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Transition Design

Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)


Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.

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.

Design to what End? Socio-technical Design in an Era of Neoliberal Capitalism

"Psychologists have said that man's neurosis comes from too much contact with other humans. This won't happen in my city." - Le Corbusier

About a week ago I was participating in a workshop with some graduate students from Parsons and they were tasked to make rough prototypes in the realm of speculative design.  Their products were to additionally embody a degree of enforced moralism within the design (see delegated morality). Moving between teams to assist students in this task, I spent some time listening to the conversations held by one team in particular who was determined to redesign the heroin syringe into a tool for recovery.  The team continually focussed on one kind of user, the addicted person seeking recovery, and did not address the array of actors within the recovery process.

I asked "So how does this benefit other stake holders, like medical professionals?"

"Like doctors?" asked one of the students.

"Sure"

"They already use syringes so nothing changes for them."

It was a fair answer, but I challenged her, "so what incentive is there for the doctor to use this syringe vs the traditional device? Your device will cost more and require a lot of new systems to implement. Your new device also provides feedback to the drug user to facilitate recovery, how does the doctor benefit?  In fact, medical professionals might have a problem with this."

Then I was surprised as she tilted her head at an angle and said with annoyance: 
"Why? Because it takes away jobs?"

This was not my thought at the time. I was curious if the product could also be designed to provide feedback to medical professionals so that the medical community can gain a deeper insight into addiction.  Yet I've thought much about this discussion since because I've been disturbed by the confrontational annoyance that replacing people with machines is somehow a petty criticism.

Of course people have been frequently replaced by machines within capitalist economies.  My teenage job of working a cash register has been replaced by "U-scan" kiosks in drug stores and supermarkets. Architecture firms only require one CAD designer  vs fifty draftsmen.  I once worked in an office that was staffed by 200 individuals in the 1960s and is today occupied and operated by less than 30 individuals, most of whom are fairly young and inexperienced but generate a volume of work several thousand percent higher than in previous decades.  Just the other day I witnessed a presentation on robots that can plaster walls faster, cheaper, and better than a professional plasterer. One robot can do the work of 50 men in an hour, with overall better quality and lower cost.

This trend is a direct byproduct of unfettered capitalism. Humans are secondary to the efficiency of production for the sake of maximum gain.  Thomas Pickety has found that the process of then redirecting the profit into capital, such as real estate, rather than into the human workforce accelerates wealth accumulation at the cost of social capital. Yet the efficiency of production is reliant upon the expertise of technicians, giving rise to the engineering class, and thus today we see more money in the operations of Google than in any form of business that is tactile and wherein employment is accessible at scale, such as within a chain of hardware stores.  Nearly 100 years ago this process was predicted by Thornstein Veblin, and today is codified by the likes of Peter Theil.

So where does design come into this?  Design is an opportunity to revisit the systems of production regardless of the economic framework so as to prioritize humanity within the technological landscape. It is in no way unique in this endeavor and many disciplines are pursuing this same trajectory, yet I'd argue it has constructed a lineage (perhaps in a revisionist manner) that suggests a disciplinary opportunity. In short, if designers fixed a maligned socio-economic system before, they can probably do it again.

In the era of the industrial revolution there was a movement by public health professionals, architects, and social activists for improved work conditions and higher standards of living.  Public health codes were founded and urban zoning emerged to regulate land use.  Machines were designed to be safer. These changes were much needed at a time when most streets were covered in horse manure and a single water spout infected much of London with cholera.  This transformation was embodied and institutionalized within Harvard's Landscape Architecture program for city planning, where "the first graduates were trained as designers... not policy wonks."

Jump forward to the mid-20th century and the Dutch Socio-Technical Systems approach enters the space of economic production. In the Netherlands it became clear at the time that technological development was not only shifting the composition of the workforce, but effectively undermining the long term social interests.  People do not feel good when they are no longer useful. Everyday new markets are created and others die, but most people are not agile enough to shift rapidly across markets.  In the Dutch model, similar to previous area, attention was given to both the organizational model and the technologies of production so that the participants of the socio-economic system enjoyed ownership of their own economy.  In other words, laws were made so that people would not suffer under capitalism and machines were designed so as not to marginalize people. These tools were created in the service of people, rather than people needing to adjust to the demands of these tools. In the example of the cash register becoming a "U-scan," such a device would never be implemented. In contrast, a business would be organized under law to value the employee, yet the technology would be designed to make the employee more efficient. The employee would also receive training on the technology so that the interactive human/machine relationship held a competitive advantage in the market place.

Coming back to the initial problem, in the current iteration of global neoliberal capitalism, there is no priority for humanity.  Its sprawling pervasiveness undermines the ability to transform this neoliberal condition to something more humanistic. What can be done, however, is to design technology with the interest of people. In the most direct instance, we should design products, experiences, and environments that facilitate satisfactory human living - not take away jobs - which effectively does the opposite. We do not need or desire a "machine for living" in the sense of Le Corbusier. We do not even need to design a world of human transcendentalism in the vein of Husserl or Heidegger, but rather, we can benefit from designing the earth on which we live by recognizing the internal drives of humanity as part of the earthly system.

For this to happen, a cultural shift needs to happen in the realm of technology creation. To create a technology or environment that takes jobs from people needs to be understood as a moral infraction. It is not an unfortunate externality to be ignored in favor of efficiency. In contrast, social capital must be weighed with the same gravity as financial capital and fuel efficiency.

I've heard some individuals say that "Design is the 21st century humanities," which is fine, but typically the humanities are something only accessible to particular social classes so I'm not really a fan of this sentiment. I prefer to think of Design as 21st century engineering with the potential to become 22nd century populism. We can elevate our technical sophistication to accommodate and elevate humanist principals. Of course these arguments are simply two sides of the same coin. Effectively it doesn't matter what side of the argument you prefer, it just depends on how we invest it.

Choosing Graduate Schools for a Masters in Urban Planning (City, Town, Regional etc)

Oxford University is beautiful but is it the best context for innovation?  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2013

About once a week I receive an email from an urban planning student interested in working in international development, or post-conflict reconstruction, or sometimes even just traditional town planning.  They all ask me the same question,  "where to attend graduate school? " I try to be helpful, but my best answer is somewhat longwinded and disappointing.

I have two major thoughts on the matter. First, it just depends on what you specifically hope to accomplish in your life many years after graduate school.  Second, I doubt where you go to school really matters that much.  I say this because my entire adult life has been a process of building something from nothing.  I didn't start off in fancy schools and I definitely didn't have any sort of social network or money.  I went to the schools that were nearby, pursued every chance for something better, and eventually built the career I wanted.

When I attended graduate school, it was not a deep decision process, but a rather a sudden thing.  I decided that I wanted to go back to school and found a backdoor into a local program within 48 hours. At the time I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio and the University of Cincinnati has one of the top ranking Architecture and design schools in the world.  So I enrolled in a few classes on a student a loan via a certificate program. Then in the mid-term I applied to the program with an established reputation among faculty.  I received a significant scholarship and the path was set.

That was in 2005.  Now, nearly 10 years later, I have a few thoughts on how to do it better.  I was able to apply these toward a PhD in Transition Design at Carnegie Mellon. You can read about that in Advice For Choosing a PhD in Urban Planning, but for a masters - I have some other ideas as well.


Summary
Q: So where should you attend graduate school?  
A: Attend the program that is thinking about the problems of the future.  Attend the program that has the resources and tools to facilitate the vision you have.  Attend the program that is flexible when you realize your vision needs to change.  Attend the program that has a clear technical focus to give you the tools you need to manage life after graduate school, but cares sufficiently about theory to give you the range to use those tools. The only factors that matter are the decisions you make and the relationships you create to go beyond program, not those that are situated within the program.


Five Urban Planning Priorities for Graduate School
1. Focus on technical skills.  Most people who study international relations, international development, or political and social science lack technical skills.  You can read 1,000 books on development issues, but it is very difficult to learn econometric analysis, site planning, GIS, statistics, or computer programming outside the classroom.  The skill will get you the job.  I've never been hired because I understand sociology, but I've been hired for several jobs because I can calculate the economic impact of a project in a community.  So what skills can they teach you?

2. Examine curriculums.  I believe many graduate Urban Planning curriculums are heavily outdated. Progressive curriculums can be easily overlooked - for example, I think Ohio State has a far more compelling program than the top ranking programs at USC and Berkley. Many of the programs also have an underlying thematic focus tied to the location of the school and the strength of the university at large.  UVA, for example, is heavily focussed on environmental issues.  University of Cincinnati is strongest within economic development for rust belt cities.  Rutgers is exceptional concerning public health.  Is the curriculum tied to a place you want to be, and to problems you want to solve?  Is it tied to the urban planning problems of the future or of the past?

3. Location is premium.  Where do you want to live after grad school?  I believe location is the biggest element of consideration.  If you do an MCP in Boston, you will be immediately predisposed toward a career in Boston.  Same with Hawaii. You can build significant relationships during your MCP with local businesses and create a network to propel you forward.  This was great at UC for the people who wanted to be in Cincinnati.  For someone with an international focus, it did little.  I know people who went to grad school in Egypt because they wanted to work in the Middle East. That was more effective than going to any school in America.  Where do you want to live?

4. Theory?  Yes.  In addition to planning, I pursued an MS in Architectural Theory and Criticism.  At the time I did it because they gave me a fellowship and - admittedly - while doing the program I thought it was a waste of time.  But the truth is, those 2 intense years of studying phenomenology, critical theory, and marxist social theory, are the key to my ability to fuse the creativity of art and design with the precision of statistics and GIS.  The theory is the reason I work differently from other urban planners.  If you want your work to be different from the mainstream, then your thinking needs to be outside the mainstream. Learn to think different.

5. Research Methods. Does the program only require you take one course in research methods? Thats not enough.  Learn all the different kinds of methods possible.  My program required three research method courses and I ultimately took five, which was perhaps the best decision I made during that time. Make sure to be open minded about this too... I consider computer programming, data base design, graphic design tools, and courses in archaeology or linguistics as research methods. Anything that will teach you how to abstract a given scenario so as to make new sense of it. Learn how to learn.


Why The School and Program Does Not Matter
1. The Lower-Level Content is the Same.  When I was in my early 20s, I was intimidated by people who attended Ivy league schools or famous institutions like Georgetown.  I thought they must be geniuses and their education was superior.  Eventually I realized the error of these perceptions.  Often those students had better social assets when they were younger and often those schools had more resources to offer the students.  As for the material in the classroom - its the same. 

For example, if you take a computer  programming class at Harvard (CS50) vs any other school, the material is identical - (variables, strings, lists, tuples, functions, objects in Python or Java). At the generic school your resources consist of a library, some office hours and an overworked teaching assistant.  At Harvard you have tons of videos, networks, workshops, demos and tutors for the exact same class.  The coursework will be harder but there are more resources, so if you use them, arguably it is easier to learn at Harvard than at EKU. It just depends on your commitment.

2. The Quality of Higher Level Content is Self-Determined.  As an MCP graduate student, you are expected to use existing methods to identify a new piece of knowledge.  The methods are fairly universal.  How you apply them is up to you.  A school might have resources to help your investigation, but if it doesn't, then you need to find them - and you can.

Obviously there are advantages at an expensive school because you can more easily create opportunities to apply the methods.  For example, if you walk down "The Infinite Corridor" at MIT, there are posters advertising opportunities to work all over Africa, paid positions with companies and lab research internships.  The majority of schools can't offer these resources like MIT.  However, while I was at the University of Cincinnati, I managed to work at the United Nations Headquarters, design refugee camps with NGOs, and get a Fulbright grant to Egypt.  All of this was tied to my research and not the university.  It wasn't easy but it was possible.  Where you do your research and how it unfolds is up to you.


Looking Beyond Grad School
Rather than asking "where should I go to grad school" it is important to take the question a step forward and ask "where do I want to live after grad school?" and "in what form?" Look at the LinkedIn profiles of people working in the places you want to be, get an idea of what their life is like, and research their background.  Is that what you want? 

If you look at this quick visualization of my own LinkedIn network, you will see that all my relationships are more tightly clustered around places I've worked than actual institutions or jobs. The far right, orange and green cluster are indeed my connections from the University of Cincinnati.  But this is only a fraction of the total professional network.  The majority is rooted in the 2 years I lived in Egypt, the 3 years in Afghanistan, and then a sprinkling of connections obtained from my time in Washington DC and New York City.   If I was seeking a professional opportunity, these are the groups I would contact rather than the grad school people. 


Once You are In the Program
In the program, the most important thing is that you establish a strong relationship with one or two faculty members who can mentor you and will also work for you. Most people want to work with the foremost expert on his/her topic... but that is less significant at the Masters level.  I was fortunate to have Johanna Looye and Adrian Parr at my side. Johanna is a Latin America development specialist and Adrian is a sustainability philosopher.  I know little about either topic, but I could rely on them since sometimes you might need to bend the rules or need someone to go above and beyond. Ultimately, it is more important to have a mentor who answers email than is an expert in your particular research interest.  I had that person too... and he wasted all my time because he was too busy with his research to arrive at appointments, respond to questions, or assist with hard problems.


Final Outcome
If you pursue your vision and are a creative and capable individual, its going to be really hard to find a job.  Especially if you want to work in conflict.  So the concern is not - where do you go to graduate school.  The critical question is "how do you survive and thrive after?"

Advice for Choosing a PhD in Urban Planning


When you enter a new city, do you immediately start deconstruct the environment into use patterns? While driving do you frequently get a thrill from clever interchanges or notice over-engineered drainage with pangs of anger? And perhaps, when you hear about a massive social or economic problem, your mind ignites with strategies to improve the situation?

So now after years of thinking about complex urban problems, working in the field, and reading all the current literature, your mind is suddenly probing the possibility of pursuing a PhD.  Or maybe you were always interested in research?  Or you like the idea of teaching in a university?

I understand all these impulses.  For over a decade my mind has been fixated on building strategies for social change.  Even when I was an art student dreaming of a career as a conceptual performance artist, I sought to do work that could facilitate profound social transformation.  And throughout my entire life, I've been drawn toward the satisfaction of writing and research offset with the engagement of the lecture hall.  I always wanted to be Indian Jones. In my own fashion this led toward the decision to pursue a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning.  

It may then come as a surprise that when I applied for a PhD,  I only applied to four programs, and 3 of them were not in urban planning. Why? The answer is fairly simple.

The compelling aspect of the planning is its interdisciplinary composition.  People come from all backgrounds to study and work in planning.  It is rare that a professional field can consists of engineers, artists, historians, and statisticians all working together, side-by-side, using a shared vocabulary toward a common objective.  Its amazing really. But when we focus this energy through the lends of doctoral study, the tectonics start to shift, and I believe the value of planning education begins to go downhill. I'll explain more about this in the sections below.

Yet perhaps you are considering a PhD in planning.  Where do you go? How do you choose?  And should you make sure it is labeled "Urban Planning" or can it be something else?  Should it? 


Is the PhD useful for you?
Because of the unusual nature of Urban and Community Planning, the pursuit of a PhD is peculiar. For one, among those who are dedicated to practicing planning, a PhD is popularly rumored to reduced employment prospects because it makes one overly academic.  I don't know if this is true, but if it is true, the situation is stupid. People need to stop believing this or the PhD Planning needs to change to become more relevant.


How much time do you have?
I spent several years looking at the curriculums of the worlds top PhD programs in Urban Planning. There are advantages and disadvantages to the US model vs other countries.  First you need to think about time.  How much time do you have to do this?

In the European model, schools such as LSE or UCL feature some decent programs, but only one year is devoted to coursework with 5 to 7 years devoted to research.  The problem with this model is that the research is typically focussed on a very narrow proposal, supplied at the time of the application, limiting options for exploration and experimentation in subject matter.  The resulting dissertations are boorish and that the personal experience of the PhD is rife with depression, cognitive dissonance, and grief.

When a professor at a famous university in the UK expressed interest in working with me about government issues in Somalia, my initial excitement turned dour. I've worked with the government of Somalia and it sounds absurd to spend 7 years proposing policies the government of Somalia will never care about.  They have only marginal support for outsider interest and zero concern for academic arguments, so this will not end well. To do such a project for 7 years of doctoral study would be equivalent to 7 years of lying to myself.

Within the American model, the timelines are shorter, typically under 5 years, so it can be a bit healthier for mental health, yet 3 years are occupied by in-class learning.  That takes us to the next issue.

Curriculums
Most American curriculums require 3 years coursework then 2 to 5 years for dissertation research. Typically one year of the 3 will focus on research methods. This is considered the standard gateway to expertise.

One problem is that hands-on experience is a better way to deepen specialized knowledge than through additional coursework.   For example, I frequently meet people in Washington DC who are experts on Afghanistan.  Those people have a PhD, twice went to Kabul for a week, and read a lot about the country.  They do have a very deep understanding of actors and context, but the reality is that local politics change so rapidly, that anyone not actively living in the country will always be far behind. I mean, I've spent 10 years in developing nations, and that experience has provided a far deeper understanding of planning issues than any class.  So why do I want to spend many years sitting in classes that are disconnected?

Another issue is that while a PhD is about deep expertise and slow learning, the motivation to pursue additional schooling is also based on the desire to learn new things.  I want to study new ideas to inform my thinking and reshape the way I structure information.  I want to experiment with my brain. I want to pursue some electives.  PhD programs typically do not support such divergence because they are designed for a deeper study of a small thing.

So look closely at the curriculum of each school... is that what you want to do?  For example, University of Wisconsin Maddison is a great school, but I found its curriculum to be outdated and traditional to issues like transportation and housing. In contrast, Ohio State features coursework on new technology and urban development. Super cool.  But if you want to build technologies, it doesn't give the flexibility to do that - not as part of the core curriculum anyway - you can only study their impact.  Same situation with Columbia University.

It is important you evaluate your need and interest for coursework.  Will one year suffice?  Two or three?  Are you jumping into new territory and require many foundation courses is a new skill?  Will the program facilitate flexibility?


Outcome Projections
Most of us know to ignore the rankings and focus on the specific industry reputation of the program. But there is more to the selection process.  For example, many schools in California have stunning reputations for Urban Planning, but none of them were churning out students that I saw as a model for my own career.  Rather than look at the rankings, I advise you look at the dissertations coming out of each program.  Do you want to spend 5 years writing the same kind of work?

Rather than looking at rankings, ask, what kind of funding does this department have?  Is it getting federal or corporate research grants?  Are the professors actively publishing groundbreaking work or running audacious companies? If you choose to teach afterward, what kinds of schools and programs would want to hire you?  Where are the recent graduates teaching? Will you be qualified to only teach in one department (planning) or several (design, social science, business, planning)?  Personally, I want options.


Changing Times
This part is really important. Realize that programs are constantly changing.  Are you applying to a program based on its history, its present configuration, or on its future?  What kind of faculty are they hiring?  What are the department goals?

For several years I was convinced that the only program for me was at MIT.  The DUSP program for international development (IDG) was inspiring.  Diane E. Davis was generating work about conflict cities, other professors were looking at technology,education, and humanitarian work.  Some of the students who came out of that program like Topher McDougal were rockstars to me.  

Then just before I sent PhD applications, everything changed. Dr. Davis went to Harvard GSD and many of the other faculty rotated as well.  I like some of the professors there very much, but I could not see myself working with them. In the meanwhile, I do not like Harvard's program at all, so I would never follow Davis there.  After years of preparing for one program, it changed so dramatically that I never bothered to apply.

Where do you want to live and work?
Four years will go by fast but of course you must consider the reality of living there.  Case in point, the University of Umea in Sweden is amazing and has sufficient doctoral funding - but it is nearly the north pole. Ouch.  They were interested in my work, and I was interested in their program, but after 3 winters in Afghanistan, my wife and I were not willing to move to the Arctic circle.

Also consider, will living there advance your career goals?  When my wife did her masters, she went to the American University of Cairo, Egypt because she wanted to work in the middle east.  That gave her far more advantage than any graduate program in America or Europe.  Likewise, after graduating you might continue to live in the same city for awhile, so make sure you like it enough.


Look Outward
As I mentioned before, I only applied to one PhD program in Urban Planning.  But I also applied to 3 programs in political science, sociology, and design.  I received 2 full fellowship offers from among the four programs.

If the interdisciplinary nature of Urban Planning is its strength, we should leverage this strength to break away from the limited vision of the profession. Consequently, I encourage planners to do their PhD in anything but urban planning. Computer Science, Economics, Geography, Political Science, and any technical discipline are valid options.  


Personal Outcome
Final decision? I am pursuing a PhD in Design at Carnegie Mellon University.  CMU has the technological focus I desire, but more importantly, the new PhD Design is focussed on transition design.  This concept is akin to my own methodology, wherein it embraces turbulence of complex systems to advance scaled instances of social chanee.  As this approach is based in the field of UX Design, rather than planning, it also introduces new perspectives, vocabularies, and breaks away from the historical inheritance of the planning profession.

The curriculum and leadership are flexible, and as a new program, it is future-focussed with a zeal for creating new opportunities and ideas. Consequently, this PhD has the resources I need to create whatever future I want to create.  For my goals, there is no better option in the world.