May 30, 2014

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

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

What the hell happened?

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

May 28, 2014

Data is Not Sterile: What is Geospatial Data Made From?

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When I first started working with GIS and GPS data there were two basic truths. One, all GIS was equal to ESRI ArcGIS. And two, all data I need is neatly organized in a database somewhere on a server - you just need to find the server.  Three months later I moved to the Dadaab refugee camps and discovered no software, no data, and no server.  The head camp architect for the UN had never even heard of GIS.

At the time, I struggled with a solution.  In one project I was tasked with site plans for some buildings for Save the Children. I conducted an array of interviews in the camps to select the sites. Then I used a satellite phone to get GPS coordinates from which I extrapolated distances and drew vector maps in Autocad. I imposed the Autocad layer on top of a scanned topo map. The vectors could also be exported to ArcGIS upon return to my US university, since I obviously didn't have the money for a personal ESRI suite.  Technically, the solution worked well enough but I encountered another unforeseen challenge.  

Now the only problem is about the quality of the data. What is the combination of objectivity and subjectivity that goes into the creation of a single POI? How does we measure its value and how do we design the data collection to maximize that value?

For years I continued to search for strategies to create GIS data in places where it was unavailable. I experimented with walking papers, proposed ideas to software development friends, and wrestled with ambiguity.  I experimented for years with this problem in Egypt and was never happy with the outcome.  When I discovered the mobile application Fulcrum sometime in 2010 or 2011, my eyes were opened to the world of mobile data collection.  Suddenly the technical side of the problem was solved.  I could geolocate any survey. How you design the survey for the creation of spatial data is another matter.

The quality of the data is a continual obsession of mine.  Working in dangerous environments or even in multiple cultures creates special problems.  For example, if I were asked to rank the quality of infrastructure in Somalia, personally - I would label all of it as poor. There has been barely any development in decades but lots of bombs and bullets. In my eyes, as an American urban planner and designer, every road in Somalia is a nightmare.  But does that judgement present any value? Does this do any service to an external analyst or local project manager?

No.

Because of the demanding conditions, it is more important to rank the data according to the values of the local population.  In the eyes of a person who has lived in Somalia for a lifetime, how does one road compare against another?  It is through this local level comparison that the POI earns higher level of value to the analyst.  To continue the road example, I can now use this data to estimate the scheduling of work or to select where to start, such as the area in most need or the quick fix? Obviously, from my perspective everything needs improved, but now I can adapt my project to the local context for improved success. The population will recognize that the development is starting with the worst road - or going for the quick fix - and this understanding generates support.  Working in dangerous conditions, there is no such thing as too much support, regardless of the endeavor.

All budding cartographers must realize that no GIS data is founded on a universal set of standards. Every POI is connected to a body of perceptions, values, and judgements.  When we look at the collective data, we are looking at a story about a place and we are looking through the eyes of the person(s) that assembled the story. 

You might argue that some data is somehow void of this conflict. Census data, for example, seems fairly objective. But this is not the case - instead, census data is established by opening the story creation to all participants.  By means of the aggregate we get closer to objectivity, but the deeper you drill into the data, the more ambiguity will present itself. While some questions might seem objective (how many children do you have?), their simplicity is deceptive.  Another question - how many people live in your household? - will not bring the authorities crashing if the respondent answers "14" in a 1-bedroom house. But will a respondent be honest to admit "14" if that is the case? It is unlikely.  Social values, paranoia, and personal psychology will inform a respondents answer.  The closer you get to the person, the closer you get to uncertainty.

Unfortunately in higher level education for geography, planning, design, and other cartography related fields, there has been little focus on data creation. It is seen as a purely technical process. Yet I argue that students should begin their GIS studies by building the data before learning about the variety of GIS tools for analysis (note: variety, not just ESRI). Only by building the data will students learn to recognize the subtleties of its composition and help them become more critical of their own work.  

A nuanced understanding of the data will contribute to deeper levels of insight into the the data set and ultimately to a broader understanding of other data components such as the importance of metadata and data shelf-life. After all, GIS data is snapshot of a given moment in an ever changing world, only by understanding its creation can we realize its mortality, ultimately, to realize how to leverage its death. There is definitely something called "bad data," yet I'd argue that a more common data affliction is "poorly understood." This problem isn't difficult to fix, you just need to start building it yourself.

May 25, 2014

Pioneering Urban Experience Design (The New Scale of UI/UX)

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For the last 10 years I have worked in some of the world's most brutal conditions.  Along the way I've made and lost friends, witnessed miracles and tragedies, and have immersed myself into every moment of it.  But I've always known that this is not a sustainable or necessarily healthy way to live.  In my desire for a full life, I cannot always live and work in war and violence.   So a few years ago, just at the same time I took up residence in Afghanistan, I began laying the foundation to one day take all the lessons hard-learned from the battlefield into a different direction.

Shifting the Terrain at HSpace
At the beginning of 2014 I transferred my practice from Kabul, Afghanistan to Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is famous for its poetic ruins and tragic rate of decay.  I have also continued to work abroad - in fact, I am posting this blog post from downtown Mogadishu at this very moment.  And in the meanwhile I have experimented with new methods to engage urban environments and to create technologies that shift the way we experience the world around us.

Today today my work is a fusion of deep theoretical understanding of complex urban environments and cutting-edge experiments in physical computing and design strategy.  Although it has not been featured online, much of my time since January has been heavily occupied in a partnership with a global technology giant to develop a new technology to monitor events in Syria.  Those who were present for my talk at the School of Visual Arts in New York City got a sneak-preview of the work we have undertaken.

In my off-hours, I've also been bashing out an array of prototypes and design mockups, primarily in the realm of augmented reality, experimental cartography, and drone-based design.  Here is a sample.

Choose Your Adventure - The Mobile AR Experience
Problem: I've never been a fan of video games.  There is nothing wrong with them, but my sense has always been - why play a game when you could live it?  In fact, I recently discovered that playing a video game will satiate my desire to explore the more challenging environments in the world.  But playing a video game also imposes tremendous limitations.

Concept: What if we combine geo-caching exploration with AR gameplay?  What if we use our existing mobile technologies, gps positioning, social networks, and user-generated rating systems to refine the games?

Below I've put together two brief concept videos to show how this can work.  The first video presents how such a game could be organized. The second video presents some screenshots of how such a game would function.

The cool part:  This is an entirely new way to engage our cities and communities.  Your city is no longer just an environment, but it is also an interface, stacked against a digital interface, so as to participate in the construction of new narratives.  The natural syntax of our urban environment shifts, opening new interpretations of space, time, and meaning.  Consequently the identity of the city is no longer what you see in the street, but also how it is constructed in the cloud.  Like your online digital identity, cities can have a digital self, to be pushed-probed-and-hacked.  We've had this digital infrastructure for years, but we lack sufficient methods to maximize its potential.


(Best enjoyed with headphones or decent speakers)



Created in 2014 by Mitchell Sipus

May 23, 2014

Conceptualizing the City as a Synthesis of Habits

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When I started my education in city planning, I took a course on urban form, wherein Jay Chatterjee introduced a different perspective on the organization of cities every week.  Jay knew his stuff, having studied with Kevin Lynch and later, as university president, having led the way to a master plan for the University of Cincinnati featuring an array of established architects.  In fact, studying at UC DAAP was basically akin to studying at a museum of architecture, surrounded by buildings designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenmen, and Michael Graves (himself a DAAP alumnus).

In Jay's class we looked at the history of how a cities have been conceptualized.  Renaissance diagrams of the city as a human body compared roads to arteries and parks to lungs.  Then of course there was explorations of the city as a mandala or as an ecology.  I found these approaches to interesting at the time.

But now, after having worked extensively within complex urban systems, I find them as little more than poetic and perhaps damaging.  To an extent there is truth.  Cells combine to create tissue, tissues combine to create organs, organs combine to create organ systems, and organ systems combine to create an organism.  Thus if to combine organisms you create an complex organic system (city) and to combine these urban systems you create another macro-entity (state). But how does this conceptual organization of systems help advance the needs of the people within it?  How does this framework provide any utility for intervention and to what end?

As an organic system, we can examine capital flows, supply chains, and nodes of interaction just as one would examine the circulation of blood or oxygen.  Milieus of capital and power will intersect in a fashion that is either harmonious or catastrophic.  An array of intersections will form hierarchies in the form of institutions, or institutions will harness the dynamics of these nodes by means of hegemony. Clearly the metaphor can be extended, but what can an urban planner or designer make of this?

I'd argue very little because ultimately it is only a metaphor, an approximate model of reality, and models are fairly archaic in the contemporary world.  With an abundance of technologies to measure and predict interactions, we can do better than model our environments, but we can create new methods to engage, measure, and predict the events around us.  Today, the model and the reality are the same thing, if they are not - then you are doing it wrong.

I say this because we must take for granted that all urbanism is self-organizing, and once we acknowledge that, we are better positioned to ask the more important question: how does a self-organized system actually operate and to what end?  

Now we have an opportunity.

A city, like a business, is better understood - not as an organism or geometric mandala - but as a collection of habitual processes that have organized in time and space to form a collective habit.  This collective habit continues to operate because it has survived to do so.  Any imposition that will undermine the collective habit will force adaptation (new habits) or it will die.  A good example can be found within most manufacturing companies - either they keep with the times or they go out of business.  

At the granular level, changing one individual's habits will merit only limited impact (thus a new mayor or president can only do so much), while changing a large collection of granular habits will lead to a massive change at a larger scale.  This is incredibly difficult but possible.  Take for example the changes in popular music.  While a dominant musical paradigm is perpetuated at the collective scale, a new form of music may grow in appeal at the fringe which will eventually become popular.  No behaviors changed - all people continued listening to music with the same supportive behaviors - but the music selection changed, and thus we find certain elements attached to the music (fashion perhaps) also rising to the fore.  Now we can ask, why has a new form of music replaced the other?  What drove the sustainability of that change?  The habits did not change, but the form of each habit was modified, so how did that work and how can I use the same methodology in my own project?

Conceptualizing a city as a collection of habits will do more for a designer than conceptualizing a city as a body, beast, or geometry.  In the reductionist sense, we can examine the procedure of those habits and fine tune our environments to respond.  For example, if we find that people habitually congregate in a given location, we can  capitalize upon their congregation or choose disrupt the location to redistribute the population, and replicate the process at within all similar environments to the same effect.  Or, from a constructivist perspective, we can examine the array of elements that inform the formation of that organization, and attempt to infuse other environments with those elements to stimulate similar activity, hoping that the inhabitants will contribute something else to create a positive outcome.  

Contemplating a city as a collection of habits will not solve all problems. Yet it provides more utility than visualizing the city according to classical metaphors because it provides opportunities for intervention.  Likewise, I encourage interested readers to create other paradigms for interpreting cities but to never get stuck on any particular idea as the ideal.   For example, thinking of a city as a creative entity, aka Richard Florida, is fine.  But if you really plan to leverage that concept for your own city... don't expect much return.  That singular notion, like any other, is merely an approximation - a model - and therefore it will only reap so much reward.  Rather you need to go beyond the limitations of a single ideology. Believe in nothing. Believe in everything.

For example, what does it mean to examine the city as each of the following? How can you build off of these idea to create opportunities toward a given objective?  Simply challenging yourself to organize your thoughts around each of these given prompts will provide a new way to think of human structured environments in a manner to reveal restrictions, possibilities, mechanisms, and more.  If you map out a series of ideas based on each prompt you will also discover many conflicts will emerge.  That is good. Embrace the frictions and the voids because these points are perhaps more important than the symmetries.

  • City as record
  • City as interface
  • City as library
  • City as software
  • City as hardware
  • City as inheritance
  • City as puzzle
  • City as experiment
  • City as a game
  • City as language
  • City as narrative
  • City as reaction
  • City as sport
  • City as reproduction
  • City as resistance
  • City as byproduct
  • City as ...


May 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

So again, why?

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 5, 2014

Advice for Choosing a PhD in Urban Planning

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When you enter a new city, do you immediately start deconstruct the environment into use patterns? While driving do you frequently get a thrill from clever interchanges or notice over-engineered drainage with pangs of anger? And perhaps, when you hear about a massive social or economic problem, your mind ignites with strategies to improve the situation?

So now after years of thinking about complex urban problems, working in the field, and reading all the current literature, your mind is suddenly probing the possibility of pursuing a PhD.  Or maybe you were always interested in research?  Or you like the idea of teaching in a university?

I understand all these impulses.  For over a decade my mind has been fixated on building strategies for social change.  Even when I was an art student dreaming of a career as a conceptual performance artist, I sought to do work that could facilitate profound social transformation.  And throughout my entire life, I've been drawn toward the satisfaction of writing and research offset with the engagement of the lecture hall.  I always wanted to be Indian Jones. In my own fashion this led toward the decision to pursue a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning.  

It may then come as a surprise that when I applied for a PhD,  I only applied to four programs, and 3 of them were not in urban planning. Why? The answer is fairly simple.

The compelling aspect of the planning is its interdisciplinary composition.  People come from all backgrounds to study and work in planning.  It is rare that a professional field can consists of engineers, artists, historians, and statisticians all working together, side-by-side, using a shared vocabulary toward a common objective.  Its amazing really. But when we focus this energy through the lends of doctoral study, the tectonics start to shift, and I believe the value of planning education begins to go downhill. I'll explain more about this in the sections below.

Yet perhaps you are considering a PhD in planning.  Where do you go? How do you choose?  And should you make sure it is labeled "Urban Planning" or can it be something else?  Should it? 


Is the PhD useful for you?
Because of the unusual nature of Urban and Community Planning, the pursuit of a PhD is peculiar. For one, among those who are dedicated to practicing planning, a PhD is popularly rumored to reduced employment prospects because it makes one overly academic.  I don't know if this is true, but if it is true, the situation is stupid. People need to stop believing this or the PhD Planning needs to change to become more relevant.


How much time do you have?
I spent several years looking at the curriculums of the worlds top PhD programs in Urban Planning. There are advantages and disadvantages to the US model vs other countries.  First you need to think about time.  How much time do you have to do this?

In the European model, schools such as LSE or UCL feature some decent programs, but only one year is devoted to coursework with 5 to 7 years devoted to research.  The problem with this model is that the research is typically focussed on a very narrow proposal, supplied at the time of the application, limiting options for exploration and experimentation in subject matter.  The resulting dissertations are boorish and that the personal experience of the PhD is rife with depression, cognitive dissonance, and grief.

When a professor at a famous university in the UK expressed interest in working with me about government issues in Somalia, my initial excitement turned dour. I've worked with the government of Somalia and it sounds absurd to spend 7 years proposing policies the government of Somalia will never care about.  They have only marginal support for outsider interest and zero concern for academic arguments, so this will not end well. To do such a project for 7 years of doctoral study would be equivalent to 7 years of lying to myself.

Within the American model, the timelines are shorter, typically under 5 years, so it can be a bit healthier for mental health, yet 3 years are occupied by in-class learning.  That takes us to the next issue.

Curriculums
Most American curriculums require 3 years coursework then 2 to 5 years for dissertation research. Typically one year of the 3 will focus on research methods. This is considered the standard gateway to expertise.

One problem is that hands-on experience is a better way to deepen specialized knowledge than through additional coursework.   For example, I frequently meet people in Washington DC who are experts on Afghanistan.  Those people have a PhD, twice went to Kabul for a week, and read a lot about the country.  They do have a very deep understanding of actors and context, but the reality is that local politics change so rapidly, that anyone not actively living in the country will always be far behind. I mean, I've spent 10 years in developing nations, and that experience has provided a far deeper understanding of planning issues than any class.  So why do I want to spend many years sitting in classes that are disconnected?

Another issue is that while a PhD is about deep expertise and slow learning, the motivation to pursue additional schooling is also based on the desire to learn new things.  I want to study new ideas to inform my thinking and reshape the way I structure information.  I want to experiment with my brain. I want to pursue some electives.  PhD programs typically do not support such divergence because they are designed for a deeper study of a small thing.

So look closely at the curriculum of each school... is that what you want to do?  For example, University of Wisconsin Maddison is a great school, but I found its curriculum to be outdated and traditional to issues like transportation and housing. In contrast, Ohio State features coursework on new technology and urban development. Super cool.  But if you want to build technologies, it doesn't give the flexibility to do that - not as part of the core curriculum anyway - you can only study their impact.  Same situation with Columbia University.

It is important you evaluate your need and interest for coursework.  Will one year suffice?  Two or three?  Are you jumping into new territory and require many foundation courses is a new skill?  Will the program facilitate flexibility?


Outcome Projections
Most of us know to ignore the rankings and focus on the specific industry reputation of the program. But there is more to the selection process.  For example, many schools in California have stunning reputations for Urban Planning, but none of them were churning out students that I saw as a model for my own career.  Rather than look at the rankings, I advise you look at the dissertations coming out of each program.  Do you want to spend 5 years writing the same kind of work?

Rather than looking at rankings, ask, what kind of funding does this department have?  Is it getting federal or corporate research grants?  Are the professors actively publishing groundbreaking work or running audacious companies? If you choose to teach afterward, what kinds of schools and programs would want to hire you?  Where are the recent graduates teaching? Will you be qualified to only teach in one department (planning) or several (design, social science, business, planning)?  Personally, I want options.


Changing Times
This part is really important. Realize that programs are constantly changing.  Are you applying to a program based on its history, its present configuration, or on its future?  What kind of faculty are they hiring?  What are the department goals?

For several years I was convinced that the only program for me was at MIT.  The DUSP program for international development (IDG) was inspiring.  Diane E. Davis was generating work about conflict cities, other professors were looking at technology,education, and humanitarian work.  Some of the students who came out of that program like Topher McDougal were rockstars to me.  

Then just before I sent PhD applications, everything changed. Dr. Davis went to Harvard GSD and many of the other faculty rotated as well.  I like some of the professors there very much, but I could not see myself working with them. In the meanwhile, I do not like Harvard's program at all, so I would never follow Davis there.  After years of preparing for one program, it changed so dramatically that I never bothered to apply.

Where do you want to live and work?
Four years will go by fast but of course you must consider the reality of living there.  Case in point, the University of Umea in Sweden is amazing and has sufficient doctoral funding - but it is nearly the north pole. Ouch.  They were interested in my work, and I was interested in their program, but after 3 winters in Afghanistan, my wife and I were not willing to move to the Arctic circle.

Also consider, will living there advance your career goals?  When my wife did her masters, she went to the American University of Cairo, Egypt because she wanted to work in the middle east.  That gave her far more advantage than any graduate program in America or Europe.  Likewise, after graduating you might continue to live in the same city for awhile, so make sure you like it enough.


Look Outward
As I mentioned before, I only applied to one PhD program in Urban Planning.  But I also applied to 3 programs in political science, sociology, and design.  I received 2 full fellowship offers from among the four programs.

If the interdisciplinary nature of Urban Planning is its strength, we should leverage this strength to break away from the limited vision of the profession. Consequently, I encourage planners to do their PhD in anything but urban planning. Computer Science, Economics, Geography, Political Science, and any technical discipline are valid options.  


Personal Outcome
Final decision? I am pursuing a PhD in Design at Carnegie Mellon University.  CMU has the technological focus I desire, but more importantly, the new PhD Design is focussed on transition design.  This concept is akin to my own methodology, wherein it embraces turbulence of complex systems to advance scaled instances of social chanee.  As this approach is based in the field of UX Design, rather than planning, it also introduces new perspectives, vocabularies, and breaks away from the historical inheritance of the planning profession.

The curriculum and leadership are flexible, and as a new program, it is future-focussed with a zeal for creating new opportunities and ideas. Consequently, this PhD has the resources I need to create whatever future I want to create.  For my goals, there is no better option in the world.