Sunday, August 13, 2017

Big Data, Urban Science and the Search for New Ways of Improving Life in the City

 Imagine you had all the data you could possibly want about a city. I’m talking about real time readouts of all inputs and output, along with documentation of public satisfaction levels with all aspects of city life.  Further, presume you had access to similar information for other cities as well, so you could see trends and patterns. What might you do with all this information to help improve the quality of life in the city? 

There are some urban planners and city administrators who believe that if they had that kind of information they would be able to figure out when and how to spend public money, allocate equipment and personnel and restrict and support private efforts most efficiently.  They also think they could use the same data to anticipate certain tipping points so that traffic snarls could be avoided before they happen, public works staff (including police and fire) could be deployed where they would be most needed, and infrastructure repairs could be managed with minimal disruption. With such information, the presumption is, water, electricity and other city resources could be priced and deployed on a real-time basis in the most cost-effective way possible. Empty housing and commercial space could be repurposed almost immediately, and priced to match the city’s urban development objectives. Taxes and fees could be collected electronically while feedback from residents could be shared with officials on a continuous basis. With the right kinds of electronic monitoring (including sensors of all kinds), sufficient data collection, investment in high-level analytic capabilities and appropriately trained staff, a city could become a “smart city.”  All this digitized data could be displayed in visual form -- across multiple platforms – so that everything would be easy to read and understand.

Of course, knowing what problems a city faces, and even understanding what’s causing them, is not the same thing as being able to respond effectively. The availability of real time data, even with the most advanced application of artificial intelligence, won’t make it clear who ought to do what, in what order, in what way and for whose benefit. These are political choices: “is” does not lead directly to “ought”

One school of thought, promoted by some economists and engineers, assumes that the goal of city management should be to maximize efficiency – eliminate waste and stretch every dollar as far as possible.  They want to make sure public that tax revenue, fees and intergovernmental transfers are allocated in the most cost-effective fashion. If the goal is to collect trash, arrest criminals, clean-up air and water pollution, or fight climate change, money shouldn’t be wasted in the process.

A second school of thought, inspired by ecologists and advocates of sustainable development, believes that every dollar of public spending should be used to meet economic, environmental and social needs simultaneously, in ways that takes account of long-term needs. Efficiency in the short-term isn’t as important to these thinkers as long-term sustainability (which includes meeting the needs of both current and future generations in as fair a way as possible). All the data in the world won’t make it clear what ought to be done. In a democracy, such choices need to be made through a messy process of reconciling conflicting interests and values in which the population participates directly. Efficiency isn’t always the highest priority goal.  

My own university, MIT, is thinking about launching a new undergraduate degree program in Big Data and Urban Science. This would bring together faculty from urban planning, information science, electrical engineering, city design and the applied social sciences to prepare undergraduates to build and operate smart cities. Other universities, as described in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, are a step ahead.  NYU, Northeastern, Carnegie-Mellon, John Hopkins, University of Illinois, University of Rotterdam and others have already launched undergraduate and graduate degree programs that seek to merge teaching about big data and urban studies. 

As faculty in all of these programs try to decide what skills and knowledge they want a new generation of urban scientists to master, there are six questions I think they need to confront:

1.     What do we mean by a city?  (Are they talking about activities that take place within a municipal boundary, or will they focus on a larger set of regional, national and international forces that shape urban life more generally?)
2.     Do they think that privacy is a concern? (Do they assume that any and all information that can be collected, should be collected? And should this information be available to anybody who wants to use it?  Can people or organizations opt out and keep information about themselves private?)
3.     How will we fend off cyber-attacks on critical urban infrastructure that have already begun? (If urban science means greater centralization of information and data management, won’t that increase vulnerability to attack?)
4.     Who do they think should be in charge of designing and managing big data systems and setting the standards used to make judgments about what’s working well and what’s not? (Will this be a managerial task assigned to various government agencies, or will elected officials be accountable for how all this information is collected, analyzed and interpreted?  Will new laws be required to ensure that individual and organizational rights are protected? Will this require federal, state or local legislation? Where will enforcement responsibility sit?)
5.     Will they be working from and toward an idealized model of an efficient city, or will they work to preserve historical and cultural diversity and variation? (I presume that students from all over the world will want to participate in these programs? Won’t the differences in culture, laws, and history require very different ways of applying the new urban science in each country? Should we assume that this is basically a technical education and teach a kind of “one-world view”? Or, would that be a terrible mistake?)
6.     Are the universities involved aiming to prepare public employees (whose job it is to serve the public interest), or are they training experts who will sell their services to the highest bidder?

The City As a Place vs. the City as an Idea

Most efforts to model urban dynamics assume that a city can be described as a series of “stocks” and “flows” within a set of boundaries.  While there are always important “feedback loops,” many of which are likely to cause unexpected consequences, most modeling (and forecasting) efforts begin by postulating a set of boundaries.  But, what if cities, as many urbanists contend,  are largely a product of a great many extra-territorial (even global) forces? Capital or data flows originating in other parts of the world may have as much of an effects as  economic and social forces originating in the city. Moreover, if we say that the operation of many of the sub-systems in a city reflect the ways that groups of people or institutions think about things – their perceptions -- how do we include these in the models we teach students to build?  The city is a physical space affected by global geological and ecological forces. It is also an idea shaped by millions of individual perceptions. Will it be possible to make sufficiently simplified models of the city to generate useful insights and predictions?

What’s Confidential and What’s Not?

Assume we can answer the first question, and we know which data are required to make a city substantially smarter.  Gathering some of these data will require tapping into otherwise secure or private data sources.  And, even if we argue that individual identities will be scrubbed, should people and organizations be forced to give up their privacy in the name of the greater good? In the United States, we are currently watching a version of this question play out as a National Commission on Elections and Voting demands that all 50 states to turn over voting data that may reveal how specific individuals voted. When it comes to financial records (including tax returns and credit card expenditures), even if these data are crucial to modelling how a city is doing, should individuals have a right to keep such personal data confidential?  What ethical obligations will we impose ona new generation of big data analysts or urban scientists?

Cyber-Security in the Urban Realm

Urban infrastructure is already under attack from hackers who seek to hold energy, medical, water, sewage and other systems hostage. Each new layer of encryption added in response just ups the ante. These systems are vulnerable because individuals are not as conscious of their cyber-security responsibilities as they should be.  Solutions will require further technological innovation and investment, but that won’t be sufficient.  What will we teach a new generation about cyber-security and how to maintain it?  And, given the vulnerability of critical urban infrastructure to global attack, should that affect what we guarantee with regard to privacy and control over personal data?

Knowledge, Power and Authority

Let’s say a city has put together a comprehensive data gathering, analysis and visualization operation. Who will have access to the raw data?  Who will have the right to publish analyses of the information that has been collected?  Will the city be willing to share assessments of things that residents think are going badly?  Will those who want to challenge current office holders be allowed access and permitted to publish any analysis they like?  Who will make decisions about how data should and should not be interpreted?  It’s my assumptions that managers of smart cities will have “to do” lists that far exceed their resources.  Setting priorities (often in real time) will require quick decisions, faster than the public can follow. If all big data about cities were open sourced, would that allow more citizens to be involved in helping to make decisions that are going to affect them?  While real time referenda might be possible, is that how cities should set priorities and make judgments?

Is There an Ideal City?

Urban planners are very place-oriented; data scientists are not.  Urban planners want to preserve the special historical and cultural features of each city.  Data scientists, on the other hand,  are looking for rules of thumb to describe the most efficient ways of delivering goods and services in general. They might inclined to disregard inefficiencies that are a by-product of local history, culture or values.  There’s no point collecting data if there’s no intention to use it, but putting all these data to use means measuring how things are going compared to some benchmarks.  Should benchmarks be unique to each community?  Or, is the goal of merging big data and urban science to create “ideal benchmarks” (based on studies of many cities over time)?  Should urban science be practiced differently in different cities, let alone different countries?

Public Sector vs. Private Sector Careers 

Urban planning education in North America has been provided by major colleges and universities for more than 80 years.  The majority of graduates of such programs aspire to work in the public sector or in civil society (e.g. NGOs or public interest organizations).  This is true regardless of where students originate.  Of course, some graduates find private sector jobs, either temporarily or permanently in consulting firms or corporations. Whether they are headed to the public or private sector, students studying urban planning tend to focus on ways of meeting the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged; they start with a theory of market failure and look for ways of using public-private partnerships, regulation, public investment or political advocacy to meet the needs of those for whom the market tends to fail.  The engineers and scientists likely to be drawn to these new urban science programs may not be so public sector oriented.  Will the new urban scientists/big data managers who graduate from these programs be public sector/civil society or private sector oriented?

I see the emergence of interdisciplinary urban science programs around the world as a good sign. Merging the capabilities of scientists and engineers with applied social scientists, designers and urbanists interested in the life of urban residents would be a positive development.   We need to provide all the help we can to people in cities trying to make adjustments and reforms that reflect a clear-headed awareness of the complex dynamics they face. I worry, though, that some universities moving in this direction may pay too much attention to the advice of economists and management gurus obsessed with numerical trends, who are willing to focus on correlation because they don’t have the tools to understand causal dynamics. I hope that the applied social scientists and urban planners will succeed in ensuring that progressive values like concerns about fairness and sustainability at the core of the training of a new generation of urban scientists. I’m certainly glad that most of the people involved in these new efforts appear to be committed to blending schools of thought that have operated separately for too long.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Contemplating the Need for more Peacebuilders

Peacebuilders are trained professionals who deal with conflict inside organizations and between individuals, groups and organizations (including countries).  They have, for a long time, made important contributions in many different realms.  Their job is to not to tell people what to do, but rather to help disputants or stakeholders devise and implement ways of dealing with their differences. Often, their contributions don’t get the visibility they deserve.

I want to look at what peacemakers do in several different realms, enumerating the unique skills they need to be effective, and describe how they can go about acquiring these skills.  I also want to explore some of the reasons peacebuilders sometimes have difficulty finding work, and how they can overcome the barriers that sometimes keep them on the sidelines.

The chances of peacebuilders finding work improve if they are first specialists in a specific realm. That is, they need both peacebuilding skills AND specialized knowledge in fields like law, business management, public policy and urban planning, international relations, industrial relations, organizational studies, social media, or family counselling. In my experience, peacemakers are more likely to get hired if they have specialized knowledge in a particular realm; but, they are more likely to succeed because they have professional peacebuilding skills.

In many realms, disputants or stakeholders are unaware that there are people (sometimes sitting right next to them in their own organization) who can provide assistance, not by endorsing their objectives or advocating on their behalf, but by facilitating more constructive dialogue or engagement with the very people the disputant views as the source of their problem. Sometimes peacebuilders make their services available through stand-alone organizations or firms. Other times, they are embedded inside organizations (like the United Nations) where conflicts often emerge.

Many times, in the midst of a conflict, disputants don’t want someone to help them resolve their differences. Instead, they want someone to help them defeat the other side (at the very least, to teach the other side a lesson). Peacebuilders are almost always “Principled Pragmatists” seeking to help all sides achieve an outcome that meets their most important interests -- certainly something better than the parties are likely to achieve if they just let events unfold. For many disputants, that’s not the help they want. They’d prefer someone who will take their side and zealously advocate their interests in a battle to the bitter (win-lose) end. That not what peacebuilders do; and, that’s often the reason their services are rebuffed.

My own work sometimes involves a country trying to enhance its water security.  The country shares a river or a lake with its neighbors. The country thinks the only way to ensure its water security is to intimidate its neighbors, out-muscle them, or take as much water for itself before anyone else can. The country doesn’t realize that this actually decreases its water security. Other countries are often desperate enough that they will do anything they can to block efforts by someone upstream that puts them at a disadvantage. I try to point out, even to powerful countries, that the best way to guarantee your water security is to help your neighbors achieve their water security. Once they see this clearly, all sides can begin to work together on new methods of reducing water loss, promoting recycling, implementing new technologies that make it easier to move water to points where it is needed, and working out agreements by which neighbors promise to come to each other’s aid in periods of drought.

In many conflict situations, what the participants are battling about is a superficial representation of a deeper historical disagreement.  In conflicts between countries, for example, the latest skirmish may just the latest episode in an ongoing battle.  The partisans can’t imagine “making peace” with their adversaries.  That would mean acknowledging the legitimacy of the other side’s claims, or accepting all the bad things the other side might have done in the past. Peacebuilders, though, look at the prospect of escalation that might lead to increasing violence or serious social disruption, and think that some way can surely be found to help the parties reach a settlement (that meets the most important interests of all sides). They presume such an outcome would be better than the loss of additional life or further destruction.  That’s why I say that peacebuilders are principled pragmatists: they know how to de-escalate tension, avoid more serious confrontation and help parties engage in problem-solving. While settlement may sometimes include apologies for past actions or compensation for past losses, most settlements focus on ways of moving forward -- reducing risks to all sides while embracing mutually agreed upon principles of fairness and justice.  Better to have a pretty good agreement than to continue the battle.

Only a small number of people are cut out to be peacebuilders (in any realm).  These are the folks who are less concerned about establishing who’s right and who’s wrong, and more concerned about laying the groundwork for reconciliation, or a way of moving forward that improves working relationships and helps all sides meet their most important interests at the same time. One of the criticisms of peacebuilders is that they are usually willing to settle for an end to a conflict, even if the underlying causes of the dispute are not addressed.  

I will give an example of a person, group, or organization that does peacebuilding in each of seven different realms.  I hope you will notice the cross-cutting similarities.

Legal and Judicial Realm: When you go to court, there’s usually a winner and loser. The court has no obligation to help the parties reach a mutually satisfactory outcome. The only issues that can be debated are issues of law, and these are often narrowly framed, and may have nothing to do with the real source of the disagreement. All over the world, court systems now encourage prospective litigants to work with private mediators to resolve their differences. This can save all the parties money, and save the court time. (With overcrowded dockets, this is no small thing.)  Most of all, mediation gives the parties control over the outcome. They don’t have to roll the dice with a judge or a jury. There are private firms, like Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Service (JAMS) that provide peacebuilding services in court-annexed situations. There are also court systems that maintain rosters of qualified private mediation providers.  Some mediators are lawyers, some are not.  A few are former judges.  All have specialized training in the legal field. Many states in the US insist that mediators who want to help resolve court-annexed disputes complete state-approved (40 hour) training programs.

Mediated solutions don’t set a precedent. Sometimes they are not even recorded, although they must usually be approved by the court that encouraged litigants to try to settle. Usually, the parties in court-annexed mediation are still represented by counsel. The problem-solving that goes on, however, is more informal than a typical court proceeding; and, the parties can take up any matters they like.

There are thousands of trained peacebuilders working in the United States, Europe and a number of other countries. Most law schools now offer courses in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) for students who want to learn how to help their clients settle. My colleague David Hoffman, runs a firm in Boston that offers Collaborative Lawyering for parties who want legal counsel committed to help them resolve their differences.

Managerial/Business Realm: When business partners have a falling out, or firms are battling over the ownership of intellectual property or the value of a certain deal, peacebuilders with substantial background in the business world can be of help.  Peacebuilders in this context often work with each party to help them prepare realistic calculations of what things are worth, and what each party’s “next best option” is likely to be if no agreement is reached. Peacebuilders in a business context usually have specialized skills in decision analysis or finance. Some of my colleagues at Harvard Business School, like Jim Sebenius and David Lax, have formed companies to provide this kind of service.  Also, within certain businesses, there are managers who have learned the skills of facilitative leadership.” While these are not synonymous with peacebuilding skills, they certainly overlap.  So, when conflicts occur inside organizations, leaders with facilitative leadership skills can sometimes help resolve disagreements by assisting the parties involved. Unfortunately, most business schools still teach classic “strong leader” management rather than facilitative leadership skills. So, senior officials in most organizations are not the right people to bring peacebuilding skills to bear when internal conflicts erupt.

Public Policy Realm (include environmental dispute resolution): At the federal, state and local level, disagreements often emerge over the setting of public policy priorities, the allocation of public resources (including budgets) and the setting of environmental, health and safety standards. While we have administrative processes in place to give the public a chance to speak out before or after such decisions are made, there are firms like the not-for-profit Consensus Building Institute (CBI) that provide peacebuilding assistance in public policy disputes around the world. Some governmental bodies are now convinced that bringing the relevant stakeholders together in a consensus-building effort -- before government decision-makers commit to a course of action -- is a good idea.  These public officials realize that it is valuable to know ahead of time how they might handle a contentious issue in a way that all parties will applaud. Government decision-makers are not allowed by law to cede decision-making authority to ad hoc assemblies of stakeholders, but there is no restriction on bringing groups together with the help of professional peacemakers to generate recommendations aimed at meeting the interests of all sides. Staff of the relevant government agencies usually participate in these efforts to ensure that legal and political concerns are taken into account. Ultimately, elected and appointed officials must make the final decisions, but when peacebuilding is effective, decisions are likely to be implemented more quickly, and at lower cost. And, public trust in government increases. 

The peacebuilders who provide services of this kind usually have a background in urban planning, public management or public administration. They typically apprentice in multi-party negotiation situations.  When CBI works outside the United States, it tries to involve skilled public dispute mediators from the relevant country. Mediation in the public policy realm requires a well-calibrated ability to read the relevant cultural context.

International Relations Realm:  Most people have heard of one country providing peacebuilding assistance to help settle a dispute between two or more other countries.  Often former heads of state are the mediators in these situations. But, there are also peacebuilding institutions, like the United Nations, that provide mediation assistance that is less visible to the rest of the world.  Red Cross/Red Crescent can provide neutral services in a war zone. Not-for-profit institutions, like the U.S. Institute for Peace, the International Crisis Group, or various religious organizations (like Quaker) have provided peacemaking assistance in many parts of the world.  There are individuals, like John Paul Lederach and my colleague, William Ury, who are affiliated with various universities, who have been very effective peacebuilders in a number of “hot” conflicts.  Why the secretaries-general of all the multilateral institutions in the world don’t avail themselves of professional peacemaking services, I don’t really know. At a meeting we once had at the behest of former-U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Center in Georgia, the secretaries-general at the time were asked why they didn’t use professional peacebuilders more often. They didn’t really have an answer. Subsequently, the creation of the Global Elders, a group of former heads of state and secretaries-general committed to peacebuilding, was launched by Nelson Mandela in 2007. This appears to have increased  awareness of the assistance peacebuilders can offer in the realm of international relations.

I don’t think it is necessary for peacebuilders in this realm to have held high office. Indeed, we have many examples of professional mediators making important peacebuilding contributions.  The key, is for officials at the center of such disputes to seek and accept peacebuilding assistance.

Scientific Realm: When scientific and technical issues are in dispute, especially within the context of international policy-making, it is important that scientists with peacebuilding skills and experience get involved. Unfortunately, very few scientists are prepared to participate in such situations.  My MIT colleague, Professor Ernest Moniz, is a physicist with extensive technical background on nuclear issues. He has been able to bridge the scientific and political divide in a number of nuclear disputes, even when representing the United States government. Professor Paul Berkman at Tufts University has extensive experience as an Arctic and Antarctic explorer and expert.  He is committed to training a new generation of science diplomats who can help to facilitate polar policy discussions involving many nations (including First People) along with industry and environmental groups. This requires that scientists go beyond their normal training to gain expertise in diplomacy (and, in parallel, that some diplomats devote time to learning more than they might normally know about particular scientific and technical issues).  We need more universities to offer training in science diplomacy to scientists and engineers.

Workplace/Labor Relations Realm:  In the industrial relations field, peacebuilders have long played important institutionalized roles.  Collective bargaining is often assisted by mediators. In the United States, we have laws regarding the way that such peacebuilding activities are supposed to unfold.  At one time, schools of industrial relations trained a great number of mediators. This is no longer the case. Still, there are mediators in many countries with specialized sectoral knowledge who mediate contract bargaining disputes in particular segments of the economy.  There are also mediators who handle other workplace disagreements.  In some settings, these are ombudsmen and women who work full time for companies, hospitals, universities, government agencies or newspaper publisher, and provide neutral assistance aimed at resolving consumer complaints and workplace disagreements.  It helps when all parties (i.e. managers and employees) understand how peacebuilding in the workplace is meant to operate.  My colleague, Marcia Greenbaum, has served as a mediator in unionized work settings for her whole illustrious career.  I don’t know where the next generation of professional labor mediators is being trained.

Domestic Relations Realm:  Many family counsellors and social workers know that disputes in the realm of domestic relations are best settled with the help of trained peacebuilders.  This is a context in which ongoing relationships, after a presenting dispute has been settled, need to be maintained. So, working out disagreements in a way that improves relationships is important. This requires special skills. In the United States, divorce mediation is a sub-industry in the dispute resolution field.  Some family therapists and social workers are trained as mediators. For many years, there was a separate association of divorce mediators with members in most states in America. Not all professionals involved in domestic relations need to be peacebuilders, although they would all do well to learn some peacebuilding skills as part of their graduate education.


I don’t think there is any doubt that we need more trained peacebuilders in all the realms I have described (and in others as well).  Not everyone is emotionally suited, however, to provide peacebuilding services. Some people are more comfortable in advocacy roles. For many, Principled Pragmatism is not comfortable. While many peacebuilders are prepared to mentor or host apprentices, we need to create a lot more opportunities along these lines. The best way for people starting out in a peacebuilding career is to apprentice. This provides a chance to see close up whether this pathway makes sense, as well as an opportunity to begin formulating a personal theory of practice. While the “entrance requirements” are low in most of the realms I have described, opportunities to build a professional career requires dedication over an extended period of time. From my experienced, only the most passionate peacemakers are likely to succeed.