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Project Design

Impact Any Problem Like a Designer


This morning I was asked if I approach design management (the emergent term for the application of design to organizations to engage complex problems) as an architect or as a communications designer. It was a little hard to answer is because the answer squarely falls into the domain of neither and both. While I believe whole heartedly in a non-disciplinary approach to design, if it is necessary to specify a form of design practice and theory, it is important to recognize that these fields exist on a gradient. Over the last 15 years of research and practice in design and urban planning, I have developed a systematic approach to structure problems and interventions across this gradient and have developed a simplified conceptual model in response to demands.

Illustrated above, I look at all problems as fitting somewhere within the above structure - wherein a problem might be defined by thought and language (sign), by tangible products and interfaces (object), by spatial context (environment) or by large scale invisible systems such as formal law and culture (culture can be considered another expression of law).  So for example, if you are attempting to solve a big problem like poverty, it exists in all sections because poverty is contextual, has artifacts, and there are many existing specific words and images that are used to communicate the idea of poverty. Whereas a problem that is very well defined, like the design of a toaster, will most likely sit squarely in the domain of objects.

At Carnegie Mellon University, I was introduced to Richard Buchanon's theory on the Four Orders of Design, which was very similar to my own model, but we maintain very different objectives and I found his model is harder to operationalize.  Buchanon does have other variations,  and additional work on operationalization has been pursued by Golsby-Smith.  There are additional models out there and while I find it validating and interesting to look at their models, my own approach emerged from the field. It is not informed by these other works, I point them out merely because they exist, and I find these other frameworks are missing a critical component, the people.

Within my framework, the most important characteristic is the recognition of dispositions held by people who occupy each conceptual frame. Without people - there is no framework.  There are no objects or contexts without people - there is also no design or strategy - people are the scaffolding of everything.  Consequently, I do not consider this framework as universal, but is thus far, a model that has arisen organically through various design interactions with people, technologies, and spaces.

Yet people are highly complex. I cannot manage to engage all people in every project on every level, and therefore I have created over the years a simple heuristic to note critical attributes of people within a project which will determine the project outcome.  All stakeholders in a project have, want, or lack resources (for their interest or mine), they likewise all hold a unique vision for their lives and the project outcome, along with specific objectives, beliefs, expectations, and baggage from prior experiences. I cannot juggle all these balls for every person at one time, but I do attempt to establish an sense of organizational structure between different actors and their unique attributes.

The Difference of Design in Organizations
Lets imagine an international company hires me with a big problem phrased as a simple request, "how do we become the leader in our industry?"  When companies have approached me before, they have already conducted many of the preliminary SWOT assessments and strategy planning sessions. Perhaps they have utilized a more traditional business management strategy, but found the problem too sprawling to meet the discrete demands... for example, it is impossible to identify and validate appropriate benchmarks if the problem itself is poorly defined. Driven by market research, they believe they should offer the same technologies or assets as their competitors. Yet it makes no logical sense to mirror competitor if you want to be the industry leader. It is important to do something new - but what and how?

Using the Framework to Generate the Big Picture
As a complex problem, I will work at all levels of the framework. In the case of robotics, I will take this problem and build a detailed understanding of their robots (the object).  I will look at all documentation, branding, communications, and language used in relation to their robots (sign). I will go into the facilities where the robots are used and spend time understanding the relationship between the robots and the Environment. I will also look at sales trends, labor laws, social movements, international trade agreements, and latent technology trends (perhaps also concerning language, objects, environments) to capture a big picture understanding of the robots in relation to some invisible systems that shape the future of the company.

Digging Deep into the Social Terrain
In this process, however, I have left out the most important component: the people.  Who is talking about the robots? Who is listening? Where are they? When customers purchase the robots, what are they saying? How do they represent their needs?  In the environmental context, who works with the robots and how?  How do those people exchange information about the robot in that context?  More importantly, how does the robot relate (or not) to the resources, objectives, histories and so on, of every person at every level?  If I go to the capital and talk to the people shaping policies that inform the outcome of robotics markets - congressmen and lobbyists for example - what can I learn from them?

Insight by Emergence
Working through this framework to understand the problem is only the first step. Yet the more I can build knowledge at each level of interaction, the more flexibility I have to craft and test interventions. Perhaps the corporate strategy is something simple like a branding campaign or promoting a national policy - yet perhaps it also requires manipulation to the technology to better facilitate how other companies train their employees? If that is the case, what language should be used and by what device should it be communicated? By means of this approach, the key insights and opportunities will emerge and do not need to be invented - nor can they be predicted.

Impact by Design
The final outcome of such a problem will rarely consist of one single action.  Rather, it will require many small interventions choreographed across the system.  Some interventions are more important than others. To describe the processes on design for wicked problems deserves more attention than I can provide right, yet with this framework, one is equipped to better understand any kind of problem to get going in the right direction by doing the following:
  1. Get away from the tunnel vision of a personal discipline or expertise
  2. Build an integrated and fluid systems understanding of a problem 
  3. Identify many points of intervention across scale/scope and points of view
  4. Leverage the most powerful yet high-risk asset of any problem, the people.
  5. Uncover new opportunities for exploration and testing

Data is Not Sterile: What is Geospatial Data Made From?


When I first started working with GIS and GPS data there were two basic truths. One, all GIS was equal to ESRI ArcGIS. And two, all data I need is neatly organized in a database somewhere on a server - you just need to find the server.  Three months later I moved to the Dadaab refugee camps and discovered no software, no data, and no server.  The head camp architect for the UN had never even heard of GIS.

At the time, I struggled with a solution.  In one project I was tasked with site plans for some buildings for Save the Children. I conducted an array of interviews in the camps to select the sites. Then I used a satellite phone to get GPS coordinates from which I extrapolated distances and drew vector maps in Autocad. I imposed the Autocad layer on top of a scanned topo map. The vectors could also be exported to ArcGIS upon return to my US university, since I obviously didn't have the money for a personal ESRI suite.  Technically, the solution worked well enough but I encountered another unforeseen challenge.  

Now the only problem is about the quality of the data. What is the combination of objectivity and subjectivity that goes into the creation of a single POI? How does we measure its value and how do we design the data collection to maximize that value?

For years I continued to search for strategies to create GIS data in places where it was unavailable. I experimented with walking papers, proposed ideas to software development friends, and wrestled with ambiguity.  I experimented for years with this problem in Egypt and was never happy with the outcome.  When I discovered the mobile application Fulcrum sometime in 2010 or 2011, my eyes were opened to the world of mobile data collection.  Suddenly the technical side of the problem was solved.  I could geolocate any survey. How you design the survey for the creation of spatial data is another matter.

The quality of the data is a continual obsession of mine.  Working in dangerous environments or even in multiple cultures creates special problems.  For example, if I were asked to rank the quality of infrastructure in Somalia, personally - I would label all of it as poor. There has been barely any development in decades but lots of bombs and bullets. In my eyes, as an American urban planner and designer, every road in Somalia is a nightmare.  But does that judgement present any value? Does this do any service to an external analyst or local project manager?

No.

Because of the demanding conditions, it is more important to rank the data according to the values of the local population.  In the eyes of a person who has lived in Somalia for a lifetime, how does one road compare against another?  It is through this local level comparison that the POI earns higher level of value to the analyst.  To continue the road example, I can now use this data to estimate the scheduling of work or to select where to start, such as the area in most need or the quick fix? Obviously, from my perspective everything needs improved, but now I can adapt my project to the local context for improved success. The population will recognize that the development is starting with the worst road - or going for the quick fix - and this understanding generates support.  Working in dangerous conditions, there is no such thing as too much support, regardless of the endeavor.

All budding cartographers must realize that no GIS data is founded on a universal set of standards. Every POI is connected to a body of perceptions, values, and judgements.  When we look at the collective data, we are looking at a story about a place and we are looking through the eyes of the person(s) that assembled the story. 

You might argue that some data is somehow void of this conflict. Census data, for example, seems fairly objective. But this is not the case - instead, census data is established by opening the story creation to all participants.  By means of the aggregate we get closer to objectivity, but the deeper you drill into the data, the more ambiguity will present itself. While some questions might seem objective (how many children do you have?), their simplicity is deceptive.  Another question - how many people live in your household? - will not bring the authorities crashing if the respondent answers "14" in a 1-bedroom house. But will a respondent be honest to admit "14" if that is the case? It is unlikely.  Social values, paranoia, and personal psychology will inform a respondents answer.  The closer you get to the person, the closer you get to uncertainty.

Unfortunately in higher level education for geography, planning, design, and other cartography related fields, there has been little focus on data creation. It is seen as a purely technical process. Yet I argue that students should begin their GIS studies by building the data before learning about the variety of GIS tools for analysis (note: variety, not just ESRI). Only by building the data will students learn to recognize the subtleties of its composition and help them become more critical of their own work.  

A nuanced understanding of the data will contribute to deeper levels of insight into the the data set and ultimately to a broader understanding of other data components such as the importance of metadata and data shelf-life. After all, GIS data is snapshot of a given moment in an ever changing world, only by understanding its creation can we realize its mortality, ultimately, to realize how to leverage its death. There is definitely something called "bad data," yet I'd argue that a more common data affliction is "poorly understood." This problem isn't difficult to fix, you just need to start building it yourself.

Problem Solving through Design and Dancing your Phd: #design, #urbanplanning, #dance

Design is an experimental process to question and remix the obvious
Last week I wrote about how design has lately become over privileged as a problem solving tool with the recent pop-culture and corporate belief in the power of design-thinking.  Certainly while design-thinking will not solve all problems, it does have its merits.  In fact, it is the use of design and product-centric outcomes which differentiates my own work from many competitors.  Too often urban planning and development firms invest thousands of hours into research and strategy, only for the final product to manifest as a sterile report and an underwhelming powerpoint presentation.   Imagine if urban planning retained the energy of a design process throughout multiple phases of strategic problem solving.  It could potentially engage broader audiences, source more diverse inputs, and lead to solutions that aren't so easily diluted by city governments and regional politics.

Design thinking has benefits.  It is both systematic and exploratory.  Take for example a typical model for concept development within industrial design practice.  It is more or less similar to an urban planning approach - to identify stakeholder interests, define guidelines, to research similar projects and move forward with a product for phased testing.  Over time the concept becomes more refined and at anytime you can - and should - revisit previous steps to continue revision.  Eventually the final product is realized and implemented on a broad scale or mass produced.  Only within the process of idea creation are decisions arbitrarily made, yet the process is not strictly scientific or entirely reliant upon market tests.  In theory, the final result should maintain some degree (or hopefully all) of its original creative energy while nonetheless balanced and viable.  Typically work developed via a design methodology should be effective, attractive, accessible, inexpensive, and broadly communicative.  Perhaps it is the infusion of such simple concepts as "attractive" that have corporations suddenly lusting for design integration within their work.  Yet the real question is, why was this not a concern before?  How many revolutionary moments in human invention have been connected to the phrase "our product is really ugly, hard to use, and  cumbersome, but please ignore that."

Concept Development within Product Design Methodology

The power of design can also undermine real analysis 
Obviously a design-based approach has an important role beyond the idea development and solution process, as it has the means to transform sterile content into an engaging opportunity.  For example, a quick look through the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook reveals an adept use of Adobe Indesign and a variety of visualization techniques.  Or take for example the work done by Space Syntax.  Their GIS work is consistently beautiful. So much that I am often distracted by the quality of the renderings, uncertain of their specificity and meaning.   Of course that is a keen advantage to providing data via beautiful imagery, as the method can smoothen over the gaps in knowledge and research.  Then again, the strength is as much a weakness.  

If the purpose of design is to communicate, then we must be wary of how easily the beauty of design can undermine the ability to do so.  Communication is challenging, in particular when communicating complex information to audiences who are unfamiliar with the territory.  I believe every grad student experiences that moment when a relative asks "so what are you working on in school" only to watch their eyes glaze at the over-long, overly detailed, and laborious response.  A couple clean graphics could change this entire situation, yet the result could just as well become "what beautiful colors."

A recent TEDtalk by my buddy John Bohanon does well to illustrate how good intentions can go array when  communicating information.  In the video below (or here), John satirically examines the detrimental impact visual PowerPoint presentations have made upon the global economy.  And in a beautifully choreographed yet modest proposal, John demonstrates how other means of communication are perhaps more appropriate to explore complex concepts.  Although John embraces dance as a vehicle to communicate, one could just as well embrace music or knitting.  Ultimately, the vehicle by which a message is delivered cannot redefine the message itself.  It can only carry it.  Sometimes the correct vehicle is chosen and is a smooth ride.  Sometimes its not.  And sometimes, it would have been better to walk or ride a bike had one taken a moment to stop and consider the possibilities. 


Creative Problem Solving in #Kabul, #Afghanistan with #Technology and #Education

Since arriving in Afghanistan in August, I've worked aggressively to launch a new project called the Innovation Lab.  Available to select students at the American University of Afghanistan, the Innovation Lab, or (iN)Lab has been designed to extend education beyond the walls of the classroom and directly into the streets of Kabul. By teaching students to research and assess their own local environments, to work with limited resources and engage stakeholders while providing technological resources, I hope to see (iN)Lab fill a much needed gab in Afghanistan's local-scale development. Today registration opened, along with my own small marketing initiative to drive student enrollment.  But now, just when things were starting to take off, I feel like I've hit a setback.  Not a major one, but enough to be aggravated.

Apparently Harvard University opened their own Innovation Lab (i-Lab) this week, dedicated to launching young entrepreneurs into the public.  Consequently I'm disappointed by the news that their project shares the same name, a similar vision, and has the same timing as my own.  The positive side is that I believe my project is very unique in its conception, as the program draws from my own inter-disciplianry education in art & design, urban planning, computer science and work experience in conflict zones.  Arguably, I like to think that working with Afghan students to facilitate local community problem solving through such creative measures is far more innovative than providing privileged Harvard students with more tools to be financially successful.

I strongly believe in the program I have crafted and I fully intend to see it through.  Yet it very difficult to conduct such a program in Afghanistan. We have finite resources in terms of money and space, problems with security, aggressive traffic, power outages, poor internet service... the list goes on for a long, long time.  Working with so many obstacles, I've aggressively sought partners to contribute to the program, and yet nearly 20 universities, nonprofits, or companies failed to respond or simply said it is too intimidating to get involved.  However, there have been successes, and I am very lucky to have found the interests of spatial technology company Spatial Networks and the dynamic science journalist John Bohannon.  With their support (and hopefully others), hard work, and student dedication, I am fully confident that our program will accomplish its goals.  For now however, I'm left wondering if I should change the name.

#Stuxnet Lessons for Urban Planning 2 of 2


In the previous post I gave a brief overview of how Stuxnet worked and discussed some of the perils Urban Planners face within complex conditions, notably within conflict.  Below is a closer look at how Stuxnet can apply to urban planning.


Stuxnet and Urban Planning 
1. Stuxnet was designed and operated reflexively, rather than strategically.  Its code was structured like a Russian doll, with one layer contained with in another, and so on.   Configured as such, it had the ability to continually unload an additional set of internal tools when the situate presented itself.  Yet when the conditions were not present, the structural integrity remained intact. 
  • Too often development plans are developed and executed while overly reliant on contingent variables to maintain their integrity. If Part A occurs properly, Part B will go into effect... yet if Part A doesn't happen, the project is at risk of failure.  This is partly the fault of the discipline of Urban Planning and its tradition of  creating"Master Plans," long term projections into the future with a constant effort to fine tune socio-economic conditions in space.  Yet as the conditions constantly change and the implementation of Part A will have unforeseen effects elsewhere in the urban space, master plans are rarely equipped to meet the changing demands of the urban environment and are doomed to fail.  

2. Stuxnet not only penetrated multiple systems, it provided opportunities to change in response to those systems.  The code maintained a series of entry points in the event that the present layer of the 'russian doll' doesn't quite fit the conditions.
  • Markets do not exist in an equilibrium, neither do the less tangible social forces, therefore it is essential that plans are designed and implemented as fluid enterprises.  Rather than craft a plan that is project-oriented, consider how projects function as a larger process, and thus changes and tweaks are determined in terms of maintaining momentum with the process, not within the operations of a single project.  In other words, to craft a successful small project, consider it at a regional scale. Evaluation of the project and suggestions to change  are best designed in terms of regional necessity, not at the smaller scale of 'project success.'

3. The systems exploited by Stuxnet varied in Code (as operating systems) and as networks (peer-to-peer, hardware based, intranets, closed and open systems).  It jumped between code and network style, adapting to not only new terrain, but new communication protocol.

  • Planners in conflict need to visualize human settlements as  4-dimensional and not as static compositions.  The traditional overhead map will only provide a fraction of the information necessary.  If the problem is defined by conflict between two social groups, situate these groups in a space, and visualize their interactions within that space over periods of time.  The environment will inform the actions of those groups.  Over time the environment and the groups will influence each other and thus create a new set of conditions. The problem will again change once an intervention is introduced.  
  • This doesn't exclusively apply to conflict cities.  If one were to count the bus stops on a street then count their occupancy at different times of day, and each day of the week, a succinct pattern would emerge.  Introducing a new transportation option would change this pattern.  Yet before a new option can be introduced, such as alternative transport, additional buses, or an alternative route, the pattern must be first determined in terms of space and time and a variety of research methods may be used to acquire this information.

4. Spend less time attempting to building sectors and invest more time into the linkages.  Embedded within Stuxnet were three different layers of code to exploit three different situations.  It used the connections between Windows OS to Siemens and then to PLC.  Its primary set of tools took action at the final stage.
  • Likewise the function and productivity of any sector is only as strong as the transition point from one sector to another.  Rather than devoting hours to the study of transportation and a separate study on economic markets, condense efforts to understand how markets flow and interact based on available transit corridors.  

5. Identify target indicators within those linkages, but these indicators  must also be 4-dimensional.
  • To continue the above example, a rapid observation of wheel thickness among vehicles will tell you the condition of roads, the distance between production and supply points, the amount of wealth generated within processes of exchange and the frequency of exchange. The better the conditions of all circumstances, the thinner, lighter, and newer the tires on bicycles and cars.   This single indicator can inform the health of sector linkages and simultaneously communicate the health of individual sectors.  It should be noted that the indicator itself may actually serve as an ideal point of intervention.

6  Stuxnet simultaneosly spread through multiple networks so that points of failure were inconsequential. While the mechanisms of the intervention may be complex, the linkages need not be.    If an intervention is crafted upon a continuous series of dependent variables, it will not succeed.  If an intervention directly impacts multi-sectoral linkages and multiple locations at different points in time, it will have a higher probability of success.  It may require fine tuning in some locations or at some points in time, but such changes need only be subtle and responsive.


The greatest difficulty of behind planning an urban intervention while utilizing the Stuxnet approach is the challenge of measuring the impact of the plan.  Stuxnet was designed to relay information back to some website databases, yet working in a community does not provide the same immediate information supply. Rather one can only measure the impact of the project by assessing the actual problem at hand, such as fluctuations in conflict, market stabilization, transportation flows, and the production of goods.  The problem emerges when specifying causality, specifically connecting the value of the project to the mitigation of the urban problem.   Certainly it can be done, but it will require creative thinking.  After all, if one simply continues to add more layers of indicators, markers, measurements, links, etc. to the production cycle, the project will lose its streamlined sophistication and  become too self-burdened to operate efficiently.

Enroute to Kenya?

I had a phone interview the other night with a San Francisco non-profit, about working as their Project Officer within Kenya to oversee projects within Nairobi and the Dadaab Refugee Camps.   Although I was rather nervous at the outset - especially as there were complications getting skype to operate - within moments I found a comfortable relationship developing between us. 


I had discovered this agency while up late one night, reading about new technology developments on CNET. As much of my own research and work experience has consisted of technology, development, and refugee populations, I was immediately intrigued to learn of this company.  It is not an aid 
agency, but instead promotes innovative entrepreneurship within developed and developing nations.  By making it possible for anyone to outsource tasks via an iphone application, Samasource redirects these tasks to workers and refugees within developing nations who promptly accomplish the task and send it back.  These jobs might include data entry, analysis, research, programming, or tedious yet important processes of analysis.

New to working with refugees, it became clear within the conversation that my own background and expertise could be of tremendous value to the agency.  It would be my responsibility to oversee their projects within Nairobi and the Dadaab Refugee Camps where I had previously worked in 2007.  I've been thinking a great deal about the problems they have beenfacing within their program, and already I have an array of potentialsolutions in mind that would be socially-culturally consistent with Kenyan national and refugee workers, while also logistically feasible for thecompany.  It is clear that this could be an exciting and valuableoppurtunity for both of us. 

Unfortunately, although I can design and implement sustainable programming on their behalf, it is clear that the company does not quite have the resources to be as sustainable within my own life.  A little bit of negotiation needs to occur, as I simply don't want to go back to struggling to pay my bills, student loans, and fear getting sick for lack of health insurance.  That would feel like a personal step backward, and not something I really something I'm looking for.  It gets further complicated by the prospect of leaving my life in Cairo, where my girlfriend will continue to remain as she finishes her masters in Human Rights Law, and where I have grown many valuable friendships.

However, they seem willing to work this out with me.  I think they understand that the contribution I can make to their organization could ultimately save money by streamlining current operations, and improving  productivity while remaining consistent with their mission toward economic development and socio-cultural compatibility.   So they are looking at building a better offer, so that I'm not left floundering in Nairobi once the most urgent work is taken care of - after about 2 months out of a 6 month contract.

We are to talk again in a few days, and with luck, establish a more concrete agreement.

I'm really excited about this, to return to my favorite city in the world and to work on a project that has significant personal value.  Best of all, as soon as I get to Kenya - prospectively within a couple weeks- I'm going to feast on some roasted goat, mimi napende nyoma choma!

New Blog Debut!!!

I decided recently to start another blog, a "serious" blog that concerns the issues I am generally thinking about, writing about, researching and working on.  These issues concern the stabilization and reconstruction of conflicted territories, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo etc.

For now the entries are somewhat general, but each entry is created using a basic structure:
  • Each entry is concerned with a particular conflict 
  • Each entry synthesizes information from a variety of online journalistic and academic sources
  • Each entry attempts to look at a particular problem or asset for each conflict
  • The overall goal is to address untapped strengths and resources with the reconstruction process
I intend to update the blog on a biweekly basis. At the moment it contains 2 posts, one concerning Somalia, and one concerning Afghanistan.  Feel free to write constructive comments on posts.
Dialogue is encouraged.  Enjoy!



The Big Initiative

I had my interview at a local ngo few hours ago.  It was... interesting.  The agency was founded about 3 years ago with the interest of facilitating UN development goals.  However the agency seems to be a little unorganized.  They have a nice office, a few a handful of staff, and have been working primarily on two projects for the last three years.

The primary project is banking and finance oriented, with the intent of further educating the general public of various nations about the value of Islamic banking, and working to establish these institutions.  While I only have marginal experience with Islamic banking, limited only to money exchange, I believe it has been mostly untouched by the global banking crisis of the last 2 years.  Although such banks exist in America, they are not very well known or understood by the public and yet there might be significant value to further diversify American banking systems by investing in these institutions.

The other major project consists of working to facilitate secular cross cultural dialogues, so that people may better overcome their popular East/West misconceptions.  This is process is very much the product of institutional networking, lectures, workshops etc.

Well I considered these projects all quite fine and good, although I will admit, only of marginal interest.  Nonetheless, a part time job that pays a little money is better than no job and no income, so I was interested in going along with things anyway.

I was then introduced to the founder of the organization, and our discussion brought about a different direction altogether.  Apparently his interest in hiring me is founded on my experience of working with African populations, most notably Sudanese and Somalis.  It turns out that the government of Somalia has contacted his organization on multiple occasions, asking for project assistance to work with vulnerable youth and economic development.  Supposedly there is UN funding available for this projects, I received the impression that he has been simply uncertain how to go about doing this.

Fortunately, these sort of problems are perfectly consistent with my own expertise.  So over the next few days I'm going to sketch out a rough outline of what this  organization could do.  If it is of interest to them, then I guess I can go about designing projects from the ground up.  As for getting them implemented, well that will have to fall onto the shoulders of someone else.   This NGO does not appear to have any of the resources that one would have working for the US gov, the UN, or major agencies like Care or NRC.  This is of course rather unfortunate, as designing programing and not overseeing its implementation greatly retards the feasibility of the project and relegates the process to little more than an academic exercise.   Of course, I could show up next week with a slew of ideas, none of which would be of interest to this agency.

So the final question is, did I get the job? Yeah, it looks that way.  But do I want it? Well... we'll see.  If anything, its something to do for a few weeks or months while I continue to apply for something more embracing.