March 11, 2015

Final Post to Humanitarian Space

In 2004 I started writing this blog as an art student as a way to document my global travel, showcase my portfolio, and promote upcoming exhibitions.  Three years later, when my personal goals shifted toward social problem solving, I used this blog to document my experiences in refugee camp design and social research.  The names changed many times, from Current Residence, to MyEarthPrint, but in 2010 it became The Humanitarian Space.

Thanks to you, this blog has been visited by
enough people to sell out Madison Square
Gardens in NYC over 17 times!
Since then I have had the fortune to write for over 300,000 readers.  The blog has captured the interest of federal and city governments, politicians, think tanks, NGOs, students, professionals around the world.  I have received hundreds of emails from readers and have had the opportunity to work on some of the most amazing projects in the world. 

I am grateful. Thank you.

However, it is time to move on.  If you read the last post, you will note that my motivation and goals have shifted. While I remain committed to utilizing diverse methods and interdisciplinary design toward reducing poverty and suffering in the world, it is time I now do this by other means. The strength of my career has been founded on a willingness to take on great risks and immerse myself into the problems. It was thrilling but is not personally sustainable.

Perhaps one day I will pick up where this blog left off.  I have no intention to delete it.  Perhaps I'll start a new one. Whatever happens, I'll post it here.


Thank you for all the reading, questions, and support over the years.  And good luck to all of you in your own endeavors.

- Mitchell

February 25, 2015

The Fatigue of the 9/11 Generation and the Rise of ISIS


Perhaps every generation has their moment in which the ideological terrain abruptly shifts, and tomorrow feels different than yesterday. Growing up my parents would occasionally describe the JFK assassination with precise clarity. When Challenger exploded I was unaware of the disaster on the television several feet away because I was too young to notice but it certainly affected others.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I was 19, in college and helping my professor dispose of used plaster from a sculpture class. Someone shouted, we went into the hallway and watched the next plane hit the second tower on the television.  It was difficult to understand.  

Weeks prior I had purchased a ticket to soon fly to New York and it was with hesitation that I boarded the plane in late September. The flight was nearly empty. Two hours later we passed over the city and I could see the smoldering debris of the World Trade Center below. Walking the streets, the city was quiet and the air tasted like burnt dust. I intentionally wanted to avoid lower Manhattan, but walking around late at night, I got lost and searching for a subway entrance, I wandered into ground zero.  Smoke rose from the ruins while workers combed the rubble.

Ten years later I was living in Afghanistan, teaching at a university, advising ngos and city governments, and traveling to other conflicted states to work on similar problems of urban conflict and reconstruction. By that time I had already lived elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. I could speak a couple different languages in multiple dialects. Everyday I tackled issues of youth militarization, forced displacement, and extreme poverty. I did my best to apply the mundane insights of urban planning and design to the world's most challenging problems. 

My friends were no different. We all studied foreign languages and earned multiple degrees in middle eastern studies, economics, law, social sciences, and history. Some of us joined the military, some of us worked alongside it, and others moved into humanitarian relief and development. We found no reason to fear Islam or those different ourselves but discovered the joy of difference and we indulged those cultural identities to inform our own. Regardless of what we chose or discovered, we all left our homes to travel and live in foreign communities to understand the root causes of terrorism, hoping to unravel the strands and in some way lessen the brutal consequences of global market failures. We all sought an understanding.

Some of us took additional steps to plant ourselves into the center of these problems so as to be truly effective.  We spent years without consistent access to running water, working toilets, or proper heat in the winter. We experienced deep trembling fear as bombs exploded in eyesight.  We laid on the floor as bullets ricocheted and spent days locked in steel paneled rooms. We found these moments both terrifying and addicting because those places and people that once constituted home now felt boring and static. In contrast, we were on the edge of living. Between the hardest moments we indulged in ridiculous parties with contraband booze to blow off steam and make ourselves feel like normal human beings. On occasion we fled to an exotic beach to spend our hard earned money on any distraction that will make us feel reconnected to the world we once knew. We pushed every moment to the threshold of human experience.

Our lives were saturated but not sustainable. We found ourselves increasingly estranged from our families who were incapable of understanding our lifestyles. We found ourselves alienated among everyone but each other and new relationships became challenging as we quickly brushed off anyone that didn't measure up to our unique expectations. Most people do not.  In the meanwhile the pools of money have dried in many hotspots, leading to less jobs, less people, and less parties. The risks seem less manageable.

One by one we have found ways to cope and change. Most of us have quit our jobs and perhaps found another place to live. Some of us spent too much time in the deep and our choices have made us unemployable in our own professions. If you spent five years in Iraq and try to find a new life in Washington DC, you will be surprised to find yourself overlooked. Some of us are so deep that we have dropped the career goals but have remained in Kabul or Baghdad or Peshawar because we now feel that we belong there.  A few of us have managed to better adjust than others, but none of us have gone back to the homes where we started, or want to.  We have instead found relief in making a home somewhere else. Some of us are working as english teachers in Qatar. Others have returned to school for PhDs and many are struggling to make a decision. Some of us run successful consulting companies. But none of us have a desk job. 

We have changed our paths not from lack of caring. Watching the rise of the Islamic State on television we are stricken with deep fear and worry. These problems are not distant, but are connected to our lives and are personal. We believe in a moral imperative that something must be done because we know what happens, how it happens, and the imminent future if nothing is done. Because we actually know the problems, we are also the most afraid.

But we are the 9/11 Generation and we are exhausted. We will not likely be a remembered generation for our efforts and our losses. People will accuse us of being colonialists rather than empathizers and technicians. While rightly we honor the sacrifices of soldiers there will be no monument for my friends who died working as teachers. We do not have an Allen Ginsberg to write about us or a Jimi Hendrix to rewrite our anthems. We listen to the same outdated Katy Perry songs and read the same terrible airport novels as everyone else.

And now as we step out of one life and into another, we watch the rise of ISIS on television and we despair.  Having dedicated over a decade to these same problems, we understand where it comes from and how it functions. We know the history of caliphates and modern jihadism. We understand what the guy is saying on the radio before the translator chimes in with a softer version. But this doesn't feel like our war. We are not rushing to confront it because we have already given ourselves. We are uncertain if we can give more. We are uncertain if there is anything else left to give.

January 11, 2015

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.

November 15, 2014

Design to what End? Socio-technical Design in an Era of Neoliberal Capitalism

"Psychologists have said that man's neurosis comes from too much contact with other humans. This won't happen in my city." - Le Corbusier

About a week ago I was participating in a workshop with some graduate students from Parsons and they were tasked to make rough prototypes in the realm of speculative design.  Their products were to additionally embody a degree of enforced moralism within the design (see delegated morality). Moving between teams to assist students in this task, I spent some time listening to the conversations held by one team in particular who was determined to redesign the heroin syringe into a tool for recovery.  The team continually focussed on one kind of user, the addicted person seeking recovery, and did not address the array of actors within the recovery process.

I asked "So how does this benefit other stake holders, like medical professionals?"

"Like doctors?" asked one of the students.

"Sure"

"They already use syringes so nothing changes for them."

It was a fair answer, but I challenged her, "so what incentive is there for the doctor to use this syringe vs the traditional device? Your device will cost more and require a lot of new systems to implement. Your new device also provides feedback to the drug user to facilitate recovery, how does the doctor benefit?  In fact, medical professionals might have a problem with this."

Then I was surprised as she tilted her head at an angle and said with annoyance: 
"Why? Because it takes away jobs?"

This was not my thought at the time. I was curious if the product could also be designed to provide feedback to medical professionals so that the medical community can gain a deeper insight into addiction.  Yet I've thought much about this discussion since because I've been disturbed by the confrontational annoyance that replacing people with machines is somehow a petty criticism.

Of course people have been frequently replaced by machines within capitalist economies.  My teenage job of working a cash register has been replaced by "U-scan" kiosks in drug stores and supermarkets. Architecture firms only require one CAD designer  vs fifty draftsmen.  I once worked in an office that was staffed by 200 individuals in the 1960s and is today occupied and operated by less than 30 individuals, most of whom are fairly young and inexperienced but generate a volume of work several thousand percent higher than in previous decades.  Just the other day I witnessed a presentation on robots that can plaster walls faster, cheaper, and better than a professional plasterer. One robot can do the work of 50 men in an hour, with overall better quality and lower cost.

This trend is a direct byproduct of unfettered capitalism. Humans are secondary to the efficiency of production for the sake of maximum gain.  Thomas Pickety has found that the process of then redirecting the profit into capital, such as real estate, rather than into the human workforce accelerates wealth accumulation at the cost of social capital. Yet the efficiency of production is reliant upon the expertise of technicians, giving rise to the engineering class, and thus today we see more money in the operations of Google than in any form of business that is tactile and wherein employment is accessible at scale, such as within a chain of hardware stores.  Nearly 100 years ago this process was predicted by Thornstein Veblin, and today is codified by the likes of Peter Theil.

So where does design come into this?  Design is an opportunity to revisit the systems of production regardless of the economic framework so as to prioritize humanity within the technological landscape. It is in no way unique in this endeavor and many disciplines are pursuing this same trajectory, yet I'd argue it has constructed a lineage (perhaps in a revisionist manner) that suggests a disciplinary opportunity. In short, if designers fixed a maligned socio-economic system before, they can probably do it again.

In the era of the industrial revolution there was a movement by public health professionals, architects, and social activists for improved work conditions and higher standards of living.  Public health codes were founded and urban zoning emerged to regulate land use.  Machines were designed to be safer. These changes were much needed at a time when most streets were covered in horse manure and a single water spout infected much of London with cholera.  This transformation was embodied and institutionalized within Harvard's Landscape Architecture program for city planning, where "the first graduates were trained as designers... not policy wonks."

Jump forward to the mid-20th century and the Dutch Socio-Technical Systems approach enters the space of economic production. In the Netherlands it became clear at the time that technological development was not only shifting the composition of the workforce, but effectively undermining the long term social interests.  People do not feel good when they are no longer useful. Everyday new markets are created and others die, but most people are not agile enough to shift rapidly across markets.  In the Dutch model, similar to previous area, attention was given to both the organizational model and the technologies of production so that the participants of the socio-economic system enjoyed ownership of their own economy.  In other words, laws were made so that people would not suffer under capitalism and machines were designed so as not to marginalize people. These tools were created in the service of people, rather than people needing to adjust to the demands of these tools. In the example of the cash register becoming a "U-scan," such a device would never be implemented. In contrast, a business would be organized under law to value the employee, yet the technology would be designed to make the employee more efficient. The employee would also receive training on the technology so that the interactive human/machine relationship held a competitive advantage in the market place.

Coming back to the initial problem, in the current iteration of global neoliberal capitalism, there is no priority for humanity.  Its sprawling pervasiveness undermines the ability to transform this neoliberal condition to something more humanistic. What can be done, however, is to design technology with the interest of people. In the most direct instance, we should design products, experiences, and environments that facilitate satisfactory human living - not take away jobs - which effectively does the opposite. We do not need or desire a "machine for living" in the sense of Le Corbusier. We do not even need to design a world of human transcendentalism in the vein of Husserl or Heidegger, but rather, we can benefit from designing the earth on which we live by recognizing the internal drives of humanity as part of the earthly system.

For this to happen, a cultural shift needs to happen in the realm of technology creation. To create a technology or environment that takes jobs from people needs to be understood as a moral infraction. It is not an unfortunate externality to be ignored in favor of efficiency. In contrast, social capital must be weighed with the same gravity as financial capital and fuel efficiency.

I've heard some individuals say that "Design is the 21st century humanities," which is fine, but typically the humanities are something only accessible to particular social classes so I'm not really a fan of this sentiment. I prefer to think of Design as 21st century engineering with the potential to become 22nd century populism. We can elevate our technical sophistication to accommodate and elevate humanist principals. Of course these arguments are simply two sides of the same coin. Effectively it doesn't matter what side of the argument you prefer, it just depends on how we invest it.

October 14, 2014

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


October 5, 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.

August 18, 2014

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.

August 3, 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

Update 7/26/2017 2:00 PM EST
Nearly three years after writing the original article below, it has been read by over 1,560 individuals seeking advice for their urban planning graduate education.  At this time, it is imperative to update this article, to address the massive failure of urban planning education to adapt to the rapid technological transformations affecting cities, economies, and cities.

We now live in an era of disinformation, intelligent automation, and complex socio-technical systems.  The internet has transformed politics. Mobile phones have forever changed transportation (Uber, Lyft), and intelligent computation research is upending everything. The city of Pittsburgh presently has over a dozen autonomous vehicle companies testing products on its streets. Yet where are the urban planners?

Discussions of smart cities and urban data centers rely upon computer scientists and entrepreneurs - not urban planners.  Transportation futures are advanced by robotics companies - Tesla, Boring, CMU - not urban planners.  Urban planners are growing increasingly obsolete.   Need evidence?  Compare the salary growth of urban planners over the last 5 years with software engineering (2x the market value). Urban planning salarys grow below the rate of the economy at large, although demand for solutions within complex urban settlements continue to grow at a greater rate. What does this mean? Obviously it means that no one sees value in the work of urban planners in the face of growing urban problems.

The reason is that urban planners have completely failed to learn how to adapt and improve how they operate in this new era.  Lean design, agile processes, and version control remain completely absent from the vocabulary of urban planners. There is no rapid prototyping. There is no recognition that the entire domain of planning theory (arguments on topdown vs bottom up) are antiquated and possibly false.  More importantly, planners today are heavily educated on forms of analysis and information synthesis - but not implementation. They can't do anything but propose a plan.  Notably, most plans are executed poorly at excess costs and excess years to complete.

In the next 10 years, most urban planning jobs will be replaced by software. The job of urban planning departments can be written in code. We do not need people to catalog data, conduct analysis, or advance recommendations on zoning compliance. We do not need people for rationalist decisions or even to collect stakeholder insights. Software is cheaper to make and buy than people. Social media sites are faster. We need creative minds who understand cities, understand technologies, and can see around the corner on how urbanism and technology will collide to create a new world.

The best Urban Planning programs today will teach much about social justice and data analysis. They will teach how to make maps and do statistics with outdated software. They will not teach Python. They will not teach how to rapidly pilot and deploy change (lean startup). They will not teach how to think and work in an era when governments are shrinking and the biggest transformations are led by entrepreneurs.

If you want to gain a deep way to understand cities and people and environments - urban planning is a great domain. I adore it. If you want to be the most effective and impactful urban change agent, you will not learn that in any urban planning program. You will not find innovation in the industry of planning. You need to find your own way and urban planning degree programs will make it harder.


Update August 26, 2017 2:26 PM EST
On the flipside, a degree in computer science or electrical engineering will make you highly capable, but completely blind. You will have the ability to build the future - but you will lack insight on what future to build or why. You will not understand how cities work or why qualitative data is so important.

Ultimately, there is no ideal graduate program to give you the education to an informed change agent in the world and simultaneously to be a capable actor at the bleeding edge of tomorrow.  The only programs I know that balance social science, design thinking, and computation (fields like HCI) lack a robust understanding of how to work at urban or regional scale.

At the end of the day, all you can do is attempt to do everything. Get whatever degree suits you, be it architecture, design, engineering, or planning - and then spend all your time learning to do what they do not teach. They will hate you for it. Your grades will suffer. Your employability will be forever in jeopardy. Yet with perseverance, you will also rise far above everyone else and generate work that matters.  It is this approach that led to my work impacting over 11 million people in three different countries and this same approach that led to recognition by President Obama.  Urban planning is a dying industry. If you pursue it - then please change it. If you pursue a more technical field such as engineering, then please, find a list of all the core readings of urban planning, read them, and then read more. Take a few planning classes. Integrate within urban planning communities. Discover their latent value before you destroy them.


Original Article 8/3/14 11:47 PM EST
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?"

July 17, 2014

Archive: 9 Posts from HSpace that you wish you had read


Photo: Sutika Sipus. Kabul Afghanistan 2013.  

Here are some posts that stand out from over the last two years.  A couple were very popular, but most of these were real gems that never attracted much readership. Maybe I posted them on a Saturday (lowest readership is always on Saturday) or maybe no else actually finds them interesting.  Regardless, I thought maybe its time to dust them off and give them a second chance.  Enjoy.


Crafting Cities Truly Responsive To Climate Change

Crowdsourcing the End of War

The Linguistic Substructure of Cities and Settlements

Post Conflict Reconstruction is Dead

Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems

Urban Planning Trends are Bad Medicine

Urban Design and Indefensible Spaces

The Importance of Speed for Land Rights in Post-Conflict Reconstruction

The Dark Side of Urban Resilience

Bonus: Stuxnet Lessons For Urban Planning Part 1 and Part 2.

July 9, 2014

The Embrassing State of Design for Internally Displaced Populations



displacement is a massive problem.  In 2014 alone, over 33 million people have been forced to leave their homes and relocate to another space due to regional istability or natural disaster. According to data collected by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, over 140 million people have become IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) just since 2008.  Within protracted conflicts, internal displacement continues dominate the ability to create stable economies and effective security.

If we accept the dominance of internal displacement, and perhaps even accept that it cannot be prevented, we can begin to investigate gap-reducing measures to improve the quality of life among IDPs.  IDP policy is a frequent topic of conversation in the UN and is likewise a common area of intervention among NGOs.

IDP solutions remain terrible. IDP camps frequently consist of sprawling tent cities and corrugated metal boxes. They are economically isolated and dangerous. Rape is a common threat in many camps from Somalia to Haiti.

NRC constructed IDP Camp. Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2014.
UNHCR, which as filled the IDP vacuum to provide assistance to IDPs, although it is not within the organizational mandate (and arguably overstep its bounds), consistently has pushed for camp-based solutions to IDPs as a method to quickly alleviate local burdens and build sustainable communities in the long-term.  Aid agencies argue that IDP camps are an effective measure to centralize aid distribution and provide protection.  In the meanwhile, IDPs also commonly inhabit properties illegally or join/create informal camps to enhance security and resource acquisition/distribution.

Mogadishu is no stranger to the IDP issue. There are approximately 370,000 IDPs in Mogadishu (and over a million in Somalia total)  People from throughout the provinces have located closer to the city and line the nearby road between Afgooye and Mogadishu. Thousands inhabit buildings that were abandoned during the conflict. Arguments reign regarding what to do with these people. I have previously posted my own solution to the matter, which has more or less happened informally among returnees and IDPs although without the political support necessary to mature.

Instead, the United Nations and the government of Somalia have pushed for the classic solution of forced encampment. IDPs have been rounded up and stationed outside Mogadishu, on the south-western side of the city toward Merka. When this was in the planning stage I heavily argued against this, but as nothing more than an external consultant, I did not have the power to influence. The camps were created. Displaced people who had made a temporary home were again displaced.

Just about two weeks ago I explored these IDP camps. One consisted of row after row of tents the other of metal boxes.  These were aid initiatives.  Throughout the tent city was signage for the Turkish aid organization, while the metal boxes featured signage for the Norwegian Refugee Council.  It should be noted that temperatures in Somalia are well above 37 degree Celsius (100 F). It is inhumane to force people to live in a metal box. 
Turkish IDP Camp. Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2014.


The housing is insufficient. The camps are located a far distance from the city to trade or create livelihoods. They are very dangerous and are equivalent to centrally planned slums. Yet this remains the "go-to" solution. Why?

Much of the reasoning is similar to the problems I recently described concerning the problems with architecture and urban planning for refugee camps.  There is a technical obsession.  Legal obstacles prevail. Interventionists have preconceptions of how an IDP camp should look and function.  

There is also another layer of complexity. Local perceptions of IDPs undermine their ability to access and achieve a better quality life. Prejudices dominate. IDPs are frequently from rural areas, have had less access to quality education and lack the skills to succeed in an urban environment. They are seen as not employable, illiterate, and as parasites on the local economy. They are considered a problem - not a solution.

Sign Translation: Afi Health Camp, Former Ministry, Social Care.  Somalia. Photo: Sutika-Sipus, 2014.
In contrast, IDPs can create and maintain robust economies upon a desolate landscape.  It is common for local staff within aid agencies to divert supplies for sale in informal IDP camps. Camps frequently have names, contact information, and an entrepreneurial manager. These camps might be sitting on government land, but given their ability to create productive spaces, it is questionable if their informal occupation in fact outweighs the significance of legal title - especially if no documentation exists.

Of course these camps are not necessarily safer or better than the aid agency equivalent. Countless outlets have reported on the "gatekeepers" of Mogadishu, powerful individuals who have diverted aid and operate IDPs as prisons of exploitation.  I have no doubt such places exist, but more frequently the reality is less dramatic. They are typically an attempt to create a local solution to a highly complex national problem. They are concentrations of struggle, but struggle founded on human agency and hope. 

If we truly want a physical planning solution to IDP encampment, we must go beyond the conventional limits of modern practice.  We must do away with the preconditions of camp. We must stop thinking in terms of material solution, and move beyond a systems approach, into a process of systematic interactions.  It is at the concise spatial position where economic interests interact with social capital thatan opportunity is possible.

The state-of-the-art IDP camp solution among aid agencies, is not so optimistic.