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Product Design

Should We Paint the Sandbags Pink? Redesigning The End of War


A fundamental lesson within the major literature about counterinsurgency, such as Nagel's How to Eat Soup with a Knife or Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare, is the lack of institutional memory regarding the end of conflicts.  For whatever reason - social, organizational, cultural or otherwise - popular conceptions of history describe wars as having a messing beginning and a tidy ending.  Images of helicopters hovering over Saigon or masses of WWII soldiers boarding ships homeward bound resonate in the global social conscious.  But it is unlikely that any war in history concluded with the simplicity of closing the cover on a book.

Historical battles were heavily shaped by the seasons, as the winter obstructed movement and in the spring many soldiers would need to leave the front lines to plant seed.  Wars would be resumed once the seed began to sprout, postponed for harvest,  then returned to again until winter.  A quick look at the wars of the 19th century on wikipedia reveals that most wars lasted 4-5 years, but  the wrong impression is given by this list as it provides a nice simple year for the conclusion of every conflict.  In contrast, many of the wars featured ongoing skirmishes, small attacks, and a trickle of minor incidents for months or years after each battle.  

Today's conflicts are no different.  Low-intensity, protracted conflicts stretch onward into the future.  Major international conflicts and localized internal conflicts seem to never end.  Yet a significant  difference between these conflicts and those of the past is the role of advanced communication technologies and access to simple yet powerful weapons that put small groups on par with massive military forces.  

So if wars have messy endings but the mess is bigger these days,  do we defend our cities with the same methods as in the past?  At present we rely upon militant checkpoints, guard towers, road blocks and a whole array of methods intended to restrict movement, obstruct attackers, and provide tactical advantage to one force while negating abilities of the other.  This is all well and good in terms of security, but it does nothing to add finality to the ever-steady trickle of attack incidents.

When fortifying a point of interest, the goal is to focus on utility, with the broad assumption that the newly installed elements are temporary.  Consequently  security architecture is stark and simple, an element that becomes threatening when contextualized by armed guards and interrogations.  The greater problem is that these features are rarely temporary.  Because the hostilities continue, the security infrastructure remains, detracting from the quality of the urban experience and reinforcing the sense of danger.  One could even argue that such infrastructure promotes ongoing militarization and escalates conflict.

To instill finality into contemporary conflict, we must create defensive infrastructure to facilitate a post-conflict urban condition.  We must create security mechanisms that not only satisfy their primary objective, but can contribute to the health and wellbeing of urban living.  Imagine if one day someone in Kabul or Baghdad or Cairo could wake up in the morning and say "remember that police checkpoint that used to be around the corner?  I really miss having it there, it really made walking down the street a little more pleasant."  People make such statements about art, fountains, gardens and landscaping.  They do not say this about barbed wire fences, blast walls, or security installations.  

So what should we do? Should we paint the sandbags pink?  Maybe.  It seems absurd, but why not?  Perhaps global society could benefit to emasculate the battlefield.   Discard the drab olive green and replace it with a mural of clouds.  Many could argue that such acts beautify war and devalue its significance, but this is only partly true.  Such acts beautify our environment and celebrate our common humanity,  thus giving an opportunity for peace, otherwise lost, by devaluing the the significance of violence.  It is time to design a new battlefield, not to fight war, but to end it.

High Impact Development via Product Design

Satellites and Donkey Carts in Mogadishu Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2012.
My goal as an Urban Planner and entrepreneur is to create opportunities for radical urban social transformation according to the interests of the immediate population and stakeholders.  This is no easy task, but urban planners tend to have quite a few tools to affect this kind of change, such as the use of urban design, infrastructure creation, and the creation of new transportation options.  Urban planning in this fashion,tends to focus on modifying the environment in which we live, thereby transforming the context of our actions.  By transforming the context, urban planners hope to inform our daily activities with new levels of meaning, or perhaps to even inspire behavior change.

This is all well and good.  Yet transforming the context of social activity is limited.  There are just as many urbanists, artists, and community organizers who want to create new activities directly, and thus stage community activities in the form of sporting events, street fairs, and public theatre.  But these activities are exceptions to the daily, mundane actions of urban life.  Most of the day people are going to and from work, eating, walking the dog, socializing, kids play games in the street, and perhaps someone is reading a book on a bench.  In these situations, the context is only partially relavent.  As long as the environment is safe enough and clean enough to not intervene in daily life, it doesn't really matter what it looks like, or how it is constructed.

From another perspective, the most radical changes in human settlements over the last few centuries are driven by architectural or environmental.  Cars, flushing toilets, airplane, telephones, and mobile phones have dramatically redesigned the urban lanscape.  Modern houses have indoor bathrooms and attached garages.  Cities are now dotted with wifi-hotspots and carved by multi-lane highways.  It appears that for one to really change behavior, the solution is not to create modifications to the environment, but to create the right product.

Hassani's Wind-Blown Mine Clearance Device.  Source: BBC
One recent product to shift the patterns of human settlements is a wind blown device for mine clearance.  With over 110 million landmines distributed across approximately 70 countries in the world, there is a clear demand for mine clearance.  But the process is slow and costly.  Individuals must scour the ground with detection equipement, square inch by square inch.  The mines must then be delicately disassembled by hand.  With the design by Massoud Hassani, however, mines could be quickly removed by exploding them using a windblown device.  Eventually to feature an integrated GPS chip, clearance can be mapped to facilitate effective coverage.

Hassani's product will make unusable land suitable for farming and habitation.  Wherever applied, it will dramatically change the lives of those nearby as well as the economic productivity of the host nation.  In this circumstance, his solution will also create new problem relating to land ownership and division.  After all,  he did not create a big elaborate policy reform or need to develop the product through complex social processes.  Rather it was a matter of fitting a need with a solution, and while that solution creates new problems, it is generally agreeable that the new problems of legal battles are significantly better than the old problem of human endangerment.

Can we conclude that visionary product design is the most effective way to yield the greatest results for urban development?  I suppose there are conditions in which this will not apply, but the more I look at the factors that have shaped the world around me, the less I'm convinced it is based on the action of architects.  Global change is the result of those equipped with the vision to supply an unknown or unrecognized demand.  Historic change is the result of those products that invent new markets by solving many of our current problems and effectively create new ones.