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  • Writer's pictureCecilia Wandiga

Kenya Sustainable Cities - Can We Design Positive Outcomes?

Sustainability is inevitably a convergence of local and global transformation efforts. Most of the core issues (improved air, water and soil quality, pollution and toxins reduction, fair labour practices, poverty reduction, food security, fair trade...) are not issues any individual or country can solve in isolation. At a biochemical level, chemicals and microbes do not follow geographic boundaries. At a socio-technical level, the dynamic evolution of concepts and innovation can no longer function effectively within confined walls. Most importantly, we have learned that no one country or group of countries can super impose its normative preferences on the global community. 

There is still a lot more global cohension that needs to be accomplished before we can begin to consider sustainability principles as sedimented. In our attempt to redefine our behaviour and the consequences of our behaviour, we use many shared yet ambiguous terms. Developing a clear understanding of what these terms mean will enable us to develop a global patchwork quilt that celebratea our unique local solutions while uniting us in the common pursuit of a better standard of living. 

We talk of design as a creative planning activity that helps us find solutions but we do not talk about the specifics of any particular design we are seeking to change as a national or global collective. We talk about integrating culture within the design process without addressing the specific cultural norms that are similar or different across different groups. 

Let us start with the belief that Hollywood drives culture. In reality, this is true for the United States and specifically for those who look to Hollywood for guidance on cultural norms. Even within the US there are those who prefer to identify with the cultural norms of their families or local communities. Across the world many view Hollywood and the theatric realm as an embodiment of norms that are to be avoided rather than embraced. Some prefer to focus on daily life role models while others feel there is a need for more wholesome and spiritual icons that focus less on fantasy and more on traditional principles.  

The truth is that our acceptance or rejection of a set of beliefs and practices will define how we attempt to design the world around us. Ontology is the term used to describe the philosophy that governs how we define reality. What makes us accept or reject something as real and valid? 

The following article provides excellent insights on improving the clarity of our shared understanding of the terms Design and Culture:

Ontological Design by Anne-Marie Willis, a professor of design theory at the German University in Cairo:

“That designing is fundamental to being human — we design, that is to say, we deliberate, plan and scheme in ways which prefigure our actions and makings — in turn we are designed by our designing and by that which we have designed (i.e., through our interactions with the structural and material specificities of our environments);

That this adds up to a double movement — we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us ”

Damian Madray, Chief Experience Officer @imwithpresence

. "Culture-Thinking is a mindset towards actively observing the behaviors a design would generate, its impact on our culture and iterating for better human interactions in our society."

Hence, through these definitions, we can begin to see how understanding culture is the key to creating successful socio-technical design. Especially, understanding what is the real meaning / motivation behind why we embrace or reject things. We can begin to see Cultural Design less as a forced or imposed social engineering experiment and more as a studied integration of the local shared norms and traditions needed to make a technology (including new idea) socially acceptable. 

Let us look at two goals of sustainable cities from the perspective of Cultural Design:

1. Poverty Reduction 

In the 1950's, Jay Forrester's research team at MIT were among the global pioneers attempting to see if we could transfer design procedures that had been very effective in enabling global collaboration in the design of mechanical objects to a set of procedures that could be equally effective in the design of social systems. A field we now call system dynamics. 

System dynamics has given us a set of tools that enable us to use historical (anything that has already happened) data in order to understand the complex interactions that we see in the real world. For example: we spend money on job training programs and while we see the skills and incomes of those who are trained improve, we also see poverty levels in the target are increase.  

The Reason for this Conundrum: more people who are unemployed flock to the target area in search of opportunities which then increases the strain on social systems which in turn increases the collapse of support systems (housing, food, family counseling) that enable those who are trained to be effective and the original problem gets worse, not better, even when we are doing the right things.

What we learned: understanding biological scaling is critical to effective Cultural Design because humans are not static. We are migratory and our migration patterns are driven by the perception that certain geographical destinations are the perfect location for our aspirational endeavors. Once we define a particular destination (cities in our own countries or in a foreign land) as the panacea for making our dreams come true, we never stop to perform an individual assessment of whether the city has the capacity to absorb more people and still deliver what we expect. We just move under the assumption that when we arrive we will get our piece of the pie even if all evidence clearly shows the pie was finished 10 years ago. Even more perplexing, once we finally accept the reality that the pie is finished, we refuse to move back to our original location and say we prefer to wait indefinitely for another pie. The refusal to leave convinces others there is now a secret pie that everyone is hiding and refusing to share so they too move to the city, find the pie was finished 10 years ago and refuse to move back. Nobody thinks of baking the pie back at home yet everyone complains of missing home. 

You can see glimpses of how these models work through these articles that present linear models (show the interaction between a few variables, not the whole system). If mathematics and statistics give you migraines, focus on the written explanations, particularly the conclusions. The salient lessons from the conclusion of each article have been extracted to help you focus your reading, but, understanding the full scope of the information presented in each article is equally important. 

Gravity and scaling laws of city to city migration [read for an understanding that the "pie" mentioned is a metaphorical reference to accessibility to improved quality of life]

"A large city versus a small town

Living in a large city may mean an improved access to education, job opportunities and income, among other “benefits”, but on average and it does not mean better education or income to all; however, the costs of living in a large city is experienced by all its inhabitants. The population living in Kibera, for instance (a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, with approx 1.2 million slum dwellers) or Rocinha (the largest favela of Rio de Janeiro) enjoy a limited number of the benefits of living in a large city but they pay the price for longer commuting distances, a higher price for the food and services, pollution, crime rates and more. Thus, although large cities provide certain benefits, more people moving into large cities does not necessarily translate to people enjoying a better standard of living, but might, unfortunately, translate into greater inequality and severe socio-economic problems within the cities."

INSIGHTS GAINED: Moving to a city will most likely increase the cost of living and simultaneously lower the quality of life for those with low incomes because low income individuals will face greater challenges in affording access to the mechanisms needed to improve the quality of life. 

Biological aspects of human migration and mobility [read for an understanding of migration across human history, including pre-biblical times]

"Geographical migration and social mobility impact on a wide range of human traits. The earliest studies were on the impact of international geographical migration on anthropometric traits and indices which provided evidence of selective movement and of developmental plasticity. Studies on social migration (mobility) have generally provided evidence for selective migration particularly for height and IQ such that mean differences between occupational groups will occur or be maintained. Migration has been the major cause of epidemics throughout human history while the impact of rural-to-urban migration on health is heterogeneous. Migration can be a stressful experience. However, not all migrants will experience or respond to the stress in the same way and individual responses will be influenced by a number of personal, social and cultural factors some of which can be alleviated by social support networks and cultural congruity. There is considerable evidence that some migrant groups are more at risk of developing mental disorders. Whether differences in Basal Metabolic Rate are associated with migration remains unclear."

INSIGHTS GAINED: We often use the phrase "birds of a feather flock together" but we never fully understand the impact of its meaning. Humans gravitate towards what we find familiar. This includes familiar traits in other humans. Hence, marriages, job offers, socializing will happen most readily between groups that perceive themselves as homogeneous (the same). As the homogeneous groupings increase in number, there is an increase in the emergence and establishment of dominant groups that, at first unintentionally but later deliberately, seek to exclude anyone who is different. Now we have a basis for understanding how conflict and violence between groups escallates. 

2. Religious Tolerance 

Now that we understand the outcomes, we can use social science research to begin to link the psychology of behaviour with the outcomes we see.  

Let us examine a current global phenomenon: religious intolerance and escallating violence even in wealthy countries. 

Mutually Escalating Religious Violence (merv)

The video helps us to see how we have a psychological tendency to imagine we are being attacked when we feel isolated. We assume nepharious (evil) intentions in anything that is not familiar. We react with hostility which ofcourse provokes a hostile reaction and then we feel sanctimoniously justified in proclaiming others are evil.

The project examined the tendency to ascribe demonic intentions to those who do not embrace any particular religious practice. In theory, tolerance is the ability to accept all religions as equally valid. Scientifically, religious neutrality means not believing in a supernatural force but rather focusing on life as a finite human experience. There is no judgment regarding which ontology (personal belief about reality) is better. There is only the examination of what types of beliefs contribute to mutually escalating violence and why. The findings are quite powerful:

"Using a separate model, Future of Religion and Secular Transitions (forest), the team found that people tend to secularize when four factors are present: existential security (you have enough money and food), personal freedom (you’re free to choose whether to believe or not), pluralism (you have a welcoming attitude to diversity), and education (you’ve got some training in the sciences and humanities). If even one of these factors is absent, the whole secularization process slows down. This, they believe, is why the U.S. is secularizing at a slower rate than Western and Northern Europe.

“The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen,” said Shults’s collaborator, Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University. “Lately, there’s been encouragement from the highest levels of government to take a less than welcoming cultural attitude to pluralism. These are forms of resistance to secularization.”

The Atlantic news article is a bit slanted towards the very paranoia that is being studied in the research but negative news reporting is a global trend these days. Unfortunately, negative news reporting creates the perception that we are powerless to alter the negative dynamics that surround us, our behaviour becomes more despondent and we surrender ourselves to learned helplessness instead of collaborating to create the positive changes we want to bring about. 

Putting it all together (what the findings in all of the above articles alert us we need to figure out how to solve): we have greater physical mobility, we congregate in cities with scarce resources and the increase in city population decreases quality of life, we then band together and attack those who are not similar to us, we validate our paranoia by reading negative news, mutually reinforced violence starts to escalate, then we replicate this behavior on social media and we produce "the gospel of animosity" and say there is no hope for salvation unless we force everyone to be like ourselves.

The root cause: resource scarcity (lack of food, money, education, housing, safety, dignified living). 

Here are the findings on mutually escalating religious violence presented in a more technical and objective manner

Lessons for Designing Sustainable Socio-Technical Systems and Cities:

When we design our socio-technical systems, e.g. social media apps, we cannot just focus on building a cool gadget and think of design as adding new colours or features. 

What we need to examine are the physical resource constraints and their varying manifestations across different geographic locations.  

What does food scarcity look like in New York City versus Osloo versus Nairobi versus Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai or Melbourne or Paris or Belgrade?  

What words and themes convey the reality of meaning of what it means to experience food scarcity in each of these cities? 

How does the condition of food scarcity and the associated local themes trigger us to accept or reject a new technology that could very well be the mechanism we need to reduce food scarcity? 

What if something as simple as inadvertently choosing the wrong colour on the technology interface is triggering the subconscious paranoia that an app for food donations is dangerous to local cultural norms? 

Instead of decrying cyber bullying, why don't we design our social media tools to reduce the paranoia and hostility we know is inevitable in global urbanized environment (physical or virtual)?

How can Facebook likes and social media ratings be driven by algorithms that reinforce collaborative social behaviour instead of homogeneous preferences and groupings?

Most importantly, as we experiment with different ways to improve systems and technologies, how can we design our social media tools to reduce the inevitable shock and fatigue we experience every time there is a change we have not had a chance to fully understand let alone get used to. This leaves us in a state psychological isolation and uncertainty that escalates our paranoia and subconscious fear of the unknown.

As you can see, Cultural Design is not just about understanding the symbols and artifacts we prefer in our end user functionality, Cultural Design is about using social science to design our technologies with a better understanding of what makes us human. 

Visit our website for a description of transboundary and cross-disciplinary technological issues on sustainability that can be improved by a better understanding of cultural design

Images Courtesy of Pixabay. Com

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