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For the last 10 years I have worked in some of the world's most brutal conditions. Along the way I've made and lost friends, witnessed miracles and tragedies, and have immersed myself into every moment of it. But I've always known that this is not a sustainable or necessarily healthy way to live. In my desire for a full life, I cannot always live and work in war and violence. So a few years ago, just at the same time I took up residence in Afghanistan, I began laying the foundation to one day take all the lessons hard-learned from the battlefield into a different direction.
Shifting the Terrain at HSpace
At the beginning of 2014 I transferred my practice from Kabul, Afghanistan to Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is famous for its poetic ruins and tragic rate of decay. I have also continued to work abroad - in fact, I am posting this blog post from downtown Mogadishu at this very moment. And in the meanwhile I have experimented with new methods to engage urban environments and to create technologies that shift the way we experience the world around us.
Today today my work is a fusion of deep theoretical understanding of complex urban environments and cutting-edge experiments in physical computing and design strategy. Although it has not been featured online, much of my time since January has been heavily occupied in a partnership with a global technology giant to develop a new technology to monitor events in Syria. Those who were present for my talk at the School of Visual Arts in New York City got a sneak-preview of the work we have undertaken.
In my off-hours, I've also been bashing out an array of prototypes and design mockups, primarily in the realm of augmented reality, experimental cartography, and drone-based design. Here is a sample.
Choose Your Adventure - The Mobile AR Experience
Problem: I've never been a fan of video games. There is nothing wrong with them, but my sense has always been - why play a game when you could live it? In fact, I recently discovered that playing a video game will satiate my desire to explore the more challenging environments in the world. But playing a video game also imposes tremendous limitations.
Concept: What if we combine geo-caching exploration with AR gameplay? What if we use our existing mobile technologies, gps positioning, social networks, and user-generated rating systems to refine the games?
Below I've put together two brief concept videos to show how this can work. The first video presents how such a game could be organized. The second video presents some screenshots of how such a game would function.
The cool part: This is an entirely new way to engage our cities and communities. Your city is no longer just an environment, but it is also an interface, stacked against a digital interface, so as to participate in the construction of new narratives. The natural syntax of our urban environment shifts, opening new interpretations of space, time, and meaning. Consequently the identity of the city is no longer what you see in the street, but also how it is constructed in the cloud. Like your online digital identity, cities can have a digital self, to be pushed-probed-and-hacked. We've had this digital infrastructure for years, but we lack sufficient methods to maximize its potential.
(Best enjoyed with headphones or decent speakers)
Created in 2014 by Mitchell Sipus
I have a love-hate relationship with geographic information systems. I use these systems frequently and have been thrilled to witness a recent explosion of interest in mapping across various disciplines. But overall, I have always hated the software.
Part of this is the fault of GIS software UI/UX design. Current GIS software is designed for a user to work with a database or data tables, and by generating a final set of data, the software will produce a visual product - the map. Many GIS packages do providing CAD-like drawing or design tools, however application of these tools does not modify existing data. They may allow one to create a new and empty shape file layer, but it is necessary to then attach data to that shape file. If I want to make changes to a cartographic layer that already contains data, then I have limited options from the graphics side, and more options from the data side.
The outcome is that seemingly simple goals in GIS contain many steps to achieve and are not intuitive to a new user. I recall when I was a new student to GIS that the strategy I created to learn the software was "right click at all times," otherwise it was impossible to know how to proceed. Of course anyone who is a frequent GIS user finds all these smaller steps as intuitive because they have used it for a long time. Consequently many GIS professionals have adapted to the logic of the system and have difficulty to see its flaws.
The other problem with current GIS platforms is the way they are taught. When learning GIS, students are introduced to the vocabulary of geography and cartography as the theory component, much of which focusses on the the map, not the data. In the meanwhile they must undertake assignments and exercises focussed on the software. The theory and the application remain separate most of the time. A better GIS class would start with explaining and exploring databases without maps. Once the student is comfortable with a database, geographic coordinates would be introduced (all using a common projection etc), maps would be generated, and finally the class would begin to explore geographic concepts. In this manner the teaching is attuned to the system and moves forward in a simple and linear fashion.
Over the last few years GIS has exploded with options. When I was first introduced to these tools in 2006, the only options were ESRI products and GRASS as the open source alternative. Today we now have tools such as QGIS, TileMill, Open Street Map, and maps are frequently created tiles for a base map. Yet I believe there is still plenty of room to reinvent the GIS interface. I believe we can create a better GIS interface and user experience design to expand versatility.
An ideal software package would provide each user with 2 options for user interaction. One option is the same as the current approach, in which a technician works with the data to generate a visual outcome. The alternative is software that allows one to create a visual modification which will also shift the underlying data accordingly. This is a step beyond existing products, such as TileMill, which provide the means for designing beautiful maps, but do not allow one to conduct data analysis.
In the above image I rendered an ideal GIS interface, based strongly from Adobe photoshop, on account that photoshop is highly intuitive many users. This interface features layers in the right corner like photo layers, but the most significant feature is the ability to work across Tables - Drawing/Selection Tools - CARTO in a fluid system. For example, a user could click on physical elements of a map to select them in a table, then change the look of those items in the CARTO window.
The array of GIS options today are phenomenal. Yet I continually am working across different systems because there is no ideal platform for working with data, styles, and design in a fluid manner. Perhaps we don't need a single platform for all that, but if anyone ever develops a method for underlying data to shift in response to graphic decisions, I suspect we will encounter an entirely new era of cartography.
Over the last couple years I've been building the company, Sutika Sipus LLC, which provides governments, businesses, and nonprofits with creative solutions for radical urban change.
Today we launched the first iteration of our new company website, sutikasipus.com.
As a company that specializes in unique approaches to urban planning and development, it is only fitting that the site reflects those values. But this task is easier said than done. Special thanks to Zach Hannes who dedicated his time and talents on the project above and beyond expectation.
The site has a beautiful scrolling navigation to describe the services we offer, while examples of previous projects are geolocated on MBtiles for fast downloading. There is still work to be done for full functionality and some needed content, but for the moment, I'm quite satisfied with the current form.
|Police Checkpoint on Ashura Holiday in Kabul, Afghanistan|
Wars have never had simple, neat, clean endings. We like to envision that they have, but after the signature of nearly every historical treaty there remain scattered battles and acts of aggression by those who refuse to accept defeat or had yet to hear the news. Today, the lingering aftermath of war is more obvious, as it is a given that wars never end but continue to trickle onward indefinitely. Cities such as Kabul, Juba, Mogadishu, and Bagdad are rebuilding, but are not safe or stable.
There are many reasons for their continued instability and lots of research out there to understand why contemporary wars have no ending. Current research as investigated the problem from diverse perspectives such as psychology, natural resources, epidemiology, or even the notion that conflict simply creates more conflict. But amidst all the efforts there has been little to no examination of the physical city and its role in promoting or reducing conflict.
Unfortunately traditional methods of security greatly undermine the health and function of cities. Giant blast walls, police and military checkpoints, and steel guard shacks hinder processes socio-economic and cultural production by disrupting the spatial pathways and linkages necessary for their distribution and replication.
Here are some examples of how contemporary security will hinder post-conflict urban reconstruction:
- Detours caused by road blocks force the redistribution and retarded delivery of capital causing unnecessary losses and social inequities. For example, the guy who collects and sells firewood must pull his heavy cart an excessive extra distance before getting to his customer base, or because he cannot access his customers, he must compete against another firewood salesman in a more accessible neighborhood, reducing profits and potentially causing territorial conflict.
- Lack of identification among citizens and the frequency of police checkpoints disrupts the flow of goods and people, and further causes new touchpoints for conflict occur. In developing countries, most people do not have a birth certificate let alone a license or photo identification. Just as often the police are illiterate and after long work hours are impatient and tired. While checkpoints are important for security, they also create points of friction in the community and can inspire new conflicts.
- Most neighborhoods were founded and grew around tightly defined tribal identities. Over time these tribal concepts began to deconstruct, yet the emergence of social conflict will re-inspire tribal allegiances When communities are heavily segregated by tribe, cross-tribal interaction is more likely to motivate suspicion and hostility than friendship and commerce. When physical barricades disrupt the movement of people, it prevents opportunities to again break down tribal allegiances.
|Blast walls dictate all movement and transport cooridors in Kabul |
As you see, point of security are also points of disruption and thus obfuscate healthy social interaction. The question then becomes, how can governments and institutions create a viable security infrastructure while also promoting the advancement of the city?
To solve this problem, we must imagine some future possibilities:
- What if police checkpoints could be design and operated in such a way that 10 years from now, citizens would say "remember when we had that checkpoint? I rather miss it, that really added something to our community."
- What if security infrastructure, such as blast walls or Jersey-walls, were created in such a way that their identity could become absorbed into the the landscape over time?
- What if urban security was approached as a process of customer service, and thus techniques successful in retail could be infused within security operations? To extent we already have this, but does a visit to the police station feel like a visit to the genius bar? Do customers have a way to provide feedback into the service experience for improvement? Most people are afraid of security providers, how can this be changed?
Unfortunately those with the power to initiate and conduct war continue to forget the lessons forged by existing conflicts. Take for example the swift path to victory by the French forces in Mali. Achieving the military victory was possible, but before the militants moved in, Northern Mali was a poor and desperate landscape. Will it return to the same sad state of affairs? Likely, or even more likely, it will be worse as France appears to have no viable plan for the reconstruction process. And if they rely upon the methods currently embraced by the aid/development community of the world, they wil only partly succeed, as evidenced by the lackluster reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Certainly the communities are resilient to certain issues and people will manage to survive, but resilience does nothing to prompt the radical transformation for a sustained peace and enriched development. It is clear that a new approach is necessary, one that transforms the landscape so as to negate the conditions which facilitate conflict. For years my company Sutika Sipus has been developing strategies and solutions to facilitate this change, but one company is not enough, others must take part in the process as well. We need to reinvent the interface between security and society in our cities, and to do so, it is essential that we redesign the relationship between security methods and the city itself.
|Karte-Seh. Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2013|
I use Urban Planning methods for conflict stabilization and post-war reconstruction. This focus demands that I also maintain an ongoing understanding of trends in contemporary warfare, whereas I seek to create an urban environment goes beyond physical reconstruction, but also facilitates the psychological healing of afflicted populations.
Lately I have been investigating how to apply concepts from service and interface design to conflict and post-conflict environments. Service and UI design both are rooted in understanding user approaches and psychological impulses to craft a satisfying user experience in retail or online. If we can craft a retail experience to facilitate greater customer satisfaction, such as how Apple uses of free-floating associates who can provide sell you an iphone at the display table, then we can apply the same steps and research methods to shape urban environments to maximize the urban experience of the citizens. Likewise I believe we can use these steps to create opportunities for pacification, identity construction, and community healing.
But today while researching concepts in service and UI design from Carnegie Mellon University (famous for robotics), a new concept came to mind. As drone warfare continues to escalate in use and force, the conflict cities of the future may have little evidence of human destruction. Those initiating the war may be thousands of miles away, yet the perpetrators of war in the eyes of the local community, will become more abstract.
I'm not claiming the future will look like the battlefields of Terminator 2 or The Matrix, but rather I have a few new questions:
Can we facilitate community healing after destruction waged by technology?
Does the identity of the perpetrator matter when reshaping a conflicted landscape to manage memory?
Does the use of high-tech, non-human weapons of war negate our ability to learn from war or overcome the resulting trauma?