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Solutions

Finding Zero Gravity in Big Messy Social Problems

500 volunteers "move a mountain" 10 cm with spades, art performance by Francis Alys
I recently worked with a team who has been tasked with a massive problem in federal government. The problem is so huge, if you ask every person on the team to explain it, they will each give you a different answer.  They have less than a year to somehow tame this wicked problem.  I was brought in because with a problem so big and ugly, no one could agree on the team how to start dealing with it.

We all know that whenever someone says "well I'll tell you the real problem," you might as well stop listening to him because that person has no idea whats going on. First, there is no 'real' problem. There are only perceptions of problems, evidence to be found, and theories of how those perceptions and evidence match or do not match.  To define a big problem is hard, and sometimes impossible, but one needs a path forward and isolating everything through one concept is not the way.  To find the best path forward requires discovering the most opportune point of entry into the problem and the only way to find this is for everyone in the room to stop thinking.

In the past, I've written about the necessity to have clarity of your personal values regarding the work that you do and also the necessity to not inject those values in the work.  These statements may appear to be contradictory - but they are not.  You need to stop thinking about the problem, and identify where you stand, so as to better separate yourself and engage it on its own terms. Clarity of values is essential to ensure they are not integrated into your thought process and avoiding integration is essential to inform better thinking about the problem.

Its like when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car on every street, but before you bought this car, you never saw it anywhere.  When you let personal values exist with your attempt to engage a problem - that x is good or bad, that x is desirable or not, that x is the right solution - that value is surrounded with a gravitational force that will pull other ideas and ways of working near it. Like just like seeing your new car over and over, you will see things that align with that value, and everything else will be less obvious. You might see every Black Toyota Corolla on the street and fail to see the Black Prius.  If you approach the problem stripped of values, it will be necessary to construct strategies to observe and measure ideas/insights, and these strategies will exist only in relation to the problem - not the other stuff. You will develop a better way to see cars.

Another thing that can derail the ability to deal with a big problem is when the problem/solution is to advance alongside a desired side-benefit.  If I approach a problem with the goal "this solution will be so excellent it will impress lots of people, generate a 10 million dollar contract, and therefore advance my career" then every idea and option will be weighed against that 10 million dollar contract.  A lot of people make this mistake and I used to do it all the time which led to more  frustration than happiness.  Approaching a problem in this way, you forget that there are a million external unknown factors which also will determine the acquisition of the reward, and if it doesn't happen, you will still not see them - believing that your solution was somehow a failure but unsure why.

The bigger problem with this approach, is that the solution generated is not likely to be the ideal solution for the problem because it was affected by the gravitational pull of the reward.  With the reward in the review mirror, I will lose sight of the fast and simple solutions in front of me. I will get distracted. I will lose others on the road. Under the stress of all these new conditions, I will generate an output that meets the reward criteria, but the output will not structurally align to the demands of the problem. It will only create a new set of problem conditions, eventually passing the problem to someone else, and potentially making the problem bigger.

There a place where your values come back into the problem - when the job is finished. The reward of this process does satisfy personal values, but on account that the process has generated the best viable solution that checks as many boxes as possible.  Since these boxes are determined by the demands of the problem, the problem has been crushed, and even if it continues, it is only a whisper compared to the previous chaos.  To watch something terrible change from chaos to whisper is truly satisfying.

To work in zero gravity is to be liberated.  Solve the problem according to the demands of the problem and the other things will likely happen anyway. Success, however you measure it, because you will leave a path of crushed problems behind you and others will eventually notice. And if they don't, it doesn't really matter because you've done something extraordinary that speaks for itself.

The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

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.