Viewing entries tagged
cities

Design for Mental Health on the Mars One Space Colony

Rendering of Space Colony by Mars One









The other day I read an article in which a team at MIT conducted a thorough analysis of the Mars One plan to implement a human colony on Mars in 2025. Mars One is intent to have 4 humans on Mars who will live the rest of their lives there, building out the first major human settlement. Cool stuff. Especially when you consider that Mars is the only planet in the solar system inhabited solely by robots.

The analysis focussed on all sorts of important metrics such as Oxygen creation and depletion, and the demand for spare parts. It highlighted the need for improvements in the realm of 3D printing. It discussed the payloads necessary to ship everything to Mars. It was a purely technical assessment and other human needs were outside the scope of the project. Fair.  

Then I looked at the photo of the Mars One Colony. It made my heart ache. I love adventure, danger, and cities and 600 years ago I would have totally signed up for an early expedition with Columbus or Magellan to cross the oceans into the the unknown. But I will not likely attempt to join the Mars One entourage. Why? Have you ever been confined to a physical space for extensive period of times?  It is brutal.

Over the last 10 years, I have become deeply familiar with the stress of confined living.  In my early 20s in India I became sick with malaria and had very little money.  I found a room for 80 cents (USD) per day in Varanasi, which was concrete with no windows, a mattress, and a lightbulb. Aggressively fatigued with illness, I was bedridden in darkness except to venture once a day to a cafe across the street for a bowl of Ramen.  I lived this way for a month.  It was the first step into a life of continuous confinement.

Twice I've lived in concrete windowless rooms while working in refugee camps in East Africa. For three years it was a stressful act to wander outside of my apartments in Afghanistan.  For 11 months of those three years, I was confined to my own house in Afghanistan as the security policy would not allow me to even leave the front gate to purchase bread at the bakery on the corner. In Mogadishu I can typically occupy a public space for 15-20 minutes at a time, and only in ideal conditions, otherwise I'm confined to hotel courtyards and more concrete rooms (though usually with windows). I do not like to stay for more than 2 weeks and the longest haul in Mogadishu, 30 days, is something I will never repeat again.

The Size of the World in War Zones and Refugee Camps

Working in confinement is hard on your mind and body. Not from being inside, but because you see the world outside and you cannot access it. When you cannot open your front door and take a leisurely walk down the street, then nothing else seems as beautiful or important. When you can take that walk but require several hours of advance planning and coordination of security mechanisms, the outside world feels more distant, as if you are only scratching the surface of human experience.

When I look at Mars One, I immediately think of all the months and years I have spent living within constriction. In the end, I always broke the rules to enjoy freedom. I would sneak out of the company compound. I would hire a local taxi and freely roam the city. I always go off the grid and make a point to integrate with the local community. It is this need for mobility and social interaction that drives the work I do, and arguably, is the core characteristic that distinguishes my work from others who work in challenging conditions. But on Mars, breaking the rules is not an option.  Not to mention - where would you go? So in the meanwhile, trapped in a state of social isolation (with 3 other people you will inevitably grow to hate) what do you do?

Here we might also glean something valuable from the performance artist, Tehching Hsieh. Perhaps my favorite artist in all of history, Hsieh only created 6 works between 1978 and 2000.  The first 5 works each lasted a year. In the first he lived in one room for a year. In another he lived outside for a year, then was tied by a rope within 10 feet of another person for a year, and somewhere in there he punched time clock every hour on the hour for an entire year. It is clear that each work requires stamina and commitment.


Watching the One Year Performance 1980-81 in which Hsieh punches the clock, we see the onset of fatigue and discipline impact his body. We see the commitment. But is it the physical endeavor of each piece, or is it the denial of human interaction and communication that shapes his experience? Hsieh's work starts with the smallest unit of human experience as an individual, isolated in one room, and then expanding the circle ever outward, he probes at formation of human life. His last piece lasted 13 years, during which time no one knows what he did, but was summarized by the single statement "I survived."  Today he no longer makes art, in any form, but owns a building in New York that he rents out to other artists.  If we have anything to learn from Hsieh, it is that the Mars One plan needs to be more about creating conditions for the full range of human experience while within the constraints of creating the units of human survival.

Human living, even surviving, cannot be designed as incremental components, but is the chaotic interplay of exterior and interior variables.  Heidegger called it "being in the world." But Mars is a different world.  The act of being in the world will be handicapped and reduced to being in a subworld, one shaped by the aims of the profession rather than nature.  Life will consist of watching the world outside, be it from the window of the space pod, the vizor of the space suit, or the other side of the empty oxygen tank. If I've learned anything from the mental struggles of isolation in refugee camps and war zones, and if Hsieh's work has any value for this project, we learn that a viable space colony is not an apparatus for survival, but it is a seedbed in which the conditions of satisfaction may autonomously emerge to grow and prosper. To be in the world, the world must come into formation.

Can one design for a human compatible world that will take form as act of emergence? At what point can the world formation happen independently from our directives? We create new realities with frequency (Second Life anyone?), but these are never isolated from preexisting social norms and traditions. Having spent my fair share of time as an outsider in hostile deserts, I can assert that the landscape of Mars will come to embody the existential vacuum in a very short period of time. When contained within a landscape that subjectively embodies desolation and bleakness, it is difficult to remain steadfast and not embody the same. Mars hurts.

So I only ask, for those brave and crazy adventurers who will set out to Mars, will they have the opportunity to derive joy from the world they are presently designing? For how long? Will those involved in creating this endeavor facilitate the need for mobility and tactile engagement with the outside? Will another world come into its own for engagement and will that one become accessible so that some kind of value can be co-created that gives satisfaction?

I hope so.

Mars or Afghanistan, either way, when you go off the grid, you quickly find there is nowhere to go   Photo: Afghanistan, Sipus 2014


The Emerging Future of Cities



I travel a lot, and just in the last year I've spent time in some of the worlds wealthiest cities, its poorest, and its most rapidly changing.  London, Dubai, Bangkok, Istanbul, Detroit, and Mogadishu are just a sample.  I also am a constant reader and love to learn new skills in computer science and business strategy.  So out of this mix I have some observations and some proposals on how these observations will evolve.  Is it an optimistic future? For those who can adapt it will be incredible. And for everyone who refuses to do so... not so much.

*Edit: Please note this is not a prescription for future cities.  My objective here is to identify variables and perceptions that are currently not central in discussion yet are central to the realities of tomorrow.

Dynamic Urban Interface
For many years we have described the cyber world as separate from the physical world. This way of thinking needs to stop. There is an interface between the cyber/physical, and this interface is of critical to the future world. As found in a timely piece in Science Magazine, the internet is about to get physical.  Or maybe it has been for awhile. For example, a new post from Brookings Institution suggests that humanitarians should consider the implications of cyber warfare upon mass displacement.


Interaction is Experienced Through Environments
The form of this interface is changing at a rapid rate and accelerating. Only 10 years ago the primary way to use a computer was with a keyboard. Now you can shake it, throw it, walk past it, or swallow it.  This will continue to change and more quickly.

Physical environments are likewise responding to the transformation of the digital interface. The digital urban interface is essential to the future evolution of urban planning, architecture,  and design into a broader field of urban experience design. How we choose to embrace Urban Experience Design in relation to economic policies, organizational systems, and business strategy will continue to be disappointing. While the world is changing quickly, people are not changing with it fast enough to create better policies, markets, or in general, a better world.


Shifting Infrastructures
Robust digital urban infrastructures are the key to making the best use of the digital urban interface. The digital urban infrastructure exists as an interconnection of hardware (physical networks, physical computing sensors), software, and data as input in the form of GIS data, core urban analytics (traffic, pollution, security, water). The speed of these systems to acquire input and process it into a meaningful output (forms vary) will distinguish the ability for one city to embrace greater economic growth than another. Today we have smart cities... so consider how much computing has changed in the last 25 years and apply this same rate of transformation to the year 2039. The curve is exponential.


The New Slum is a Digital Wasteland
The 20th century observed the rise of the middle class and the 21st century is giving way to its demise. The cities with the most optimistic futures are the ones that can connect its citizens to the information and tools needed to compete within a global market place. A good example is this forward-thinking library in Chattanooga that has invested heavily in equipment and seminars for 3d printing and product fabrication technologies. Of course when I asked a librarian in Detroit about this, her response was "it will be very difficult for me to convince the board to put our 300 dollar budget for acquisitions toward new technology since we have so little to work with." Communities that adapt to the speed and interconnectedness will thrive and communities that do not will die. More importantly, communities of data creators will thrive, while concentrations of data consumers will collapse inward, as winner-take-all markets continue to thrive.


Integrated Supply Chains
Even today it is difficult for most companies to track each element of a supply chain. The Conflict Minerals Trade Act has provided incentive for technology companies to shift their practice of component sourcing. Interest in companies like FoxConn have pushed for better treatment of workers. Ultimately this trend will continue. Companies must have better monitoring mechanisms, and our physical environment will transform in response to the demand. Yet this will be expensive. Obtaining a granular level of information will generate new opportunities to cut cost and increase profits. The cost of this refinement will be passed to consumers, exerting more pressure upon a shrinking middle class.


Kanban Urban Management 
Extreme socio-economic polarization combined with integrated supply chains and robust digital infrastructures will create new city management models.  Kanban management methods focus on just-in-time implementation and production. Zero overhead.  Zero waste.  For example, digital sensors in the street will notify the city of a pothole, its dimensions, and location. A service worker is immediately dispatched with the appropriate amount of filler. Problem solved with precision. We won't be perfect at this for a long time - there is a steep learning curve - but the future financial constraints will ultimately demand the emergence and implementation of this technocratic model.

The Linguistic Substructure of Cities and Settlements


Does language affect the organization of urban settlements?  While culture or economics are typically identified as major variables in urban form, the impact of language on patterns of urban settlement remains unexplored. As social scientists have wrestled with the role of language in society for over 100 years, it seems bizarre that the subject has been ignored by urban theorists.  But before we can explore the possibilities, we must first ask, does language influence thought? 

Early efforts to examine this question were based on ethnographic observation by western anthropologists who frequently lacked a sufficient understanding of the language they studied.  For example, it was thought by Warf that the Yonomami tribe lacked the ability to plan for the future because their language did not contain a future tense.  He argued the tribe remained "primitive" because of this linguistic obstacle.  But such arguments tend to quickly fail when applied to different geographies.  For example, Japanese does not contain a future tense, yet the Japanese have been leaders in developing technologies and modernizing the world.   Given the weakness of Warfian ideas on language, for many years it was believed that evaluating the role of language and thought was and impossible task.

However breakthroughs  have been made to understand the psychological impact of language on thought through temporal and spatial distinctions.  Differences in navigational ability and spatial knowledge of language have been discerned among languages that use absolute reference frames vs. relative reference frames.  For example, aboriginal tribes in Australia do not use words such as "left" or "right" but rather always indicate location according to cardinal directions of North, South, East, and West.  Consequently, speakers of languages that utilize absolute referencing have been found to maintain full spatial cognizance of direction and location, even in unfamiliar landscapes or buildings. 

To realize the specific role of space and language,  I cannot but help look at Aboriginal art (as above) but through new eyes as every element exist within a specific spatial context.  Given that aboriginal art is frequently a representation of Dreamtime, and the living geography is conceptually mapped by Aborigines as manifestations of mythic dreamscape, who also utilize an absolute linguistic framework,  the artistic abstraction becomes concrete map, giving the viewer absolute location to a parallel reality.

The ability to interpret space is fundamental to understanding an array of social and cultural interactions.  It also is important to comprehend abstract concepts, such as differences in musical pitch or even the conceptualization of human emotions or time.  To test temporal progression, researchers provided test subjects with an array of cards and asked them to "lay the cards in order."  English speakers would lay the cards left to right, Hebrew speakers from left to right, and speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre arranged the cards from East to West, and depending on the direction faced by the person doing the task, shifted the cards accordingly (Boroditsky).  Furthermore, English speakers tend to conceptualize time as a horizontal process.  Mandarin speakers have been found to conceptualize time as a vertical progression.  English speakers often refer to time as a duration (a quick walk...) while Greek and Spanish speakers refer to time as a quantity (many hours).  

Within the field of urban planning, there is a common discussion of urban form and also regional differences, such as the organic organization of Islamic cities vs. the traditional Roman grid plan.  To what extent do these distinctions have a foundation in linguistic differences?  In part would could hypothesize that he Roman grid is a necessity to maximize efficiency (perhaps a cultural value?) and avoid directional confusion in a society that utilizes a language with relative spatial framework.  If the language were more absolute, citizens would be able to rapidly navigate any possible road formation and reach their primary destination.   

Chinese Linguistic Landscape (Source)

Research has also found that cities can shape language, primarily through social discourse, but can the urban experience of density and resource distribution effect language? Advertising and signage can function as a linguistic landscape, informing the urban environment, and reciprocally informed by context.  The city is not a blank canvas strewn with text, but rather, functions in relation to the text.


Ultimately, if language is the infrastructure for our ability to envision space and time, then it must be a substructure for urban settlement.  Exactly how remains unknown but I would love to hear from anyone who has explored the subject.  It would also make an excellent graduate thesis.

High Impact Development via Product Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Planning Trends are Bad Medicine


Smokestack chasing.  Garden cities.  Tactical Urbanism.  New Urbanism.  Creative cities.  What do all these have in common? They all reveal the greatest weakness of urban planning as a discipline. The reliance upon urban development trends, which shift every few years, has ruined neighborhoods, devastated communities, and undermined economies.  Yet we keep doing it.

When I was a graduate student, sustainability was the utmost priority.  And for the last few years, every planning and design firm advocates bolstering resilience as the prescriptive cure for cities ensnared by poverty, conflict, or natural disaster.  But how do any of these concepts actually make a difference in the field of urban planning?  While they may posit some degree of merit by creating philosophical or operational frameworks for positive action, they do far more to impend weakness upon a community.

Anyone can read a book about the creative class and push for their city to open more coffee shops and tattoo parlors.  But an urban planner is trained to measure problems so as to determine solutions, not just impose preconceived ideologies upon a space or population.  Measurement is the core of urban planning.  The ability to fuse social, economic, spatial, environmental, and cultural data into an observable model provides planners the ability to determine structural weaknesses in a community.  These structural weaknesses may be offset through direct internal realignment, manipulation of broader legal frameworks, or offset by outside interventions.  But the application of broad concepts as a cure-all is not a solution, it simply is a waste of resources, or at worst, an act of  imperialism.

Certainly urban planning trends are drawn from observable social processes.  And many of the ideas, such as sustainability, are not bad things on first review.  But when New York city planner Robert Moses proposed putting a highway through East Village, he was simply subscribing to the values of the day.  He believed that cars and highways were positive tools of progress.  He believed that the old communities were dirty and backward.  He was doing the residents of the East Village a favor by installing this highway, to connect them to all of New York and the rest of America.  It never occurred to him that they would want, or deserve, something different.

One of my first projects as an urban planner was to conduct an impact analysis for a wind turbine farm in rural West Virginia.  Thousands of acres of virgin forest were to be destroyed to install wind turbines which would route the power to New Jersey.  The residents of the local community were outraged.  Yet entrapped by poverty, these residents did not own the land around them.  It was the property of coal companies and the US government.  They could no nothing but watch their lands be destroyed.  New Jersey of course didn't mind ruining one community to facilitate its own energy needs.  After all, wind energy is sustainable.

What we as urban planners believe to be true and good in ideology can just as likely wield a terribly destructive power.  In that regard, is it not better to forgo all ideologies?  Perhaps it is better to attend  the intricacies of measuring complex systems.  We must recognize that every method of measurement  imposes a value upon the outcome, and so we must place greater attention and selectivity upon this primary step in the planning process.  If a given system of measurement works in one location, it will not necessarily work in another.  So how then can we presume that outputs are transferable?

Good urban planners will not invent the wheel every time they approach a settlement.  They will aslo not limit themselves to particular methods or ideology.  In the same way a good musician will not say simply "I am a jazz guitarist" or "I am a rock guitarist," rather, a good musician will study all forms of music so at the moment of performance he may play freely, not thinking about "I must infuse a minor third on the next note to get a given result." When trapped by conventions such as style or planning trends, the intentional application of convention will undermine the effectiveness of the final product. Urban planners trained to measure and respond will forever create better solutions for community problems than those who apply preconceived notions of community or development.