March 11, 2015

Final Post to Humanitarian Space

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

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.

However, it is time to move on.  At least for awhile.  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.

- Mitch

February 25, 2015

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

0 Comments



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

0 Comments


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

0 Comments
"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

0 Comments
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