Viewing entries tagged
innovation

Beyond Ideological Innovation - Into the Methods, Concept and Experience


I just spent the last two days observing members of an entrenched government and business community learning about principals of lean startup, design thinking, and agile processes.  That was a good thing and I'm proud of this community for walking down these roads.  By taking these steps they will be better equipped to produce strong results and different kinds of outcomes. Yet we should not confuse this set of practices as innovation.  There is a distinction between innovation methods, innovation as a concept, and innovation as an experience.

Methods
Innovation, as a term, has come to describe a set of methods to drive new forms of socio-cultural and economic production.  This brand of innovation, like all other ideologies, was borne of necessity within particular economic conditions. The rise of the merchant class advanced Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution pushed forth Marxism, and Silicon Valley delivered The Lean Startup. Like any ideology - complexity, nudge, sustainability to name a few others - innovation has been appropriated by corporations to benefit their bottom lines and advance their missions.

It is easy to identify when the concept of innovation has been repackaged for consumption. If you participate in a workshop concerning Innovation as Design, you will likely have to do something with post-it notes and white boards, and maybe have to participate in low-fidelity rapid prototyping exercises.  If it is concerned with Lean Startup, you might take a standard idea shared with your team then quickly go call a few customers to ask if they like it or make a mockup for them to test.  This is also the general description of many UX Design education programs today.  These strategies at their core attempt to reconcile the simplicity of the scientific method with the irrationality of social behavior.

These procedures are all good things to do. I do these things and teach them to others. More people should try them.  Is this innovation? Sometimes, but not necessarily. These processes can provide pathways to innovation, but more acutely, do more to provide pathways to success according to an already existing - but perhaps unarticulated - definition of success that is situated within the minds of the participants.  To satisfy the demands of a  shared disposition is not the same thing as realized innovation.

Concept
We must consider innovation as something far more powerful, a force at work within a paradigm shift.  When Thomas Kuhn wrote on the structure of scientific revolutions, he described the paradigm shift as a social process, in which an accumulation of outlier evidence - over time - suddenly sways social beliefs to then become the new normative reality. When the earth was believed to be the center of the universe, attempts to research the universe often validated this belief or were built off of the assumption. It was held as fundamentally true, and to simplify history, Galileo was executed because his evidence contradicted the belief. Over time, enough evidence accumulated in favor of Galileo's argument and the community changed their belief.  In consequence, a new era for the intersection of science, religion, and society was borne.

There are things like religion in which one must work to hold a belief - to have faith - and there are things we just believe outright, such as the shared experience of a color or the weather. Within this distribution of beliefs, science is held as objective and the scientific research method is void of human error, but we fail to consider how science or faith is founded on a widespread predisposition.   In theory we eventually learn to identify our collective errors and we pivot or manage the constraints. When that happens, the school text books are rewritten as the sun becomes the center of the solar system, the universe grows in size, and space/time is a fluid dimensional fabric we believe in but struggle to understand, because the evidence is at odds with day-to-day human experience.

Innovation is not about design, science, or lean frameworks. It is the distribution of events that brushed up against each other so as to transform the entire normative experience of reality. These moments could be anything - scientific evidence, a new idea,  an observation, or a conversation. Some of these moments might be brilliant and profound, but many are just outlier fragments and glitches of daily experience.  We like to imagine innovation as a singular act, but singular acts have limited force, and thus the power of innovation relies upon loose configurations.

These individual events have limited power as a singular instances, but in coordination, can become a fulcrum of radical difference. A strange turn of phrase, uttered at the moment a butterfly lands on your arm, might unlock the gateway to a new personal ontology.  When this moment happens en masse, all possible roads into the future shift toward a new direction of possibility.  When Latour wrote Artemis, the failure of the high-tech transportation system was described as a network effect of many flickering and semi-related life moments. Latour wrote this to prove that social systems do not exist but are merely perceived... yet when these flickers do align into a system?  That is innovation.

Obviously this approach to innovation is too complex for a corporation to adapt because it cannot be packaged as a playbook or a method.  It cannot be entirely designed and it cannot be diffused or appropriated with ease. The Cult of Innovation fills much of the demand for change but in 10 years, our corporations and governments will look to another trend for answers because the more tightly packaged a concept for distribution, the less that concept can satisfy complex organizational needs. A truer path of innovation will not be appropriated because it is a plurality of outliers, and the core of its value is a contradiction to what we hold correct. Design or lean tactics may bring us to innovation - but I suspect this happens with less frequency than we believe.

Experience
Often if something is innovative, we do not like it. We dismiss it.  It pushes against our values, rubs us the wrong way, and introduces friction into our lives. We can adopt methods to reduce pain or mitigate risks, but ultimately, change has a cost, and that cost is at times the very foundation of whatever we believe to be real and true. Innovation is painful because it forces our brains to work differently.  If you witness a singular event and consider it brilliant, it is only a good according to subscribed preconditions.  By this definition, Elon Musk's Hyperloop is a good idea, not innovation. It might be an innovative act with in lattice of other acts, but we will need to stand back and observe.  
We usually only know if something was innovative in the past tense.  We believe in historical periods and future epochs such as the renaissance, the 20th century, and the information age.  We do not know how to experience time in other ways and yet we also have no ability to determine if something is ending an era or creating a new one.  When a radical disruption creates discomfort and only appears to be situated within the broader trends of the present tense - then we do not call it innovation.  We expect dramatic paradigm shifts to be immediate and identifiable - but this is misguided thinking.

As innovation is ambiguous in time, diffused in activity, and dissonant in experience, we would benefit to stop repeating our expectations of innovation as 'sudden, concrete, satisfying and specific.' Changing our perception of innovation might give us a better path to embrace it. And later, when the dust has settled, we can look back to say innovation has happened, though we may not be able to repeat it. 

Formulations of Post-Conflict Reconstruction Beyond and Within

Aerial Image of MIT during WWII from Lamelson Center for Invention and Innovation
The world will always have war and poverty. There is also no moral justification for the nature of war or poverty to be as severe and punishing as can be found throughout much of the world. Diseases can be reduced, incomes can be increased, and war can be less violent. It would seem that simple and practical solutions - common sense - could solve many these problems. But I've found over the last 15 years or so, that common sense is often the point of failure. True innovation is irrational. Systematic methods can be designed to facilitate innovation, but the starting point is an entrenched understanding of the problem.

Today's wars do not end, are rarely state-to-state engagements, and technology has shifted the capability of the non-state actor, giving individuals power on par with the state. Yet if technology can empower individuals to create chaos and fight the state, then it can equally empower an individual with state capacities to create peace and opportunity. Where terrorists destroy the present tense, an individual - not a government can likewise create a new future tense. Stability-minded, entrepreneurial individuals are the antithesis of terrorism, not government employees.

Inspired by organizations like Independent Diplomat, I went down this road as an urban planner, and built a private business for governance. In this capacity I aided governments in Afghanistan, Kenya, and Somalia for several years in addition to advising multilateral institutions. Unlike many of my peers in the humanitarian and development industry, I never once provided a report as a project deliverable (this is no easy thing, given that the entire industry is obsessed with reports). Rather, I focussed on building concrete mechanisms and leveraged technology to perform necessary change within entrenched problems.

The interesting consequence wasn't so much within the success or failure of those mechanisms, but the way other institutions responded. The best known example is how the UN restructured its Somalia efforts to compete and then later appropriate my municipal-level urban technology center in Mogadishu.  Years later, that effort has faded away, but a key lesson remains intact: if you want to change the operations of ]global institutions, a faster method than advocacy or protesting is to beat them at their own game because they fear competition.

For awhile, I believed that I had gone as far as I could personally take this work in postwar reconstruction. Over the years, marriage, fatherhood, and the brutal realities of active war zones left me believing that I had dug in as deep as possible, and that it was perhaps time to look into the future and shift gears.  I set new targets far from the front lines, leading to doctoral studies and a deeper immersion into the technology. Making an honest departure from the domain of reconstruction was valuable as it exposed me to new ways of thinking and working in addition to the acquisition of other skills.

Yet today, I find myself working in governance in a refreshed capacity. As an innovation specialist for the US federal government, I essentially work as an entrepreneur in residence. In this capacity I am approached by, or reach out to, federal agencies with deeply rooted and complex problems in search for new vision, strategies, and tools. Much of this work has been connected with Veterans Affairs, and thus my work within the domain of post-war reconstruction continues.

When rebuilding a wartorn city, or considering the future reconstruction of a city presently in war, I have always thought primarily about the actors there - in that space - and those who grew up there but left. Consideration of conflicted and secure space were constant to the extent that it gave a name to this blog. But in the way that I work, space is merely a container for relationships between people, and in the case of Mogadishu, for example, the stakeholders were the Somalis and the AMISOM soldiers (among others on site).  Throughout all my years of working, I never once thought about how the lives of those AMISOM soldiers will continue to influence the stability of Somalia upon return home.  Post-war reconstruction is not the rebuilding of a place - it is a web of flickering interactions between people, perceptions, objects, places, and wounds.

Mapping the Stakeholders in Post-Conflict Reconstruction of Future Wars as a Field of Lightbulbs

Working with Veteran Affairs, I have found myself looking into the eyes of the same soldiers who were in Afghanistan during my years there.  We were there for different reasons, to do different jobs, and possibly with different goals.  We also had different kinds of relationships with the local population and lived in entirely different ways.  We made and lost friends. We think about Afghanistan everyday, and also, think about it very differently, but it always in our minds. From this I know that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars will shape American politics for generations, just as the Vietnam war was discussed in every US political debate into the early 2000s.

To consider the demands of every node in the complex and time-warping web of global conflict is not feasible as a design approach. But consistent with the methods I have applied to other complex problems, to consider the thematic and territorial overlaps does prove effective. For example, in the domain of mental health, the impacts of war via PTSD are well documented within America and other NATO states. It is, however, less discussed among resident populations of war-torn regions and only marginally (if ever) discussed in reference to displaced populations.

The healing from trauma is complicated, and there are many who never fully recover or find effective remedies to move forward in their lives. Yet initiatives that have brought soldiers in contact with the places where they served, to build new memories and relationships with long harmful experiences, have been found to effective to some.  For others, there is a need to cut all ties, to relocate, and build new lives elsewhere. No matter how you approach it, healing becomes geographic as much as a psychological process.

To advance the state of postwar reconstruction, there is a necessity to go beyond security, architecture, and socio-economics. Like most design problems, there is an obvious need to factor such variables across time and space. But now I realize the necessity to reconsider our definitions of war in terms of how we conceive of stakeholders and stakeholder needs. This is not a static domain. New individuals and entities will emerge and disappear over time as will their contributions to the problems and the solutions. We cannot end war but we can formulate our present understanding of its ramifications so as to position a better tomorrow.

Finding Zero Gravity in Big Messy Social Problems

500 volunteers "move a mountain" 10 cm with spades, art performance by Francis Alys
I recently worked with a team who has been tasked with a massive problem in federal government. The problem is so huge, if you ask every person on the team to explain it, they will each give you a different answer.  They have less than a year to somehow tame this wicked problem.  I was brought in because with a problem so big and ugly, no one could agree on the team how to start dealing with it.

We all know that whenever someone says "well I'll tell you the real problem," you might as well stop listening to him because that person has no idea whats going on. First, there is no 'real' problem. There are only perceptions of problems, evidence to be found, and theories of how those perceptions and evidence match or do not match.  To define a big problem is hard, and sometimes impossible, but one needs a path forward and isolating everything through one concept is not the way.  To find the best path forward requires discovering the most opportune point of entry into the problem and the only way to find this is for everyone in the room to stop thinking.

In the past, I've written about the necessity to have clarity of your personal values regarding the work that you do and also the necessity to not inject those values in the work.  These statements may appear to be contradictory - but they are not.  You need to stop thinking about the problem, and identify where you stand, so as to better separate yourself and engage it on its own terms. Clarity of values is essential to ensure they are not integrated into your thought process and avoiding integration is essential to inform better thinking about the problem.

Its like when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car on every street, but before you bought this car, you never saw it anywhere.  When you let personal values exist with your attempt to engage a problem - that x is good or bad, that x is desirable or not, that x is the right solution - that value is surrounded with a gravitational force that will pull other ideas and ways of working near it. Like just like seeing your new car over and over, you will see things that align with that value, and everything else will be less obvious. You might see every Black Toyota Corolla on the street and fail to see the Black Prius.  If you approach the problem stripped of values, it will be necessary to construct strategies to observe and measure ideas/insights, and these strategies will exist only in relation to the problem - not the other stuff. You will develop a better way to see cars.

Another thing that can derail the ability to deal with a big problem is when the problem/solution is to advance alongside a desired side-benefit.  If I approach a problem with the goal "this solution will be so excellent it will impress lots of people, generate a 10 million dollar contract, and therefore advance my career" then every idea and option will be weighed against that 10 million dollar contract.  A lot of people make this mistake and I used to do it all the time which led to more  frustration than happiness.  Approaching a problem in this way, you forget that there are a million external unknown factors which also will determine the acquisition of the reward, and if it doesn't happen, you will still not see them - believing that your solution was somehow a failure but unsure why.

The bigger problem with this approach, is that the solution generated is not likely to be the ideal solution for the problem because it was affected by the gravitational pull of the reward.  With the reward in the review mirror, I will lose sight of the fast and simple solutions in front of me. I will get distracted. I will lose others on the road. Under the stress of all these new conditions, I will generate an output that meets the reward criteria, but the output will not structurally align to the demands of the problem. It will only create a new set of problem conditions, eventually passing the problem to someone else, and potentially making the problem bigger.

There a place where your values come back into the problem - when the job is finished. The reward of this process does satisfy personal values, but on account that the process has generated the best viable solution that checks as many boxes as possible.  Since these boxes are determined by the demands of the problem, the problem has been crushed, and even if it continues, it is only a whisper compared to the previous chaos.  To watch something terrible change from chaos to whisper is truly satisfying.

To work in zero gravity is to be liberated.  Solve the problem according to the demands of the problem and the other things will likely happen anyway. Success, however you measure it, because you will leave a path of crushed problems behind you and others will eventually notice. And if they don't, it doesn't really matter because you've done something extraordinary that speaks for itself.

How to Build Something from Nothing

Trying to explain my day job to the American Geographical Society at Geo2050. November 2015.
Everyday I have to give someone a 15 second summary of what I do for a living.  I often have to say it about 3 or 4 times a day, and depending on who I am talking to, the language shifts a little. Also, every year this task gets more difficult because its isn't always clear if I should describe what I've done, what I am doing now, or what I would like to do in the near future. 

These days it comes out something like "I specialize in designing technologies and processes that shift deeply entrenched problems" and then a rambling line with "...  cities...wars... robots... digital ethnography... machine learning... geospatial technology." 

This is clearly a terrible introduction.

In general terms, I solve really hard problems for others, but it is hard to explain everything in 7 seconds because while the problems are constant, their workings change, and in response my skills change at a rapid pace.  In 2010 I was entirely focussed on postwar reconstruction. A year ago I founded a fast-growing technology company that mobilizes breakthroughs in robotics for processing unstructured data.  Today I work with the White House Innovation Fellows as an innovation specialist, ripping through complex public problems from veterans services to cybersecurity with big transformative leaps.

So rather than stumble through a lackluster introduction on skills, these days I tend to summarize all of my work with a single line.

"I specialize in the ability to build something from nothing."


This is not mere urban planning, management, or entrepreneurship. It is a specific skill to create complex entities that thrive from zero or near-zero resources.  More importantly, the things I build do not require my ongoing participation to continue and flourish.  Initiatives I created years ago still exist in far away places, overseen and operated by people who have never heard of me.  Of course doing this isn't easy. Its a carefully considered and honed expertise founded on some core concepts.
  • No Ego. Any given person cannot be central or necessary to the operation of the entity or its continuation.  If you design an entity according to the objectives, emotions, and expectations of one or two people - including yourself- then it will fail to succeed over time because it will forever be limited by the constraints that you alone carry or will carry. You can be a stakeholder in your own work but it should not be about or for you. It should not be designed to serve you (especially if this is to be a profitable business). For successful startups, this is often phrased in an epic mission statement... but it doesn't have to be so bold. It simply must serve others more than it serves yourself.  If it cannot be justified as such, then it is not likely a worthwhile pursuit.
  • Build Psychological Scaffolding. The components of the entity exist as a suspension - not a mixture -so that the tensions are just as critical to the success as the harmonies.  For example, if building a business, you cannot expect everyone to get along, so your odds of success improve if the business is designed to leverage hostilities between people. You cannot expect to like all your employees. You cannot expect to always be pleased by performance or to hire excellent people. So what is the plan?  You can rotate through a constant stream of people, but nothing will grow from this except your own frustration. To build something, you must expect have a range of personalities and capabilities, and many will conflict so build for that conflict, not to avoid it.  Certainly there are times you need to ditch people, but typically, as long as they are reliable enough to show up, you can design the work in relation to their strengths and ask little of their weaknesses while leveraging the internal conflicts into new opportunities for the organization.
  • Resources are Flux. You cannot plan to rely upon any given resource pools, but must draw from finite resources that shift as distributions, compiled from diverse locations, and all resources have expiration dates. If you design and build an entity to rely upon a specific person, idea, model, or finance strategy, and these variables are orchestrated to come together with the expectation of a particular timing, you might succeed once or twice but then it will fail. Don't bother with that. You are wasting resources.  It is at least a great place to start as people are forever the greatest resource. According to "Lean Startup" you should design your product for a specific person with a specific problem - and I agree - that sensibility must drive the initial design. But people change, and you should expect that user to change as your solution is introduced, so you need to design for change over time, and not just for clients but also for investors, partners, and employees.
  • Embrace Suffering.  Do not build an entity with the intention that "all will come together and it will be great."  Instead, design and build it for the  bad times. Imagine the worst possible scenario - what and who do you want by your side to manage that bad time? .If you created pathways for people to manage projects in different ways, to embrace different communication styles, and to maximize agility then you will be in a better position (see psychological scaffolding). But more importantly, seize the pain - its only temporary when it happens but those are the most important moments.  Ben Horowitz likes to talk about "CEOs in times of war and peace." The times of war - budget cuts, lost contracts, massive layoffs - are profound human experiences and it is those moments that define the future of the organization. Build to suffer.
  • Generative Action-Thoughts Win. Often a new risky idea is proposed and someone (sadly the boss) will shut down these new ideas, usually because they fail to understand one of the above principals. Many people also want to talk about a given idea or possibility for a long period of time.  A better tactic - always - is to support a very small and rapid physical experiment on that idea.  A pencil drawing on a piece of paper, a quick survey on the street, or a couple phone calls will typically pull in new information and ways of thinking about the problem. Physical things and processes change the conversation and stupid ideas become radical insights. Always veer toward physical things - not ideas.
These principals appear abstract but there is a clear underlying thread throughout. Maintain a constant respect for others, do more and think less, and care less about the importance of yourself, your ideas, or your values.  Work for the bigger picture and mobilize the assets that come to you.  Obsessing about the right idea, the right execution, or the right result will only waste time and energy. Ultimately, if you want to build something bigger than yourself then you need to remove yourself from it, and it needs to be tangible. Everyday.

Detroit: Between the Rustbelt and the Warzone

Right now I am in Detroit MI, and today, the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy and has an estimated 18-20 billion dollars of debt.  So what can be done about that?

Post-Industrial Detroit.  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2013. 
Throughout my education and experience in urban planning, my entire focus has been urban conflict and cities faced with extreme poverty.   Today I'm in Detroit MI,  investigating the ways that such a city may benefit from lessons of cities with seemingly worse conditions.   All things considered, Detroit really isn't so bad off when compared to a city like Kandahar, but as an American metropolis it definitely stands alone.  In addition to the largest city to file for bankruptcy in the history of the US, Detroit is also the ranked the most dangerous city in America by the FBI for the year 2013.  It has a rate 2,137 homicides per 100,000 people.  

The city has a population slightly above 701,000 people. With an average of 2.75 people per household, 36% of the Population lives below "poverty level" meaning that approximately 90,000 households (out of 254,000) have an income only between $15,000 and $19,000 per year.   And 35% of the land is vacant, so that means average distribution would show every square mile of property containing at least one family below poverty level.  The takeaway is that no matter where you stand in Detroit, you will see someone struggling to survive.  Of course distributions are never even, and smaller groups tend to control the bulk of the wealth, leaving a much bleaker landscape.

There is also an excess of political infighting among council members.  The city has a new charter.  It can't afford to pay the retirement packages to former employees.   They current Mayor, Dave Bing, said he has had enough and is stepping down.  The previous Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is in federal court for a slew of abuses.

So now what?

There is the option for a massive top-down overhaul of the city, but how often are city planners and governments capable of jumpstarting cities from crisis?  Afghanistan and Iraq are direct evidence that all of the expertise on the matter is severely limited, and even if a Marshal-plan amount of money were available, it doesn't mean it will solve the problem.

In many ways, filing for bankruptcy was an excellent move so that the city can focus on paying out the billions of dollars on bonds it owes.  But this single action won't alone solve the problem. Creative solutions are in high demand.

A Simple Solution to Mogadishu's IDP Problem

A Pathway to Ownership for IDPs can Change Mogadishu Forever. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.
After every war, cities are burdened by many of the same problems.  The infrastructure is destroyed, there is a lack of money, a culture of violence, and a fear that war will return.  But another major obstacle is the heavy numbers of internally displaced persons who left their homeland elsewhere in the country and sought refugee in the city.   They sought safety, employment, and a chance at a better life.  They also frequently have little to offer, having abandoned everything with the move, and frequently coming from rural villages, lack the skills necessary to compete in the urban marketplace.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are typically seen as a burden, and city officials want them to go home.  With no money, IDPs frequently seek shelter in abandoned buildings or in impoverished, make-shift camps.  The UNHCR also encourages they return to their place of origin as UNHCR tends to advocate return as the only durable solution.  But at other times UNHCR will recognize that many IDPs cannot return home, as their homes have been destroyed and all that was abandoned is now completely lost.  In these instances, UNHCR and UN-Habitat will construct IDP displacement camps.

In Mogadishu, IDP camps are scattered throughout the city.  They are renown for being dangerous and unhygienic.  Murder, rape, and disease are common.  IDPs also inhabit many buildings throughout the city with no right to ownership.  When the original owners return to reclaim their property, conflicts frequently ensue.  As the city has no surviving property records from before the war, arguments over property rights are common and the courts get clogged as people fight for rightful ownership rights.   This problem is expensive and slow.  To make the changes in Somalia sustainable, it is necessary that change also takes place quickly.  I wrote about this before in a previous article on the importance of speed for land use rights in post-war reconstruction.

Think Different - Live Different in Mogadishu. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.

Solving the IDP Crisis in MogadishuSomalia

To solve the IDP situation in Mogadishu, the issue must no longer be seen as zero/sum.   Many want the IDPs to leave or to suddenly have money to purchase housing.  But this is clearly unrealistic.  Rather, the problem must be considered in relation to time, space, resources, and the greater good of the city.

The best solution would be a "right to ownership" policy.  The Right to Ownership Policy could work very quickly and effectively if the following steps were pursued.

1. IDPs are provided a temporary identification number for the property they currently inhabit.  A record is made containing a description and possibly a photo of the space.

2. Each year the IDP/Occupant must invest a particular amount of money and time into the upkeep of the property.  This could consist of digging better quality latrines, constructing more permanent housing, painting walls, repairing concrete, clearing debris, installing doors and so on.    Notice that many improvements can initially be done at no cost.

3. If no one returns to make claim on the property in 5 years, the temporary identification number becomes a permanent record of ownership for the occupant.  

4. If another person returns to the site and claims the property as his own, and can provide at least 5 articles or witnesses as evidence, the returnee will acquire the property IF compensation is provided to the IDP resident for each year of invested ownership.


Why this IDP Solution can work.

1. Extensive research has shown that formal ownership of property provides economic leverage to residents.

2. The IDP acts as a caretaker for the property until full ownership is approved.  Thus streets are rebuilt which also reduces crime.

3. This policy is consistent with the principals of xeer, the traditional/informal legal system that is still used among many nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes in Somalia.  Consequently such a policy would be innate to those who would be affected by it.

4. IDPs who do not achieve full ownership leave the property with a sum of money reimbursed by the legal owner and are thus in a better position to acquire housing or even return to point of origin.


Why this solution to Mogadishu's IDP problem will not happen.

I have promoted this solution to several members of the Somali government, but it has gained no support.  Certainly, it is not perfect, but with tweaking, a right to ownership is far better than court cases which may go on for decades.  Many officials claim a desire for innovation and radical change, but are not willing to take the dramatic steps necessary to be truly innovative.  Rather, all politicians continue to see the problem in the same manner of the UN, even if they are not happy with the UN approach to solving the problem.

Unfortunately this policy means that many returnees will lose ownership of their property.  But five years is a long time and many Somalis have no interest to return anyway.  The bigger problem is among government officials who cannot presently prove ownership of their own family estates, and thus refuse to pursue policies for the common good because of their own selfish interest.

Another reason that the policy will not happen is because it will require that the city lose ownership some some property to IDPs and that vacant lots currently inhabited by turkels will need to be considered property of the IDPs.  What officials do not realize, is that letting informal settlements become formal is an advantage - not a loss - as these settlements will quickly transform to have permanent buildings, lower crime, and create new market opportunities.  It would actually expand the city!  

Lastly, from a planning perspective, formalizing a pathway to ownership for IDPs would reinforce the power of the government and provide an opportunity to build necessary infrastructure in the currently existing squatter camps.  Providing roads, sewers, communication and water to these sites will encourage the construction of permanent housing and improved living among residents.


Final Thoughts
I have travelled all over the world, and Somali people are perhaps more resourceful than any other group of people I have encountered.   If a clear policy is made which can provide an opportunity for property ownership among IDPs, while current land/housing owners will need to make a decision among reclaiming property, then people will jump to the opportunity.  The right to ownership should not be reserved for only the diaspora.  Public policy needs to be made for the interest of everyone, not just those who have power, and more than anywhere else, Mogadishu's leadership needs the vision to pursue the right path.  

Change is Possible in Mogadishu. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.

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. 


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].

Humanitarian Aid and Development as a Profitable Enterprise

Ikea as Humanitarian and Urban Planner?
Years ago, I was asked to write an essay for a class on Architectural Conservation.  We had a guest lecture by renown American architectural historian Patrick Snadon who discussed the issues of preserving ugly modernist buildings in contemporary cities, and we were asked to write a reaction to the topic.  My own paper focused on the economic issues in preserving American architecture, as so often city, state and federal governments are asked to inject funds to preserve historic sites when such funds simply never exist.  I suggested that preservationists could utilize more accessible tools, to perhaps utilize strategies that engage the private sector rather than the public.  Sports stadiums, football games, and city plazas typically have corporate sponsors, such as FedEx Field in Maryland and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.   Large, wealthy companies vie for the opportunity to sponsor popular sports facilities and in the end, everybody wins.

So why not do this with historic buildings or entire neighborhoods?  Why couldn't Procter & Gamble initiate a large-scale urban development effort?   Private companies have explored this in the past, such as when Walt Disney led the design and planning of Celebration, Florida.  Such actions would facilitate brand loyalty, the companies could plan to include programs to increase their recruiting pool - such as special academic programs in schools that focus on product design or computer programming - and governments are less strained.   Again, everybody wins.

Ikea's Town Plan, London UK
A few weeks ago I read about the massive retailer IKEA pursuing an urban development scheme in London, exploring town planning and development with real-estate company LandProp.  Although some may find it outrageous, I greatly applaud IKEA's interest in expanding their penchant for refined design and cost-cutting production into the domain of urban development. Notably, this new town will not include an IKEA retailer.  Around the same time, I also learned about a large grant from IKEA of 62 Million USD provided to UNHCR for development purpose in the Dadaab refugee camps.  So what does this mean?

Like the idea I had in grad school about corporations spearheading architectural preservation and urban development, I ask why can't this happen within humanitarian aid and international development?  Why is it the sole responsibility of cash-strapped governments and NGOs to aid those in need, to overcome poverty, and to develop sustainable economies of scale?  In many ways, the idea of doing this without financial stakeholders is absolutely ludicrous.  If a company such as Ikea were willing to invest in the reconstruction of a city such as Kabul,  the environmental development of Hargeissa Somaliland, or to invest in a neighborhood in Detroit, they could access a massive labor-pool, expand their customer base with deeply-rooted brand loyalty, and lock themselves into a more profitable future. 

What I think is critical, is that this process does not need to be philanthropic.  Not everyone needs to be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  It could be a profitable enterprise.  The risk is that we would live in a world where every city, town, and street would be named after Gilette razor-blades, Ivory Soap, and CocaCola but then again, we already live in a world where professional sports and entertainment are dominated by the same vestiges of capitalism.  Buses and subways are covered in advertising, and movies feature endless product placements.  Would it actually be all that different?

So in the end, I ask if it is time to radically upgrade how humanitarian aid and development is undertaken.  If laissez-faire ideologies are going to dominate the global economy, then why not utilize their embedded leverage, to push for the expansion of corporations to integrate all facets of daily life.  

Admittedly the concept goes against my own personal sensibilities. Maybe its a bad idea, maybe it would create an international catastrophe of unparalleled proportion, but then again, maybe it could work.