October 14, 2014

Design for Mental Health on the Mars One Space Colony

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Rendering of Space Colony by Mars One









The other day I read an article in which a team at MIT conducted a thorough analysis of the Mars One plan to implement a human colony on Mars in 2025. Mars One is intent to have 4 humans on Mars who will live the rest of their lives there, building out the first major human settlement. Cool stuff. Especially when you consider that Mars is the only planet in the solar system inhabited solely by robots.

The analysis focussed on all sorts of important metrics such as Oxygen creation and depletion, and the demand for spare parts. It highlighted the need for improvements in the realm of 3D printing. It discussed the payloads necessary to ship everything to Mars. It was a purely technical assessment and other human needs were outside the scope of the project. Fair.  

Then I looked at the photo of the Mars One Colony. It made my heart ache. I love adventure, danger, and cities and 600 years ago I would have totally signed up for an early expedition with Columbus or Magellan to cross the oceans into the the unknown. But I will not likely attempt to join the Mars One entourage. Why? Have you ever been confined to a physical space for extensive period of times?  It is brutal.

Over the last 10 years, I have become deeply familiar with the stress of confined living.  In my early 20s in India I became sick with malaria and had very little money.  I found a room for 80 cents (USD) per day in Varanasi, which was concrete with no windows, a mattress, and a lightbulb. Aggressively fatigued with illness, I was bedridden in darkness except to venture once a day to a cafe across the street for a bowl of Ramen.  I lived this way for a month.  It was the first step into a life of continuous confinement.

Twice I've lived in concrete windowless rooms while working in refugee camps in East Africa. For three years it was a stressful act to wander outside of my apartments in Afghanistan.  For 11 months of those three years, I was confined to my own house in Afghanistan as the security policy would not allow me to even leave the front gate to purchase bread at the bakery on the corner. In Mogadishu I can typically occupy a public space for 15-20 minutes at a time, and only in ideal conditions, otherwise I'm confined to hotel courtyards and more concrete rooms (though usually with windows). I do not like to stay for more than 2 weeks and the longest haul in Mogadishu, 30 days, is something I will never repeat again.

The Size of the World in War Zones and Refugee Camps

Working in confinement is hard on your mind and body. Not from being inside, but because you see the world outside and you cannot access it. When you cannot open your front door and take a leisurely walk down the street, then nothing else seems as beautiful or important. When you can take that walk but require several hours of advance planning and coordination of security mechanisms, the outside world feels more distant, as if you are only scratching the surface of human experience.

When I look at Mars One, I immediately think of all the months and years I have spent living within constriction. In the end, I always broke the rules to enjoy freedom. I would sneak out of the company compound. I would hire a local taxi and freely roam the city. I always go off the grid and make a point to integrate with the local community. It is this need for mobility and social interaction that drives the work I do, and arguably, is the core characteristic that distinguishes my work from others who work in challenging conditions. But on Mars, breaking the rules is not an option.  Not to mention - where would you go? So in the meanwhile, trapped in a state of social isolation (with 3 other people you will inevitably grow to hate) what do you do?

Here we might also glean something valuable from the performance artist, Tehching Hsieh. Perhaps my favorite artist in all of history, Hsieh only created 6 works between 1978 and 2000.  The first 5 works each lasted a year. In the first he lived in one room for a year. In another he lived outside for a year, then was tied by a rope within 10 feet of another person for a year, and somewhere in there he punched time clock every hour on the hour for an entire year. It is clear that each work requires stamina and commitment.


Watching the One Year Performance 1980-81 in which Hsieh punches the clock, we see the onset of fatigue and discipline impact his body. We see the commitment. But is it the physical endeavor of each piece, or is it the denial of human interaction and communication that shapes his experience? Hsieh's work starts with the smallest unit of human experience as an individual, isolated in one room, and then expanding the circle ever outward, he probes at formation of human life. His last piece lasted 13 years, during which time no one knows what he did, but was summarized by the single statement "I survived."  Today he no longer makes art, in any form, but owns a building in New York that he rents out to other artists.  If we have anything to learn from Hsieh, it is that the Mars One plan needs to be more about creating conditions for the full range of human experience while within the constraints of creating the units of human survival.

Human living, even surviving, cannot be designed as incremental components, but is the chaotic interplay of exterior and interior variables.  Heidegger called it "being in the world." But Mars is a different world.  The act of being in the world will be handicapped and reduced to being in a subworld, one shaped by the aims of the profession rather than nature.  Life will consist of watching the world outside, be it from the window of the space pod, the vizor of the space suit, or the other side of the empty oxygen tank. If I've learned anything from the mental struggles of isolation in refugee camps and war zones, and if Hsieh's work has any value for this project, we learn that a viable space colony is not an apparatus for survival, but it is a seedbed in which the conditions of satisfaction may autonomously emerge to grow and prosper. To be in the world, the world must come into formation.

Can one design for a human compatible world that will take form as act of emergence? At what point can the world formation happen independently from our directives? We create new realities with frequency (Second Life anyone?), but these are never isolated from preexisting social norms and traditions. Having spent my fair share of time as an outsider in hostile deserts, I can assert that the landscape of Mars will come to embody the existential vacuum in a very short period of time. When contained within a landscape that subjectively embodies desolation and bleakness, it is difficult to remain steadfast and not embody the same. Mars hurts.

So I only ask, for those brave and crazy adventurers who will set out to Mars, will they have the opportunity to derive joy from the world they are presently designing? For how long? Will those involved in creating this endeavor facilitate the need for mobility and tactile engagement with the outside? Will another world come into its own for engagement and will that one become accessible so that some kind of value can be co-created that gives satisfaction?

I hope so.

Mars or Afghanistan, either way, when you go off the grid, you quickly find there is nowhere to go   Photo: Afghanistan, Sipus 2014


October 5, 2014

City Planning for the Second Machine Age

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Just last week the Mayor of Las Angeles announced that L.A. will be the first city ready for self-driving cars.  This is a bold statement considering that no other city has really taken a major plunge on infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, and thus we have nothing to which we can compare the actions of L.A.  The notion of Uber-like services for autonomous vehicles is fairly compelling, but we need to ask - what kind of infrastructure is appropriate or needed for this product-service system? For example, should the police be integrated into an alert system incase things go bad? To take it further, what issues should urban planners consider regarding autonomous vehicles.  What does the future city need?

Much of the technology that will shape our urban experience tomorrow  is not quite mature enough to meet general expectations - but that is why planning for it today is important.  Having the discussion from a planning perspective will reflexively shape the technological development and diffusion, giving us the opportunity to take responsibility for our lives - much like the public health movement of the industrial era. Recently, many car makers have announced plans to roll out self-driving cars in the next few years including Cadillac and BMW.  Likewise, Audi has received the first permit in California to road test self-driving vehicles.  While MIT's Technology Review last summer, we are nowhere near the point in time when fully autonomous cars will be fully functional, and we are in fact several decades away - so now is the time to discuss how to make this work.

As we shed the remnants of the industrial era and step into the second machine age, let us imagine how it will look.  Autonomous vehicles are not limited to cars.  Flying aircraft, delivery UAVs, boats, underground tunneling devices, and robots of all kinds can be expected to appear in the next few decades. A primary part of the challenge in creating these technologies is that the urban environment is highly stimulating, directing millions of cues toward a driver at a given second.  The sounds of crosswalks, the recognition of a runner nearing the corner, and the flashing lights of a tow-truck vs a police car or ambulance all provide information to a driver.  These are also the elements of urbanism that make cities exciting and interesting. Strip the city streets of its life, and yes, we can make cars that will safely drive themselves through stop and go traffic - but is that where we want to live? Dehumanized modernist vision didn't work the second time (Le Cabusier's Machine for Living?), so what kind of infrastructure and planning do we need?

I don't have all the answers, but I think about this question quite a bit.  I have a few ideas and hopefully these will inspire others to explore the ideas more deeply.  If you have anything to add, I would love to hear from you.

Possibilities:
1. Robust GPS system.
At present there are 32 GPS satellites orbiting the earth, at 20,000 KM above sea level.  I know little about satellites, but I can't help but wonder is this a sufficient system for constant global demand.  So far so good, but can this meet the future demand if you multiple current use by 10 or 100? How might we improve such systems to refine geolocation.  Its important to realize that already a great deal of variance occurs within GPS positioning, so while you might have accuracy within a meter in New York City, your GPS points in a rural and low populated landscape might vary as much as 20 meters. Will this be sufficient when your car drives you to work?

2. Geofencing
In my last post I wrote about the idea of land use planning for drones.  Yet the concept of geofencing does not need to be limited to UAV use.  It can also be integrated into self-driving cars, water-based robotics, tunneling machines, and any other form of autonomous vehicles.  Creating this system isn't hard, but creating a system of standards for the geofencing to work across cities, states, and nations might be more challenging - which leads to the next concept.

3. MIDI for the City.
One thing that has made the internet blossom is the standardization of HTML, APIs, and data structures like JSON to allow developers to freely port one system/tool with another.  In a similar fashion, MIDI provides a set of standards for musical softwares and electronic devices to communicate.  To my knowledge there is not a set series of standards for electronic device integration at urban scale. Maybe the internet of things will be the solution, but is IPV6 sufficient to address all these billions of objects?

4. Modular Infrastructure
Many cities will generally suffer in the new economy because there is insufficient growth in Commercial, Off The Shelf (COTS) products for smart city creation. Smart Cities cost millions or billions of dollars and are dominated by companies like Cisco, Siemens, and IBM.  Rich cities will have the money to optimize and poor cities will not be able to compete.  There are a few of us (ahem), working on the design and creation of modular components, dashboards, and sensor networks that can provide municipal plug and play operation - but this market space hasn't taken off yet.  This could provide an opportunity for increased safety, reduced costs, and general improvements in urban life quality at scale but more people need to be working on this.

5. Localize Energy Policy 
Sufficient energy systems are a constant problem and a major inhibitor for technology diffusion. With the advancement of autonomous systems our energy demands are going to spike. I think some of the more interesting work in this area is within using ocean driven systems (photo at top of page). Yet we can also harness the simple but functional technologies we have today. Many regulatory energy tools exist at the national level, but perhaps city governments need to be more aggressive in local laws. What if every building permit required new construction to include a solar energy component? What if every historic reuse, preservation tax credit, or publicly funded project mandated the integration of passive energy systems? We haven't perfected passive energy, but whatever we have is only effective if policy matures.