April 4, 2016

Formulations of Post-Conflict Reconstruction Beyond and Within

Aerial Image of MIT during WWII from Lamelson Center for Invention and Innovation
The world will always have war and poverty. There is also no moral justification for the nature of war or poverty to be as severe and punishing as can be found throughout much of the world. Diseases can be reduced, incomes can be increased, and war can be less violent. It would seem that simple and practical solutions - common sense - could solve many these problems. But I've found over the last 15 years or so, that common sense is often the point of failure. True innovation is irrational. Systematic methods can be designed to facilitate innovation, but the starting point is an entrenched understanding of the problem.

Today's wars do not end, are rarely state-to-state engagements, and technology has shifted the capability of the non-state actor, giving individuals power on par with the state. Yet if technology can empower individuals to create chaos and fight the state, then it can equally empower an individual with state capacities to create peace and opportunity. Where terrorists destroy the present tense, an individual - not a government can likewise create a new future tense. Stability-minded, entrepreneurial individuals are the antithesis of terrorism, not government employees.

Inspired by organizations like Independent Diplomat, I went down this road as an urban planner, and built a private business for governance. In this capacity I aided governments in Afghanistan, Kenya, and Somalia for several years in addition to advising multilateral institutions. Unlike many of my peers in the humanitarian and development industry, I never once provided a report as a project deliverable (this is no easy thing, given that the entire industry is obsessed with reports). Rather, I focussed on building concrete mechanisms and leveraged technology to perform necessary change within entrenched problems.

The interesting consequence wasn't so much within the success or failure of those mechanisms, but the way other institutions responded. The best known example is how the UN restructured its Somalia efforts to compete and then later appropriate my municipal-level urban technology center in Mogadishu.  Years later, that effort has faded away, but a key lesson remains intact: if you want to change the operations of ]global institutions, a faster method than advocacy or protesting is to beat them at their own game because they fear competition.

For awhile, I believed that I had gone as far as I could personally take this work in postwar reconstruction. Over the years, marriage, fatherhood, and the brutal realities of active war zones left me believing that I had dug in as deep as possible, and that it was perhaps time to look into the future and shift gears.  I set new targets far from the front lines, leading to doctoral studies and a deeper immersion into the technology. Making an honest departure from the domain of reconstruction was valuable as it exposed me to new ways of thinking and working in addition to the acquisition of other skills.

Yet today, I find myself working in governance in a refreshed capacity. As an innovation specialist for the US federal government, I essentially work as an entrepreneur in residence. In this capacity I am approached by, or reach out to, federal agencies with deeply rooted and complex problems in search for new vision, strategies, and tools. Much of this work has been connected with Veterans Affairs, and thus my work within the domain of post-war reconstruction continues.

When rebuilding a wartorn city, or considering the future reconstruction of a city presently in war, I have always thought primarily about the actors there - in that space - and those who grew up there but left. Consideration of conflicted and secure space were constant to the extent that it gave a name to this blog. But in the way that I work, space is merely a container for relationships between people, and in the case of Mogadishu, for example, the stakeholders were the Somalis and the AMISOM soldiers (among others on site).  Throughout all my years of working, I never once thought about how the lives of those AMISOM soldiers will continue to influence the stability of Somalia upon return home.  Post-war reconstruction is not the rebuilding of a place - it is a web of flickering interactions between people, perceptions, objects, places, and wounds.

Mapping the Stakeholders in Post-Conflict Reconstruction of Future Wars as a Field of Lightbulbs

Working with Veteran Affairs, I have found myself looking into the eyes of the same soldiers who were in Afghanistan during my years there.  We were there for different reasons, to do different jobs, and possibly with different goals.  We also had different kinds of relationships with the local population and lived in entirely different ways.  We made and lost friends. We think about Afghanistan everyday, and also, think about it very differently, but it always in our minds. From this I know that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars will shape American politics for generations, just as the Vietnam war was discussed in every US political debate into the early 2000s.

To consider the demands of every node in the complex and time-warping web of global conflict is not feasible as a design approach. But consistent with the methods I have applied to other complex problems, to consider the thematic and territorial overlaps does prove effective. For example, in the domain of mental health, the impacts of war via PTSD are well documented within America and other NATO states. It is, however, less discussed among resident populations of war-torn regions and only marginally (if ever) discussed in reference to displaced populations.

The healing from trauma is complicated, and there are many who never fully recover or find effective remedies to move forward in their lives. Yet initiatives that have brought soldiers in contact with the places where they served, to build new memories and relationships with long harmful experiences, have been found to effective to some.  For others, there is a need to cut all ties, to relocate, and build new lives elsewhere. No matter how you approach it, healing becomes geographic as much as a psychological process.

To advance the state of postwar reconstruction, there is a necessity to go beyond security, architecture, and socio-economics. Like most design problems, there is an obvious need to factor such variables across time and space. But now I realize the necessity to reconsider our definitions of war in terms of how we conceive of stakeholders and stakeholder needs. This is not a static domain. New individuals and entities will emerge and disappear over time as will their contributions to the problems and the solutions. We cannot end war but we can formulate our present understanding of its ramifications so as to position a better tomorrow.