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conflict cities

Impact Any Problem Like a Designer


This morning I was asked if I approach design management (the emergent term for the application of design to organizations to engage complex problems) as an architect or as a communications designer. It was a little hard to answer is because the answer squarely falls into the domain of neither and both. While I believe whole heartedly in a non-disciplinary approach to design, if it is necessary to specify a form of design practice and theory, it is important to recognize that these fields exist on a gradient. Over the last 15 years of research and practice in design and urban planning, I have developed a systematic approach to structure problems and interventions across this gradient and have developed a simplified conceptual model in response to demands.

Illustrated above, I look at all problems as fitting somewhere within the above structure - wherein a problem might be defined by thought and language (sign), by tangible products and interfaces (object), by spatial context (environment) or by large scale invisible systems such as formal law and culture (culture can be considered another expression of law).  So for example, if you are attempting to solve a big problem like poverty, it exists in all sections because poverty is contextual, has artifacts, and there are many existing specific words and images that are used to communicate the idea of poverty. Whereas a problem that is very well defined, like the design of a toaster, will most likely sit squarely in the domain of objects.

At Carnegie Mellon University, I was introduced to Richard Buchanon's theory on the Four Orders of Design, which was very similar to my own model, but we maintain very different objectives and I found his model is harder to operationalize.  Buchanon does have other variations,  and additional work on operationalization has been pursued by Golsby-Smith.  There are additional models out there and while I find it validating and interesting to look at their models, my own approach emerged from the field. It is not informed by these other works, I point them out merely because they exist, and I find these other frameworks are missing a critical component, the people.

Within my framework, the most important characteristic is the recognition of dispositions held by people who occupy each conceptual frame. Without people - there is no framework.  There are no objects or contexts without people - there is also no design or strategy - people are the scaffolding of everything.  Consequently, I do not consider this framework as universal, but is thus far, a model that has arisen organically through various design interactions with people, technologies, and spaces.

Yet people are highly complex. I cannot manage to engage all people in every project on every level, and therefore I have created over the years a simple heuristic to note critical attributes of people within a project which will determine the project outcome.  All stakeholders in a project have, want, or lack resources (for their interest or mine), they likewise all hold a unique vision for their lives and the project outcome, along with specific objectives, beliefs, expectations, and baggage from prior experiences. I cannot juggle all these balls for every person at one time, but I do attempt to establish an sense of organizational structure between different actors and their unique attributes.

The Difference of Design in Organizations
Lets imagine an international company hires me with a big problem phrased as a simple request, "how do we become the leader in our industry?"  When companies have approached me before, they have already conducted many of the preliminary SWOT assessments and strategy planning sessions. Perhaps they have utilized a more traditional business management strategy, but found the problem too sprawling to meet the discrete demands... for example, it is impossible to identify and validate appropriate benchmarks if the problem itself is poorly defined. Driven by market research, they believe they should offer the same technologies or assets as their competitors. Yet it makes no logical sense to mirror competitor if you want to be the industry leader. It is important to do something new - but what and how?

Using the Framework to Generate the Big Picture
As a complex problem, I will work at all levels of the framework. In the case of robotics, I will take this problem and build a detailed understanding of their robots (the object).  I will look at all documentation, branding, communications, and language used in relation to their robots (sign). I will go into the facilities where the robots are used and spend time understanding the relationship between the robots and the Environment. I will also look at sales trends, labor laws, social movements, international trade agreements, and latent technology trends (perhaps also concerning language, objects, environments) to capture a big picture understanding of the robots in relation to some invisible systems that shape the future of the company.

Digging Deep into the Social Terrain
In this process, however, I have left out the most important component: the people.  Who is talking about the robots? Who is listening? Where are they? When customers purchase the robots, what are they saying? How do they represent their needs?  In the environmental context, who works with the robots and how?  How do those people exchange information about the robot in that context?  More importantly, how does the robot relate (or not) to the resources, objectives, histories and so on, of every person at every level?  If I go to the capital and talk to the people shaping policies that inform the outcome of robotics markets - congressmen and lobbyists for example - what can I learn from them?

Insight by Emergence
Working through this framework to understand the problem is only the first step. Yet the more I can build knowledge at each level of interaction, the more flexibility I have to craft and test interventions. Perhaps the corporate strategy is something simple like a branding campaign or promoting a national policy - yet perhaps it also requires manipulation to the technology to better facilitate how other companies train their employees? If that is the case, what language should be used and by what device should it be communicated? By means of this approach, the key insights and opportunities will emerge and do not need to be invented - nor can they be predicted.

Impact by Design
The final outcome of such a problem will rarely consist of one single action.  Rather, it will require many small interventions choreographed across the system.  Some interventions are more important than others. To describe the processes on design for wicked problems deserves more attention than I can provide right, yet with this framework, one is equipped to better understand any kind of problem to get going in the right direction by doing the following:
  1. Get away from the tunnel vision of a personal discipline or expertise
  2. Build an integrated and fluid systems understanding of a problem 
  3. Identify many points of intervention across scale/scope and points of view
  4. Leverage the most powerful yet high-risk asset of any problem, the people.
  5. Uncover new opportunities for exploration and testing

Post-Conflict Reconstruction is Dead


I have argued for many years that post-conflict reconstruction is a thing of the past but only recently, at Making Sense of Syria 2014, did I realize that a more direct spotlight needs to be shone on this issue. Already there is an inconsistency in language in which I find many planners label post-war reconstruction and post-disaster reconstruction as nearly the same thing - which they are not, as environmental disasters take on an array of variables and conditions entirely separate from acts of human violence.  But the notion of post-conflict is entirely flawed, as ultimately, today we only have the ability to respond to stabilize and build - with little contribution available in terms of creating remedies rebuilding.

Much of our thinking on the notion of reconstruction is rooted in the reconstruction of London in 1666. In response Christopher Marlow did much to improve the city through the state led rebuilding process. Our conception of reconstruction was then solidified with the Marshall Plan of WII, again a process of state led rebuilding which also led to local improvements, such as exemplified through the reconstruction of Warsaw, Poland.

But today post-conflict/post-war reconstruction is obsolete because the nature of conflict has changed. Wars do not end with a clean resolution. Rather, contemporary wars are resolved through entropy, wherein the pace of conflict is reduced to a simmer.  Protracted over many years and subject to bursts of violence, spaces in conflict remain under the stress and pressure of danger, and are inhibited by its demands.  

Furthermore, cities and regions in conflict no longer exist as a neutral stage for the conflict theatre. Whereas WWII was fought in the rural hinterlands and urban cores between two states - with little regard for the landscape itself - contemporary conflicts are fully integrated with the terrain, as the ultimate stakeholders and primary actors are the local populations.  

We no longer experience state-to-state conflict. Unless a dramatic incident initiates large-scale international conflict (such as 9/11 and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) the primary conflicts consist of non-state actors either against the state or against other non-state actors. The motives, capabilities, and organizational structure of these groups vary greatly, thus further shifting the landscape into frenetic patterns.

From this context, it is clear that the efforts made to rebuild a wart torn city must change. If a city is destroyed by an aggregate of non-state actors, then is it reasonable to expect state-based reconstruction to be effective? What if the state hires businesses If the war was fractured and erratic, will a largely institutional process (such as via the United Nations) mend the wounds? Can populations traumatized by the violent atrocities of their own neighbors work put grievances into the past and work together for community-based development?

Unlikely. 

Yet these are the standard response mechanisms in place. This can and must change. I've written below some of the key lessons I've learned over the years to better facilitate reconstruction, though this list is by no means complete. Maybe one day I'll get around to writing a book. But for now, lets just stick with the list:


Steps toward effective resolution and rebuilding for cities in conflict

1. We must recognize that conflicts do not have a clean end, yet there is a turning point wherein enough variables for continued conflict reach a collective low-point, providing a point of entry for external variables toward response, stability, and construction.

2. The ability to conduct any form of development or positive social contribution exists only in relation to the level of security available. In a city like Aleppo, there is no room for things such as "personal agency" in the midsts of high-intensity conflict.  

3. Traditionally high-need systems (such as food markets) continue to exist, but they change form in response to the conflict, frequently becoming more widely distributed and with a higher cost of access. We cannot assume any traditional elements of society continue to function unchanged while under duress.

4.  Linear planning is a waste of time. Sequence planning can be feasible, but the success of each sequence cannot be dependent upon the success of a preceding or adjacent sequence. Each one must autonomously reach success or fail. In Afghanistan, NATO pursued an approach based on key locations to function as interdependent sequences, yet this structure is too feeble and can not respond to dynamic conditions.

5. Failure must be strategically integrated within the planning process.  

6. If a city was destroyed by disparate non-state actors, then its greatest potential to pacify and rebuild is is also in the hands of disparate non-state actors - not the State or by external institutions.  The symmetry of destroy/rebuild by fractured processes is more than aesthetic, but is essential to long-term stability and functionality.

7. We can at best inject materials and actors to nudge existing variables into new forms. Strategic intervention is inept to shift the context of the conflict, yet we must realize that introducing new variables will not merit success. Sometimes it is essential to wait for less variables to exist.  You must be patient to let the conflict play out sometimes. Mogadishu waited 21 years to bounce back, and there were likely only 3 other points in time in which it had the potential.  

8.Stress, fear, and survival instincts are the biggest factors to judge how populations will respond to a given scenario and who will participate in an intervention, to what extent, and for how long.   While the boring elements of life continue to exist - such as the need to go to a job and earn an income - these systems adapt to the above concerns.

9. Anyone that wants to do "development" while within a state of conflict is not thinking clearly. It is essential for a turning point to arrive - which also, cannot be forced.

10. The key to sustainable transformation is speed. Bad decisions, bad policies, and bad infrastructure can be repaired and modified. But taking a long time to do it the "right way the first time" will undermine everybody. It is better to work from general to specific so that all actors can witness and participate in the transformation.

Kiev Before and Now


I will admit, I have not followed events in Kiev Ukraine very closely in the last few weeks as my attention has been overly absorbed with work.  However, I felt the photo-synth above perfectly illustrates what is happening. Also it highlights just how much an environment can change when under duress. I'm not sure who made it, but I found it via journalist Jared Keller at twitter.

Democracy 2.0 - Asking the People in Syria for their Input


Before taking any further steps in Syria, why not ask the people in Syria what they want to happen?Sounds outlandish, but with a little imagination and some basic technologies, its completely possible.  It even has a precedent.

Many city governments such as in New York City have discovered the value of combing the landscape for metrics and using this data for city management while organizations like Datakind specialize in extracting and interpreting information from neighborhoods. From mapping the spatial distribution of poverty at the World Bank to Kenyan citizens reporting violence with tools like Ushahidi, lots of organizations have discovered the value of obtaining and leveraging local level information to make informed decisions.

The technologies used to collect and organize this data do more than provide a picture to experts. These technologies also open the floor for broader participation.  I am in no way saying that technology solves all problems, but as a tool for communication, it can make voices heard that would have otherwise remained in the shadows. 

At this moment the world is in panic and American's are distraught over the decisions regarding Syrian intervention.  The decision making process is reliant now upon the influence of popular opinion, congressional interests, media storms, intelligence collection, international agreements, and back room discussions.  Yet among all the talk, the most important voice has been excluded from the conversation - the voices of people living in Syria.

Engaging an entire national population, let a alone a population under pressure from the horrors of war, is no easy task. But it is possible, at least to a degree, to use a mobile phone technology like rapidsms for citizens to vote by text message just like popular tv programs that ask audiences to vote for their favorite performer.  I was informed this morning by a friend with family in Syria that the mobile communications infrastructure in Syria is not steady, but over the last year it has been working off and on.   With a little ingenuity it would be possible to create a window for voting and to filter messages.  A little bit of scripting and it is possible to cancel multiple-votes from the same number and even to map the distribution of votes across the landscape. 

A simple text message voting system will not capture popular opinion of everyone in country, but it can provide a statistically viable sample.  More significantly, implementing a tool such this could refigure the entire future of foreign policy and global security.  International policy makers already have the tools at their disposal to engage those populations most affected by military intervention, leaving imagination as the only missing piece to the puzzle.

Planning for the Future Reconstruction of Syria from Chaos and Complexity



The world is abuzz over the current civil war and the possibility of external military intervention in Syria.  While the conversation is primarily focussed on the use of chemical weapons in violation of the Geneva Charter, there has been little discussion about the long-term implications of the civil war, regardless of the role imposed by outside militaries.  What will be the result of so much bloodshed and how will the nation rebuild?  In what form?

Spatial Distribution of Conflict.  August 2013.
The severity of physical and social damage established in the last two years, broad distribution of conflict and the lack of unity among non-state actors within the conflict suggests that the civil war will be a long one, perhaps 10 years or more.   The resolution to this will not be political process as the lack of clearly established leadership among rebel groups positions no one to pursue negotiations with the State.  The massive refugee outflow, consisting 50% of children, weakens the social fabric of the nation and will continue to do so.


Engineering A New Outcome

If you discover that you are genetically predisposed toward a certain ailment, you adapt your lifestyle to mitigate the future.  You hedge your bet.  Likewise with Syria, the most probable outcome right now is protracted conflict followed by a painful reconstruction process (like Afghanistan).  But if examine the current variables, and measure the inter-relations between those variables, we can attempt to coordinate a strategy toward a desired outcome - ie., less war and more rapid recovery.   Because each variable maintains the same potential as a butterfly to inspire a hurricane, we don't have the control as we do with our bodies, but we do have the ability to better position some social and structural elements in terms of probable outcomes.  If this process were to begin now in Syria, it could potentially lead to a better future.

In this case, the goal is for the war in Syria to play out in such a manner that all relevant resources (community groups, finances, areas of destruction vs. preservation, social allegiances and so on)  are best organized for a rapid and successful reconstruction process.  The variables are numerous and so too are the methods of working with them.  So where do we begin?

The role of strategic planning and development within the battlefield is not new.  As an expansion of the Hearts and Minds campaign of Vietnam, development was heavily undertaken by NATO in the Iraq and Afghanistan and implemented via Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The PRTs were designed and operated in coordination with a broader mandate of Counter Insurgency doctrine (COIN). This was not a flawless system, it required massive layers of security that isolated the infrastructure creation process from the populations served, and when the projects were turned over to communities, unsurprisingly the outcomes were not always as hoped. Yet these methods were only viable as a strategy because of the massive allotment of resources.  Furthermore, PRTs had an inconsistent impact across regions and populations.  It is a tactic that will be likely replicated in the future but it simply won't apply in Syria.

In the recent 21 years of conflict in Somalia, intervention was limited to MSF operations, WFP, and other UN backed initiatives typically implemented by local NGOs.  In this regard, Somalia is a better region of comparison to Syria.  The problem here is that such agencies are designed only for humanitarian relief. This is essential, but it doesn't facilitate a resolution as much as institutionalize a process of triage across a fragmented society.  The inequitable distribution of services doesn't maintain a status quo as much as introduce a new variable, randomly redistributing the lines of power among a downtrodden population.  Potential outcomes vary from relief to militarization.


Urban Planning and Development In the Syrian Conflict

Typically when I tell people that I apply urban planning methods to mediate violent conflict, people imagine I'm referring to zoning and bike lanes.  Sigh... thats so boring.  But I suppose on the imaginative level there could be something here as one could argue that territorial patterns of warfare form emergent conflict zones, interconnected by supply corridors - don't forget that al-Shabaab had covered Mogadishu with a complex network of trenches to quickly mobilize troops and supplies yet also grinding the speed of territorial changes to a halt.  Yet these concepts in the current state of the conflict can only apply to analysis and not to planning outcomes.

A more pragmatic approach is to better understand the diversity of stakeholders in the conflict, as the fragmentation of non-state actors is a major obstruction to the peace process.  This obstruction was likewise a major obstacle in Afghanistan and it is no surprise that the suitcases of money provided by the CIA in 2002 to mobilize diverse ethnic groups for a common interest did not build a sustainable peace or found strong governance.  

Expanding and integrating diverse stakeholders is a cornerstone of the urban planning process, and while stable nations have the benefit of easily organizing community groups or legal proceedings,  it remains possible to mobilize stakeholders in hostile territories.  A key feature of this "non-rational" process is that it does not necessarily require strong, easily defined internal leadership.  Rather the process only requires an entity committed to the interest of all stakeholders, committed to a win/win outcome, and who can manage an otherwise neutral disposition.  Notably, this entity will not be successful if all authority is founded on outside power (US intervention for example), but rather this entity must have acquired a local, grass-roots level of respect combined with recognition among high-level community leaders.  At the moment, there is no one of this description involved in the conflict. Yet this can change.  After all, the war could take 10+ years so its completely feasible for an individual or organization to emerge to do the work.

Another critical element toward the future pacification and reconstruction of Syria is the role of the internally displaced and refugee populations.  The role of displaced populations could effect rebuilding of Syria in a combination of ways, yet two possibilities are immediately obvious.  When the war in Afghanistan drove thousands from their homeland, many children were left secluded in Pakistani refugee camps where Saudi madrasas promoted Wahabist beliefs, laying the foundation for the emergences of the Taliban.  During the same time, the war in Somalia drove thousands abroad who were then exposed to a variety cultures, educations, and lifestyles.  The return of Somalis in diaspora has made the sudden rebuilding of Somalia a possibility as they return with new social capital to invest.

Number and Location of Syrian Refugees. US State Department 2013.
At present the 1.9 million displaced refugees are primarily distributed throughout Lebanon and Turkey.  While I don't believe those nations would have a detrimental impact upon the refugee population and the long-term psycho-social advancement of the youth, it is unlikely that those nations have the resources necessary to invest.  At present, Turkey is already hosting 200,000 refugees in camps and has 200,000 refugees outside of camps.  
As you can see from the map, many of these camps are open, but it is clearly getting stretched to a limit. If it is becomes commonly accepted that the the civil war will be long and drawn out, initiatives to excel the resettlement of Syrian families into new communities could provide the investment needed for the future of Syria to be founded on socially productive and worldly populations. 

After the Robot Wars: Drones, Interface Design, and Urban Reconstruction


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?

The Demand for Urban Planners to Heal the Trauma of War

Residential Road in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo Sutika Sipus 2012.
Contemporary warfare psychologically traumatizes millions of innocent people every year.  Since the industrialization of warfare at the end of the 19th century, the wreckage inflicted upon humanity  has torn communities apart, crushed families, and rendered vast swathes of land throughout the world useless.  In contemporary war,  the range of actors consists of independent militants, private armies, gangs and criminal elements, and thus the issue of trauma and land use have become additionally problematic as there is no clear end to the conflict.  

Today, the world is dotted by low-intensity protracted conflicts, stretching onward by scattered acts of terrorism and insurgency, thus continually threatening civil society and undermining the development of state sponsored institutions.  The elongation of war not only drains state resources, but reinforces a cyclical condition of violence, as the population subjected to war must continue to live and die in a constant state of fear and aggression.  While contemporary psychology may have individual methods of therapy, tied to the personal history of the victim, how can we move forward at an urban scale?

In contemporary wars and post-war landscapes, the triggers for trauma do not go away.  The also risk remains constant.  On the most peaceful days, the threat of terrorism lurks around the corner and the random loss of a loved one haunts  every family.   How can one overcome trauma when threatened by the possibility of bombings in cafes or the return of insurgents at night to abduct family?  Particularly for those populations who were a major part of the conflict, such as in Rwanda or Somalia, how can psychological change take place, to shift the normative mindset of the community from a culture of war into one of peace, when the environment and the people are always the same?  

Not only does the constant stress drive conflict by twisting normative social patterns, but can induce increased rates of risk in other areas of our lives.  A victim of PTSD may struggle to focus at work, or may become more likely to become subject to physical illness.   A population under stress is less likely to be physically healthy and also less economically productive.  If trauma can have a negative impact in the US alone at $42 Billion a year, imagine how it must affect entire populations under threat of war.

In the post-conflict environment, there is a necessity to rely on traditional security methods, such as the imposition of military installations and checkpoints, but the ability for complete transformation and thus also reduces the level of security over time..  If we drop the traditional security mechanisms then the fear of returning instability dominates the society and the stressful feeling of risk becomes more oppressive.  Solutions must be multifaceted to maintain security and to facilitate healing.

The problem of maintaining military security alongside psycho-social healing clearly demands the attention of urban professionals.  At present, security infrastructure is generally handled by engineers, architects, and planners as technical problems with little regard for the broader impact on society.  Among those who are working to provide social counseling and trauma workshops there is negligible ability to modify the physical environment.  While these conditions are demanding and maintain risks, it would seem that more Community Planners and likeminded individuals would be drawn to this problem, considering the problems of post-conflict transition are not exactly new.  Yet where are they?