end soon.

A key component of what I describe — but easily overshadowed — is that the physical distribution of the advanced communication technology is essential to undermine the value of geography. There is a strange interaction here… build a robust IT infrastructure and the typical concerns of physical geography (roads, industry, mountains) fade away. Yet this robust the IT infrastructure but be locally integrated, because if the virtual geography is inaccessible to economies of scale, the more you will find non-state actors will emerge, distribute, and virtually cluster.

Notably infrastructure distribution does not exist in a vacuum, but is determined by the logistical advantages/disadvantages of geography, which will also impose a degree of irregularity on the time-scale of the distribution. For example, with only one horrendous road linking Mombasa to Burundi, the distribution of mobile phones, towers, and routers is hindered. They become concentrated in Nairobi and Kampala. The virtual geography only leaks into the hinterlands. In the meanwhile, extreme gaps in wealth and opportunity are also found in Nairobi and Kampala. Consequently we see an emergence of conflict within the urban centers, but as the IT infrastructure expands to supersede wealth and geography gaps, the volatility of the conflict actors is reduced. A big question is ‘can the skills to leverage the technology for social mobility expand at the same rate as the physical infrastructure?’ Obviously not — and the grounds for militarization emerge.

Demand for Proactive Socio-technical Alignments
ISIS is a socio-technical response to problems of governance, capitalism, and cultural alienation. It is possible to defeat ISIS by permitting it to mature into a formal State, and thus it takes on the tropes that make states sluggish. But for now, while it remains agile and distributed — disconnected from the geography which it dominates — it will continue to thrive.

The most important question is not how to defeat ISIS, rather the biggest question is how to prevent the next iteration. It might sound simplistic, but education is the critical piece of the puzzle. High technology infrastructures are permeating the globe at a faster rate than people can learn to utilize them for social mobility. While the issue of militarization is more complex than social mobility and alienation, these are well known components of the mix than can be better accommodated. Notably these alignments need to come from both supply and demand sides of the equation. People need to be educated to better use and integrate with new technology, but new technologies must be designed with the responsibility to better and integrate within society and social context. This isn’t a new idea, in fact, one country has already taken measures to do this.

3d Maps for Humanitarian Aid and Urban Planning: #googleearth, #kinect, #gis, #urbanplanning


NGO's often ask me to help them interface new technologies with current operations.  Sometimes accomplishing this goal is a simple matter of providing staff with some technical training.  On other occasions it requires a modification of data collection methods, database construction, and the organizational structure.  These tasks are not necessarily complicated, but they do require some imagination on behalf of the organization to ask probing questions about what is and is not possible in their organization.  This is particularly true when it comes to processes of data collection.

Within a humanitarian crisis, advance understanding of the geography makes all the difference among first responders.  But too often the situation is different upon arrival than had been expected.  Especially when faced with a natural disaster such as an earthquake when buildings collapse and road are uprooted.  Even when decent 2d maps are available, they only portray a fraction of the information necessary to situate logistical lines of operation.  First responders relay information back to headquarters, but I suspect that with ongoing technological developments, this can take place faster and better.
Google is well-known for their data-collection cars, equipped with fancy cameras by companies such as Elphel and Sick AG, roaming city streets to compile imagery for Google Street View.  Most of the streets recorded are major cities throughout western countries, but there have also been experiments utilizing snowmobiles and tricycles to collect the same information in difficult terrains.  Understandably, these systems are cost-prohibative for an aid agency, not only in terms of actual equipment, but also for data transmission, image compositing, database construction and the staff necessary to put everything together. It would seem an organization would need to function at the scale of Google or at least in partnership, but there are already many private companies out there - such as Cyclomedia and ImmersiveMedia- who conduct such work.  If aid agencies were able to have a navigable 3d rendering of a crisis immediately upon arrival, it could change everything.

So how can we scale this to something smaller and cheaper?

In terms of digital 3d scanning, there might be options in the near future as experiments continue with the Microsoft Kinect.  Originally intended for video games, Microsoft has been surprisingly "hands-off" about letting others hack and explore the device.   Archeologists are already beginning to explore utilizing the device to scan archaeological digs for analysis.  At the moment, the utility of such a device is limited to small spaces, but hopefully in the near future, the simple mounting of such a device on top of a vehicle could permit immediate digital scans of disaster sites upon arrival.  At present the tool is clearly best suited for reconstruction efforts, but as the resolution increases in the next couple years, the tool will be better formatted for humanitarian emergencies.

Likewise, at the very minimum, increased use of passive video collection by first-responders could provide headquarters offices a tool for marketing and communications.  Cheap and easy, the simple mounting of cameras to vehicles or clothing could rapidly collect information for digital late-night upload with no difficulty. Ranging in shape and size, bodycams/handhelds/and helmet cams have come along way since popularly used by extreme sports enthusiasts in the 1990s, opening the door for widespread application.  When I once worked on a project of a the Ohio Department of Transportation, I was surprised to discover the ODT had a collection of video footage of every roadway in the state.  Why can't an aid agency collect the similar information for all areas of operation upon arrival?

At the smallest personal scale, advancements in mobile phones and phone cameras provides the means to crowd source visual data collection.  On an individual level, mobile applications such as Fulcrum permit a means to collect geocoded photographs with customizable forms for databases.  With upcoming versions of the application to include audio and video, agencies have a rapid means to collect the information necessary to increase the efficiency of their response.  As the mobile device automatically synchs with the database in the cloud, any agency or individual can quickly and seamlessly integrate realtime video footage, photographs, and survey-style data collection with their preexisting information, providing a richer information system for management and planners.

Deconstructing Kabul's Geography - #kabul, #afghanistan, #gis, #urbanplanning


For the last few days my life has been a nonstop process of researching geospatial technologies and softwares.  Since I was first introduced to GIS in grad school with ArcMap, its amazing how far these systems have come.  Looking into an open source platform, I initially spent my days with GRASS and while impressed by all its toolset, I've been frustrated by its bulky user interface.  Trying to construct informative maps with GRASS made me feel like I was stuck in a time warp, somehow using software from 20 years ago.  I have found more functionality using QGIS, but I'm still just looking for seamless integration and multimedia capabilities.

After my last post I received some emails about some new tools out there and later after a few email exchanges with Anthony Quartararo of Spatial Networks, he introduced me to some of the more exciting options out there an began to realize that a full-scale desktop GIS may not really be necessary.  Thanks to tools like MapBox,  IndieMaps, and Geocommons, it is possible construct interesting maps and have access to a wide variety of data.

For example, by using Geocommons I was able to quickly construct a map of Kabul with the location of each school in the city - or at least the locations in 2004, I haven't located more recent data.  I was then located the map into google earth.  Check it out, its a great way to explore the city.  If you can't see the image below, you can visit the site directly here.

View map on GeoCommons



While exploring my options for analysis and filtration, I also stumbled upon a site dedicated to 360 panoramic photos.  There is a fantastic panoramic of Kabul as shot from the top of TV Mountain - the central mountain in Kabul covered with antennae and satellite dishes etc.   Once again, if there is difficulty  accessing the image, please click the link below.


TV Hill in Afghanistan

Finding #Kabul on a Map - The Challenge of Acquiring #GIS Data in #Afghanistan


Lately I've been working hard to improve my skills with Geographic Information Systems.  As a Planner, GIS is a critical tool for researching, deconstructing, and analyzing human settlements.  I've been using GIS for several years, yet was never confident in my ability to utilize the software packages or the datasets.  I could do the work, but it was never intuitive.  Fortunately that is beginning to change.   Recently, GIS has taken on a new role in my life as I've been using it to determine and model advance indicators of insecurity.  While there are plenty of competing organizations and individuals out there hoping to find ways to asess the probability and locations of conflict  before it happens, the truth is, all these systems are bulky, expensive, slow, and not feasible for an individual user.  Yet there is a demand among individual users and so my goal is to create a  reliable statistical tool for common individuals with basic internet access, not to reinvent the wheel of security and defense.

Image via Spatial Networks
Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle hasn't been acquiring real-time data. Thanks to recent developments in social media, it has been remarkably simple to acquire and filter information on recent events as they happen.  When a problem takes place in Kabul, I have full details on that situation within seconds and after only a matter of minutes am able to fully assess its scale and location.  Knowing when and where things are happening is the easiest part.

Google Maps - Map of Kabul
Instead, the biggest challenge has been the acquisition of a useful base map.  In short, maps of Kabul are terrible.  Take for example this map acquired from Google.  You will notice that the streets outlined in yellow do not remotely correlate to the actual roads in the satellite image.  Someone should be fired for this.

WikiMapia - Map of Kabul
Other typical map options are equally limited.  In the past I've been a solid user of Wikimapia, as it allows individuals to upload information and draw vector-boundaries around areas of interest, so its useful for studying remote geographies.  It has been of great value when studying Somalia, and it is clear from the example that Wikimapia is densely loaded with relevant information in Kabul as well. Clearly this is better than Google, yet it has one majore flaw, it does not allow one to export the maps into any useable format.

Options do exist out there in the world to obtain high quality geographic data on Kabul, such as found through Spatial Networks, but if you are like me and must do the work with a limited budget, options are slim.  Using ESRI's online ArcExplorer, I was able to pull up a collection of maps for comparison.  Although they look suitable in the small examples to the right, once you actually begin to zoom inward, all feasibility of use at street-scale is lost.  Bummer.

Today I made the breakthrough and found the winner to be OpenStreeMap.org.  It functions basically like google earth, allows one to customize the map like wikimaps, but best all, allows the user to export the map as an XML file.  The result is that I can integrate this map with my datasets and an actually useful product is in the making.   I'm excited about the prospects of this new tool and look forward to sharing updates on its development in the near future.   If any other GIS users out there have insight on ways to obtain useful data and maps for less-documented places like Kabul, feel free to send me an email or something - I'm always looking for new information.