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Policy

Backcasting Urban Planning and Design for Autonomous Cars and Social Robotics



Advancements in technology do not necessarily lead to improvements in society.  Social policies created in response to technology might generate social safeguards but do not always promote social benefits. While we can witness technological developments with delight, we must take a moment to ask ourselves, what kind of future are we creating?

Just last week the US Secretary of Transportation described an infrastructure deficit, not only in terms of existing infrastructure, but also as a lack of planning for future needs. Around the same time the Consumer Electronics Show displayed an array of emerging automotive technologies. Companies ranging from Ford to Mercedes revealed concept cars for autonomous vehicles to roll out in the next few years. Using multiple LIDAR sensors, GPS, and new interior configurations, engineers and industrial designers are redesigning the future of automobile transportation.

But are civil engineers and urban planners actively promoting a sufficient infrastructure to accommodate new use patterns.  To some extent, yes. Much discussion was prompted when IHS released a study speculating that autonomous vehicles will dominate the landscape by 2035.  Some economists speculate that congestion and fuel use will increase. There are even proposals that traffic tickets will be reduced and proposals that cities will be configured around changes in parking, density, and speed limits. It is also thought that changes of car ownership and use will change, such as operating buses more like trains.

It is clear the urban landscape will need to be reconfigured and there are some ideas to determine what this means. Yet if we look at the bigger picture, what are we working toward? What is the future we are constructing? In a city with less traffic tickets or city parking, how will taxes change? If buses are so streamlined, then does the freedom of private car ownership become reserved only for the wealthy?

The present planning and development trend of speculation on social robotics is insufficient because it relies upon a purely constructivist approach.  We had previous industry and technologies that resulted in todays conditions, so now we are creating new technologies in response to those conditions.  Naturally this will create a new scenario, accompanied by additional problems, and there will be a demand to innovate out of that situation into another. But to what ends? What is the end game?

In the existing approach we are saying that fuel and spatial demands will adjust in response to autonomous transportation technologies.  Yet how will this response occur in relation to existing problems such as income inequality, underemployment, poor access to health care, and poor quality infrastructure such as housing, water, and roads?  At present I see no evidence that social robotics will help the existing socio-economic problems but might do more to proliferate them.

In 2035, will only poor people need to drive their cars?  Will the price of driven cars become more expensive from reduced demand, placing additional financial burden on low-income communities? While those who now 1-2 freed hours of time per day (since they are not driving) be able to use that time for study, extended work hours, and business meetings? How will those still using their time to drive be able to compete in the workforce? Will those unable to access social robotics find their entire communities collapsing upon outdated infrastructures?  Will property values shift dramatically creating new ghettos and devastated landscapes?

What if we propose a different vision?  What if citizens and leaders took responsibility to say "In 2035 want my community to look like X?"  It takes imagination and guts to state such a declaration. Yet by setting a clear vision, it is possible to work backwards, to reverse engineer pathways to that vision and align current choices accordingly.  To backcast the future of social robotics might create a future that is more grounded in the social than the robotic.  To plan with a goal in mind, rather than through continued ad hoc remedies, perhaps our high-tech future could be a place where someone might actually want to live. Even if they can't afford it.

City Planning for the Second Machine Age


Just last week the Mayor of Las Angeles announced that L.A. will be the first city ready for self-driving cars.  This is a bold statement considering that no other city has really taken a major plunge on infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, and thus we have nothing to which we can compare the actions of L.A.  The notion of Uber-like services for autonomous vehicles is fairly compelling, but we need to ask - what kind of infrastructure is appropriate or needed for this product-service system? For example, should the police be integrated into an alert system incase things go bad? To take it further, what issues should urban planners consider regarding autonomous vehicles.  What does the future city need?

Much of the technology that will shape our urban experience tomorrow  is not quite mature enough to meet general expectations - but that is why planning for it today is important.  Having the discussion from a planning perspective will reflexively shape the technological development and diffusion, giving us the opportunity to take responsibility for our lives - much like the public health movement of the industrial era. Recently, many car makers have announced plans to roll out self-driving cars in the next few years including Cadillac and BMW.  Likewise, Audi has received the first permit in California to road test self-driving vehicles.  While MIT's Technology Review last summer, we are nowhere near the point in time when fully autonomous cars will be fully functional, and we are in fact several decades away - so now is the time to discuss how to make this work.

As we shed the remnants of the industrial era and step into the second machine age, let us imagine how it will look.  Autonomous vehicles are not limited to cars.  Flying aircraft, delivery UAVs, boats, underground tunneling devices, and robots of all kinds can be expected to appear in the next few decades. A primary part of the challenge in creating these technologies is that the urban environment is highly stimulating, directing millions of cues toward a driver at a given second.  The sounds of crosswalks, the recognition of a runner nearing the corner, and the flashing lights of a tow-truck vs a police car or ambulance all provide information to a driver.  These are also the elements of urbanism that make cities exciting and interesting. Strip the city streets of its life, and yes, we can make cars that will safely drive themselves through stop and go traffic - but is that where we want to live? Dehumanized modernist vision didn't work the second time (Le Cabusier's Machine for Living?), so what kind of infrastructure and planning do we need?

I don't have all the answers, but I think about this question quite a bit.  I have a few ideas and hopefully these will inspire others to explore the ideas more deeply.  If you have anything to add, I would love to hear from you.

Possibilities:
1. Robust GPS system.
At present there are 32 GPS satellites orbiting the earth, at 20,000 KM above sea level.  I know little about satellites, but I can't help but wonder is this a sufficient system for constant global demand.  So far so good, but can this meet the future demand if you multiple current use by 10 or 100? How might we improve such systems to refine geolocation.  Its important to realize that already a great deal of variance occurs within GPS positioning, so while you might have accuracy within a meter in New York City, your GPS points in a rural and low populated landscape might vary as much as 20 meters. Will this be sufficient when your car drives you to work?

2. Geofencing
In my last post I wrote about the idea of land use planning for drones.  Yet the concept of geofencing does not need to be limited to UAV use.  It can also be integrated into self-driving cars, water-based robotics, tunneling machines, and any other form of autonomous vehicles.  Creating this system isn't hard, but creating a system of standards for the geofencing to work across cities, states, and nations might be more challenging - which leads to the next concept.

3. MIDI for the City.
One thing that has made the internet blossom is the standardization of HTML, APIs, and data structures like JSON to allow developers to freely port one system/tool with another.  In a similar fashion, MIDI provides a set of standards for musical softwares and electronic devices to communicate.  To my knowledge there is not a set series of standards for electronic device integration at urban scale. Maybe the internet of things will be the solution, but is IPV6 sufficient to address all these billions of objects?

4. Modular Infrastructure
Many cities will generally suffer in the new economy because there is insufficient growth in Commercial, Off The Shelf (COTS) products for smart city creation. Smart Cities cost millions or billions of dollars and are dominated by companies like Cisco, Siemens, and IBM.  Rich cities will have the money to optimize and poor cities will not be able to compete.  There are a few of us (ahem), working on the design and creation of modular components, dashboards, and sensor networks that can provide municipal plug and play operation - but this market space hasn't taken off yet.  This could provide an opportunity for increased safety, reduced costs, and general improvements in urban life quality at scale but more people need to be working on this.

5. Localize Energy Policy 
Sufficient energy systems are a constant problem and a major inhibitor for technology diffusion. With the advancement of autonomous systems our energy demands are going to spike. I think some of the more interesting work in this area is within using ocean driven systems (photo at top of page). Yet we can also harness the simple but functional technologies we have today. Many regulatory energy tools exist at the national level, but perhaps city governments need to be more aggressive in local laws. What if every building permit required new construction to include a solar energy component? What if every historic reuse, preservation tax credit, or publicly funded project mandated the integration of passive energy systems? We haven't perfected passive energy, but whatever we have is only effective if policy matures.

A Simple Solution to Mogadishu's IDP Problem

A Pathway to Ownership for IDPs can Change Mogadishu Forever. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.
After every war, cities are burdened by many of the same problems.  The infrastructure is destroyed, there is a lack of money, a culture of violence, and a fear that war will return.  But another major obstacle is the heavy numbers of internally displaced persons who left their homeland elsewhere in the country and sought refugee in the city.   They sought safety, employment, and a chance at a better life.  They also frequently have little to offer, having abandoned everything with the move, and frequently coming from rural villages, lack the skills necessary to compete in the urban marketplace.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are typically seen as a burden, and city officials want them to go home.  With no money, IDPs frequently seek shelter in abandoned buildings or in impoverished, make-shift camps.  The UNHCR also encourages they return to their place of origin as UNHCR tends to advocate return as the only durable solution.  But at other times UNHCR will recognize that many IDPs cannot return home, as their homes have been destroyed and all that was abandoned is now completely lost.  In these instances, UNHCR and UN-Habitat will construct IDP displacement camps.

In Mogadishu, IDP camps are scattered throughout the city.  They are renown for being dangerous and unhygienic.  Murder, rape, and disease are common.  IDPs also inhabit many buildings throughout the city with no right to ownership.  When the original owners return to reclaim their property, conflicts frequently ensue.  As the city has no surviving property records from before the war, arguments over property rights are common and the courts get clogged as people fight for rightful ownership rights.   This problem is expensive and slow.  To make the changes in Somalia sustainable, it is necessary that change also takes place quickly.  I wrote about this before in a previous article on the importance of speed for land use rights in post-war reconstruction.

Think Different - Live Different in Mogadishu. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.

Solving the IDP Crisis in MogadishuSomalia

To solve the IDP situation in Mogadishu, the issue must no longer be seen as zero/sum.   Many want the IDPs to leave or to suddenly have money to purchase housing.  But this is clearly unrealistic.  Rather, the problem must be considered in relation to time, space, resources, and the greater good of the city.

The best solution would be a "right to ownership" policy.  The Right to Ownership Policy could work very quickly and effectively if the following steps were pursued.

1. IDPs are provided a temporary identification number for the property they currently inhabit.  A record is made containing a description and possibly a photo of the space.

2. Each year the IDP/Occupant must invest a particular amount of money and time into the upkeep of the property.  This could consist of digging better quality latrines, constructing more permanent housing, painting walls, repairing concrete, clearing debris, installing doors and so on.    Notice that many improvements can initially be done at no cost.

3. If no one returns to make claim on the property in 5 years, the temporary identification number becomes a permanent record of ownership for the occupant.  

4. If another person returns to the site and claims the property as his own, and can provide at least 5 articles or witnesses as evidence, the returnee will acquire the property IF compensation is provided to the IDP resident for each year of invested ownership.


Why this IDP Solution can work.

1. Extensive research has shown that formal ownership of property provides economic leverage to residents.

2. The IDP acts as a caretaker for the property until full ownership is approved.  Thus streets are rebuilt which also reduces crime.

3. This policy is consistent with the principals of xeer, the traditional/informal legal system that is still used among many nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes in Somalia.  Consequently such a policy would be innate to those who would be affected by it.

4. IDPs who do not achieve full ownership leave the property with a sum of money reimbursed by the legal owner and are thus in a better position to acquire housing or even return to point of origin.


Why this solution to Mogadishu's IDP problem will not happen.

I have promoted this solution to several members of the Somali government, but it has gained no support.  Certainly, it is not perfect, but with tweaking, a right to ownership is far better than court cases which may go on for decades.  Many officials claim a desire for innovation and radical change, but are not willing to take the dramatic steps necessary to be truly innovative.  Rather, all politicians continue to see the problem in the same manner of the UN, even if they are not happy with the UN approach to solving the problem.

Unfortunately this policy means that many returnees will lose ownership of their property.  But five years is a long time and many Somalis have no interest to return anyway.  The bigger problem is among government officials who cannot presently prove ownership of their own family estates, and thus refuse to pursue policies for the common good because of their own selfish interest.

Another reason that the policy will not happen is because it will require that the city lose ownership some some property to IDPs and that vacant lots currently inhabited by turkels will need to be considered property of the IDPs.  What officials do not realize, is that letting informal settlements become formal is an advantage - not a loss - as these settlements will quickly transform to have permanent buildings, lower crime, and create new market opportunities.  It would actually expand the city!  

Lastly, from a planning perspective, formalizing a pathway to ownership for IDPs would reinforce the power of the government and provide an opportunity to build necessary infrastructure in the currently existing squatter camps.  Providing roads, sewers, communication and water to these sites will encourage the construction of permanent housing and improved living among residents.


Final Thoughts
I have travelled all over the world, and Somali people are perhaps more resourceful than any other group of people I have encountered.   If a clear policy is made which can provide an opportunity for property ownership among IDPs, while current land/housing owners will need to make a decision among reclaiming property, then people will jump to the opportunity.  The right to ownership should not be reserved for only the diaspora.  Public policy needs to be made for the interest of everyone, not just those who have power, and more than anywhere else, Mogadishu's leadership needs the vision to pursue the right path.  

Change is Possible in Mogadishu. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.

Finally, a nod to Somaliland

Since the early 1990s,  the Northern break-away states of Somaliland and Puntland have experienced reasonable economic growth and security in great contrast to neighboring Somalia in the South.  Independently established by Somalis who desire no part in the chaos of Somalia, these regions have established a foothold for prosperity with expanding infrastructure and improved living conditions without the support of the United Nations, the EU, or the United States.  Although some humanitarian aid agencies have worked to assist Somaliland and Puntland, these regions have been unable to participate in global trade and have therefore remained economically stunted because they are not recognized as sovereign states.  Instead, dominating policies have supported the struggling efforts of Somalia's president Sheik Sherif Ahmed even though his government can only control 4 blocks of Mogadishu under constant attack from Al Shabaab  militants.

As of today, there might be a glimmer of hope that such narrow and offtrack policies could change.   Consistent with the new US policy on international development laid out by Barack Obama at the United Nations, the United States announced its interest in assisting the people of Somaliland.  Although this is not a formal recognition of statehood, it is a tremendous step in the right direction as it supports the efforts of an active civil society and engages stabilization and development from the bottom up.  As democratic governments cannot be successfully created from the top down, but must be constructed upon the capacities and interests of the populace, the new vow of support from the State Department relays a significant, and enlightened, transformation in approach.

I am greatly pleased to learn of this political shift, as it is also indicative of a greater ideological transformation.  No nation, state, or person exists in isolation in this day and age.  A single household product, such as  t-shirt has a likely history of over a dozen nations in its creation, while the research, development, and production of daily technology such as a telephone or a television required the hands and investment of thousands of people around the world.  From the African mineral mine, to the East Asian research lab, the Indian marketing company, and the German shipping company.  In the same way that products are global, and finance is global, what is lesser recognized is that conflict and poverty are equally global.  The problems of a failed state, a summer drought, or the plight of poverty lead to unimaginable externalities and social repercussions throughout the world.  Unfortunately these problems are often manifest as acts of terrorism, a burgeoning drug trade, regional destabilization and environmental despair.   Ending terrorism and conflict in the contemporary world isn't about removing a particular government from power or killing the bad guys... as there are no leaders or bad guys.  Ending war, extremism, and conflict are instead the results of ending the problems at the root - by ending poverty, expanding education, and supporting the positive actions of those who have already worked so hard to improve the lives of their family and community.  If there is an probable end to Al Shabaab and the violence in Mogadishu, the reconstruction of the state won't start in an office or in Washington, but has already started in the hands of its citizens, in the north, in Somaliland.