Viewing entries tagged
urban planning

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.

Technology Determined Cities or Strategic Design for Tomorrow?





Imagine if urban planners had more knowledge about cars long before automobile traffic was a common issue. Imagine if they had better understood chemistry or environmental sciences. How could that have changed the transit landscape? Could today's problems of automobile pollution or over-dependency on oil been curbed at the outset? Maybe, maybe not, but urban planners can change the future if they change their relationship to technology and the processes by which technologies are created.

Urban and socio-economic development are continually framed as a top-down or a bottom-up system of human decisions. Either the messiness of political action informs and determines the form and function of our lives or policy choices are made by experts reliant on consultation data. Yet this model fails to describe how the environment and the objects around us shape and structure our lives.  Development is not purely determined by people but also by places and things. We might believe we are designing our future, but much is predetermined by what we have designed in the past, by the technologies presently in development, and by the physical conditions of our designing. As long as urban professionals and policy makers ignore such factors, strategic design and policy will rarely accomplish what is intended.

Humans can synthesize DNA, break the sound barrier, and investigate distant galaxies. We wear computers that monitor our bodies and transport information at the speed of light. In the meanwhile, we compose our urban visions in massive paper books of zoning code and render aerial maps on a digital screen to shape the future.  Interesting technologies pop up almost daily that can provide value to urban planning and design, yet as a whole, these technologies are not thoughtfully integrated within planning practice. Certainly planners might use a given technology, but that is not the same as building a mindful socio-technical practice with the technology. Case in point, when I hear the words "how can a planner use a drone?" it is the engineer and the robot that is carving the pathways of our urban future - not the urban professional. There is also a particular moral imposition within the design of a drone - aside from the thinking of the engineer - wherein the design of the artifact delegates use and consequence.

Last week I was interviewed by a journalist on the subject of drones in urban planning and was surprised that all of the questions were focused on how planners should use these technologies. There were no questions about the possible negative results or externalities. There were no questions about the responsibility of planners to design new technologies themselves, or to work with groups of software engineers in the same way we work within community groups.

In its current form, the entire field of urban planning is reliant upon the visions of engineers at companies like ESRI, Autodesk, Microsoft, and Google. These companies showcase their products to urban planning departments stating "now you can do this thing we think is important." If the message is not clear enough, planners look at the technology and say "what do we do with this?" in an attempt to fit the solution to an unknown problem. The search by planners to incorporate drones into their work is a good example.  Certainly there can be a use, but does the drone solve a known problem or does it require the formation of a new problem? Do we want or need that new problem? The answer varies by time, place, and circumstance but I suspect these new problems often distract from more essential demands.

Consequently the technology startups, major corporations, product supply chains, and DIY hackers are designing our future cities - not designers, developers, or policy makers.  Any time a planner asks "how can I use a drone?", they are placing faith into the mind that designed the robot, the design of the robot, and the capability of the machine. Consequently we need urban professionals who are proactive in the technology creation to say "I want X to do Y so I can get Z," and sufficiently understand the technology to see this vision become reality.  If we are truly in touch with urban systems, we should have the vision and capacity to design our own tools to work with those systems.  The ability to make informs the ability to vision, and more importantly, it is the basis to executing that vision.

Planners have long been at fault for separating vision and implementation. In Yves Deforge's essay Avatars of Design: Design Before Design, the author recounts how renaissance inventors and designers for several centuries generated detailed plans with little understanding on how to implement them, leaving that task to another class of producers.  By the time of the 20th century, the role of artistry in mass production had been squashed, eclipsed by the rise of the Eiffel tower, embodying mathematics and engineering in place of design. The role of the designer whose job was to conceive new ideas fell into the shadow of the engineer who gave form to the possible.

In recent decades, the field of design and the planning profession has shifted toward human-centered methods as mathematics cannot alone solve all problems or generate positive human environments. Yet unlike planners, most of today's UX designers are more tightly connected to the DNA of their tools. They can write software and scripts to automate processes and they can construct new tools to make new visions into realities. When they are limited to produce something they envision, they share common vocabularies with engineers to give form to their intentions.  These designers do not need to be engineers, but their tacit knowledge and skills are sufficient to inform new ways of thinking, designing, and making.

So what of the future concerning new technologies in robotics, big data, and AI? Will humans be replaced by intelligent and superior machines? If the outcomes of the Darpa Grande Challenge are sufficient indicators (below), we are not at risk right now of any threats from these emerging technologies. Notably, none of the robotics teams included an architect or planner, even though every robot was tasked with managing the built environment. There is a clear demand for urban professional among the machines.

Will planners continue to react to the work of engineers, forever a decade or two behind the technology?  Already there is a deluge of books, podcasts, and news specials describing how new breakthroughs will change the economic landscape. People will lose their jobs to robots.  Cities will smolder amid collapsed economies. Or in contrast, planners could create a new preferable future, by repositioning their relationship to technology, taking hold of the materials, engaging the engineers, and embed themselves into the processes that shape our economic landscape. They can make digital tools and participate in the working groups that build the machines. They can take the lead in designing tomorrow and not just react to its arrival. They can design the future.




Backcasting Urban Planning and Design for Autonomous Cars and Social Robotics



Advancements in technology do not necessarily lead to improvements in society.  Social policies created in response to technology might generate social safeguards but do not always promote social benefits. While we can witness technological developments with delight, we must take a moment to ask ourselves, what kind of future are we creating?

Just last week the US Secretary of Transportation described an infrastructure deficit, not only in terms of existing infrastructure, but also as a lack of planning for future needs. Around the same time the Consumer Electronics Show displayed an array of emerging automotive technologies. Companies ranging from Ford to Mercedes revealed concept cars for autonomous vehicles to roll out in the next few years. Using multiple LIDAR sensors, GPS, and new interior configurations, engineers and industrial designers are redesigning the future of automobile transportation.

But are civil engineers and urban planners actively promoting a sufficient infrastructure to accommodate new use patterns.  To some extent, yes. Much discussion was prompted when IHS released a study speculating that autonomous vehicles will dominate the landscape by 2035.  Some economists speculate that congestion and fuel use will increase. There are even proposals that traffic tickets will be reduced and proposals that cities will be configured around changes in parking, density, and speed limits. It is also thought that changes of car ownership and use will change, such as operating buses more like trains.

It is clear the urban landscape will need to be reconfigured and there are some ideas to determine what this means. Yet if we look at the bigger picture, what are we working toward? What is the future we are constructing? In a city with less traffic tickets or city parking, how will taxes change? If buses are so streamlined, then does the freedom of private car ownership become reserved only for the wealthy?

The present planning and development trend of speculation on social robotics is insufficient because it relies upon a purely constructivist approach.  We had previous industry and technologies that resulted in todays conditions, so now we are creating new technologies in response to those conditions.  Naturally this will create a new scenario, accompanied by additional problems, and there will be a demand to innovate out of that situation into another. But to what ends? What is the end game?

In the existing approach we are saying that fuel and spatial demands will adjust in response to autonomous transportation technologies.  Yet how will this response occur in relation to existing problems such as income inequality, underemployment, poor access to health care, and poor quality infrastructure such as housing, water, and roads?  At present I see no evidence that social robotics will help the existing socio-economic problems but might do more to proliferate them.

In 2035, will only poor people need to drive their cars?  Will the price of driven cars become more expensive from reduced demand, placing additional financial burden on low-income communities? While those who now 1-2 freed hours of time per day (since they are not driving) be able to use that time for study, extended work hours, and business meetings? How will those still using their time to drive be able to compete in the workforce? Will those unable to access social robotics find their entire communities collapsing upon outdated infrastructures?  Will property values shift dramatically creating new ghettos and devastated landscapes?

What if we propose a different vision?  What if citizens and leaders took responsibility to say "In 2035 want my community to look like X?"  It takes imagination and guts to state such a declaration. Yet by setting a clear vision, it is possible to work backwards, to reverse engineer pathways to that vision and align current choices accordingly.  To backcast the future of social robotics might create a future that is more grounded in the social than the robotic.  To plan with a goal in mind, rather than through continued ad hoc remedies, perhaps our high-tech future could be a place where someone might actually want to live. Even if they can't afford it.

Design for Mental Health on the Mars One Space Colony

Rendering of Space Colony by Mars One









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

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

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

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

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

The Size of the World in War Zones and Refugee Camps

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I hope so.

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


City Planning for the Second Machine Age


Just last week the Mayor of Las Angeles announced that L.A. will be the first city ready for self-driving cars.  This is a bold statement considering that no other city has really taken a major plunge on infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, and thus we have nothing to which we can compare the actions of L.A.  The notion of Uber-like services for autonomous vehicles is fairly compelling, but we need to ask - what kind of infrastructure is appropriate or needed for this product-service system? For example, should the police be integrated into an alert system incase things go bad? To take it further, what issues should urban planners consider regarding autonomous vehicles.  What does the future city need?

Much of the technology that will shape our urban experience tomorrow  is not quite mature enough to meet general expectations - but that is why planning for it today is important.  Having the discussion from a planning perspective will reflexively shape the technological development and diffusion, giving us the opportunity to take responsibility for our lives - much like the public health movement of the industrial era. Recently, many car makers have announced plans to roll out self-driving cars in the next few years including Cadillac and BMW.  Likewise, Audi has received the first permit in California to road test self-driving vehicles.  While MIT's Technology Review last summer, we are nowhere near the point in time when fully autonomous cars will be fully functional, and we are in fact several decades away - so now is the time to discuss how to make this work.

As we shed the remnants of the industrial era and step into the second machine age, let us imagine how it will look.  Autonomous vehicles are not limited to cars.  Flying aircraft, delivery UAVs, boats, underground tunneling devices, and robots of all kinds can be expected to appear in the next few decades. A primary part of the challenge in creating these technologies is that the urban environment is highly stimulating, directing millions of cues toward a driver at a given second.  The sounds of crosswalks, the recognition of a runner nearing the corner, and the flashing lights of a tow-truck vs a police car or ambulance all provide information to a driver.  These are also the elements of urbanism that make cities exciting and interesting. Strip the city streets of its life, and yes, we can make cars that will safely drive themselves through stop and go traffic - but is that where we want to live? Dehumanized modernist vision didn't work the second time (Le Cabusier's Machine for Living?), so what kind of infrastructure and planning do we need?

I don't have all the answers, but I think about this question quite a bit.  I have a few ideas and hopefully these will inspire others to explore the ideas more deeply.  If you have anything to add, I would love to hear from you.

Possibilities:
1. Robust GPS system.
At present there are 32 GPS satellites orbiting the earth, at 20,000 KM above sea level.  I know little about satellites, but I can't help but wonder is this a sufficient system for constant global demand.  So far so good, but can this meet the future demand if you multiple current use by 10 or 100? How might we improve such systems to refine geolocation.  Its important to realize that already a great deal of variance occurs within GPS positioning, so while you might have accuracy within a meter in New York City, your GPS points in a rural and low populated landscape might vary as much as 20 meters. Will this be sufficient when your car drives you to work?

2. Geofencing
In my last post I wrote about the idea of land use planning for drones.  Yet the concept of geofencing does not need to be limited to UAV use.  It can also be integrated into self-driving cars, water-based robotics, tunneling machines, and any other form of autonomous vehicles.  Creating this system isn't hard, but creating a system of standards for the geofencing to work across cities, states, and nations might be more challenging - which leads to the next concept.

3. MIDI for the City.
One thing that has made the internet blossom is the standardization of HTML, APIs, and data structures like JSON to allow developers to freely port one system/tool with another.  In a similar fashion, MIDI provides a set of standards for musical softwares and electronic devices to communicate.  To my knowledge there is not a set series of standards for electronic device integration at urban scale. Maybe the internet of things will be the solution, but is IPV6 sufficient to address all these billions of objects?

4. Modular Infrastructure
Many cities will generally suffer in the new economy because there is insufficient growth in Commercial, Off The Shelf (COTS) products for smart city creation. Smart Cities cost millions or billions of dollars and are dominated by companies like Cisco, Siemens, and IBM.  Rich cities will have the money to optimize and poor cities will not be able to compete.  There are a few of us (ahem), working on the design and creation of modular components, dashboards, and sensor networks that can provide municipal plug and play operation - but this market space hasn't taken off yet.  This could provide an opportunity for increased safety, reduced costs, and general improvements in urban life quality at scale but more people need to be working on this.

5. Localize Energy Policy 
Sufficient energy systems are a constant problem and a major inhibitor for technology diffusion. With the advancement of autonomous systems our energy demands are going to spike. I think some of the more interesting work in this area is within using ocean driven systems (photo at top of page). Yet we can also harness the simple but functional technologies we have today. Many regulatory energy tools exist at the national level, but perhaps city governments need to be more aggressive in local laws. What if every building permit required new construction to include a solar energy component? What if every historic reuse, preservation tax credit, or publicly funded project mandated the integration of passive energy systems? We haven't perfected passive energy, but whatever we have is only effective if policy matures.

Zoning and Urban Land Use Planning for Drones



Just prior to my last stint of working in Somalia, I purchased a small consumer drone to use as social research tool.  Unfortunately the landscape had changed drastically since my last time in Mogadishu, and it was impossible to use, in particular because I am terrible at flying the damn thing. But I have since invested many hours into piloting the UAV to explore its utility as a research tool for urban planning and design.

Last weekend, a small disaster took place when I lost the signal to the UAV. The drone drifted out of sight and crash landed.  I had no idea where. It took several hours to find (on a building rooftop, I couldn't see it, but I found its WIFI signal), and even longer to recover (24 hours). At some point on TwitterConstantine Samaras, raised a significant point:  Perhaps this situation could have been avoided if I was in a no drone zone. But what does would that look like?



Legal Framework for Drones

In the United States, airspace above 700 feet is Federally restricted.  Airspace below 30 feet is considered part of individual property rights, meaning that when you own a piece of land, you also own the 30 feet of air above it. Ownership of this airspace is occasionally able to be sold for provide through a transfer of development rights. But what about the airspace between 30 and 700 feet?  At present, the FAA has restricted the use of drones for commercial use but amateurs are free to fly.

Some cities have already taken progressive steps concerning the legality of drones. The city of Evanston Illinois has passed a 2 year ban on drone use in the city for use in warrantless surveillance. This is a good thing. Carrol county in Maryland is looking for similar legislation on the use of drones by law enforcement. There was even recently a temporary event ban during golf tournament in North Carolina.  But existing UAV zoning laws are "all or nothing" in design, they do not make use of the opportunity that drones can provide in creating new markets, improved public policy, and better design for communities.

Zoning for Drones
In general, I'm not a big fan of city zoning.  I admire its intention, to make sure that the overall quality of urban life is consistent with high standards of physical and mental health.  We do not want the aluminum factory next to the children's playground or the speedway motor park in the residential neighborhood.  We do need a legal instrument for communities to make decisions about what they want to look like and how they need to function.  Yet overall, I find my city zoning is poorly conceived.  I am highly supportive of health standards, environmental regulation and taxes, but I see zero advantage toward regulating the values of a population (such as zoning concerning bars or adult services) or the economic geography as such zoning only reinforces the values of those who hold power, not the people who constitute the community.  Likewise zoning for residential vs. commercial use tends to put more strain on the landscape, increase traffic, increase pollution, and reduce the distribution of wealth. Zoning should not hinder social mobility, yet it can and does.

Therefore, to approach zoning for drones, it is important to examine the issue from multiple points of view.  After all, the goal is to create a regulatory framework that will maximize the ratio of nuisance to utility in favor of people at large, not a particular social group or economic class.

Areas of Review:

Example UAV Questions to Consider
Is the UAV big or small? 
Loud or quiet? 
Does it have a payload or a camera? 
Is it operating according to a predefined flightpath (using GPS waypoints) or is it freely piloted?
How fast and how high is it?
Is it for commercial or amateur purposes?

Example Site Questions to Consider
Is the site of high or low pedestrian traffic?
Does the site contain socially vulnerable or critical security infrastructure (schools, power plants etc)?
Does the site consist mostly of public or privately owned property?
To what extent is the airspace already cluttered and at what density?
Is this an area of high or low diversity in land use?

Example Population Issues
Is this area a public space or private space?
Is what is the privacy expectation in this space - for example, on a beach?

To recognize the array of drone designs and use designs is to realize that an affective zoning solution is flexible to support the advantages of the UAV but with limited interference upon bystanders. Conversely, it is important to insure that UAV operation is not disruptive to the general activities of the population.  Ideally, UAV operation should be able to operate "in the background" of day-to-day life.


General Guidelines for UAV/Drone Land Use Zoning Laws
While thinking about zoning for drones, one of the first questions that comes to my mind is "what will that look like"?  After all, 2-dimensional arial map is insufficient to capture the particular sense of space that will be used and affected by a UAV.  An advantage of contemporary design and modeling is that we do not need to restrict zoning maps to a 2D surface, but can draw these maps in the air, to model them above cities and within them.  A zoning map for drones should not only take advantage of modeling the airspace, but should take into consideration the variations of time.  For example, an area that might restrict private drone use from 9-5 could lift the ban from 30-400 feet after 5pm and 400-600 feet after 10 pm.

Implementation
It might seem abstract to place an imaginary 3D geometry around a building to restrict flight patterns. But for those who are already flying drones, it is no unimaginable.  Furthermore, providing the information online (such as a downloadable CAD file) for a drone operator to layer onto Google Earth or other GIS software would easily remedy the situation.  GPS and time sequencing can even be programmed into flight patterns.  It might seem abstract and hightech, but 3D mapping of airspace for drone use has few hurdles and requires no new technology.


CASE STUDY/CONCEPT EXPLORATION - CHICAGO
Drone Zoning and Urban Planning Concept Location, Chicago Illinois. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Drone Zoning Concept in Chicago, Illinois. Sutika Sipus 2014.


Case Study: Urban Planning for UAVs in Chicago
To explore this idea, I have rendered a rough concept drawing of drone zoning in the parks bordering downtown Chicago.  Basing the idea off of a traditional traffic light, green areas are free-use, yellow and orange maintain various restrictions according to the time of day and day of week, while red areas are restricted at all times.


Buckingham Fountain, Chicago, Open UAV Zone. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Open Droning
The green zone is near Buckingham fountain.  This area is a wide open space, with zero infrastructure of critical value.  It should be realized that we design areas where free drone use is available so as to offset the general distribution of restrictions.  A greenspace, therefore, should permit the widest amount of flexibility and opportunity.  Likewise, in such spaces we want to reduce the likelihood of losing the drone or disrupting others in the event of an accident.  Accidents will happen, so it is best to permit a space for those accidents to happen with limited consequence.


Side-View, Zoning for Drones/UAVs in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Limited and Restricted Drone Use
In the image above the football stadium has been recognized as a "zero public drone" area.  In this space we can imagine private licensing options for droned cameras and advertising initiatives by the stadium and partners.  However, unaffiliated individuals should not have the right to use their drone in this are.

The yellow and orange spaces represent the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, Aviary, and Observatory.  For the sake of the example, I have suggested that these properties contain their own particular rules that change according to the day, season, or event.  This is not a unreasonable regulation, given that it is common place to create zoning in a similar manner for public parking during weekdays, sporting events, and even according to the weather.

Example Drone Zoning in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Alternative Perspective of Drone Zoning in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Drone Zoning at Human Scale. Sutika Sipus 2014

Drone Zoning at Human Scale II. Sutika Sipus 2014.

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?"

The Emerging Future of Cities



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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

The Phoenix City of Mogadishu Somalia - Can the city hold on?



When I began working with the government of Mogadishu, I was deeply optimistic about the future of the city.  The city was at a turning point and was gaining momentum in a positive direction.  At this very moment, as I have returned to Mogadishu for another project, I have much less certainty.

What the hell happened?

For a little background, Mogadishu has a long history of ups and downs. In 1992 the city imploded upon itself with the fall of the Soviet Union combined with bubbling local tensions. After more than a decade of civil war, the rise of the Islamic Courts in 2006 gave it a chance to recover. When the courts collapsed, a radical offshoot of its police force established al Shabaab which then squeezed much of the country with a crushing grip of violence and intimidation for 5 years. In 2011, Mogadishu got its second chance as Shabaab withdrew from the city under pressures of drought, finance, and foreign military pressures by Kenya and AMISOM.

About 90 days later, in December 2012 I was contacted by the city government of Mogadishu and I boarded a plane. Over the next couple years I was living in Afghanistan and periodically traveling to Mogadishu to conduct evaluations, pitch new solutions, and augment existing efforts. You can think of this as consulting, but with teeth. This was truly a satisfying experience because using urban planning and design strategy to stabilize and rebuild a city like Mogadishu is a highly creative effort. While the profession contains a vast wealth knowledge and expertise on how to run a city that is already functioning, there is very little on how to pull one from the ashes.

Throughout that time, the city government was led by Mohammud Nur, also known as Tarzan.  Tarzan is an inspiring man. He grew up in Mogadishu as a homeless orphan, and received his nickname because of the way he would climb buildings to evade local police for acts of petty theft. When Tarzan had the opportunity to relocate to to the UK as a refugee in the early 1980s he saw much his community living on welfare and doing little with their lives. Motivated for change, he went to school to learn new ideas and skills - I believe eventually earning an MBA - and founded one of the first internet cafes in London in the early 1990s. This single business venture expanded to include others, and along the way, he became a leading figure in the Somali diaspora as an outspoken activist and community leader.

When he was appointed Mayor, the city had no electricity, garbage collection, or sanitation services in over two decades. The city government only controlled about 4 blocks and the majority of the city was controlled by al Shabaab. It was the bleakest landscape and Tarzan likely had the hardest job in the world.

With the withdrawal of Shabaab, he jumped to the opportunity and began seeking resources, strategies, and tools for rapid change.  He wanted new ideas (thus my own modest contribution). Much happened and fast.  At the time I believed this was a historic turning point for the city, as evidenced by this video I produced during that time on the reconstruction of Mogadishu.





Fast forward to today and the future is not so certain. Tarzan was fired  in February of 2014 by the president, who cited security concerns, but there is a general consensus in Mogadishu that it is because the Mayor's popularity overshadowing his own. Shocked by the sudden dismissal, Nur left his office in prime condition as the the city government had over $100,000 USD in assets for investment (acquired primarily through the 15% airport tax). For the first time in the history of Somalia, the city was not sitting in deficit.  

The new mayor, Hassan Mohamed Hassan Mungreb, formerly held a position at the Somali Army's war college.  He came into office saying he would have Mogadishu safe within 30 days. Given the deep history of insecurity in the city, I feel little need to give commentary on the capability of the Somali military.

Also, upon entering Benaadiir, Mayor Hassan fired everyone. There is nearly zero carry over knowledge from one administration to the other. Every clerk, speaker, project manager and account were dismissed. The Deputy Mayor Iman Icar survived the purge, but he was removed from his seat as Head of Finance and put in charge of Civil Services.  Now it is three months later and the $100,000 USD is gone.  The city is again in the red.  It is also the most dangerous in the last three years with almost daily attacks.

Mayor Hassan also fired all the district representatives. This has had a mixed effect. For years, Nur struggled with many of the district representatives because many of them were longtime warlords with significant power. His strategy was to slowly push these guys to the edge, to make them less significant, ultimately by awarding promotions into superfluous positions wherein their power base would erode. He would then replace them with younger, better educated, and capable individuals. The former district commissioner of Hamar JibJib is a good example of this change.

Under Hassan all the old regimes are gone and in many ways, that is promising. Yet he personally appointed new Disctrict Commissioners that have no following or reputation. Today, Somali citizens do not know their local leaders, creating a new level of chaos. Worse, the former DCs have now become targets for al Shabaab.  With no government protection, they have built their own personal militias, again, distorting the landscape of power away from centralized governance and into fractured chaos.

As a whole, the problems of the Somalia government are not restricted to the municipal level.  I am not as intimate with the individuals holding federal office, but I do have some knowledge of the mechanics. For example, when Parliament passes a motion - perhaps a new law? - the motion is not written down or archived in any fashion. There is in fact no written record or knowledge management system within the government. Obviously laws are made and forgotten or applied inconsistently because there is no basic platform for communication.

I wish communication and information management was the biggest problem, because it is easy to fix. Parliament is a big building. You could probably run the country using a wall full of colored post-it notes with much success.

Yet a bigger problem exists in the substructure of the government, and community, that is common within all fragile states but acute within Mogadishu.  In a society of scarce resources,  perpetual state of crisis of dominates all actions and within Mogadishu. It create fear and paranoia and here, this mode of thinking is entrenched.  In a state of emergency, everything is about "me first" thus negating opportunities for creativity and reason. As long as Mogadishu is always a city of emergency (by the residents, the actors, and the outside community), the political will and collective action will remain fractured by the myopic fight-or-flight sensibility of emergency thinking. When your leader's actions are founded on "me first" impulses, then your own only response becomes "me too," and no one can win. Binary conditions give no room to consider the greater good.

In 2012 and 2013 I cautiously walked the streets of the city, if only for a few minutes, hopeful that in a year I could soon walk them freely. I travelled freely in a car from one destination to another, sometimes with armed guards and sometimes not. Now, while I'm willing to venture past the airport (why are there so many white people at the airport? what could they possibly be doing?), I can't actually leave the hotel. Because of the extreme level of suspicion dominating the community, I can't even conduct business in the lobby or have a lunch meeting in the restaurant. Even worse, this sort of restricted mobility does little to improve security. Sunday, when the parliament exploded in chaos, the ground shook with explosions and stray bullets bounced off the walls (listen to an audio recorded moment of the event below or here). Everyday there has been some kind of attack and the population is tense. The majority of Somalis I meet are afraid to walk down their own street.



What is next?  I don't know. I want this city to succeed.

Most people I know, from my upbringing in the US, think of a place like the city of Mogadishu the far edge of the world. But I disagree.  A city like Mogadishu is the center.  It is in Mogadishu that the smallest changes can have the biggest impact on the global community in terms of creating a safe and free world void of suffering or one that is distressed and painful. If a day goes without a gunshot in Detroit, it is novel, but if it happens in Mogadishu it creates entirely new possibilities for the future.  A thriving Mogadishu opens trade and creates new markets for western business.  A stable Mogadishu can build more jobs in America or send more goods into Europe.  If you don't believe me, then why did Somali piracy cost the world 18 Billion Dollars? If Mogadishu, and the greater Somalia, can continue to push through and establish itself on stronger footing, it won't just change the lives it's people, it will change the world.

The Problem With Refugee Camps (Architecture, Design, Planning)



For decades our television screens have been dominated by images of ragged people, hopelessly isolated within political limbo as destitute refugees.  Movies describe refugee camps as exotic edge-of-the-earth locales full of victimized dark-skinned people.  Magazines and websites occasionally release an article on a brand new shelter technology, solar stove, or water pump that is expected to change the future of these settlements.

Although often inaccurate, there is some real world legitimacy to these images.  A decent example of the typical chaos can be found at this moment in Nigeria.  But this is not always, even often, the case. While camp conditions are often poor, there have been strides toward the improvement of camp planning, most notably in Turkey.  Many seek funding to further improve existing camps, such as found in this request for assistance to displaced South Sudanese living in Ethiopia.  But overall, regardless of funding or geography, the progress of change has been slow and grinding.  Refugee camps are an embarrassment to our 21st century civilization. While most refugee camps are not like the movies, they continue to be miserable solutions to a complex political crisis.

Why is it, with all the expertise bubbling in the world, do these places continue to function poorly?

Before I go into this, I want to highlight that dramatic improvements took place from the 1970s through the 1990s.  Up until the 1970s, the United Nations had zero interest in the African continent, but this changed as part of a general meandering toward global sensibilities over the previous decades.  Initial steps in aid and development lacked professionalism, but was the work of untrained adventurers in the global south. This is where we get the classic image of a white guy unloading sacks of grain from a truck - as if refugees need help carrying sacks.

Much of this change toward a professional model is the consequence of Barbara Harrell-Bond whose intense anthropological criticism toward UNHCR, and UN operations in general, did much to orient it toward an improved system of accountable projects by competent people. Yet while her impact has been monumental, and continues to be extended by the efforts of countless researchers and activists within refugee studies, the state of encampment remains poor.

So again, why?

There is no simple answer, but in terms of designing and upgrading a camp, below is a list of critical factors.  This list is by no means exhaustive. Add to this list the local conditions and political realities of a random country and conflict, then stir.



1. We must recognize that Refugee is a legal term.  Technically, before 1951, there was no such thing as a refugee but simply displaced people with no legal status.  The term acquires its legal meaning from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Notably, while a country may agree to accept people seeking asylum to provide "protection," each signatory may withhold elements of the convention. For example, if you are a refugee in Egypt, you have the right to "protection" but you do not have the right to health care, the right to education, or the right to employment because the state of Egypt has withheld those rights in its signature.  By withholding rights, a government strategically removes incentive for a refugee to remain in country.

2. Protection is define in the 1951 Convention but the operationalization is not. This is a big issue. Countries who are providing "protection" in accordance to the expectations of the legal agreement are not bound to provide a particular quality or form of protection. The language is intentionally vague so that each country may decide what protection will look like.  Ultimately, they can do as they please (more or less) aside from a few specific restrictions, such as it is unlawful to send a refugee back to the country of origin if the threat remains.  But within state borders, a state can treat the refugee however it pleases within the boundaries of it's own law.

3. The refugee laws are a response to WWII, and while displacement camps existed prior to WWII, it was only in the immediate aftermath of the war that a legal "refugee" was born into existence.  At that moment, the legal space of the refugee camp was also founded.  With populations scattered everywhere in Europe, refugees were seen as a security threat and the responsibility was thus entrusted to militaries. Militaries therefore used POW camps, prisons, and military barracks to contain, order, and redistribute displaced populations.  Military camp planning and design goes back to the Roman era, as spatial structures to maximize the needs of efficiency, not humanity.  Consequently, todays camps are designed using the same spatial structure.  A refugee camp is made to process, contain, and secure an individual. It is not a space to facilitate the expression of rights.

4. Camps are to be temporary so as to encourage the return toward home (repatriation).  This is a tricky one.  We think of camps as a way to safely help a population in need.  For example, MSF may create a camp so as to rapidly deliver much needed medical attention to many people at one time.  But protracted encampment is a different issue.  Ultimately governments encourage camps so as to isolate a population (due to xenophobia), facilitate the responsibility of "protection" (whatever that means), and to encourage repatriation.  Therefore a refugee camp cannot be nice getaway from a conflict because that incites refugees to remain indefinitely.

5. Professionals are not trained properly.  When I first went to a refugee camp, I was the only urban planner on site.  The UN engineer was trained in the UK to create UK infrastructure and the architect from Spain was trained to build stadiums and suburbs.  Now they were in the middle of nowhere Africa and told to design a new camp.  Naturally they approach it like a London suburb, unfamiliar with the deeper political and legal substructure (which inspired me to research this issue for years).  If you want to know more about why this is a problem, check out this older Humanitarian Space article on water infrastructure and conflict.

6. The idea and images of refugees and camps as sprawling 3rd-world slums presupposes the actions taken by stakeholders.  Consequently, we reproduce the same systems over and over again, creating more 3rd world slum refugee camps because we have an idea of what they look like and how they function separately from normal society.  I'd argue that the current camps in Turkey for Syrian refugees are the closest thing to a normative planning structure to emerge. Note that those camps are entirely state operated, having borrowed technical guidelines from UNHCR, but with no managerial involvement by UNHCR.  I question how long Turkey can sustain the cost.

7. Architects and designers focus too much on building technology rather than social systems.  A good example is a recent IKEA solution to refugee shelter.  I'm sure its fine.  Except it costs more to manufacture, import, and construct than any local solution.  Consequently the folks who really do the work in the field have zero interest in a slick pre-packaged technology for import.  It is just too expensive and will require complex logistics to procure and implement.  In the meanwhile clever designers churn out sexy new refugee shelter technologies every year.  This is a waste of time and money when you consider that an imported solution is impractical and the dominant socio-cultural/political/legal systems demand low-standard and cheap but scaleable solutions.

8. A massive communication gap exists between dominating entities and camp populations.  Most aid workers are afraid of the populations they are intent to serve.  Most aid agencies and UN operations maintain highly restrictive rules that negate interaction between staff and refugees.  UNHABITAT, for example, regularly plans camps using satellite images and locally contracted social research, but never actually make a site visit to talk to locals or see the terrain first hand.  This can have extreme repercussions.  The most dramatic example is from an Ethiopian friend who lived as a refugee in Sudan for 12 years.  He told me that a UNHCR director arrived at the site and was angry because the camp was built on a piece of land different from the location originally intended.  Why?  Because maps and satellite images will never be as accurate as boots on the ground.  Again, I feel the need to direct you to this previous article on infrastructure and conflict.

9.  Camps are isolated (for focus on service distribution) and cannot participate as viable economies. This is to further encourage repatriation.  It is also a xenophobic exercise to separate refugee populations from national populations.  But consequently, any camp-based economic development initiative will have a low ceiling of growth or will fail because there is no viable supply chain for production or transit conduit to export of commodities.

10. Residents (refugees) are forced to live in conditions that make them reliant on services, negating the opportunity to advance their own situation and simultaneously undermining the ability for return. The vast majority of encamped refugees do not want to be in this position, but do to legal and political rules, are restricted from any other path.  Typically to break out of this cycle requires extraordinary measures. For example, a Somali friend of mine was born in a refugee camp in East Africa, but at 20 smuggled himself all the way to Hong Kong where he lived as an illegal immigrant but eventually achieved employment and a better quality life. Of course another guy I know attempted to do something similar ended up imprisoned in Israel.

**Bonus** 
UNHCR has zero accountability. If you ask a UNHCR professional about this they will disagree and say that UNHCR is accountable to the broader expectations of the UN or are accountable to the media and to the public.  But this isn't really true because a discontent public has no legal recourse to counteract UNHCR.  It is simply a brach of the UN, and does not go on trial under the UN system because there is no UN Court.  The biggest problem UNHCR can experience is a drop in donor funding, yet as UNHCR is primarily a political tool to exert outcomes derived by internal politics, there is little advantage in reducing funding.  Ultimately UNHCR can get bad press, but a donor still pays them for a desired outcome intent that the bad press will never come back to the donor itself.

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.

Post-Conflict Reconstruction is Dead


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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlikely. 

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


Steps toward effective resolution and rebuilding for cities in conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing The Perfect Glass of Wine in 3023



The audio piece below contains a fictional story I wrote and situated in a soundscape I composed in Logic.  The story is a snapshot of a professional wine taster, a sommelier, working at some point in the future when the production of wine has been technologically perfected.   The title might be a little too cheeky with the overt Huxley reference, but I just couldn't help myself. 




What does this have to do with urban planning?  Everything.  I realize my writing has been getting a bit apocalyptic lately, but it is merely the consequence of all the books I've been reading in the realm of Science, Technology and Society.  I am a big proponent of technology and my livelihood is dependent on the interface between the physical and the digital, yet it is necessary to be critical of the new technologies that we create given the inevitability of the feedback loop we build with each new piece of tech.  

Where urban theorist Mike Davis argues the world will become dominated by slums, I contend that just the opposite is more likely, whereas we might over-design cities and life in general into an overly mediocre and bland existence.  Where David Kilcullen believes that the future of war is will be found in coastal urban hotspots, I advocate that the location of future wars will have less to do with the land and more to do with the communications and energy infrastructure.   I'm not afraid of this particular vision, considering my own biggest nightmare is to live in a world designed by Richard Florida.   Personally I'm still hoping for something more like BladeRunner and with all the time I've spend in Detroit, Dubai and Bangkok in the last 10 years, I feel like we are getting fairly close.

We press ever onward into the unknown. Only an absurd and naive individual would advocate that previous eras could ever supersede the present or future in terms of moral or cultural authority, the venture forward does necessarily designate a better quality of life.  We must be careful, but of course, we do not truly know how to do so.  Not really.  But I do know one thing; where the technological horizon collides with the dusty roads of the developing world - thats where you will find me.

The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

The Linguistic Substructure of Cities and Settlements


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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Linguistic Landscape (Source)

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


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

Planning for the Future Reconstruction of Syria from Chaos and Complexity



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

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


Engineering A New Outcome

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

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

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

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


Urban Planning and Development In the Syrian Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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.

New Site Online for Sutika Sipus LLC



Over the last couple years I've been building the company, Sutika Sipus LLC, which provides governments, businesses, and nonprofits with creative solutions for radical urban change.  

Today we launched the first iteration of our new company website, sutikasipus.com.  

As a company that specializes in unique approaches to urban planning and development, it is only fitting that the site reflects those values. But this task is easier said than done.  Special thanks to Zach Hannes who dedicated his time and talents on the project above and beyond expectation. 

The site has a beautiful scrolling navigation to describe the services we offer, while  examples of previous projects are geolocated on MBtiles for fast downloading.  There is still work to be done for full functionality and some needed content, but for the moment, I'm quite satisfied with the current form.  

Crowdsourcing the End of War to Rebuild Cities in Conflict


Gunfire and bomb blasts have a way of wearing one's nerves.  But sometimes the silence afterwards is more ominous.  And after the dust has settled and the guns are silenced, someone needs to walk into the street and lead the cleanup.  Someone needs to fill the craters, sweep up the rubble, glue the pieces back together, and build something new.  But glue costs money.  And people with money tend tend to avoid bomb craters.   When I first moved to Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint about 50 meters from my house.  The explosion destroyed cars, shattered the windows of nearby houses, and left a massive hole in the road.  The hole in the road, where the man ignited his vest, is still there.  

I no longer live in the same house, but I do occasionally drive down that road and I always look at the gaping pot hole.  I also tend to stare bleakly at all the other massive potholes in the city and wonder how many are a result of  bad construction and severe weather, and how many were a person.   Problems such as these are too small and decentralized to be fixed by the big contracting agencies that lead most reconstruction efforts today, but solving them is critical to moving the city forward from a phase of conflict, into a phase of healing and eventual renewal. Small and widely distributed problems need parallel solutions, but community mobilizing is limited if there isn't sufficient capital to actually do something.  The problem has weighed on my mind for years.

Then today I stumbled across Fundrise, a site that crowdsources real estate development by allowing thousands of investors to purchase a small share of the property and make a profit on its resale a few years later.  I immediately wondered if this tool for crowdsourcing real estate investment could be useful in development and conflict.  Of course I have immediate concerns about a bunch of people with expendable income using it to advance gentrification in low-income neighborhoods in Washington DC, and and am furthermore weary of applying the tool within fragile states because it would exacerbate the same problems.   But it could potentially offset my biggest obstacle in post-war reconstruction.

My biggest obstacle working in conflict is to procure sufficient levels of private sector investment.  The high risk can yield a high return, but the high probability of watching your investment explode is too much of a deterrent for the typical speculator.  Had I grown up in a wealthy family like Michael Stock, I admittedly would use a similar model as his company Bancroft International.  To function both as the security contractor and as a developer allows one to maximize profits and also hedge the risks of conflict.  But such organizations are not void of complications.   Personally I'm not too interested in the traditional methods of training soldiers for security, but it could be ideal too personally invest in the territories where my urban planning work is facilitating security and improving the local economy.  

So what if I create a channel for anyone in the world to invest in real estate in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Iraq or S. Sudan?  The small level of investment would be attractive because most investors would not be deterred by possibly losing 100 USD when the potential return could be 1000%.  No reason Bancroft needs to make all the money right?  The potholes get filled, the buildings rebuild, locals have access to new capital, and external investors make a profit.  The winnings are smaller but everyone gets a piece of it.

As a strategy to side-step the complex power relations that are incurred with such an investment strategy, the projects could be structured to function within a broader humanitarian initiative. Efforts could be coordinated with other strategies and planning efforts to rebuild a city affected by war.  Something would need to be done to contend with the tenure issues for local and IDP populations, as my greatest fear is that the land would be developed at a faster rate than the community can access and participate in the economic growth, thus further marginalizing an already vulnerable population.  Ideally these investments are directed in a manner to facilitate not only the physical rebuilding, but also the engage a greater variety of stakeholders in the reconstruction process, effectively reducing the role of massive international mega-corporations that tend to pop up in such places.

Clearly this proposal is a minefield of problems.  But it also just might clear a minefield.  Maybe I'll try it this summer.  Would you use it?

Crafting Cities Truly Responsive to Climate Change

The Original Green Roof. Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika Sipus 2013.

I know very little about climate change.   I understand the basic arguments, and having worked at the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences a few years ago, I am familiar with some of the recent research.  But as an urban planner, I admit that I know very little about the role of climate change in urban development.   I often feel like I'm woefully ignorant on the subject because I do not know how to measure emissions from traffic densities or how to determine the carbon offsets from an infrastructure project.  It turns out I'm not alone, most planners can't do this, including many who label themselves as sustainability experts.  Whats the deal?

Yesterday during a Skype meeting with a US nonprofit about an urban violence project, climate change was mentioned and it made me wonder, why do so many of us urban professionals know so little about this subject?  It is a significant variable in the health and function of cities, it has tremendous long-term implications, and it is particularly relavent for coastal settlements.  It is also frequently discussed in terms of conflict, sustainability and the debate over environmental refugees,  although that case is something of a misnomer.  Food production and national security are frequently mentioned in the conversation.  From the quantity of channels in which climate change is discussed, we can evaluate it as a significant variable, but then I must ask myself, after all these years of school and work, why isn't it a standard part of every conversation, plan, and most projects?


Why climate change is ignored or under utilized in urban planning and development

1. Part of the answer has to do with the nature of the variable. Climate is a huge phenomenon that cannot, as a whole, be directly observed.  Consequently, it is unwieldy.  Climate science tends to rely upon large quantities of data, collected and combed by climate experts.  The data and the outcomes are also designed for use by climatologists, not necessarily for urbanists or social scientists, and consequently there is a disconnect between the data and the populations that could create solutions from it.   Greater partnership between policy makers, specialists, and climate researchers could lead to more directly useful information.

2. Previous social science research concerning climate change has been poorly defined and messy.  I'm sure there are plenty exceptions, but looking through google scholar, I found that so many projects pursue participatory or perception-based methods that also mix climate change with other issues such as public health risks.  

Take for example this page for community health concerning soil and food.  This project advocates a community based research process in Malawi among farmers to develop response strategies to climate change.  That sounds good, except it also manages to include HIV awareness/prevention, and the methodology "focusses on gender/age inequalities."  I can only imagine that the research designer was trying to diversify the project in order to acquire funding, because such a schizophrenic research design will prompt a blurred mess of outcomes.  I appreciate the complexity intended in the study, but keeping specific to goal (adaption strategies for climate change among farmers in Malawi) provides a higher probability of success for those farmers.  Aids education, gender, and age, do not need to be a part of the project and only creates distractions.

3.  Social science research and development projects that take a strategically proactive approach to climate change tend to have a rural focus (such as this project with farmers in Ethiopia).   It makes perfect sense to work with farmers to experiment with strategies to contend with climate change in coming seasons.  Excellent.  But how does this translate to urban environments?

There are plenty of examples of climate change and poor urban planning causing problems (such as flooding in Argentina), but what about the successes?  Current "best practices" tend to focus on novel solutions such as green rooftops and house boats.  Seriously?  This sort of approach to problem solving perfectly exemplifies everything that is wrong with the field of urban planning.  May I ask, how many square meters of roof-top gardens in a city/state/nation/world will be required to reduce carbon emissions by 2% in a year?  How many liters of water collected in rain gardens will produce the same impact?  This is not a legitimate approach.  It is ad-hoc and based more in good will than good thinking.

Also, many of the messages propagated among urban-dwellers is to conserve - recycle, turn off lights, use public transit -  or to rely upon technology (such as sustainable architecture and infrastructure) rather than to individually experiment with livelihood strategies to produce environmentally advantageous outcomes.  I'm not a big believer in social programming for baseline behavior change, and the notion of experimentation has more pro-active connotations than the emphasis on reduction.  While there are likely some urban projects that take the proactive, experimental, and strategic approach, these are in an extreme minority.  In the meanwhile the public sphere is dominated by media messages constructing conservation as long-term responsibility, not messages of environmentally-positive production because of urgent necessity.

4. There is a lack of concise research methods for urbanists and social science researchers.  I've spent the last 24 hours searching for published, quality research concerning urban settlements and climate change at the individual, human scale (not the sort of research pursued by climatologists).  There are many papers concerned with participatory action research methods with farmers to research the affects of climate change on their livelihood and to develop solutions to contend with this.  Where is the same kind of for cities?  It must be out there somewhere, but its not omnipresent, and that is a problem since cities generate the greatest quantity of carbon emissions.  It seems feasible to use the same strategy for cities, but we can assume that the impact will be more difficult for urban residents to discern. 


The Outcome

If climate change is to become a valid concern for urban populations, it must be removed from the abstract and exposed among the lived day-to-day reality of the population.  We must first ask ourselves what sort of clear and tangible evidence for climate change exists within our cities and neighborhoods. The best social research and work today seems focussed on developing coping strategies for the victims of climate change, such as rural African villages and farmers.  But this social research needs to happen in our cities and suburbs as well, not because urban dwellers are to be positioned as the evil propagators of climate change, but because without a proactive approach, they will be the future victims.

We also must drop the fantasy assumptions about the so-called solutions on land use and green space to which we presently adhere.  Upon identifying the specific incidents of climate change, we can create relavent methods within our communities to internalize the evidence to then develop strategic, pro-active responses to contend with the harsh reality of climate change.  Furthermore our responses must contain a series of relavent tactics that can a) quantitively reduce carbon emissions in our cities and b) develop coping strategies for the negative impact of climate change.  

While we strive to do our part to mitigate or even reverse the trend of global temperature increase, we must also accept that temperature change has a longstanding history and will continue, although at a slower pace.  Our cities need not be prepared for climate change, but accept the responsibility in the present tense and thus become responsive.  Whereas preparation implies a coming event, response suggests a current and ongoing engagement.