Urban Edginess

Where the City Meets its Future.

Innovations in work: Leapfrogging the digital divide How Technology was used to bring back a traditional craft and restore the livelihood of members of the Pradit Torakarn community in Bangkok.

Absence of necessary and appropriate technology could be an apt definition of poverty. Deficiencies in technology whether in sanitation, health care, safety or communication impoverishes people and their community. The greater the lack, the more extreme the poverty.

Over the past few years, access to modern communication technology for the poor has changed from an aspiration to a necessity.

The Telecenter Movement as adapted in Thailand shows some promise to bringing that technology within the reach of the urban poor to better their lives and their job prospects. The Telecenter Movement an international movement, initiated to establish telecenters in less developed countries to provide ICT skills and knowledge primarily to poor and marginalized communities.

In Thailand, beginning in 2007 Ministry of Information and Communication Technology took the lead in developing the country’s Telecenters. Then, the Ministry promulgated the Knowledge Based Society strategy that focused on developing ICT skill and knowledge. Besides the ministry’s involvement, the Research Centre of Communication and Development Knowledge Management (CCDKM) assists in the development of websites supporting the ICT Telecenters. Two of which thaitelecentremall.org or e-Shop and aseanhomeworkers.org promote community products and assist the poor, especially women at home, with training for the workplace.

One of these Telecenters, the Pradit Torakarn Telecentre, is located in Bangkok near Kasetsart University. The Pradit Torakarn neighborhood is a migrant community of people from other parts of Thailand whose livelihood depended on the fabrication and sale of kitchen utensils and flatware. The members of the community had migrated to this neighborhood over the past few decades to continue to practice their craft in a location where they hoped that they could earn a better living than in the communities they left behind and by so doing pull their families out of poverty. They moved into a neighborhood in the shadow of the great Chatuchuck Market, Bangkok’s largest and most successful crafts market, in hopes of attracting to their stalls nearby some of the legions of Thais and tourists who thronged through the market.

Recently they found themselves in deepening financial straits. With the recent political and economic difficulties experienced by the country and the closing of the Market because of disputes over ownership of the land and operation of the Market, their livelihood disappeared. Many stopped producing their products and had to find other ways of making a living. Presently, there are only 10 households producing bronze craft.

To expand the business opportunity for this traditional handicraft, ICT training was provided to the community. The training consisted of instruction on how individuals can use the technology and facilities of the Telecenter. Along with the bronze craft people other home workers from the neighborhood also brought their products, such as textile bag, crystal accessories and plastic woven baskets and learned how use the technology to market their products also. Following the training the Pradit Torakarn Telecentre provided the community marketing assistance and access to their sites so that the community could promote their products through e-commerce.

Director of CCDKM, Dr. Kamolrat Intaratat described different types of Telecenters in Thailand;

Accessible Telecenters: enhances ICT accessibility of all people; especially those living in rural and remote areas.

Multifunctional Telecenters: provides ICT facilities, (e.g., internet, computer and other peripherals) to develop individual and community capability in e-learning, e-shop and e-commerce, e-governance and e-service and so on. Potential

Development Telecenter: develops sustainable ICT potential of the community. More than 1000 Telecenters have been set up throughout Thailand.

Over the past few years the concept of a telecenter have evolved to include a broad mix of activities. While the centers are still places where people can learn how to use computer technology and provide the equipment for individuals and organizations to use, like a community internet café. Some of these centers have begun to be used as gathering places for the community as well, a sort of a high-tech community center.

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HUMAN DEVELOPMENT FOUNDATION MERCY CENTER: Helping the Poor in Bangkok

Klong-Toey Market, Bangkok

Klong-Toey Market, Bangkok (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among the many community organizations providing services to the poor and the residents of informal communities in Bangkok, I am especially fond of the HDF Mercy Center. Begun in 1973 with the opening the first Mercy School in the Slaughterhouse neighborhood within the dismal Klong Toey slum in Bangkok,

Beginnings:

HDF Mercy Center began in the Slaughterhouse area of Klong Toey, Bangkok’s most notorious slum. It was the brainchild of Father Joseph Maier and Sister Maria Chantavarodom. Fr. Joe, as he is affectionately called, was the parish priest for the Catholics that butchered the pigs in the district. Sister Maria began teaching the children of the Slaughterhouse at a school she set up in a seldom used holding pen for the pigs. According to Fr. Joe,

“In its early days, almost fifty years ago, the Slaughterhouse [in 70 Rai] actually was a safe and fairly healthy place to live. … Seven years ago, it all began to unravel. Authorities decided that the old method of butchering pigs, the way we had been doing it for generations, was not hygienic, and that it was time to move the Slaughterhouse. No work meant no cash for food. … The Slaughterhouse residents were told they would soon have to leave, that they were being evicted from the homes and shacks that their families had homesteaded for over fifty years — that they had no rights. … Authorities tore down the pigpens and cemented them over as a massive parking area for the trucks that carry products to and from the adjacent Klong Toey Port. … With the trucks came their drivers seeking drugs, alcohol and temporary female companionship. … The authorities would provide housing in new suburban slums outside of the city, miles and hours away from where they could earn a livelihood…. “ Maier, Fr. Joe. (2005). “Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok’s Bleakest Slums.” Singapore: Periplus

The HDF Mercy Center website describes these early days best:

Klong Toey slum railway

Klong Toey slum railway (Photo credit: trevorsoh)

“Sr. Maria and Fr. Joe turned a slum shack into a one-baht-per-day preschool for every child in the Slaughter House, children of all religions. No child was turned away. Thus (without saying so or calling itself anything) began The Human Development Foundation. Now, today in 2012, there are twenty-two Mercy Kindergartens with over 2,500 slum children going to school. Alumni of the first Slaughter House kindergarten are teachers, executive secretaries, nurses, taxi drivers, and butchers. Many are now married with their own children attending proper schools. Dead-end, throw-away slaughter house kids no longer.”

Today

Today, the Human Development Foundation and Mercy Centre charity is responsible for thirty-two preschools that have taught more than twenty thousand children how to read and write. it also operates six shelters for abandoned, abused and orphaned children. In addition, it sponsors over 500 of the poorest neighborhood children to attend primary and secondary school as well as 12 children to attend colleges and universities abroad.

The charity provides home-care for the poor for over 500 patients living with

Klong Toey Porter

Klong Toey Porter (Photo credit: Mark Fischer)

AIDS in Bangkok helping them maintain their strength and remain productive members of their family and community. It also provides counseling and free access to medicine to over 10,000 high risk individuals/year

HDF has repaired, renovated, and constructed over 10,000 homes for elderly and indigent and slum communities devastated by fires in Bangkok slums and fostered small business start-ups, emergency low-interest loans and aided the physically disabled to secure employment, and legal benefits.

For those who may want to learn more about HDF Mercy Center or are interested in assisting it in its work I encourage you to go to their website at:http://www.mercycentre.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=1&lang=en

Further Reading about Klong Toey and Fr. Joe

For anyone looking to dig deeper into the world of Bangkok’s slums, in addition to Father Joe’s book mentioned above, “The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok” by Greg Barrett, with a forward by The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu Archbishop Emeritus is a good place to begin. According to Publisher’s Weekly:

“Barrett, a veteran journalist, records the inspiring work of Catholic priest Joe Maier in Bangkok’s slums. Drawn to service in Thailand on a whim, the misfit American seminary student found a calling among the Thai downtrodden, even living in the slums himself. . . . many of the stories are memorable, from the tragic (street toddlers, happily schooled at Mercy, later dying there of HIV/AIDS, to the triumphant (Mercy graduates who attend college abroad and are able to climb out of poverty.”

Public Space in Informal Settlements in Bangkok: Bottom up Planning.

English: Wat Arun Bangkok View Photo D Ramey L...

English: Wat Arun Bangkok View Photo D Ramey Logan ” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bangkok a city of contrasts.

Bangkok Thailand is a city of gleaming skyscrapers, elegant shopping centers, spectacular temples and picturesque neighborhoods surrounded by vast areas teeming with those who have left somewhere else in hope of somehow securing a better life. Many of these migrants huddle in informal settlements of often self-built shelters, mired in poverty at times as great as that they have left behind. But, they have two things going for them. One as old as ever in the hearts of most immigrants, hope. The other just as old but requiring renewal wherever the poor and destitute gather, the urge to build a new sense of community where they now choose to live. Few things focus a community’s sense of itself better than its public spaces. In Bangkok today several communities of poverty-stricken migrants, aided by governmental and private organizations, have begun to coalesce around improvements to their public spaces.

Bangkok is a riverine city located on at the center of a vast floodplain. It became Thailand’s capital 300 years ago because its rivers and streams, marshes and wetlands appeared to afford superior defensive capability and better trade and commerce opportunities than the nations prior capital located a few hundred kilometers to the north destroyed by the Burmese, traditional enemies of the Thais.

The internal combustion economy prompted the filling in of many of the canals, wetlands and minor streams to accommodate the motor cars and the industries dependent upon them. Except for the extensive industrial port complexes and a few luxury hotels the city turned its back on its rivers and few remaining canals leaving them as little more than refuse strewn sewers.

Migrants and Informal Communities proliferate.

As Bangkok grew into one of the worlds great megalopolis of over 13 million people crowding into the flood plain along the banks of the Chao Phraya river, a new type of invasion inundated the city. At first people from the rural areas of the country, then the poor of Burma, Laos and Cambodia flooded into the city looking to better their lives and to bask in the excitement and bright lights of the metropolis.

Many of these migrants pressed themselves into large informal settlements along the now mostly forgotten riversides and canals, living in often makeshift housing in extensive slums with poetic sounding names like Klong Toei, Bang Bua Klong, Managkasila and Soi Sengki. In 1997, when the Bangkok Metropolitan Area was smaller than it is today, an estimated over 300 informal settlements existed, housing more than one and a quarter million people (Pacific Consultants International Suuri-Keikaku Co.Ltd., 1997).

With the emergence of the middle class and the exponential growth of international tourism during the past few decades, attention focussed again on these forgotten waterways as underperforming resources. Slum clearance along their banks commenced as both public and private interests sought to realize their long forgotten benefits. Some of these informal communities resisted and with the assistance of both public and non-profit organizations such as Community Organization Development Institute (CODI), Baan Mankong, The Durang Prateep Foundation, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and many others began to fight back.

Closed environments of the dispossessed.

In Bangkok, like in many other cities, there were primary issues of fundamental importance to the poor communities, such as land tenure, adequate housing, health care and public space. (not jobs so much, the migrants were there because the job opportunities were better here than where they came from. The job issue in Bangkok is one of quality not quantity).

Why is public space, about which this post focusses so important? Because public space is not just parks and open space but includes streets, sidewalks and many other means by which residents interact with each other and the outside world. It affects community and individual health as well as their prosperity. One of the hallmarks of the traditional slums is that they are so often the closed environments of the dispossessed.

Bang Bua Throng: grasping for identity and pride.

The citizens of Bang Bua Throng, a mostly migrant community, located on the northern fringes of the Bangkok metropolitan area recognized that restoring access to and along the waterfront for the entire community could increase distribution of economic benefits to community members. It also would help to focus community identity and pride.

The Bang Bua Throng neighborhood contains about 3.400 families crowded up against the Bang Bua canal. The community, mostly on its own, formed an informal network called ‘Klong Bang-bua Environmental Improvement Network’ in 1999 that organized activities supporting the improvement of the canal and environment. They began earning money by selling recycled wastes collected from within the community. They then pooled the money to embark of community enhancement programs like, fire training for the locals. The Network also negotiated with the land owner (Treasury Department) and related agencies in support of their efforts to securing land tenure for the residents. This activism had its effect. Others took notice.

After addressing the endemic land tenure and housing issues, the community through bottom up planning and with the CODI and the Baan Mankong program’s assistance contributed to the design of a walk-way along the length of the canal. Unlike many waterfront designs, this was not simply an aesthetic venture providing a venue from which to contemplate the beauties of the adjacent canal, but a working access-way. Designed with the needs of the community in mind, it was wide enough for the movement of necessity vehicles but narrow enough to discourage it from being used as a substitute for the adjacent street. It was open for those in the community to use and enjoy as well as the residents of the city at large. It became a focal point of community pride.

Following the implementation or these programs in the community, Kuhn Prapaat a community leader remarked:

“We were a real slum before! There were drugs for sale, and lots of outside organizations did their drugs trading here. There were kids sniffing glue and paint thinner.” “ Back then, a lot of the houses were built on stilts right over the canal, and when one of these houses would collapse – which happened a lot – we would say, that is your problem, not mine!” (Slum Regeneration Bang Bua Bangkok. Veruan Blake)

Some criticism has been leveled that these initiatives like the new walk-way could encourage gentrification, as though preservation of what previously existed had some overarching merit. Gentrification is negative generally only when the existing residents fail to participate in its benefits or if it occurs with such rapidity residents cannot prepare and adapt to it.

Thonglor: ingenuity rewarded.

Other informal communities in the city also recognize the importance of public space to their revitalization. Adjacent to the Thonglor Police Station there are 43 households squatting on a piece of unclaimed land between two property walls only a few meters wide. Cleverly designed homes lean on existing infrastructure and achieve extremely high densities while also providing adequate ventilation for the residents. Narrow walkways outside of the homes have become extensions of interior space and facilitate commercial activity throughout the community. The residents exhibited additional signs of ingenuity by collectively making improvements to the public spaces with salvaged construction material. Again, their efforts have been noticed.

Plans are being made in conjunction with the International Program in Architecture and Design (INDA) of Chulalongkorn University to expand the community’s public space to create a flexible gathering space for the community to use throughout the day and provide a clear entry point to this otherwise obscured community. This space could also accommodate after-school activities for children as well seating for community meetings to further enhance their lives.

A community’s pride in its public spaces equates to its pride in itself.

Providing public spaces are not often seen by the members or a community or even outside observers as important to the improvement in the lives of low-income residents. They are sometimes looked upon as extravagances. What these two examples demonstrate is that a communities pride in its public spaces often equates to its pride in itself. Without that pride the alienation generated by poverty is not relieved. Those most successful lacking any attachment will then often leave the community and further impoverish it.

To enhance that sense of pride and identity design of public spaces should begin by building into the design the needs and wishes of the nearby community. Investment in public space should benefit the existing community directly. Public spaces should be designed to be open to all, the surrounding neighborhood as well as the larger urban area.

Security and informal settlements: Bangkok.

Thai people

Thai people (Photo credit: Cak-cak)

Crime in Thailand and in Bangkok:

Several sources rank Thailand among the more crime ridden countries in the world (The Eighth United Nations survey on Crime Trends and the Criminal Justice System (2002), Amnesty International and others). As in many urban areas, this high level of violence, drugs and crime falls heavily upon the poor. In Bangkok, it falls especially hard on the almost 1 million people living the informal settlements that dot the city. The United Nations Seventh Congress on Criminal Justice in a Changing World indicates that there is a statistical relationship between crime rates and migration of the poor into informal settlements in urban areas where the exigencies of survival in their current environment shreds whatever sense of community they may have had in the neighborhoods they left behind.

Proposed solutions to the lack of security experienced by members of informal settlements.

Most programs to address crime focus on helping individuals gain the resources to enable them to leave behind the slums with their endemic crime and poverty. Others believe that amelioration of the crime problem in these informal communities is a matter of more and better policing. Still others believe providing and enhancing infrastructure and health programs to the community could turn the tide of despair and violence.

No doubt each approach needs to be part of the whole solution. Nevertheless, without community building, it seems clear that these informal settlements of the poor and migrants will remain breeding grounds for crime. Security of any kind for residents of informal and poverty-stricken communities begins with the recognition by the residents themselves that they are in fact a community and that they can do something about what happens to it.

While there are a number of community building organizations at work in these neighborhoods of Bangkok, none seems to have crime suppression as a major or primary goal. Perhaps this is a function of the ubiquitous nature of the national police system in the country. On the other hand, it also may be the endemic lack of the basic elements of a sense of community that stunts the growth of this essential indication of a vigorous self-assured populace.

BAAN MANKONG PROGRAM

Although Thailand lacks institutions or organizations focused on public safety and crime suppression outside of the national police system, some programs and organizations in Bangkok build into their operations mechanisms that encourage informal settlements assume control of their destinies and by so doing address their unique security needs. One of the most successful and vibrant initiatives of this type is the BAAN MANKONG PROGRAM.

The Thai government set up BAAN MANKONG in 2003. According to the organization’s spokespeople, the program channels government funds (infrastructure subsidies and housing and land loans) directly to urban poor community organizations. The program allows urban poor communities to be key actors in the housing and other upgrades to their community.

The members of the community control the funding, manage the projects and carry out the improvements. They also undertake most of the building activities themselves, which means most of the funds would remain within the community and work as seed capital for additional investments in housing and community.

Bangkok’s 1,200 urban poor settlements house almost a third of Thailand’s urban poor spread across 50 khets (districts). BAAN MANKONG regards each district as a city. every district does its own survey, forms a joint committee with all key actors and develops a 3 year upgrading program.

The BAAN MANKONG program promotes more than physical upgrading. The communities design and manage their own physical improvements. This helps stimulate deeper but less tangible changes in social structures, managerial systems and confidence within the poor communities affected.

The BAAN MANKONG differs from more traditional approaches to community building in that:

1. The community through their own local organizations controls the funding and the management as well as undertakes most of the building. Government agencies are no longer the planners, implementors and construction manager delivering for beneficiaries. The community now assumes those roles.

2. The community’s needs as defined by the community shapes the nature and amount of funding.

3 Secure land tenure for the residents is negotiated locally in each case through a variety of means such as cooperative land buy, long-term lease contracts, land swaps or user rights..

4. It stimulates changes in the community’s social structure in many areas including crime suppression.

An example of the effect of a BAAN MANKONG project on Bangkok’s informal settlements took place in the Ramkhamhaeng area in Bangkok. Two initial pilot projects sparked off a larger development process involving seven other communities.

The first was Ruam Samakkee, a squatter community of 124 families occupying 0.8 hectares of Crown Property Bureau land. After forming a cooperative and developing a new layout plan for two-story homes with architects, the community negotiated a 30 year lease.

The second was at Kao Pattana where 34 families lived on a marshy 0.8 hectare site also belonging to the Crown Property Bureau. The residents planned to build their own homes on this site but found the landfill cost too high. Seven other communities joined them to prepare a redevelopment plan providing for over 1000 households on 40 hectares in the area. Working with the landowner, the project created new residential areas linked to markets and parks. Although the plan involves reblocking in some areas and relocation nearby in others, everyone will remain in the area with long-term leases through community cooperatives.

Unfortunately for Baan Mankong, the new government suspended funding while it reviewed priorities. About 3 billion baht (Approximately $100 million) remain from the original 6 billion baht authorization.

Recently, about 100 members of the Four Regions Slum Network (FRSN) gathered at the Department of Social Development and Welfare, pressing the government to fund the Baan Mankong instead or another program that focuses on middle-income housing. Nevertheless, a representative for the government indicated that it intends to accelerate spending for the program.

Who is safe? What does in mean to be safe?

One question that can always be asked when analyzing the nature and extent of security available to the poor and the destitute living in the slums of most large cities is, from whom are they to be secure; other residents, outsiders or those ostensibly entrusted with providing that security? Perhaps even more fundamental is the issue of security from what; violence, hopelessness, sickness, fear or something else? In many, if not all cases, these questions are answered best, not by which physical security system the community adopts but rather its ability to grasp control of the means to secure its own protection.

Crime in Thailand and in Bangkok:

Several sources rank Thailand  among the more crime ridden countries in the world, right up there with South Africa, the USA and Columbia (The Eighth United Nations survey on Crime Trends and the Criminal Justice System (2002), Amnesty International and others). According to some reports, Thailand is the #1 producer of opium and heroin in the world. A major transit  point for those drugs is the capital Bangkok. Last year Bangkok had reported, 20,000 assaults, 13,500 burglaries, and 5,000 murders.

As in many urban areas, this high level of violence, drugs and crime falls heavily upon the poor. In Bangkok it falls especially hard on the almost 1 million people living the informal settlements that dot the city like acne on the face of a teenager. The overcrowding and social dislocation experienced in these informal communities are a catalyst for some of their most common difficulties. Problems, such as poor housing and infrastructure, improper waste removal and drainage systems, lack of clean water supply and abundant diseases, contribute to the plight of the residents, exacerbate hopelessness felt by the them and contribute greatly to those communities susceptibility to the plague of crime and violence.

The United Nations Seventh Congress on Criminal Justice in a Changing World indicated that there is a statistical relationship between crime rates and migration of the poor into informal settlements in urban areas where the exigencies of survival in their current environment shreds whatever sense of community they belonged to in the past

Proposed solutions to the lack of security experienced by members of informal settlements:

Most programs to address crime focus on helping individuals gain the resources to enable them to leave the slums with their endemic crime and poverty behind. For example, the Urban Neighbors of Hope (UNOH) primarily provides support to assist children in the hopes that through education some of them can rise above the despair and poverty, leave it behind and take their place in the wider world.

Some believe that amelioration of the crime problem in these informal communities is a matter of more and better policing. Usually the government and the existing police rely most heavily on this approach.

Others promote providing and enhancing infrastructure and health programs to the community. They believe that these programs could turn the tide of despair and violence.

No doubt each approach needs to be part of whole. Nevertheless, without community building, it seems clear that these informal settlements of migrants and of the poor will remain breeding grounds for crime. While there are a number of community building organizations at work in these neighborhoods of Bangkok, none seems to have crime suppression as a major or primary goal. Perhaps this is a function of the ubiquitous nature of the national police system in the country. On the other hand, it also may be the endemic lack of the basic elements of a sense of community that stunts the growth of this essential indication of a vigorous self assured populace.

Some of these elements are well known. They include, for example, defensible land tenure for the residents and community managed and designed public spaces.

As programs like BAAN MANKONG bring revitalization and control over their environment to the informal settlements, we can hope that they will cease to be someplace to escape from, but a home to which one will be proud to return to.

Community planning: Personal retrospective

Simulation - 7

Simulation – 7 (Photo credit: onestudentry)

 

Over two decades ago I had the opportunity to manage a governmental entity that among other things, was charged with resolving conflicts between development, community and environmental concerns. We developed a process, relatively novel at the time, encouraging those involved or concerned (later to be called “stakeholders”) to solve their disagreements among themselves.

 

The process required a team of technicians that could immediately turn a suggestion into a visual representation. This included someone capable of converting the discussions as they occurred into visual and organized notes for all to see. It also included a compendium of the financial and fiscal resources currently available thus forcing the participants to consider the same type of tradeoffs government and private interests must make in deciding what can be done and how long will it take. Finally it required an entity, in this case our agency, who could more or less on the spot make commitments to carry out or support with financial resources the carrying out of at least initial elements of the agreed upon program.

 

What surprised me the most was not that we were successful in almost all cases, as we were, but that despite the heated rhetoric expressed before regulatory or legislative bodies, or in the media the disagreements were so often so slight.

 

Although conflict resolution techniques and design charrettes continue to be used almost everywhere, our particular intensive program eventually fell into disuse. That was because the urban areas included in our jurisdiction were limited in number and once the specific issues in conflict were resolved in these communities they remained so for a decade or longer. Also the process was management and personnel intensive and inevitably such activities in any organization eventually are replaced by a more procedural and careerist focus.

 

Fast forward to today, modern communications technology and social networking appears to be transforming almost everything we do, from how and where we work to how we entertain ourselves and socialize.

 

In community and urban development we now have all the information we could want at our fingertips although not necessarily organized and usable. A simple internet research shows that we have a plethora online communities dedicated to community action of one kind or another. Yet what happens when these online communities conflict with one another? As anyone who has actually been involved in assisting in the resolution of significant conflicts, good intentions and talking things out are not enough. Not only must thoughts and ideas be converted into a communications medium so that each participant has the same understanding as everyone else, but immediate unbiased response on the technical facts must be available if the enthusiasm and commitment to the process is not to wither and die waiting for it. Finally the facts of the limits must be available in a usable form to the participants.

 

Social media, in regard to community planning provides an advanced medium for sharing of information and ideas and encouraging coöperation and should the participants agree collective action. However, before collective action can occur, especially for something a complex and contentious as community planning the most difficult form of group or collective action is the resolution of those conflicts that more often than not are the reason for undertaking the collaborative planning process in the first place.

 

Modern communications technology and social networks offer the promise of real resolution of community conflicts. Nevertheless, it remains a promise that needs to be addressed.

 

 

 

 

From The Bard to the Sun King: It’s Always Something

In previous posts I focused on the effects of modern mobile communication technology on how and where we live and work and how it alters our lives. I tried to show how those changes impact not just the individuals themselves but society at large. In one of those posts I described how a retired judge used the technology to make it easier to change careers and become a fairly well-regarded sculptor in bronze.

Much more recently, I travelled to New York City where I met up with another artist, the well-known sculptor of many notable public art installations in California and Washington, Brian Goggin. He was on the East Coast working on what he describes as an immersive sculptural installation. A work of art that also will function as a restaurant to be called Preserve24 located at the corner of Houston and Allen Streets in the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side of Manhattan. His intention is to turn the entire space into a single integrated work of art using primarily re-used materials in an artistically novel design. A design he believes will be “reminiscent of an expedition society.”

I caught up with Brian at a metal shop in Brooklyn where he was busily working on assembling the dramatic sculptural staircase that will lead patrons into the restaurant. The staircase is designed to look like an entrance to the elevated subway line.

I asked him if modern communications technology, mobile phones or applications has made a difference in how he goes about his business as well as where chooses to live and work.

He pointed out that he uses his smart phone and other technology in their most basic form as a tool, to gather information and to communicate visual images, text and vocal information. Nevertheless, he believes that it has made a substantial difference in how he goes about his art.

He describes what he does as similar to a film director creating a team to manifest a project; engineers, welders, carpenters and the like; the artist as director and inventor/visionary. In a way, he mused, his art can be thought of as almost the same type of business as producing flash mobs.

Photos of projects in progress and materials can be sent to his assistant as well as to clients increasing his ability to include visuals with conversation. Changes can be proposed and implemented immediately. There is no longer a need to take slides, duplicate them and send them through the mail. Costs are lowered and time waste reduced. He and his collaborators can work directly from drawings shared through text and email to enable him to work over great distances with his team members .

He can now manage much of his projects, like the one he is working on in New York, from his home in California half of the time. He can work in teams with other artists living and working in places all over the globe to produce a single collaborative work.

He said that although he now can live and work anywhere, he prefers to be where he can still interact directly with other people; conceptualization can occur at home and fabrication at suitable remote sites.

Cities have always been where artists gathered to meet clients, share ideas and fabricate their art works. Now, through modern communication technology, in our cities a new Renaissance may be in store for us as artists regather, not in low-cost deteriorating warehouse districts on the peripheries of urban areas but at their centers.

Peter Grenell director of the San Mateo Harbor District and a keen observer of history as well as an accomplished raconteur once observed:

“Never forget It was just 35 years more or less from Shakespeare to Louis XIV ; From the French and Indian War to the Louisiana Purchase ; From ‘Et Tu., Brute’ to the kid in the manger; From Fred Allen to Laugh-In.”

We tend to look back into history and see social change as a slow process when we view it through the prism of technological transformation or the speed in which the changes are disseminated. But those born into the frugal world of the Bard died in the extravagant age of the Sun King. Many of those that heard the cheers or jeers that accompanied the imperial pretensions of Julius Caesar ended their day’s hearing the whispers of a new king born in the East. Social change is generational. Its scope and reach often technological. But social change is also reflexive. The reaction to the changes also changes things, often in ways that cannot be predicted.

Tomorrows urban areas, impacted by modern communications technology will not be the same as the urban areas of today. The Cities of our fathers or grandparents that were the smoky chaotic centers of industry and trade were not the same as the urban areas of our time; uncertain places, slowly decaying as motorized transportation took people, industry and commerce away to less stressful environments. The Cities of the future, fashioned in part by the effects of the communications technologies of today will be different still, probably in ways we cannot imagine. They will be neither as bleak as feared or as paradisiacal as hoped, but in my opinion the experience of those changes and how we accommodate to them are much of what life is all about. It will be both frightening and exhilarating.

(The above post is taken from my blog that appeared is Smart+Connected Communities Institute.)

How Modern Communications Technology Makes You and Your Community Safer

 

English: Coachella Valley © 2004 Matthew Trump

English: Coachella Valley © 2004 Matthew Trump (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earthquake Preparedness, First Responders and Limited-Access Hybrid Communications Systems

“Articles about advances in personal electronic devices often seem focused on frivolity–playing games, seeing where your friends are eating dinner, and watching DVDs–but the real news is that these technological advances also provide valuable tools for personal and public safety.” — From a personal communication with Ruth Galanter, former Los Angeles City Council member.

A few days ago the Smart + Connected Communities Institute referenced a Berkman Center paper regarding Lessons Learned from the Great Earthquake. Included in the lessons learned was the significant effect on recovery created by destruction of or damage to electronic and other data caches. The paper urged, among other things, creation of a collaborative network to protect valuable information infrastructure in a crisis.

On September 12, 2012, California’s Seismic Safety Commission along with its technology partner Seismic Warning Systems Inc., took the initial steps to install such a system to deal with the needs of first responders to earthquake disasters in the highly seismically active Coachella Valley in California.

The system requires placing sensors every 6-12 kilometers or less along selected faults. These sensors will analyze p-waves (nondestructive waves that precede the more destructive waves in earthquakes) and, following detection of large earthquakes, send alerts to devices in major-emergency response facilities such as fire stations, public health facilities, communication facilities and the like. The devices, in turn, will pre-operate those essential functions often damaged when an earthquake hits, such as opening fire station apparatus room doors, turning on lights and displaying warnings of public safety and utility dispatch monitors, closing off gas mains, turning on emergency electric generators and so forth. Furthermore, it allows emergency services personnel to receive the early warnings by PA systems in their buildings to allow them to begin their preparation to respond to the event. Early warnings can also be sent to emergency personnel through their personal communications devices. (Variations of this system protecting individual buildings and related sites have been installed in several places around the country, including, for instance, on the Cisco corporate campus in San Jose, California and its day care center as well.)

In addition, as the Japanese study recommends, mechanisms for protecting the data in major data centers can be installed that automatically trigger data-saving measures and customer-transparent operations, such as switching over to redundant systems. Key personnel can then be notified that such operations have begun so they can take whatever additional actions may be required.

These types of pre-disaster management triggering systems, when combined with personal communication technology, could be called “limited-access hybrid communications systems.” Access could / would be “limited” to a particular set of users (e.g., executives, emergency personnel, facilities managers). “Hybrid” in the sense that the mechanical / electrical systems and the communications systems are intended to operate in tandem. (Of course, one could argue that a mapping application used to find driving directions becomes a hybrid system or perhaps a “mash-up” when the user jumps into his car and drives to his destination–or uses GPS while driving–but it is difficult to classify the user as a member of significantly limited user group…. Anyway, if anyone has the need for a better definition and has some ideas about it, I am all ears.)

Another example of a somewhat similar of system but focused more an individual property and personal security would be those home and facility security systems that notifies security personnel and the property owner via their mobile devices if something on the property has gone amiss — such as a break-in, a fire or even an appliance left running while an owner is on vacation — and allows for the remote operation of various systems on the property from the mobile devices.

Many medical and emergency public service personnel today carry smart phones, pads and notebook computers containing applications that assist them in carrying out their duties. Although they are clearly trained in the skills required for dealing with emergencies in the field, the amount of information required to manage complex modern emergency field equipment and execute the various protocols for dealing with the variety of medical issues they may confront while dealing with the other effects of the crises, (e.g. fires, structural stability and the like) makes reliance on human memory for procedures and protocols unsatisfactory, if not downright dangerous. The time pressures these individuals work under makes referring to handbooks and texts unwieldy and time-consuming even if they were able to carry around all the volumes required to cover every eventuality they may meet.

To deal with this problem, applications have been developed covering a host of those emergency protocols and procedures. These are not simply informational applications, like for example a handbook digitalized on to a smart phone, but often are applications capable of guiding and responding to the emergency personnel’s real time needs during operation of the equipment and execution of the protocols that may be necessary to save a life.

For example, the American Heart Association has produced a number of applications carried by many emergency services and medical personnel that contain protocols, procedures and check lists for operation of appropriate equipment and treatment of cardiac problems in the field. Many more applications like this exist and their number is increasing, especially in emergency medical and disaster prevention and recovery activities.

This appears to be a growing and welcome phenomenon. In fact, I recently heard that there may be applications under development by several international organizations that could assist medical personnel in treating biohazards in the field to stem their spread across national boundaries.

As Ruth Galanter mentions, discussion about modern mobile communication devices and their associated applications often focus on social media, games, and other ways to simplify some daily activities even if they do not necessarily simplify daily life itself. But the ability of these devices — often used in concert with various Internet applications–to extend the range and efficiency of various critical, disparate systems — some hard-wired and some virtual should not be overlooked in community planning to address community development and maintenance needs. No longer just an issue of budgets, personnel and existing infrastructure, community and emergency response planners need to ask also if application of modern communication technology can make whatever it is they are trying to prepare for simpler, quicker, cheaper and more effective.

When the forest fire advances on your house and you are packing the car to flee, you really won’t care about playing games! You will want the Fire Department rushing to your aid and the comfort of knowing they know what to do when they get there. Technology can take care of this.

 

Conflict Resolution in the Age of Mobile Communication Technology: Can it happen?

Simulation - 8

Simulation – 8 (Photo credit: onestudentry)

Over two decades ago I had the opportunity to manage a governmental entity that, among other things, was charged with resolving conflicts between development, community and environmental concerns. We developed a process, relatively novel at the time, encouraging those involved or concerned (later to be called “stakeholders”) to solve their disagreements among themselves.

We soon discovered that in order for the process to work effectively it required a team of technicians capable of immediately turning a suggestion into a visual representation. Also included in the team was someone capable of converting the discussions as they occurred into attractive visuals and organized notes for all to see. We also drew upon a compendium of the financial and fiscal resources. Knowledge of fiscal resource limits and how to apply them created a type of gaming situation that forced the participants to consider the same type of tradeoffs that government and private interests must make when they need to decide what can be done and how long will it take. Finally, the process required an entity, in this case our agency, that could more or less on the spot, make commitments to carry out at least the initial elements of the agreed-upon program.

What surprised me most was not that we were successful in almost all cases, as we were, but that despite what was suggested by the heated rhetoric expressed before regulatory or legislative bodies or in the media, the actual content of the disagreements among the contending camps of interest were often rather slight.

Although conflict resolution techniques and design charrettes continue to be used almost everywhere, our particular intensive program eventually fell into disuse. That was because the urban areas included in our jurisdiction were limited in number, and once the specific issues in conflict were resolved in these communities, they remained solved for a decade or longer or until new conflicts arose. Also the process was management and personnel intensive and inevitably such activities in any organization eventually are replaced by a more procedural and careerist focus.

Spending on information and communications tec...

Spending on information and communications technology in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fast forward to today. Modern communications technology and social networking appear to be transforming almost everything we do, from how and where we work to how we entertain ourselves and socialize.

In community and urban development we now have all the information we could want at our fingertips although not necessarily organized and usable. ( A deficiency that a site like the Smart+Connected Communities Institute seeks to remedy).

Simple Internet research shows that we have a plethora of online communities dedicated to community action of one kind or another. Yet what happens when these online communities conflict with one another? As anyone who has actually been involved in assisting in the resolution of significant conflicts knows, good intentions and talking things out are not always enough. Not only must thoughts and ideas be converted into a communications medium through which each participant has the same understanding as everyone else, but immediate unbiased response on the technical facts must be available if the enthusiasm and commitment to the process is not to wither and die waiting for it. Finally, the hard facts of the limits must be available in a usable form to the participants.

A diagram of the dispute resolution process, f...

A diagram of the dispute resolution process, for both content and user conduct issues. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Social media, in regards to community planning, provides an advanced platform for sharing information and ideas and encouraging coöperation and, should the participants agree, collective action.

Modern communications technology and social networks offer the promise of real resolution of community conflicts. Nevertheless, it remains a promise that needs to be addressed and nurtured.

Mobile communication technology and resilient walkable communities.

While at the health club a few days ago, I ran into a middle-aged acquaintance, a sailor in his working life, busily engrossed in his smart phone applications. I asked him how the device affected his life.

“Well,” he responded, “I don’t go to the movies, they’re free on-line. I don’t read books either. I shop on-line and the stuff is delivered. I live in the city, closer to medical services so I don’t need a car. I kept my motor bike for getting around. I keep in touch with friend’s all over the world, it’s cheaper than going there myself. Mostly it helps me save money for health care.”

A few weeks earlier, I asked my 20-year-old grandson the same question. He recently moved from San Francisco to the small Central Valley town of Reading where he does a modest business selling things on the internet.

“I can do business from anywhere now. Living is cheaper here. I’m nearer the mountains for skiing. I keep in touch with all my old friends. I have time to kick back with friends who live nearby.”

I am sure most people have had or heard similar conversations before.

These type of life-style choices go on around us all the time now. They have consequences; economic, social and on the community and its physical design.

For example, a decision by as little as three percent of potential second car purchasers to delay or permanently do without, could affect the entire automotive industry and those dependent on it resulting in companies like, say, General Motors unable to adequately finance expansion and replacement of assets by sales of equity thereby forcing a greater reliance on debt financing and cost cutting with the costs to be cut coming primarily in the areas of labor and innovation.

Although the two people quoted are definitely not “Main Stream” (e.g., house in the suburbs and particular consumption patterns), nevertheless, in social and economic contexts, those on the margins or edges can and often do have effects far greater than their numbers suggest.

There are many things that can be drawn from these conversations that one can speculate about. Although I may discuss some in later blog posts, my focus here is on the realization by many like my sailor friend and my grandson that mobile communication and the internet can cut down on their living costs in several ways.

For individuals, like the two above, the ability to do more with less and do it cheaper through modern technology transforms their life choices in ways that are only now beginning to be appreciated. Both men imply that modern technology lessens their need for high income to achieve their non-subsistence needs. They seem to view work as only the minimum needed to allow them to enjoy the full benefits of modern technology.

Imagine if you will, before embarking on their life’s work the young Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were offered a billion dollars to spend however they like, but they first must choose between working more than 10 hours a day six days a week in an exciting job as upper management in a large innovative corporation, or 4 hours a day or so working in some burger joint. Now, I cannot guess what Gates or Buffet would choose, but I suspect for most of us having more time to enjoy the billion dollars including using it to improve oneself or to engage in some appropriate life’s work would outweigh the less psychologically rewarding aspects of the burger job.

For many today like my two interviewees, modern technology offers them just that choice. Compared to say seventy years ago, modern relatively low-cost technology conceivably is comparable to the entertainment, informational and interpersonal benefits they could buy with a billion dollars (or the equivalent in today’s dollars) then.

So what does this have to do with smart and connected communities of the future? A lot actually. Both the sailor and the young man, largely because modern communications technologies satisfy so much or their needs relatively inexpensively, have settled comfortably into what has been referred to as “resilient walkable” communities. Older communities, with existing and less expensive housing well served by local urban amenities such as better transportation options. Ironically these resilient walkable communities tend to be denser than the suburbs and foster more interpersonal interactions (coffee houses and the like)

Recent studies seem to indicate that American neighborhoods with better transportation choices have far more discretionary income than the average American family or those who live in the outer, “Auto-dependent” suburbs. An average family earning $40,000 per year can save over $4000 per year by moving into a transit oriented development. They can then use that money to pay off the debts that they incurred to the banks that persuaded them modern economics can violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics and grow forever or they can spend some of it upgrading their personal communication capability.

During my talks with them I got the impression that the nature of their more mobile lifestyles lead them to prefer inexpensive rentals rather than being tied down to a fixed asset and that their living space needs have shrunk also.

I also surmise that they are not searching for expensive upgrades to their homes or neighborhoods such as energy independence or technological displays, preferring to save their money for better and more versatile applications to those devices that remain as close to them as their clothing, go where they go, satisfy their needs and connect them to the world.

They seem to be turning Thorstein Veblen’s observation on its head. We may be changing from a society of Conspicuous Consumption,” to one of “Conspicuous Non-consumption.”

Perhaps we are entering a time where for some, possibly even many, the future of community may be in an application and everything else merely a temporary accommodation.

Is a new world being created in America?

First some startling facts about life in America today:

1. Only 55.3 percent of all Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 have jobs.
2. There are 240 million working age people. Only about 140 million of them are working.
3. According to CareerBuilder, only 23 percent of American companies plan to hire more employees in 2012.
4. Since the year 2000, the United States has lost 10% of its middle class jobs. In the year 2000 there were about 72 million middle class jobs in the United States but today there are only about 65 million middle class jobs.
5. According to the New York Times, approximately 100 million Americans are either living in poverty or in “the fretful zone just above it.”
6. According to that same article in the New York Times, 34 percent of all elderly Americans are living in poverty or “near poverty,” and 39 percent of all children in America are living in poverty or “near poverty.”
7. In 1984, the median net worth of households led by someone 65 or older was 10 times larger than the median net worth of households led by someone 35 or younger. Today, the median net worth of households led by someone 65 or older is 47 times larger than the median net worth of households led by someone 35 or younger.
8. Since the year 2000, incomes for U.S. households led by someone between the ages of 25 and 34 have fallen by about 12 percent after you adjust for inflation.
9. The total value of household real estate in the U.S. has declined from $22.7 trillion in 2006 to $16.2 trillion today. Most of that wealth has been lost by the middle class.
10. Many formerly great manufacturing cities are turning into ghost towns. Since 1950, the population of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has declined by more than 50 percent. In Dayton, Ohio 18.9 percent of all houses now stand empty.

(See: http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/30-statistics-that-show-that-the-middle-class-is-dying-right-in-front-of-our-eyes-as-we-enter-2012#ixzz1pfpGZedV)

The most significant take away from the above dolorous statistics and the most predictive of the future of American society is the sudden and calamitous reversal of traditional American expectations that each generation is destined to enjoy greater economic and material success than the prior generation.

To step away from examining the political and economic causes of that reversal, hopefully without ignoring or diminishing them, it may be worthwhile speculating on whether or not there are other contributing or exacerbating causes.

One possible and I guess one can call a positive influence on this seeming slide is the emergence in our economy and society of the pervasive and ubiquitous impact of mobile communication and social networking. To look at it in one way, those most proficient in using the devices, have the potential to provide for pennies almost all ones needs except food and shelter. If that is even remotely so, what remains of the incentive to work hard and achieve material success, if such success is directed in part to acquiring those things necessary to travel to and impress others or to entertain oneself? And in terms of personal satisfaction, proficiency in manipulating the device may be adequate for many and if truth be known more personally rewarding than what was available for most people only a generation ago.

So, if I am right that access to basic food, basic shelter and inexpensive mobile communication devices and applications may satisfy an increasing number of the emerging generation, who grows the food, who delivers it, who builds the shelters and the devices? Robots? Perhaps that is why Amazon purchased Kiva Robots. What happens to the economy if a sizable portion of the population chooses to travel less, buy less clothing or cosmetics and the like?

And what sort of world is being created? Do those without food and shelter take it by force from those who have, like they did thousands of years ago? Who fights to preserve this rudimentary lifestyle? Does the industrial economy continue to contract and along with it the metaphors for work –  credit and money, find less and less upon which to, well, work so that gambling appears as valid a use for it as any? And what is the purpose of education? Are these new people, lazy parasites for opting out as they may do? If so, what do you make them do instead, work on the farms?

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