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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

Advice for Choosing a PhD in Urban Planning


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

The GIS Interface I Always Wanted


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.

Seeking Urban Planning 2.0


I love watching movies about the future.  I'm not exactly a major science fiction fan, but I  love to see other people's visions of what the future of cities could be like.  As a boy, I had a Back to the Future poster on my closet door and I lusted for a hovering skateboard.  I knew from an early age that I was to graduate high school in the year 2000, which even in the mid-90s tempted my mind with thoughts of glass sidewalks and gravity-defying cars.

So now, where is my floating car?  

I can't blame urban planners for our lack of aerospace transit options, but when I look at the evolution of tools for urban planning and development in comparison to the rate of growth in other technical fields, I'm struck with pangs of jealousy.  Within a matter of years, telecommunications have undergone a revolution.  Sustainable architectural technologies have leaped forward.  We can travel further, faster, and quieter than ever before and to any part of the world.  All I need is a laptop and a decent web connection to receive an education, start a business, market it, manage it, and sell it.  But regarding the decisions we make to improve our cities, the change has been slow moving.  Our modern cities very much resemble cities of 100 years ago.  Certainly they are cleaner and more efficient, but if you remove all the sleek products, they are more or less the same in organization.

Today the major obsession is big data for urban management.  We all want maps and data on everything in the city so we can cut down traffic, reduce taxes, improve utilities, and target infrastructure projects. Excellent.  To obtain this data we relay upon a variety of digital tools, which means we have to rely on computer scientists to produce the tools, manage them, and conduct much of the analysis to explain the data.  Consequently many of the best GIS users today are programmers not geographers.

The better urban designers are also often trained as architects.  They have a more specific knowledge of materials, spatial form and the construction process.  Engineers remain essential to make certain that everything has the structural capacity to function.

So with the influx of computer/data scientists and the strong role of architecture, what is today's urban planner left to do?  Mobilizing community engagement and employment within local legislative powers tend to be the two primary areas where urban planners work.  But why such a limited scope of work? 

Most urban planners I know work in one of the above positions.  I recall once meeting a planner who went on to get a JD and then worked doing rule of law in Afghanistan.  He said he would "never go back to urban planning" but I was shocked!  Building governance and law in Afghanistan is an excellent task as urban planner.

I suspect that one reason for the lack of vision and the slow growth of the profession is because the lack of imagination within urban planning education.  Many schools train their students to be mid-level bureaucrats, GIS technicians, and community workers.  They are not trained to be creators.  They are trained to be strategic.  The strategy is based upon a directed, assumed, or commonly determined vision. Within the pursuit of the strategy, many of the tactics are antiquated. In graduate school I was taught how to measure the quantitive impact of industrial job creation in a community, a rarity in today's economy.  Classes covered business incubators, industrial clusters, zoning laws, city accounting and historic preservation law.  But there were no classes that explained how a business functions, how to be an entrepreneurs, how to craft a vision for the city, how to write a computer program, or how to build a database.  There were also no specific classes on urban security, immigration, or food production or similar pressing issues.

When I left grad school I began targeting the world's hardest problems of refugee camps, urban violence, and war.  Fortunately, before pursuing planning, I started my career as an artist where I learned to create.  In graduate school,  I then acquired the ability to be strategic.  Yet it was clear that I didn't have the tools I needed.  I then went back to school for an additional year in Egypt to study international law and migration. That helped... but only made it more clear that more work needed to be done.  In the last couple years  I've spent countless nights reading books about business, working on business plans, and conducting exercises on codeacademy.com until the early morning hours.  Unfortunately, while I have some tools now that are more relevant to the problems at hand to create markets and work with information, I still have much work to do and these tools are far from sufficient.

If we are to make our dreams into a reality, we need to start training our urban problem-solvers and change-makers with more relevant tools. It doesn't all need to be digital.  They could be simple and organic tools too.  What matters most is that our tools evolve to reflect not only the demands of the present, but to better identify and pursue the opportunities of the future.  Until then, our cities will remain far removed from the possibilities of our dreams.

Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia: #urbanplanning, #mogadishu, #somalia, #design4dev

Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu
For the last 7 years I have labored to understand as much as possible about the city of Mogadishu and to determine viable strategies for reconstruction when the opportunity is presented.  I now have the opportunity to implement these concepts and look forward to introducing simple, yet tangible solutions to many of the city's complex urban planning problems in cooperation with the city government.  Some of the solutions are dependent upon traditional planning and humanitarian initiatives such as concerns with historic preservation and sanitation.  Other concepts are far more innovative, relating to processes in data collection, crowd-sourcing, and GIS.  My business partners and I are presently developing a series of phased low-input, high-input initiatives for the city and will begin implementing these projects in the streets of Mogadishu this March.  I look forward to the project unraveling with some fantastic partners at every step and sharing our progress online.

Yet when I tell others about my work, they often ask, "why Urban Planning in Mogadishu, Somalia?"

The answer goes back a few years to 2004, when I spent 90 days hitch-hiking across Northern India, where I lost my money and acquired malaria in the swampy state of Bihar.    I chose to commit my life to reducing poverty, not with a vague belief that I can make the world better, but rather with the sense that I can make it less inequitable through precise, technical solutions.  It was from that experience I was determined to work in development and to build upon my initial training in art and design through the study of architecture.  After I began my studies, I met Aarati Kanekar, an architect who had worked in post-war reconstruction in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Upon meeting her, I expanded my studies to go beyond architecture, and to focus on urban planning.

In 2005, I completed my first year of graduate school in Urban Planning and Architecture, and was faced with the seemingly massive task of choosing a thesis topic.  Overwhelmed by the task, I thought hard about my essential priorities and determined that I should attempt to locate, define, and focus my lifework upon the world's most difficult problems, to work for the interest of the world's most marginalized and vulnerable populations as this is where the utmost improvement is needed.  Uncertain how to proceed, I turned to Google.  

Concise and innovative urban planning solutions
 are in clear demand in Mogadishu Somalia 
I more or less typed all of my priorities into Google in hope that it would reveal something new to me. Success.  It was from that simple search that I first learned of the Dadaab Refugee Camps.  Embarrassingly, at 23, I was quite ignorant to the problems in Somalia and knew next to nothing of the decades of violence, famine, poverty, and displacement.   As I began to invest more time into learning about the situation, I came to two conclusions. First,  I decided that I would find a way to go to Dadaab to research and work directly with the problems of refugee camp design and planning. Secondly, I also decided that eventually, one day for whatever reason, that circumstances in Somalia would change and the city of Mogadishu will need to rebuild.  

After decades of conflict, it is difficult to be entirely optimistic, but in many ways, the prediction from 6 years ago has begun to manifest.  After al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu several months ago, they have had little success in a multi-front battle against AMISOM/TFG, Kenya, and drone attacks from the US.  Although other forces may have strategic limitations, the fact that Shabaab has continued to change their tactics is evidence of continuing instability on their end.  For the first time since its founding, the Transitional Federal Government has full control of the city of Mogadishu.  With al-Shabaab primarily limited to the Kismaay region, there is even an effort underway to begin relocating refugees from the Dadaab camps back to Somalia.

Mogadishu is an ancient city.  Since the 14th Century it has flourished from its strategic location, an epicenter for trade between the Gulf and the Swahili coast.  It is this strategic location that also facilitates regional piracy.  It also serves as an ideal conduit for the trade between internal production and export.  Although dominated by an array of colonial powers over time, from Oman to Italy, it nonetheless retains an internal, structural capacity to again become a major economic hub.  Its urban density, coastal location, european roadways, and interconnection with other cities such as Afgooye or Kismayo have contributed to an urban resilience of the city.  Perhaps one could conjecture that so much physical destruction has taken place in the city because the structural resilience made it too difficult for armed groups to conduct combat, and consequently only through degrading the city could military accomplishments take place.

Now that city is beginning to stabilize and the Somali people are beginning to return to Mogadishu.  With the massive influx of returnees, the city is faced with new tasks.  Jobs need to develop, roads need to be cleared and repaired, sanitation improved, access to water, and systems need to be developed to deal with property ownership and acquisition.  Without the funds to cover the costs, and with the lack of urban planning for a city in conflict, it will require creative and innovative efforts to stabilize and rebuild.  Of course there are greater regional challenges, as many are also returning to Mogadishu because they fear the dangers of living outside the city.   Obviously the key to the success of the city is connected to the stabilization of the region as well.  But for the first time in decades, there is a chance that something can change.  There is an opportunity.  

Problem Solving through Design and Dancing your Phd: #design, #urbanplanning, #dance

Design is an experimental process to question and remix the obvious
Last week I wrote about how design has lately become over privileged as a problem solving tool with the recent pop-culture and corporate belief in the power of design-thinking.  Certainly while design-thinking will not solve all problems, it does have its merits.  In fact, it is the use of design and product-centric outcomes which differentiates my own work from many competitors.  Too often urban planning and development firms invest thousands of hours into research and strategy, only for the final product to manifest as a sterile report and an underwhelming powerpoint presentation.   Imagine if urban planning retained the energy of a design process throughout multiple phases of strategic problem solving.  It could potentially engage broader audiences, source more diverse inputs, and lead to solutions that aren't so easily diluted by city governments and regional politics.

Design thinking has benefits.  It is both systematic and exploratory.  Take for example a typical model for concept development within industrial design practice.  It is more or less similar to an urban planning approach - to identify stakeholder interests, define guidelines, to research similar projects and move forward with a product for phased testing.  Over time the concept becomes more refined and at anytime you can - and should - revisit previous steps to continue revision.  Eventually the final product is realized and implemented on a broad scale or mass produced.  Only within the process of idea creation are decisions arbitrarily made, yet the process is not strictly scientific or entirely reliant upon market tests.  In theory, the final result should maintain some degree (or hopefully all) of its original creative energy while nonetheless balanced and viable.  Typically work developed via a design methodology should be effective, attractive, accessible, inexpensive, and broadly communicative.  Perhaps it is the infusion of such simple concepts as "attractive" that have corporations suddenly lusting for design integration within their work.  Yet the real question is, why was this not a concern before?  How many revolutionary moments in human invention have been connected to the phrase "our product is really ugly, hard to use, and  cumbersome, but please ignore that."

Concept Development within Product Design Methodology

The power of design can also undermine real analysis 
Obviously a design-based approach has an important role beyond the idea development and solution process, as it has the means to transform sterile content into an engaging opportunity.  For example, a quick look through the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook reveals an adept use of Adobe Indesign and a variety of visualization techniques.  Or take for example the work done by Space Syntax.  Their GIS work is consistently beautiful. So much that I am often distracted by the quality of the renderings, uncertain of their specificity and meaning.   Of course that is a keen advantage to providing data via beautiful imagery, as the method can smoothen over the gaps in knowledge and research.  Then again, the strength is as much a weakness.  

If the purpose of design is to communicate, then we must be wary of how easily the beauty of design can undermine the ability to do so.  Communication is challenging, in particular when communicating complex information to audiences who are unfamiliar with the territory.  I believe every grad student experiences that moment when a relative asks "so what are you working on in school" only to watch their eyes glaze at the over-long, overly detailed, and laborious response.  A couple clean graphics could change this entire situation, yet the result could just as well become "what beautiful colors."

A recent TEDtalk by my buddy John Bohanon does well to illustrate how good intentions can go array when  communicating information.  In the video below (or here), John satirically examines the detrimental impact visual PowerPoint presentations have made upon the global economy.  And in a beautifully choreographed yet modest proposal, John demonstrates how other means of communication are perhaps more appropriate to explore complex concepts.  Although John embraces dance as a vehicle to communicate, one could just as well embrace music or knitting.  Ultimately, the vehicle by which a message is delivered cannot redefine the message itself.  It can only carry it.  Sometimes the correct vehicle is chosen and is a smooth ride.  Sometimes its not.  And sometimes, it would have been better to walk or ride a bike had one taken a moment to stop and consider the possibilities. 


Creative Problem Solving in #Kabul, #Afghanistan with #Technology and #Education

Since arriving in Afghanistan in August, I've worked aggressively to launch a new project called the Innovation Lab.  Available to select students at the American University of Afghanistan, the Innovation Lab, or (iN)Lab has been designed to extend education beyond the walls of the classroom and directly into the streets of Kabul. By teaching students to research and assess their own local environments, to work with limited resources and engage stakeholders while providing technological resources, I hope to see (iN)Lab fill a much needed gab in Afghanistan's local-scale development. Today registration opened, along with my own small marketing initiative to drive student enrollment.  But now, just when things were starting to take off, I feel like I've hit a setback.  Not a major one, but enough to be aggravated.

Apparently Harvard University opened their own Innovation Lab (i-Lab) this week, dedicated to launching young entrepreneurs into the public.  Consequently I'm disappointed by the news that their project shares the same name, a similar vision, and has the same timing as my own.  The positive side is that I believe my project is very unique in its conception, as the program draws from my own inter-disciplianry education in art & design, urban planning, computer science and work experience in conflict zones.  Arguably, I like to think that working with Afghan students to facilitate local community problem solving through such creative measures is far more innovative than providing privileged Harvard students with more tools to be financially successful.

I strongly believe in the program I have crafted and I fully intend to see it through.  Yet it very difficult to conduct such a program in Afghanistan. We have finite resources in terms of money and space, problems with security, aggressive traffic, power outages, poor internet service... the list goes on for a long, long time.  Working with so many obstacles, I've aggressively sought partners to contribute to the program, and yet nearly 20 universities, nonprofits, or companies failed to respond or simply said it is too intimidating to get involved.  However, there have been successes, and I am very lucky to have found the interests of spatial technology company Spatial Networks and the dynamic science journalist John Bohannon.  With their support (and hopefully others), hard work, and student dedication, I am fully confident that our program will accomplish its goals.  For now however, I'm left wondering if I should change the name.

#Kabul, #Afghanistan: #Skateboarding toward the future


More often than not, international development is pursued as a purely economic process.  Roads must be built, banks must be strengthened, housing improved, and health care should be made accessible.  Yet the simple construction of institutions, the provision of infrastructure, and the implementation of social programming is not enough to solve all social problems because social problems are complex. It is common wisdom that these complex problems can only be solved internally, within the community,  yet the community generally lacks the means to to action.  Conversely, aid agencies frequently advertise for specialists in "capacity building" and yet within the job descriptions, the term "capacity" remains consistently vague.   While capacity is best defined as an internal ability to pursue and implement active change, when the workings of communities are merged with capacity, the concept bubble stretches to a breaking point.  The scale of the problem remains too much for the solution.  Sometimes something else is needed, a strategy that is less direct than teaching job skills or creating new markets.

While in Cairo, I witnessed the transformative power  of that simple social programming can have within the lives of youth who must grow up in poverty and who lack opportunities for personal advancement.  Viable social programming, such as sports, music, or even the provision of a space to play, can transform a child's life.  Certainly these things alone cannot remove the frustrations of poverty or the pains of social alienation, nor can these things provide the same concrete tools for personal advancement as education and job training.  Yet these sorts of programs create opportunities for confidence and self esteem, provide opportunities to for children to communicate and express themselves.  Self expression is easily undervalued because its role is immeasurable, but little imagination is necessary to recognize that a confident child will find more success in life than one who is alienated and unhappy.  Even where opportunities are limited, those with confidence and pride will creatively seek solutions, believing that solutions are possible.

This evening I discovered the brief documentary Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul.  This film shows the work of an ngo to bring skate boarding to youth in Kabul.  It shows how a nice space for play, how basic access to safety and fun may wield a transformative power.   The film reveals how something as simple as skateboarding can dramatic shape an individual's life.  Now imagine, if a child impacted by something as simple as skateboard had the chance to go to school, to drink clean water, and to walk down the street without fear.  Apply the same concept to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children in a city like Kabul and the concept of capacity becomes strikingly clear.  Suddenly the future isn't so bleak.

Stabilizing Afghanistan's Conflict through Education


Afghanistan's long history of conflict has deprived youth of  critical education opportunities.  Children in conflict-afflicted countries are more likely to be out of school or to drop out.  Conflicted areas result in extreme disadvantages of poverty and social inequality.  As the bulk of contemporary conflict exists locally, through internal civil conflicts among high-capacity non-state actors, these conflicts frequently target and endanger civilians, further disrupting education systems.  The disruption of daily life, the prevalence of social inequality, and the destruction of local infrastructure and markets from conflict has specifically harmed schools and schoolchildren.  Attacks on schools, the recruitment of children, and the targeting of school infrastructure in Afghanistan have only reinforced poverty and social degradation [UNESCO].

Afghanistan contains two separate eduction systems.  For centuries, traditional religious education was the only available system, until the 1960s when a new, modern education system was introduced with the creation of Kabul University and supporting secular institutions.  Kabul University and nine other post-secondary colleges served the population until the Soviet War and the following Civil War resulted in their downfall.  Between 1996 and 2001, circumstances worsened as the Taliban closed institutions or heavily restricted curriculums.   In 2000, UNICEF reported that less than 5% of Afghan children received a primary school education. Under the Taliban, female education was banned [BBC].

Today in Afghanistan, the World Bank reveals an expanded access to education, with 6.2 million children enrolled and 2.2 female students [World Bank].   Some of these successes can be attributed to large scale programs such as UNICEF's Country Programme Action Plan for 2010-2013, which as continually worked to ensure that Afghani children have the ability to express the rights outlined within the UN Convention on the rights of the child [UNICEF].  Yet there remains a demand for continued improvement such as access to higher education institutions. At present, Afghanistan can only accommodate about 60,000 students leaving Grade 12, while public training technical institutions can only absorb a few thousand [UN].  Education is critical asset to overcome the gap between humanitarian assistance and post-coflict reconstruction.  It serves a need with the initial processes of stabilization, but more importantly, provides mechanisms for long lasting peace and economic development.  

The Seemingly Impossible is Possible




Today I am sharing Hans Rosling's presentation at TEDTalks, wherein he uses a wealth of statistical data to show how the world is changing - for the better.  He begins this by presenting an excellent analysis of aggragated data, comparing the GDP of countries vs. their infant mortality rate over the last 100 years.  The data reveals the discrepancies between economic growth and social development, for example, in 1957 the United States had same economy as contemporary Chile, yet only in 2002 does the quality of health with the United States reach the quality of health within Chile. As the presentation advances, he introduces the lessons learned from his long experience as a public health researcher and strategies toward mitigating the obstacles toward further advances.   What I love most about this presentation is that he deconstructs the industrial/developing mindset and shows that many of the countries in the world we consider 'developing' have actually advanced more in the last 50 years than any other country in the world if one were to accurately consider the circumstances these countries were facing 50 years ago. Not only is the presentation insightful, but it is incredibly entertaining as well.  Enjoy.

The Burundi Fund for Hope and Restoration

Bujumbura, Burundi   BFHR 2010
Within one year from now, I look forward to the Burundi Fund for Hope and Restoration being on the ground and in fully in motion.  As a member of the BFHR's Board of Directors, its been a slow process for the last 8 months as we have worked to coordinate with local agencies, refine our programming scope, and develop our fundraising processes.  However the continuous efforts of the team to work toward enhancing education opportunities for the youth of this East African Nation are finally coming to fruition.  I will be soon blogging much more on the status of this agency, as we are on the cusp of putting all the initial planning into action. 

The mission of the Burundi Fund is to assist repatriated refugee children to access the education they deserve but cannot afford.  Although primary schools are free in Burundi, secondary education often requires tuition ormany children cannot attend as they cannot pay the additional costs.  Schools may be to far away, supplies, books, and school clothes are prohibitively expensive, or the family needs the child to stay home to assist with domestic duties, such the family business or as local labor.  As a result of conflict and poverty, Burundi has a national literacy ranking of 150 out of 177 according to the United Nations Development Program.

Burundi School Children   BFHR, 2010
The Burundi Fund specifically works to assist the needs of repatriated refugee youth within Burundi. After having lived in camps for as long as 15 years, and returning as strangers to their homeland, repatriated youth are among those with the greatest challenge to access opportunity within Burundi.  The Burundi Fund addresses this problem by working to secure improved access and options to students of all ages with coordinated partnerships with local agencies and businesses so that this education may directly carry over into employment opportunities and expanded markets.  

Please join our Facebook page to receive more updates about Burundi Fund and how you can get involved.  

More information about returning refugee youth to Burundi can be found in this UNICEF video.