Viewing entries tagged
communications

Detroit Urban Development and Communication with a Drone


Recently while assembling a project in Detroit Michigan, I came across some videos utilizing a consumer drone to document parts of the city.  They are truly gorgeous.  This particular one below documents the Heidelberg Project, an neighborhood-wide art installation by Tyree Guyton.  

I've been a fan of the Heidelberg Project since my days in art school, when I learned that Tryee was using his method of found-object art construction to highlight the excessive needs and attention of his neighborhood. Adjacent to the abandoned Packard plant, and situated among endless blocks of abandoned buildings, Tryree constructed the Heidelberg project as an act of beautification, neighborhood protest, and empowerment.  For many years people were outraged by his actions, but as it brought attention to the landscape, one could argue that the Heidelberg Project has been an important catalyst for change, now that Detroit is on an upswing.  If you cannot view the embedded video, find it here.




Recently a series of arsons have been consuming this urban installation. Rumors abound regarding the motive and source of the fires and investigations on on-going.  The drone footage captures the landscape just before the most recent fire.

I've theorized in the past how drones could be used by urban planners, yet the documentation of Heidelberg illuminates a new, and fairly simple prospect.  

It is difficult to convey the qualitative, intangible feeling of vast spaces.  While photography and film has the ability to convey strong emotion, it does not necessarily have the means to do connect a viewer to an entire neighborhood.  The power of shaped and empty space is the ability make a person feel large, small, connected, or alone. Standard videography does not effectively transfer the essence of space to a viewer.  Yet perhaps this is a new opportunity for drones.

When I watch the video above, irregardless of any music, I get a sense of the atmosphere, I get a sense of the weather, and I get a glimpse of what it is like to move through the installation.  I get an idea what it is like to participate with the space, from the physical perspective of a small child, as a grown adult, or even perhaps from within the imagination of Tyree, who arguably has a more concrete vision of the installation than anyone.  He knows its details yet can see the large picture of interlocking pieces.  As a viewer and participant, we can eventually acquire an equally sophisticated relationship with the space, but to transmit this relationship is a challenge.  The drone imagery does not solve that problem, yet it may get us a step closer toward communicating the ethereal.  Perhaps drones will do more than cause new problems, perhaps they will give us the chance to be one step closer of experiencing the multilayered syntax of place.  That is a powerful thing. 

Fake Pirates, War Journalists and Old White Men

A couple guys on break or a dynamic security force? Depends on who you ask.  Afghanistan, Sutika-Sipus 2012.
I typically prefer to keep this blog limited to subjects of post-war reconstruction, but over the last few days I've been thinking a great deal about all the weirdos I've encountered along the way.  

Since 2003 I've been travelling or working in some fringe locations in the world, some of which are fairly dangerous, so its only natural that I've crossed paths with a lot of unusual personalities.  For example, Southeast Asia is full of old British men who all tout stories about their days at Oxford University, their years as a music producer touring the world, and their decision to return to the outskirts of Cambodia 15 years ago... but outside of potentially being wanted in 48 countries for arms and human trafficking, these guys seem relatively harmless over a beer.  Just don't make any future plans with them. But people that I encounter more often are the pseudo-journalists who have managed to change my perception of journalism, war, and Earnest Hemingway - and not for the better.

Today I stumbled across the article "The Somali Pirate Who Never Was," which exposes an ongoing
ruse of Kenyan-Somalis posing as Somali pirates for journalists.  The article cites Time Magazine and BBC documentaries as victims of this scam, and I find it completely believable.  Not because I have faith that the pirates to be such amazing actors, but rather because I have such little faith in war journalists.

To be fair, there are some exceptional war journalists out there.  I have massive admiration for people like Sebastian Junger who not only embed with combat units, but develop personal relationships with the subject matter and the people around them to tell the story.  But such individuals are rare.  So often when I read an article, I find it has more to do with presenting the writer as a badass than actually giving context or content.  How many articles start open with a sequence like the following:

"Driving down a dark, unpaved road in (insert conflict city here),  my driver pointed at a mud brick house and said 'we must be careful, because of the warlord (insert multi-syllabic Islamic name here) lives in that house.'  We barreled around the corner and stopped at a nondescript door when the driver nervously whispered 'we are here.  I stepped out of the car to discover an AK-47 only inches from my face."

Just one week ago a friend shared a German publication with me about the Gandamak Lodge, a bar and restaurant in central Kabul.  The article read nearly identical to what I just wrote.  Of course Gandamak, like most businesses in Kabul, has security guards, but its location is not a secret and travelling there is not an adventure.  I've also read articles exactly like this about countless African nations, refugee camps, border areas and innercity slums.  So what kind of journalist writes such over-sensationalized copy?

Every war zone or fringe location usually has one or two coffeeshops or hotels with wifi connections and decent espresso.  Inside are men and women with nice haircuts and stylish jeans, obsessing over twitter and talking about how awesome their lives are.  Most the time these individuals grew up in privileged conditions, attended reputable schools for international relations or political science, and without the burdens of student loans and lots of family support, set off to be tourists of the underdeveloped world, and occasionally publishing something between expat parties.

Thanks to the benefits of their upbringing they have a social network that facilitates access to top-tier publications and in the end, all they need to do is be somewhere to become journalists.  As for the coverage, it often doesn't stray to far from the coffeeshop, and that is the part that kills me.   Again, not all war journalists are like this, but there are plenty of the kind I describe to make your head spin.

Then there are of course the kind of journalists who "parachute" into town to swoop up a story.  I'd say this sort of coverage is often even worse because every small thing takes on exaggerated significance.  The child asking for money on the street becomes a symbol for the regional economy, the woman wearing a burka is suddenly representative of national women's rights, and the sleeping security guard at the corner store becomes a metaphor for lackluster national defense.  An entertaining story so often becomes more important than an accurate story.

I'll never forget when a friend in Juba Sudan told me that on the official day of constitutional independence, a large crowd of old white photojournalists trailed behind the central parade, documenting only the costumed dancers, but likewise looking like a parade feature themselves.  Of course they weren't there for very long, as they arrived in the morning and were on another plane that night.  I've witnessed similar reporters, often looking like he or she walked straight out of Williamsburg Brooklyn and into an IDP camp to photograph some kids pumping water from the ground and then leaving again, having contributed nothing to improve conditions but simply having been a voyeur.  Is raising awareness truly enough?  Could that person presence have contributed more to lessening the problems?

As for Earnest Hemingway, I always loved his writing and he was a childhood hero.  I also wanted to move around the globe, go on adventures, and be a good writer.  But today, I suspect I wouldn't have cared for his company.  When I read his work I sense that it is about him, its about looking like a badass and doing things specifically to have the story to tell others, not because the moment happened by chance.  What a shame.

Graffiti and Street Art in Kabul, Afghanistan

Graffiti and Street Art in Kabul, Afghanistan (All Photos: Sutika Sipus 2012)
The other day I wrote a post about the use of images to reinforce governance, in particular within areas of instability.  But naturally the question came to mine, if formal imagery can improve governance and order within a place such as Afghanistan, what is the role of informal imagery?  By informal, I refer to graffiti, street art, and ad hoc signage.  I've had a particular interest in the role of graffiti within Kabul since I moved here, as it is a common sight throughout the city and takes on many different forms.


Advertising in Kabul
Within Kabul there are two dominate uses of Graffiti.  The most common form of graffiti in Kabul is to advertise businesses and entreprenurial startups.  Advertisements will range from translation services to printers, logistics, security, schools, and technical trainings. Its fast, efficient and can be identified throughout the city even by non-Dari by the string of numbers at the bottom of the text.

Graffiti as Political Expression
The lesser use is as as a form of political expression.  Within 24 hours of atrocities such as the Neruz bombing, anti-Pakistan and/or anti-Taliban messages suddenly adorned the walls of city.  As these messages typically appear overnight and within high-traffic areas, it is rumored that these messages are not the work of an angry population, but are created by government workers.

Kabul Street Art
The least common use is as a form of artistic expression.  Much has been written about the creation of street art by a few young women in the city, admittedly this is an extreme minority. The majority of  these images, such as the stencil of opium poppies at the right are are located in the younger, more hip, area of Taimani which features most of the bars and restaurants where westerns and young Afghans can mingle.

Over several months I've attempted to determine the production of graffiti within Kabul may serve as a cultural vernacular, representing the interests of ethnic groups or political agendas, yet find a large absence of this process.  There is far more interest it seems, to utilize ready-made images, such as posters of fallen mujahadeen, to express tribal allegiances.  It will of course take some time to determine how such images are distributed without the city, or to understand how they function within public space. 

Images in the City and the Illusion of Governance

Marketing Campaign to Stop Opium Production in Afghanistan (All Photos: Sutika Sipus)

Every day on my way to work I pass by a large poster of Afghanistan President, Mohamed Karzai.  Holding a child, pasted high above the heads of pedestrian traffic and adjacent to the Ministry of Education, the leader of the country composes himself as the father of us all.  There are many images like this in Kabul, and while the image of the late mujahadeed Ahmed Shah Masood is far more prominent, the consistent personification of national leaders has had me thinking about what it means to govern.

After all, how many despotic regimes forced their citizens to host images of their leaders above doorways, in offices, or in their homes?  Many of those governments eventually collapsed, yet others remain strong and persistent.  I'm thinking about the USSR, Cuba,  North Korea, and Libya... but I'm also thinking about the times I watched a movie in Thailand and had to stand for a commercial about the King or perhaps more subtly, all the times the national anthem is played before a baseball game in America. 


Poster of Ahmed Shah Masood in Kabul 
Be it a song, picture, or poster, these are the tools the reinforce the idea of governance.  Yet in places like Afghanistan, perhaps these images are more important.  How does a centralized government capital like Kabul maintain a connection to outer regions such as Khost or Helman?  Beyond a constant occupation of the city streets with police and military, how can a city government reinforced the idea of its power within the minds of the population? 

Governance is like any other product.  It has a market of consumers, that market has a threshold, and to expand its consumer base it needs to do two things: it needs to continually reinvent its appeal and it needs to advertise.

Advertising governance is simply a manner of reinforcing the terms of the social contract.  It is a direct way for an administration to say "we are doing what you have asked us to do, please continue to support us."  Though too often overlooked, the process of giving an image to the government is critical within areas of lower stability as there is generally a deficit of reliable information in the streets.  Rumors and conspiracies abound.  Journalism is frequently a fantasy and truth is subjective.  For a municipal, regional, or federal government to maintain control it needs to be visually present within the lives of the people. Yet government employees are expensive, it is a lot cheaper to simply put up a picture.

Opium Deterrence Campaign in Kabul Afghanistan
In recent months there has been an explosion of images within Kabul, as a variety of graphic campaigns have been launched to deter opium production, promote environmental responsibility, and increase continued enrollment in Afghan police and security forces.  Of course not all imagery is equal and many of the efforts will vary in success for obvious reasons.  For example, a campaign to discourage people from allowing their children to carry arms will likely suffer to succeed as the posters are written in Dari, the language spoken primarily by northern populations, while the bulk of the issue is located in the Pashto speaking south.  

However evocative imagery, such as found within the opium campaign may be sufficient enough to overcome language barriers.  The only problem however is that opium production is primarily a socio-economic issue while its consumption in urban areas is a socio-cultural concern.  Anti-drug campaigns have a history of mixed successes throughout the world, but it is unclear how large the current Kabul effort extends beyond catchy billboards.

Regardless of the Kabul examples, it is clear that order and governance require more than the simple provision of services, management, and security.  Successful governance entails the ability to communicate successes and ideology to the broader public, no matter how small the success or massive the audience.   Among challenged states it can establish the illusion of governance, and among those states and cities who truly are making strides, it can transform illusion into reality.

Buzzword of the Day: "Design-Thinking"

Design Tip #1 for all the Design-Thinking Innovation folks: When pasting an image onto a monitor,
include an offset darkened reflection for that professional touch  [Pic by Mitch].
Why is the catchphrase design thinking the big buzzword these days?  Somehow alongside a massive cultural focus on innovation, companies are lusting toward design-thinking as a strategy to reframe old problems and create new, radical solutions.  Yet how many organizations maintain an internal structure to accommodate such endeavors?  How many organizations can afford to do so, when the premise of design is to take risks over and over again until something works?  Not to mention, design is merely a tool equitable to all other tools for solving problems.  Design solutions are by no means better, they are simply nicer to look at, easier to sell, and sometimes not as predictable.

Now after paging through Forbes or entrepreneur magazines, it seems that all the people who are lusting for design solutions are non-designers. I wonder what they are hoping to find?  Anyway,  I'm fine with the trend because when I came out of art school, I didn't plan on ever making much money or being in high demand - but all that has changed.  Thanks!

Tip #2: Always include filigrees
to come across as hip but refined.
I find it fascinating, and somewhat comical, that so many organizations suddenly want to be design companies.  Having started my career as a designer, I admit that directing my career into urban planning, economics, and conflict studies was extremely difficult.  There were countless hurdles to acceptance among other development professionals who would immediately question the value of my education.  Once I had a job interview with an ngo that kept asking about my BFA throughout the interview... even though I had masters degrees and work experience in their sector for 6 years,  having graduated from art school nearly 10 years past.   During that 8 years, I also had to work 10 times as hard as my peers to acquire a fundamental knowledge-base in statistics, research methods, and contextual knowledge.  It is only natural that the challenges go the other way as well... even though it is a popular ideology that anyone can do art and design, this is far from the truth.  Like anything else, one has to work their way up and there are many sleepless nights.  Not to mention, design isn't like some disciplines where one merely needs to be smarter than the competition, as a design project easily entails hundreds of hours with no guarantee of success.  For all the companies that suddenly want to become design firms, they are about to face a barrage unexpected hurdles.

Take for example the firm Caerus Associates.  Headed up by military strategist David Kilcullen, Caerus is a defense strategy consultancy that has initiated a transition toward working as a design firm.  Yet when you look at their amateur website, it is evident that the one thing they really lack is an understanding of design.  To make matters worse, the source code on their site shows that they didn't even do it in-house, but passed it to a group of young WashingtonDC hipsters who probably did it below market value in hope of building a better business relationship down the road.  The fact that Caerus didn't reject the outsourced site design shows just how much more they need to learn before they can actually do decent work for someone else.  If something as fundamental as a basic CSS site is such a design obstacle, do you really want such a firm proposing urban design solutions for an entire city or nation?  

Tip #3:  Always include helvetica in your photoshop images,
ideally contrasted with a font no one can read [Pic by Mitch]
If a client is searching for design based solutions why bother hiring social scientists wanting to be designers when there are plenty of design firms out there that work in complicated areas.  Just off the top of my head I can think of SAYA/Design for Change,  Urban-Think-TankSolidere.  Will their solutions work?  Maybe, but not necessarily because they are design firms and architects are trained to approach social space as a design space rather than as social enterprise.  But at least you are getting designers if that is what you are looking for.   


Reconciling complex social problems with product-oriented solutions is a monumental task and very few people have the training within both domains to accomplish this feat.  If it was easy, urban design and planning wouldn't be so reliant on professional trends. The majority of architectural and planning solutions would extend far beyond the standard application of mixed-use urban development (maybe retail on the bottom with housing on top, whoa!), green-belt buffer zones, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, community mapping exercises, economic incubators, zoning codes, voucher programs, community design centers, PAR, and public-private partnerships. 

Tip #4: Use QR Codes all the time
since no one uses them outside of Asia
So why keep recycling solutions and pretending it is something new and innovative? The present focus on design-based social innovation is simply another trend.  It is equitable to the industrialist trends of 1890s, the garden city concepts of the 1900s, the Le Corbusier inspired highway elevations of the 1950s.  Then of course there is the creative cities and new urbanism movements of the 1990s, the sustainability movement of the last 10 years and the overwhelmingly popular interest in urban resilience that is happening these days.  All of these trends are permutations of the same thing more or less, varying only by degree.  

Today's overwhelming focus on social entrepreneurship, design-thinking, technology-based solutions and resilience is not a means toward something worthwhile.  It is merely another observable reflection of economic circumstance and a cultural gravitation toward technology as a solution gateway.

So why draw more dots when there are plenty to connect in the meanwhile?  
C'mon fellas, we can all do far better.

--
[Hmmmm... this was fun. Maybe I should do a whole series of tips for all those new Innovation Consultants and Strategic Design Firms out there].

Refugee Camp International Development Consultancy

Some Good News

What a week!  Busy, productive, and satisfied.

The last couple months have been rather frustrating, as my search for a new and interesting employment opportunity has been rather tiresome.  Although there have been plenty of jobs to apply for, it has taken incredibly long for to hear responses, arrange interviews, and get results.

However, last night I officially accepted a position.   Although I was initially uncertain about the capacity of this organization to undertake the ambitious projects they are pursuing throughout the world, I have come to the conclusion that their ambitious work is backed with by a talented, brilliant, and dedicated staff whose objectives correlate greatly to my own.  I am quite pleased to join the team, and look forward the further expansion of this partnership.

This NGO approaches international development and aid from a different perspective than might be traditionally assumed.  Rather than giving aid, they give work.  In their words, it is a micro-work organization, that brings computer based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty.  Over several years, I have witnessed individuals within an array of companies work hard to acquire skills necessary to participate in the global economy, yet with few opportunities to put these skills to use, these efforts have remained unmerited.  It works to target the locations where skilled populations with limited economic activity are located, and collaborates with various institutions and business partners to generate income facilitating activities by means of online data entry, research, or product testing.  Samasource is a global operation, pursuing projects throughout Africa, Asia, and low in-come communities within the United States, such as within rural south-west Mississippi.

I will now oversee all projects within Kenya.  This includes 18 projects located within Nairobi, 2 within the Dadaab Refugee Camps, and the potential expansion of camps within other towns or nearby countries in the future.  This is a very exciting opportunity for Samasource, the Kenyan and Refugee populations, and myself.


Pursuing development within a protracted refugee settlement is a complicated issue.  In the classic model of humanitarian aid, the disaster happens and international agencies show up to dump lots of stuff on people - food, skills development programs, micro-loans, building materials, security, and clean water.  Certainly these things are important, because we have a responsibility to help one another in the world, and no problem can be solved if people are dying of starvation, sickness, and war.  But after awhile, new problems emerge. The infusion of food aid, might undermine the ability for the food markets to recover. For example, as free sugar will always cost less than the locally grown or sold product.  People who might have made a living growing, shipping, or selling sugar, will no longer have a livelihood and will need to find new methods to stay afloat.  Such problems have a way of spiraling out of control.  Clearly at a certain point, adding more stuff is no longer the answer.  The trick is to then start identifying strengths and to work toward removing the obstacles that keep these strengths from blossoming.  Problem is, so far no one has been able figure out how to determine this 'point of transition.'

When I was in Dadaab I noticed that the construction of a

cell-phone tower had become a major strength within the development of these camps.  After is was constructed, thousands of individuals scraped up whatever money they could find to get some sort of cell phone.  Maybe several families would buy one together, while others could be purchased through loan programs.  With a cell phone, refugees could stay in contact with relatives abroad, make arrangements for money to be wired, learn about weather conditions before grazing animals and a multitude of other advantages.  Money began to flow into the camps, and then new businesses emerged.One man would purchase an electric generator and re-charge your phone batter for a fee, while another would get hold of a used computer and provide email access via the cell phone network.  Next another man would start a business teaching computer classes so that interested men and women could expand their opportunities.  Keep in mind that people living in circumstances of conflict induced displacement are not 'poor illiterate farmers.'  These people had livelihoods and professions in their nation of origin.  Many were carpenters, lawyers, truck drivers, secretaries, and mechanics. Seeking to improve their livelihood and support their family, people always seek to adapt to market demands.  The problem with a refugee camp however, is that government policies restrict viable economic growth.  Although someone might acquire an array of computer skills and have access to a computer, it does not necessarily translate into having a job.  Someone else will need to provide that.

By giving work, they are providing a means to for individuals to help themselves.  By opening the door to the global economy, a major obstacle on the pathway toward stability and development has become available to that population.  Projects such as those undertaken by Samasource might be the essential element within overcoming the gaps between humanitarian relief, development, and a functioning stable economy.  I am grateful to have this oppurtunity to work on the forefront of such a project, and look forward to a healthy and vibrant experience in the near future.

I will be relocating to Nairobi within the next couple weeks.