November 20, 2013

Designing The Perfect Glass of Wine in 3023



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




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

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

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

November 18, 2013

The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 8, 2013

Looking for a little humanity in central Dubai U.A.E.


Over the last few years I've had the opportunity to visit Dubai several times, and admittedly, I've never liked it.  The city is beautiful and expensive but it also doesn't have much character.  In many ways, it reflects all the bad things about urban planning.  Everything is designed to be so refined and perfect according to some particular set of values that the wonderful  spontaneity of urbanism is squashed.  But last week I made a series effort to explore the city and try to get to know it better.  I wandered on foot for several hours, relaxed on the beach, stopped by a few cafes and watched a movie at the mall.   In a city famous for glass towers, it was my goal to find a more human side to the city.  I'm not sure if I really found it that day, but I did at least catch a glimpse, and left Dubai a little less skeptical.

I also collected GPS points along the way, and above is a map documenting my walk through the city.   Below are also some photographs taken.  If the gallery doesn't load you can access them here.


October 28, 2013

The persistence of data and slow urban death



One day you may never again sit in traffic at 4pm in the rain, hear that song from 20 years ago on the radio and then wonder whatever happened to your ex from college. There is no need because you will never sit in traffic, the radio is customized to your listening profile, and you still talk to your college ex on Facebook. You still talk to all your exes actually, so you never need wonder "what might have happened?" had you stayed with that person.  The relationship never died.

Urban planners use tools like zoning, economic development hubs, urban design, and historic preservation to create a better living environment.  Yet better for whom? The question of values has frequently been discussed within planning theory, and over the years planning has shifted to include participatory processes, advocacy models, and mixed systems of governance.  There is no universal definition of better, and yet, I would argue while attempts have been made to diversify the planning process, a preconceived ideal still dominates the outcome.  

Today the "big thing" is the creation of smart cities.  Distributed systems of digital sensors and wifi networks blanket over 140 cities in the world to create highly efficient traffic systems, disaster relief, and energy efficiency.  Computing heavy weights like IBM and Microsoft are heavily involved in creating the technologies and working with governments on such systems.  Media channels cycle through progressive articles on these smart systems.  Whoever designs the software designs the future.

I have a love/hate relationship with these technological systems for urban management.   I am a technology creator so obviously I subscribe to many of the benefits.  Yet for smart cities, it seems that all of these efficiencies are narrowly fine tuned to accommodate a universally implied yet generally undefined ideal. Replicated across cities, and undercurrent of imposed values channel all societies toward a particular standard for living and all cities eventually conform.  By putting efficiency before humanity, the buzzing chaos of auto-rickshaws in New Delhi or the thumbing bass of Kenyan matatu's ripping down the city streets could easily become a thing of the past.

The economic advantages are obvious.  We could solve the problem of climate change.  But I foresee that these technologies allow us to mechanize cities to achieve maximum capital valuation of land and space.  While Hernando De Soto advocated the creation of legal documents to turn shanties into real estate, these newer technologies transform real estate into machines. Mechanized and optimized, our buildings generate lower carbon footprints and buses run unobstructed. 

But the data never dies.  It simply accumulates, ever minute of every day, for hundreds of years.  Every fluctuation of weather is documented, and so is every criminal act and social protests.  Market fluctuations are recorded and correlations are identified deep within the data architecture that would be considered by most observers to be entirely spurious.  But the algorithm knows.  It builds it's own programs within programs.  It doesn't need us to understand.  In the essence of being participatory, our urban technology centers dump terabytes of data back into cyberspace every quarter second to be picked up by sophisticated trading algorithms.

Perhaps eventually the persistence of digital memory supersedes the collective.  We forget ourselves and we forget the notion of environmental change.  The city can no longer transform across time because it is too hyper-efficient to necessitate change and civilization is halted as every social process. We forget ourselves and fade away.  All that is left is a digital memory, factored into a NASDAQ exchange, stored in a hard drive,  and then lodged away in darkness.

October 17, 2013

Using Graffiti to Predict Insecurity in Afghanistan



Last spring I documented informal graffiti and political imagery throughout Kabul.  The result was over 1000 records of graffiti, which after carefully combing, resulted in about 800 data points.  Each data point is classified according within 15 different categories.  These categories include key words, language used, translation, political association, ethnic association, surface description (public building, private residence, private business etc.) and so on.  The goal was to identify geographic points of emerging social tension, utilizing graffiti as an indicator of resistance among youth.  Then I got distracted by other engagements.

But I've recently returned my attention to the matter and have started running the analysis.  The map below reveals one of the recent findings of the project, over lapping the linguistic distribution of messages with the ethnic and political content.  The yellow identifies graffiti that is purely written in Farsi, while the Red concentrations identify concentrations of Fari and Pashto.  Farsi is the dominant spoken language in Kabul, and it is interesting to note that Pashto graffiti is never isolated, but always located amid dense clusters of Farsi. (Note: If the embedded map does not load in your feedreader, please go to the original article source here).




The green squares signify locations of contentious rhetoric.  Many of these messages are critical of ethnic groups, are xenophobic, or criticize the government.  Some of these messages support the Taliban.

A rare example of protest graffiti in English. SSLLC 2012.
The points on the map where a green square sits on top of a red section identifies sections where there is a linguistic friction combined with an overtly political message.  Based on these two variables, the intersection of the green square and the red cluster are areas of highest social friction.

Notably, some of these locations have been known points of resistance in the past.  The cluster in the lower left (just above Qala-e-Shada) hosts Kabul University and a public park that is frequently the site of protest rallies.  The two square situated directly below the "U" in "Kabul" was the site of the Ashura suicide bombing in 2011.  It is possible that using only these two variables, that the current finding is mere coincidence.  But as several classifications of data remain , it will be possible to drill down with continued analysis.

I'm particularly curious about the concentrations that are not presently linked to a previous act of protest or violence.  What about these sites creates such a hostile and turbulent environment?  As all the data was collected in March/April of 2013, I am now running the project again.  I am using the same techniques and plan to capture the same size data-set.  I hope to see how the pattern changes, and more importantly, I hope to see where it stays the same.  By identifying the location of sites that do not change, then I can follow up with closer qualitative investigation of those sites.  Also by running the study again, I hope to to get closer to a better question - not where will points of insecurity or protest occur, but when?


October 14, 2013

The Dark Side of Urban Resilience

Segregated Distribution of Resources.   Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012, Turkmenistan.
Resilience is a much loved subject these days. I have written extensively in the past about the over reliance on trends in the field of urban planning, including the notion of resilience. But of course there are times that these concepts can be useful, if at least, as a point of reference when exploring a problem. There is also some excellent work out there on the subject, most notably the research undertaken by Diane Davis. Recently, I was discussing with a client the overlap between escalating gang violence the over-burdened transportation system in Tegucigalpa, Honduras when a very simple, but overly ignored notion, occurred to me. The same systems of resilience that are believed to improve cities are also the same systems that undermine their progress.

Before I explore this further, I feel it is necessary to give some background on my understanding of resilience. Earlier this year, in June 2014, I was invited to attend a two-day event entitled The City Resilient, in New York City. Hosting a diverse collection of experts to explore the role of resilience in cities, it was clear that no universally agreed upon definition exists for this concept. I'll never forget when the question "what is needed for resilience" received a response from one guy of "dog parks." I understand his point (nodes for social interaction etc), but if I were to tell the Mayor of Kabul, Mohamed Yunis, to build a dog park... lets just say I'd rather not.

Resilience theory was first introduced in 1973 by Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling and is founded on the premise that humans and nature co-evolve as a single socio-ecological system and this system is constantly in flux. Resilience does not consist of a linear pathway but is composed of interrelated feedbacks, is self organizing, and adaptive. To assess the how a system can engage and absorb stress is to establish not only a series of measurements for a singular system, but to also measure the interaction of micro-systems. Within resiliency theory there is no true homeostasis; rather resilience entails flexibility and turbulence.

From an urban planning perspective, I suspect resilience is a difficult concept to use because a resilient urban system is not necessarily the most efficient. Resilience is about decentralization, a concept frequently at odds with city budgets, management practices and the politics of city government. Constant flux also goes against the grain of the planning profession. The inability of urban planners to implement the concept of resilience is in many ways the fault of the disciplinary structure, as planning is a positivist discipline that attempts to solve problems by implementing empirically organized procedure, and is most often exercised through the construction of large-scale projects such as sports stadiums, shopping centers and residential housing complexes.

In the end, we are left with old school empiricists trying to embrace a fluid concept. Or we might have more dynamic thinkers limited to antiquated tools. Or maybe the tools - dog parks - appear trivial but it is impossible to measure the impact? In many ways, this problem summarizes much of what I find frustrating about the planning profession - the problems are engaging, the empiricism is satisfying, but the tools and the objectives are constantly outdated or are actually irrelevant. Unfortunately, like any discipline, the perception of the participants is restricted by mastery and engagement with discipline itself - this it the same reason thousands of kids go to art school every year to be uniquely creative but as an aggregate, churn out art that all looks the same.

Anyway, the interaction of fragmented, seemingly disparate urban phenomena within the built environment is critical to the sustainable wellbeing of a resilient settlement. To intervene in a manner that adds more pieces to the problem, more micro-systems, is to congest the city and undermine its resilience. I believe this problem can be dealt with in many ways, if we were to adopt a more Bayesian and sequentialist approach to the problem, such as embraced by my own Integrated Planning Process™. But regardless of the method, we can identify that observable benefits and improved health of one site is often due to the offset conditions of other locations, one location enjoys business growth yet an adjacent market weakens. This is not to imply a zero-sum scenario but merely to identify that overall capacity toward sustainable development is not improved. In contrast, the increased resilience is actually a redistribution of existing resources, but often not.

This is where the role of resilience becomes more complex when utilized as a method to improve cities. This also how resilience can harm a city. When an urban environment is healthy, there is a multitude of linkages, and a multitude of "spaces of flow" (to borrow from Castells), which allow the circulation of resources. Yet when an environment is insecure due to crime, war, or insurgency, the instigators of conflict appropriate the micro-systems that contribute toward urban health for their own means (either directly or indirectly). Roads and irrigation systems that once supported the local economy now become systems for the production and shipping of drugs, facilitate the proliferation of arms, and mobilize insurgent fighters. Adjacent micro-systems respond to these changes and the overall urban fabric of the settlement takes on a new shape. The more linkages and circulatory spaces, the more success a broadly distributed network of illicit activity will be able to succeed. The faster the disease spreads and embeds itself, the more resilient it becomes. Eventually the landscape conforms to the demands of the disease - the farms fund the bad guys, the streets serve as their delivery routes, and the cops work for them.

The negative influence of bad guys does not exist in a vacuum. To be clear, an ongoing socio-economic and cultural transformation of the community under the power of the militant group is reflected within the built environment. Drug cartels in Latin America are dependent upon the same transportation, agricultural, and economic systems as everyone else. Understanding the built environment within a conflict is to recognize the nuances of the multi-tiered stage on which conflict is played out. Those who understand the terrain and can connect the terrain to the community will have an advantage and will be resilient to change. But those who have the power to reorient the shape of the urban fabric and restructure the resilience of the site will control the outcome. So by this argument, if I tackle the traffic problem in Tegucigalpa (nowadays considered the most dangerous city in the world), I have the potential to also impact the complex criminal networks that presently dominate the landscape. But to do so, I must identify precisely how the traffic functions within the criminal system.

If the resilience of crime functions upon the same systems of resilience that help communities, establishing security and stability for socio-economic growth is more than a simple matter of removing the people who initiate violence. Security and positive urban resilience requires interventions into to the built environment to reshape the urban fabric so as to maximize local resources, not just redistribute them. But what we do call an intervention designed to remix the building blocks of resilient systems and transform them into socially productive components? I like to call it nothing but good planning.

October 7, 2013

The Linguistic Substructure of Cities and Settlements


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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Linguistic Landscape (Source)

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


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

September 4, 2013

Deep Water in a Geography of Conflict

Water tap in Lesotho.  Photo for Sutika Sipus LLC by David Lazar, 2013.
I once watched an engineering team install a well in a high-traffic area of a refugee camp in Kenya.  It was an easily accessible public space and it was close to a road making the job easier to bring the equipment and install the well.  After installing the well, the team made sure it worked, and went on to their next project, I believe somewhere in Thailand.  But a few strange things happened during the project and for a long time afterward.

1.  Many mornings the team would arrive to the site and discover the well had been destroyed.  In the middle of the desert with few other working wells nearby, why anyone would repeatedly destroy this precious resource?

2.  At times while working the project, children would throw rocks at the team, and their parents would simply look on, allowing the children to abuse the people who had come to provide a better quality of life with clean, accessible water.

3. When the project team finished the project (clearly after many delays) they exited and people began to use the well.  Within a matter of days there were violent, physical fights among locals at the site of the well.

What does this mean? From the outside, it is easy to say that the engineering team was doing a good thing in the refugee camp and that the local population was disrespectful out of heathen ignorance. Unfortunately stories like the above tend to fuel racism and prejudice among people in developed nations more than actually teach the deeper lessons.

Unpacking the situation is not easy.  To break it down I've composed the simple table below.



Outcomes
Without realizing it, the engineering team had thrust themselves into the spatial center of a long-standing problem of inadequate government policy and local social tensions.  Not only was the project in the geographic center of two populations with a history of conflict, but a series of poorly implemented technologies in the past left these populations with an immediate distrust of any new intervention.  In addition, by not formally interacting with the people living near the well at the outset of the project, their project was seen as an intrusion not a benefit.  Certainly another place to access water is appreciated, but many in the community knew that it would be another finite resource to drive arguments and conflict, not an asset.  But why tell this to the project team?  After all, the engineers were not even polite enough to introduce themselves let alone ask for advice.  Clearly they were the experts.


Beyond
The lessons of this case study should be easy to recognize.  The most basic infrastructure project is not merely a technical process, it is also a social process.  There may have also been actions within the community to mitigate the future problems.  For example, it is possible that the nightly acts of sabotage were intended to force the engineers to create a better and more resilient water well, considering the long history of inadequate infrastructure in the camps (see the context of the chart).  Maybe previous complaints had been ignored?  Unfortunately we can't be certain.

If the team established valid, working relationships among stakeholders in the water well project it would have prevented many of the negative consequences.  It would not have required extensive work by the project team, but maybe one week of interacting with the locals, asking questions, and learning about their lives could have led to a more strategically located intervention with clear lines of ownership, and the cooperation of the community in the project creation.   

The community doesn't necessarily need to be part of the development process, but they certainly have the right to know the project process and objectives in advance. Where relationships cannot be established (such as the long history of conflict between the tribes), at least discovering and acknowledging those obstacles could have provided with the engineers the data necessary to create a better project design.  We cannot know if it may would have become more successful, but at the minimum, it would not have introduced new problems.

September 1, 2013

Democracy 2.0 - Asking the People in Syria for their Input


Before taking any further steps in Syria, why not ask the people in Syria what they want to happen?Sounds outlandish, but with a little imagination and some basic technologies, its completely possible.  It even has a precedent.

Many city governments such as in New York City have discovered the value of combing the landscape for metrics and using this data for city management while organizations like Datakind specialize in extracting and interpreting information from neighborhoods. From mapping the spatial distribution of poverty at the World Bank to Kenyan citizens reporting violence with tools like Ushahidi, lots of organizations have discovered the value of obtaining and leveraging local level information to make informed decisions.

The technologies used to collect and organize this data do more than provide a picture to experts. These technologies also open the floor for broader participation.  I am in no way saying that technology solves all problems, but as a tool for communication, it can make voices heard that would have otherwise remained in the shadows. 

At this moment the world is in panic and American's are distraught over the decisions regarding Syrian intervention.  The decision making process is reliant now upon the influence of popular opinion, congressional interests, media storms, intelligence collection, international agreements, and back room discussions.  Yet among all the talk, the most important voice has been excluded from the conversation - the voices of people living in Syria.

Engaging an entire national population, let a alone a population under pressure from the horrors of war, is no easy task. But it is possible, at least to a degree, to use a mobile phone technology like rapidsms for citizens to vote by text message just like popular tv programs that ask audiences to vote for their favorite performer.  I was informed this morning by a friend with family in Syria that the mobile communications infrastructure in Syria is not steady, but over the last year it has been working off and on.   With a little ingenuity it would be possible to create a window for voting and to filter messages.  A little bit of scripting and it is possible to cancel multiple-votes from the same number and even to map the distribution of votes across the landscape. 

A simple text message voting system will not capture popular opinion of everyone in country, but it can provide a statistically viable sample.  More significantly, implementing a tool such this could refigure the entire future of foreign policy and global security.  International policy makers already have the tools at their disposal to engage those populations most affected by military intervention, leaving imagination as the only missing piece to the puzzle.

August 31, 2013

Planning for the Future Reconstruction of Syria from Chaos and Complexity



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

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


Engineering A New Outcome

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

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

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

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


Urban Planning and Development In the Syrian Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

August 9, 2013

Back to the Blog

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2013.

I apologize for frequent readers for not having written for some time.  In short - I needed a break.  But I am now returning to my usual schedule of weekly posting.  Refreshed, I have had much time to investigate some new concepts and do look forward to introducing some new topics into Humanitarian Space.  Also guest contributions are always welcome.


Some Upcoming Themes for Humanitarian Space in 2013/2014
  • Hood Praries and Urban Cowboys
  • Fragile Ecologies and Forced Displacement
  • Adventures in Financing Post-war Reconstruction
  • Spatial Structures of Violence in Honduras
  • Urban Design and Sexual Harassment
  • The Urban Infrastructure of Illicit Economies


July 18, 2013

Detroit: Between the Rustbelt and the Warzone

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

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

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

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

So now what?

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

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

June 6, 2013

New Site Online for Sutika Sipus LLC



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

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

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

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

May 22, 2013

Crowdsourcing the End of War to Rebuild Cities in Conflict


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 21, 2013

Crafting Cities Truly Responsive to Climate Change

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Outcome

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

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

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

May 17, 2013

Seeking Urban Planning 2.0


I love watching movies about the future.  I'm not exactly a major science fiction fan, but I  love to see other people's visions of what the future of cities could be like.  As a boy, I had a Back to the Future poster on my closet door and I lusted for a hovering skateboard.  I knew from an early age that I was to graduate high school in the year 2000, which even in the mid-90s tempted my mind with thoughts of glass sidewalks and gravity-defying cars.

So now, where is my floating car?  

I can't blame urban planners for our lack of aerospace transit options, but when I look at the evolution of tools for urban planning and development in comparison to the rate of growth in other technical fields, I'm struck with pangs of jealousy.  Within a matter of years, telecommunications have undergone a revolution.  Sustainable architectural technologies have leaped forward.  We can travel further, faster, and quieter than ever before and to any part of the world.  All I need is a laptop and a decent web connection to receive an education, start a business, market it, manage it, and sell it.  But regarding the decisions we make to improve our cities, the change has been slow moving.  Our modern cities very much resemble cities of 100 years ago.  Certainly they are cleaner and more efficient, but if you remove all the sleek products, they are more or less the same in organization.

Today the major obsession is big data for urban management.  We all want maps and data on everything in the city so we can cut down traffic, reduce taxes, improve utilities, and target infrastructure projects. Excellent.  To obtain this data we relay upon a variety of digital tools, which means we have to rely on computer scientists to produce the tools, manage them, and conduct much of the analysis to explain the data.  Consequently many of the best GIS users today are programmers not geographers.

The better urban designers are also often trained as architects.  They have a more specific knowledge of materials, spatial form and the construction process.  Engineers remain essential to make certain that everything has the structural capacity to function.

So with the influx of computer/data scientists and the strong role of architecture, what is today's urban planner left to do?  Mobilizing community engagement and employment within local legislative powers tend to be the two primary areas where urban planners work.  But why such a limited scope of work? 

Most urban planners I know work in one of the above positions.  I recall once meeting a planner who went on to get a JD and then worked doing rule of law in Afghanistan.  He said he would "never go back to urban planning" but I was shocked!  Building governance and law in Afghanistan is an excellent task as urban planner.

I suspect that one reason for the lack of vision and the slow growth of the profession is because the lack of imagination within urban planning education.  Many schools train their students to be mid-level bureaucrats, GIS technicians, and community workers.  They are not trained to be creators.  They are trained to be strategic.  The strategy is based upon a directed, assumed, or commonly determined vision. Within the pursuit of the strategy, many of the tactics are antiquated. In graduate school I was taught how to measure the quantitive impact of industrial job creation in a community, a rarity in today's economy.  Classes covered business incubators, industrial clusters, zoning laws, city accounting and historic preservation law.  But there were no classes that explained how a business functions, how to be an entrepreneurs, how to craft a vision for the city, how to write a computer program, or how to build a database.  There were also no specific classes on urban security, immigration, or food production or similar pressing issues.

When I left grad school I began targeting the world's hardest problems of refugee camps, urban violence, and war.  Fortunately, before pursuing planning, I started my career as an artist where I learned to create.  In graduate school,  I then acquired the ability to be strategic.  Yet it was clear that I didn't have the tools I needed.  I then went back to school for an additional year in Egypt to study international law and migration. That helped... but only made it more clear that more work needed to be done.  In the last couple years  I've spent countless nights reading books about business, working on business plans, and conducting exercises on codeacademy.com until the early morning hours.  Unfortunately, while I have some tools now that are more relevant to the problems at hand to create markets and work with information, I still have much work to do and these tools are far from sufficient.

If we are to make our dreams into a reality, we need to start training our urban problem-solvers and change-makers with more relevant tools. It doesn't all need to be digital.  They could be simple and organic tools too.  What matters most is that our tools evolve to reflect not only the demands of the present, but to better identify and pursue the opportunities of the future.  Until then, our cities will remain far removed from the possibilities of our dreams.