September 3, 2015

Five Ways Americans Can Help Refugees Right Now


Displaced by war, violence and poverty, hundreds of thousands of people are at this moment searching for a better place to raise their family and build a life. Today we have a guest post from Mallory Sutika-Sipus, specialist in international migration and human rights law who brings several years experience working with displaced populations from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo and elsewhere.

Five Ways Americans Can Help Refugees Right Now

By Mallory Sutika Sipus

It is nearly impossible to look away from news of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, as shocking images and stories of refugee deaths and exploitation comprise a 24-hour cable and radio news loop as well as a host of viral social media stories. I’ve spoken to several friends and acquaintances outside of the human rights and forced migration communities who are in the grips of trying to process and understand the issues surrounding the crisis. Seeing images of such suffering might have you wondering what you might be able to do to help reduce refugee suffering in some small way. There is a list going around the internet that includes places to donate, etc but it is admittedly a bit Eurocentric. Unfortunately the refugee crisis is not a strictly European phenomenon and there are some things Americans can do right now to help refugees – without leaving their own communities.

1. Educate yourself on what it means to be a refugee.

Generally speaking, refugees are people who were forced to flee their home country out of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This official definition of refugee was determined by the 1951 Convention on Refugees. Today, refugee law also includes the 1967 protocol as well as a body of case law. You do not have to be a lawyer to understand refugee basics though! With so many resources out there, you can spend 5-20 minutes reading the Cliff Notes/FAQ version or just poking around the UNHCR website. In doing so, you will gain a better idea of the context of the refugee crisis, putting you in a position to effectively engage others.

2. Respectfully challenge ignorance of others

Now that you understand what a refugee is, speak up when you hear other spew ignorance and hate. It can be intimidating, especially when others may speak with arrogance. No one is asking you to ruin your friendships, but you can still stand up for what you believe and correct misinformation. Refugees are not “illegal immigrants” because the 1951 Convention specifically grants that protected class of people the right to seek asylum. Moreover, I encourage you to challenge the conceptions of refugees as poor, lazy, or monolithic. The truth is that many (if not most) refugees are among the middle or even upper classes in their home countries – after all, it takes resources just to even attempt to leave. The poorest and most vulnerable are often left behind trying to survive the conflict. Refugees are homeowners, engineers, doctors, teachers. Refugees are grandparents, brothers, and children. Refugees are people. Help others internalize this.

3. Write your Congressman/woman, and ask them to stop refugee child detention in the United States

It is easy to look and Europe and think, “My goodness, what are they doing?” It may be more difficult to look inward at our own policies towards refugees. Unfortunately many Americans have a blind spot with regards to refugees and immigration here at home. It is standard practice to place asylum seekers in the US in “detention processing centers,” – prisons – sometimes for months on end, until they are found to meet the legal definition of a refugee. Thousands of unaccompanied minors have come into the United States and are currently in institutions such as these. If you want to take action to help refugee children today, one of the best things you can do is call, write, or email your Congressman and tell him/her that you are watching their actions on the treatment of these children. Urge them to actively pass legislation that takes asylum seekers – especially unaccompanied children – out of detention immediately. So many of these children have already survived nightmarish circumstances, let us help them begin to heal instead of treating them like criminals.

4. Donate to an organization that works with refugees directly

If you are able and willing to make a monetary (or goods) donation, do so. Obviously, you are always able to donate to big organizations like UNHCR or Save The Children, but also consider the less obvious. Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) does good work directly in the field while maintaining an impressive devotion to their message and neutrality. St. Andrew’s Refugee Services in Cairo and small grass roots organizations like them are a worthy cause. Church World Service also has a variety of refugee related activities throughout the world. As long as you do your research, chances are you will find an organization that will put your money into programming you believe in.

5. Reevaluate your perception and interaction with refugees in your own community

One would be hard pressed to find a major metropolitan area without refugee community members. Surely they are in your own community, but have you given it much thought? You do not have to run out and volunteer with a local organization that provides integration services. (Though by all means, if you feel compelled – do! Such organizations are always chronically short staffed and underfunded, so they would likely appreciate a free set of hands, even for basic administrative tasks). Challenge the way you think and interact with unfamiliar people in your community. Adjusting to life in a new country is always complicated and somewhat intimidating – America is no different. Maybe you have been annoyed with the woman who seemed to be holding up the grocery checkout because she struggled to understand the clerk speaking English. Or maybe you have avoided a store or restaurant where you know the employee is from “somewhere else.” Remind yourself that we are all from somewhere else, and offer a smile. Reach out and have a conversation when it is appropriate. You never know where that person has been or what their story is, but offering patience and kindness instead of fear and animosity will only make your community a better place – refugee or not.

June 17, 2015

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.

May 4, 2015

Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)


Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.

April 25, 2015

Seeing Like A State (into the Future of War)


For over a decade, the non-state actor has held the world captive. Non-state actors can take many forms. Militant groups, criminal gangs, and drug cartels have risen to power in fragile states though rarely — if ever — with the intent to replace the role of state. They have generally pursued other interests. Some urban and conflict experts predicted that the erosion of the state by non-state actors will set the path for future wars. But at some point, state-like forms of organization are prone to emerge as these groups conquer larger territories and appropriate capital to such a degree that they must now take responsibility in generating new capital. The specific intent to formulate and replace the state will emerge out of sheer necessity. There is no other path for the non-state actor once the state has eroded.

Perhaps while the late 90s and early 2000s were the era of the non-state actor, the world is now witnessing the emergence of new state models in which geography is secondary to technology and the traditionally disruptive elements of governance such as religion and migration will serve as the corner stones. The components often ignored by governments as valuable, such as the activities informal economies and social relations, are the key components of a new political order. The new state is the government of outliers. ISIS might have territorial control to assert power, but it acquired this territory by distributed networks of information and people.

Three Observations on the Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

1. The Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL/IS  - daeish- controls more land than the government of the UK.

2. Tens of thousands of people have migrated from around the world to join Daeish which also uses mass migration (from Libya to EU) as a threatening tactic.

3. Daeish generates at least 90,000 (perhaps even more than 200,000) social media impressions each day.

Indicators of A Changing Conflict Landscape
History is saturated with case studies of large, formal states invading and fighting fragmented assemblages and non-state, militant social groups. It never goes well. States struggle to construct an asymmetrical fighting force to engage non-state actors, and non-state engagement never permit a clear resolution. There is no one to sign a peace treaty or to surrender on behalf of all actors. There is insufficient coordination, authority, and agreement by non-state actors to conclude war with tidy endings. These systems are resilient because they are distributed.

Notably, ISIS is not an accident. It is a strategically planned institution that builds that leverages distributed networks to establish social capacity. Recently Der Speigal uncovered a collection of documents highlighting the explicit planning of ISIS by a former Iraqi Air Force Officer. This new state was not founded on Islamic values, but on identifying and structuring informal social relationships into concrete forms of land ownership and occupancy.

The founding of ISIS began with opening non-profits in targeted locations, collecting information on local families, and building small organizations than could integrate themselves into the local fabric. Alienated youth and foreigners were specifically targeted for recruitment and militarization. By building the organization into the society, traditional community assets — such as the influence of important families — could be undermined through subterfuge.

Like A State
In its formation, ISIS may have relied upon different social elements than one would expect necessary to construct a state such as a formal constitution or codified rule of law. But notably, to appropriate the concepts of James Scott in “Seeing like a state,” ISIS has from the outset used all of the same strategies and methods of a typical, planned, and ordered society.

ISIS leverages relationships, assumptions of Islam, and private details for citizens, but at its core, ISIS is an “administrative ordering” of society. Whereas most western societies rely upon empiricism and technology to guide the organization and production of knowledge, ISIS promotes a message of religion to do the same, but in contrast mobilizes its own identity as the underpinning of social order (like a cult). This isn’t exactly high modernism (as Scott asserts), but perhaps could be considered something akin to high medievalism.

ISIS is an authoritarian state that coerces and manipulates civil society. According to normative conceptions of state building, marginal members of society must be organized into to the state, and here within ISIS, we see the state goes beyond organizing its margins so as to make them central. Alienated youth around the world are the core soldiers of ISIS.

Building on Scott’s concepts, we can make some assumptions about the future of ISIS:
  1. If ISIS continues to expand using a local grass roots model of expansion, so as to always give the impression that its territorial control emerged locally, it will persevere.
  2. As long as ISIS continues to localize and centralize the peripheral actors to function at its core, it will continue to advance rapidly.
  3. As long as ISIS lacks a state-like objective — such as agricultural productivity — it will not be crippled by the necessity to build robust institutions. Note that in the 1990s, the Taliban was able to rise to become a government by means of informal channels, but it struggled to operate as a state (at least in the way most nation states are measured externally).
Long Term Horizons
In general, an organized military is designed to engage in state-to-state classical warfare. With the rise of the non-state actor, there have been attempts to transform military organizational structure into agile units, relying extensively on special forces and similar specialists, to engage distributed actors. This strategic shift to agile teams has given States the ability to win battles but not to win wars.
States, in contrast to insurgencies, are conquerable. A state can be engaged symmetrically, it can be modeled, and it can be undermined. In consequence, perhaps the key to defeating ISIS is to wait for it to grow up.

Maybe the most efficient way to defeat ISIS, unfortunately, is to waif for it to mature. This sounds counterintuitive because a more stable ISIS means it will have more robust supply chains, resilient command structures, and organizational capacity. It is risky. But as a state, it is also aligned to the capacities of global militaries. When the US invaded Iraq to defeat Saddam Hussein, it was able to take control of the entire country within only 6 weeks. The bigger problem is then what? 

Themes of Future Wars
Future conflicts will be distributed systems (like today's global war on terror), but concentrated foremost where digital urban infrastructure spatially correlates with vast gaps in wealth and hindrances to social mobility.  This exemplified by the strategic locations in which ISIS was able to gain a foothold, as social capital provided local leverage while technological connectivity provided a unique mix of autonomy and organizational structure. By slamming these two oppositional forces into the same space, we can identify immense pressures on a digital urban interface.

The significance of in geography in has forever been proportionate to the ability or inability to communicate, operate, and interact across distance.  For example, Genghis Khan was successful because he used a system of fires to distribute messages vast distances very quickly.  Or in more recent decades he US military has struggled to supply fuel to FOBs in challenging terrain, whereas the cost of fuel distribution is generally far higher than the value of the fuel itself.

Likewise the creation of the internet has revolutionized economies who no longer need to focus on industry or exports, but rather can focus on pure brainpower (such as found in India's thriving BPO industry).  For centuries whoever held Afghanistan controlled the world because it was the link between the East and West, but today it doesn't matter because we can send an email from one side to another. Everyday, the role of physical geography grows smaller.

Regarding the development of conflict, distribution of small groups will initially be affected by physical geography, but it becomes secondary to the virtual geography. If the process of actor clustering and distribution is fast enough, the physical geography melts away to leave intact high-speed, highly-connected, sprawling digital networks of semi-autonomous groups (like ISIS). The resulting threat levels are relative to the organizational capability of the group to manage these networks. Some will succeed and many will not. If you start a terrorist group, make sure to have a strong IT support team.

Predicting The Location of Future Conflicts
I suspect that in 30 years, a city like Lagos, Nairobi, or Mexico City is more likely to confront a civil war than Mogadishu. The physical terrain is completely irrelevant to the location of the conflict, thus Syria is the preview of future wars. Syria was by all means a nice country with decent infrastructure and extreme polarities between classes, though enveloped by an oppressive government. It had the right mix of technological capacity, social tension, and political corruption/ineptitude to ferment into blazing war. Syria will not end soon.

A key component of what I describe — but easily overshadowed — is that the physical distribution of the advanced communication technology is essential to undermine the value of geography. There is a strange interaction here… build a robust IT infrastructure and the typical concerns of physical geography (roads, industry, mountains) fade away. Yet this robust the IT infrastructure but be locally integrated, because if the virtual geography is inaccessible to economies of scale, the more you will find non-state actors will emerge, distribute, and virtually cluster.

Notably infrastructure distribution does not exist in a vacuum, but is determined by the logistical advantages/disadvantages of geography, which will also impose a degree of irregularity on the time-scale of the distribution. For example, with only one horrendous road linking Mombasa to Burundi, the distribution of mobile phones, towers, and routers is hindered. They become concentrated in Nairobi and Kampala. The virtual geography only leaks into the hinterlands. In the meanwhile, extreme gaps in wealth and opportunity are also found in Nairobi and Kampala. Consequently we see an emergence of conflict within the urban centers, but as the IT infrastructure expands to supersede wealth and geography gaps, the volatility of the conflict actors is reduced. A big question is ‘can the skills to leverage the technology for social mobility expand at the same rate as the physical infrastructure?’ Obviously not — and the grounds for militarization emerge.

Demand for Proactive Socio-technical Alignments
ISIS is a socio-technical response to problems of governance, capitalism, and cultural alienation. It is possible to defeat ISIS by permitting it to mature into a formal State, and thus it takes on the tropes that make states sluggish. But for now, while it remains agile and distributed — disconnected from the geography which it dominates — it will continue to thrive.

The most important question is not how to defeat ISIS, rather the biggest question is how to prevent the next iteration. It might sound simplistic, but education is the critical piece of the puzzle. High technology infrastructures are permeating the globe at a faster rate than people can learn to utilize them for social mobility. While the issue of militarization is more complex than social mobility and alienation, these are well known components of the mix than can be better accommodated. Notably these alignments need to come from both supply and demand sides of the equation. People need to be educated to better use and integrate with new technology, but new technologies must be designed with the responsibility to better and integrate within society and social context. This isn’t a new idea, in fact, one country has already taken measures to do this.