Toggling Vision in the Comfort Zone of Uncertainty

One of the On Being blogs caught my eye the other day: “Stop creating outcomes out of strategies.” As someone who once had to knead grassroots women’s empowerment into a logical model for a multimillion dollar international development grant, I still get woozy making finer distinctions between goals vs. objectives, input vs. activities, outputs vs. outcomes, and outcomes vs. impact. That’s why the blog’s title seems a bit oxymoronic at first. Don’t strategies result in outcomes? Isn’t that really straightforward – what you aim for should inform your actions. Why not?

The belief that our actions result in desired outcomes is likely one of the most enduring illusions of the human psyche. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about personal actions or interpersonal ones (e.g. family, workplace, or society). This is because when we become single-minded on intended outcomes, we run the risk of creating tunnel visions. Our minds fixate on endless cycles of expectations especially when we are in situations we don’t like. But in fact, we put ourselves into a tight corner because it is difficult to see reality as it is — not what we wish it to be, or worse than it is. Arlene Goldbard uses the figure-ground vase optical illusion as a metaphor to show how the problems we encounter on a daily basis can appear to be overwhelming:

This trick demonstrates a characteristic of human perception. Images of both goblet and profiles are there all along. What changed is our perception of the figure and the ground on which it rests: when we bring one into the foreground, the other recedes. The imposed realities of the consciousness industry often turn on such matters of figure and ground. When we try to understand what is happening around us, what do we tend to see as foreground or the main event, and what tends to fade into the background?

This comes down to a conscious choice, says Goldbard: when we shift our focus onto what we are creating, the problems recede in importance.

It is not easy to stay buoyant when we feel caught in seemingly intractable situations. The Stockdale paradox may be instructive here. Dubbed by Jim Collins, it refers to the story of Navy Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. In a vivid passage, Collins asked Stockdale how he made it while others didn’t. Those who didn’t make it were optimists, he said: “…they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” Stockdale’s advice to Collins was:

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

This is a startling revelation for those of us who are engaged with systemic change. We know we are on a long-haul journey. So when it comes to balancing deliberate actions with expected outcomes, it can feel like we are skirting at the edge of despair when results aren’t forthcoming at the right time. Is this why many New Year’s resolutions often fail? And why there are warnings against positive thinking? As Alan Watts famously said: “For unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax.” The way out seems to be:

Not withdrawal, not stewardship on the hypothesis of a future reward, but the fullest collaboration with the world as a harmonious system of contained conflicts — based on the realization that the only real “I” is the whole endless process.

Shifting this paradigm can feel maddingly slow, but it is radical nonetheless.

What is the practical lesson here? Since our personal lives do not unfold in a linear fashion from strategies to outcomes, must we perpetuate the fiction that this is how the world can be transformed? What could we do with our visions, our pet projects? If the process doesn’t resemble a logical model, what options are there besides those neat horizontal-vertical grids that funders like seeing so much?

One of the most exciting recent breakthroughs in the field is the application of complexity theory in development work. The overall concept is not new. Back in 1992, Margaret Wheatley published Leadership and the New Science. It may have been the first attempt to bring together quantum physics, chemistry, and chaos theory to organizational management. Since then, applications of complexity theory has become more sophisticated as well (see Overseas Development Institute, AID at the Edge of Chaos, Getting to Maybe). By acknowledging how a complex project in a complex world do not resemble a logical model, we can look towards a flexible tool that helps us see the whole picture—continuously and relentlessly—so that we can avoid deluding ourselves (as Admiral Stockdale’s fellow POWs have done). One of these tools that facilitate reality testing is developmental evaluation, which opens up a whole new world where there are denser yet flexible feedback loops between research and development, project design, implementation, and evaluation.

Now, let’s go back to where we started… could we see the figure-ground vase in its totality without toggling our vision. Instead of obsessive attention to the white vase or the black profiles, creativity actually is a result of letting go. Instead of a flat 2-dimensional “logic” grid, we become more open to dynamic, interactive, and multidimensional ways of being and doing. Thus, allowing us to open to many more potential outcomes. As the On Being‘s blog writer, the singer Eliza Moore’s elegant equation goes: Make space + release the hold + take action from the heart.


Post Phnom Penh – Navigating the White Savior Industrial Complex

Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex” is the latest and one of the most brilliant analyses of global North’s codependent behavior towards the South.

After returning from a recent trip to Phnom Penh, Cole’s article was the perfect antidote to the absurd disparities in Cambodia. Since my last visit in 2005, there was a mushrooming of coffee houses affordable only for those on expat salary, as are luxury hotels, SUVs, gated high rise condos. Or perhaps I felt guilty from being driven around by a hired driver all week, or getting wined and dined inside expat bubbles. I was a willing participant in an economy propped up by foreign investments and aid.

As an international development professional, I experienced the joys of being able to affect positive change in a foreign country and I also know the local fallouts that comes with being *from* a foreign country. We often hear that  interrogating our own privileges is the first step in decolonizing ourselves. But what then? How could we change the system so it is no longer business-as-usual? After all, Cole didn’t call it a “savior industrial complex” for no reason.

"Hungry for the Real Taste of Cambodia?" next to Steve's Steakhouse (Author's photo)

Guilty as Charged

Critique #1.

There is nothing easier than slapping together a critique by just using pictures in a PowerPoint presentation. The one I prepared begins with a question — what do we associate with Cambodia? The Killing Fields? Angkor Wat? I added a story about the astronomical financial cost of the Khmer Rouge trial (100 million Euros and counting) and The Trial of Henry Kissinger, both refer to injustices done in the name of democracy and freedom. I then move onto an analysis of the marketization of art and design, global imperatives of young contemporary artists, and new works by Cambodian American artists. The talk ends with Studio Revolt’s My Asian Americana. A jab at the unusually harsh repatriation by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it is a video that showcases the pledge of allegiance by “Exiled Americans.”

Only when I had to explain why the arts has been “resuscitated” by a Cambodian arts organization, did I slip in the fact that Khmer Rouge killed 90% of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals. It seems like a footnote. While this is not to deny the gravity of genocide, it re-enforces that what happens in Cambodia is not “out there” but that we are all implicated in what goes on in Cambodia. Instead of pointing fingers to another boogie man (be it the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen’s government, or faceless corporations that are carving up concessions in Cambodia), the circle comes back to us. The United States’s secret bombing of Cambodia between 1969-1975 led to the rise of Khmer Rouge. A 1996 immigrant law, coupled with a 2002 repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia, results in the deportation of hundreds of Cambodian Americans.

There are over 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia. For a country of 13 million people, it’s the second most per capita, after Rwanda. How many of us do-gooders are willing to turn the gaze back to ourselves, our own governments, and the destructive policies that we are a part of?

A Translingual Hiccup

Critique #2.

Sa Sa Art Projects is an art space created by Stiev Selapak, six young Khmer graduates of a photography workshop in 2007.  Beginning in 2010, Stiev Selapak rented two adjacent residential units in The Building. Sa Sa Art Projects hosts arts residencies, exhibitions, and workshops. We were struck by the beauty of the photographs, graffiti on the walls, and a tall sculpture made with found objects. Everything was picture perfect. Our informant, the eloquent director of Sa Sa Art Projects, gave us a run down of their documentary project around the neighborhood, done in collaboration with an UK-based group, Incidental.

When we first entered the space, a little boy who lives in an apartment downstairs came in with us.  During the time we were there, he was playing by himself. After a while, he started to take apart one of the smaller installations that was not attached to a wall. Part of me didn’t want to stop him. Why should this little boy not be another legitimate participant?

At Sa Sa Art Projects (Author's Photo)

The exquisiteness in which Sa Sa Art Projects serves as a place for artists/architects made me question my own reactions — I was looking for what I might call a “translingual hiccup.” I want to believe that it not possible to have the perfect translation. To navigate between contemporary art in Phnom Penh and New York, should it not be asymmetrical and frustrating clumsy? Can it be so easy to establish and maintain hypothetical equivalences between words and their meanings?  Since the global North has made Cambodia out to be a victim, shouldn’t it follow that we can’t always understand Cambodians’ motivations and desires. Yet in every which way, we act as if we are on equal footing. The child’s dismantling of an exhibit might serve as an analogy for a translingual hiccup. Would this moment of non-recognition be an opening of space to co-create a pedagogy of liberation for both the colonizer and the colonized?

Politics and culture are vital to urban sustainability, says Cecilia Martinez of UN-HABITAT

"The White Building," Phnom Penh. Author's photo

In her concluding remarks for the Better City/Better Life: South-North Initiative symposium, Cecilia Martinez, director of UN-HABITAT’s New York Office, two issues can be highlighted: (1) many technological innovations that are needed to address urban sustainability already exist; (2) politics and culture are vital to sustainability.

During the symposium, ten speakers from a variety of fields spoke about uses of technology to improve conditions in less developed countries. Topics cover GIS mapping on the U.S.-Mexico broader; poverty mapping of slums in Pune, India; blogging by citizen journalists in Rio de Janeiro, etc. So Ms. Martinez’s concluding comments might be considered a bombshell as politics and culture received limited attention during the entire day (only two speakers, Robert Buckley and Teddy Cruz, specifically mentioned politics/political economy).

As a shorthand, politics might be characterized as power structure and how individuals/groups jockey to shift the odds against them. In the context of the symposium, one might consider politics through the lens of governance. While the dictionary definition of “governance” is limited to governmental systems, the international development community defines governance with additional components consisting of “the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences.” (UNDP)

Philos Health’s project in Jagna, Philippines is the perfect example of how good governance provided a favorable environment for the “upstreaming” of community demands. Since 1991, the Philippines has enacted the Local Government Code, which radically decentralized national and municipal decision-making processes and budgets. While the code could not solve problems by itself, decentralization enables civil society groups to leverage government resources — as the mayor of Jagna was able to do with the assistance of local health providers and a foreign NGO.

A number of other projects presented in the symposium have the potential to tip the balance of power to the less fortunate. However, most speakers have not given very compelling evidence of short-term or long-term impact. This is one of the most vexing problems in the development field as most projects began with very little baseline information, making it difficult for monitoring and evaluation. Another issue that seems glaring was that most of the cases and strategies presented originate from the North.

Yes, I’m setting the bar very high here. We need to admit that the field of South-to-North transfer is in its nascent stage. We already know that technological innovation is no panacea, so AIA New York’s leadership should be applauded for opening up a dialogue about the wicked urban problems in the Global South as well as the North.

Last but not least, a participant brought up the issue of follow up. Many such symposium bring together some of the smartest people and well-funded institutions in the field. Being all too aware of the pitfall of not having a sequel to the symposium, the most concrete suggestion brought up was an online exchange platform. Does the field need another online platform?  We already have many, e.g. UNDP’s Best Practices and Local Leadership Programme, a multi-agency platform Task Team for South-South Cooperation, not to mention development knowledge gateways such as Eldis. Only last month, Abha Joshi-Ghani of the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Network proposed a new online knowledge base to connect municipal managers, thinkers, and practitioners. What we need, it seems, is the analytical framework, operational guidelines, and rigorous monitoring and evaluations that could, borrowing a buzzword from the symposium, leapfrog sustainable development practices.

What about culture? I don’t think I heard the word mentioned during the day until Ms. Martinez said the word. Though if cued, some presenters might substitute the word design for culture when describing their projects. What Ms. Martinez was referring to might be characterized as social customs and ways of learning between/within individuals/communities. Culture should also include institutional culture, as in ways of doing things that enables/prevents institutions to learn and adapt. (Institutions’ immunity to change is all too real.)

Culture may be one of the most intangible and unquantifiable aspects of the urban sustainability equation. It is everywhere and thus nowhere. Most international agencies pay lip service to addressing culture. UNESCO admits that it is a conceptual minefield. Eschewing the non-committal term “culture and development”, UNESCO recently changed the term into “culture for development” and released a Culture for Development Indicators Suite. This represents an attempt to quantify the full spectrum of drivers of development that could go under the umbrella of culture. The dimensions are:

  • Economy
  • Education
  • Heritage
  • Communication
  • Governance
  • Social
  • Gender Equality

I am anxious to see the results of this indicators suite. UNESCO is testing it this year in six countries. Could urban sustainability folks learn from these indicators? How might they use similar quantifiers to leverage resources to tip the balance for more equitable development?

A respite from justifying public funding for the arts as an economic growth strategy

Coney Island, 1945. Photo credit: NYPL

Vera List Center for Art and Politics often hosts timely events that are expansive and intellectually stimulating. While one can’t expect to get definitive answers from a two-hour talk, I was thoroughly frustrated with the panel entitled “Coney Island USA” held on May 5, 2011.

The event was billed as “a roundtable discussion focusing on how artists and art organizations have taken the lead roles in the economic redevelopment of New York City and other urban centers. Leaders of local arts organizations from the Bronx, Coney Island, Gowanus, and the Lower East Side discuss how small business creation and community outreach contribute to economic development.”

The panelists represent a wide range of arts organizations with vastly different budgets and missions. For example, Wythe Marshall of Hollow Earth Society says his organization doesn’t have a large budget, while Gail Nathan of Bronx River Arts Center oversaw a capital renovation project of $8 million, and Tamara Greenfield leads a coalition of arts organizations in LES that raised $650K. The exception was Candace Damon, who had worked at Atlantic Ave LDC, but now she’s at a consulting firm, which has been contracted by NY Economic Development Corporation to assess the arts sector and its economic impact. Her attempt to link the number of arts organizations in a neighborhood to real estate prices was critiqued by one of the panelists in passing. During most of the roundtable discussion, the speakers rambled about the meaning of art in post-industrial context and lamented on gentrification and displacement of artists.

In sum, the panel barely dived into the topic of the roundtable — the connection between arts and economic development. Can it be proven? But more importantly, why does it matter? To whom?  For what end?

Over a decade ago, a number of institutions and scholars began to investigate the relationship between arts and (economic/cultural/social) development. The history of this inquiry may be a lot longer, but concerted efforts to come up with robust indicators began in the late 1990s. This may be due to the relentless assault of the National Endowment of the Arts as well as endemic budget crises in American cities and states.

The panel was disappointing in that it barely mentioned the tools and methodology already developed at institutions such as the Urban InstituteSIAP, etc. Going beyond research, coalitions and networks such as CAN also formed to sustain dialogues regarding the arts’ interconnectedness with communities. So listening to the chatter from the panelists, I thought someone had hit a reset button — all the grounds gained in the last two decades seem to revert back to discussing more-of-the-same.

Granted. I over simplified that conversation. But the roundtable suffered from a number of fatal flaws.

1) The arts were never defined. Exhibition spaces, artists studios, performing arts groups, arts education, etc, have vastly different ecologies and relationship to the people who participate in and consumes them, not to mention the fact that they can have very different income streams. If the Metropolitan Museum of Art contributes to the proliferation of street side vendors and restaurants on Madison Ave, it does not engage in artistic production. Thus, it is a different “economic engine” than Brooklyn Academy of Music, which employs artists and production crews so they may make more art.

2) Many experts have already pointed out that arts organizations are not unique as anchor tenants, compared to, say, a movie theatre — which also help boost other businesses in the neighborhood. Therefore, arts organizations do not have a unique impact to this type of economic output.

More importantly, most economic justifications of the arts have a specific agenda in mind — to convince the city, the state, or the federal government to continue funding the arts. The rationale panders to policymakers’ obsession with economic growth. In effect, the logic has the perverse effect of convincing arts advocates that the arts cannot be judged solely for its intrinsic and social benefits.

During the Q&A session, a member of the audience attempted to steer the conversation by mentioning FIRE and ICE. For decades, urban economic development is said to rely on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE). But the Intellectual, Cultural and Educational (ICE)* sector is the foundation of a knowledge economy.  Moreover, the commentator says that in many neighborhoods, arts organizations serve as “think tanks.” Oftentimes in marginalized communities, the arts might be the only voice of the community.


I do not enjoy ranting on a public event about a topic I care so deeply about. But I do wish that the panelists address larger issues such as their relationship with audience, public funding, private donors, and foundations, etc. On the first point, audience. Not many arts organizations collect and analyze information on the population to which they serve. If they do, it would be great to know about them. Also, does agglomeration have a tipping point because many arts organization compete with each other for the same audience? On the issue of foundations, it can be annoying that social innovations and entrepreneurship have become so trendy. Can the arts benefit from these trends? If not, why not? Ultimately, we should put an end to using economic growth as a justification for public funding for the arts. The perceived direct connection between the two does not contribute to the vibrancy of art and its communities.
* The invention of the acronym ICE has been attributed to NYU’s President John Sexton.

Is there a relationship between social outcomes and architecture?

There has been a lot of buzz lately on connecting design and the social sciences at The New School. While the articulation of this framework has not been fully fleshed out, it reflects a growing trend, amongst architecture and design professionals, to address issues of poverty, public health, disasters, etc.

Perhaps this all started with the emergence of design activists such as Bryan Bell and Samuel Mockbee in the 1990s. Certainly, post-Katrina reconstruction provided unprecedented opportunities for idealistic architects to work with clients from marginalized communities. Step back even further to consider the zeitgeist, our airwaves have been saturated by the irresistible mantra of “doing well by doing good” — which drives the boom in microfinance, social entrepreneurship, and bottom of the pyramid models, as well as fuels the popularity of the likes of Jeffrey Sachs.

As international and bilateral development institutions have undergone decades of growing pains and yet still burdened with unanswered questions about accountability and assessment (evident in leading critics in AID Watch), one begins to realize that socially responsible architecture as a practice field is still in its infancy.

That’s why I was fascinated by a recent GSAPP event that billed itself as a debate on poverty alleviation. Although there was enough differences between the fields of planning, architecture, and anthropology, the event did not provoke debate as it was a series of thought-provoking presentations/commentaries.

The first speaker, Tom Agnotti, a planner from CUNY, began by unpacking the concept of ‘poverty.’ Most people fall into the trap of thinking of poverty as a problem of income (i.e. the poor are often characterized as the ones who “make less than a dollar a day”). Agnotti points out that the heart of the problem lies in inequality. While focusing on income falsely leads us to fixate on economic growth, addressing inequality raises a whole set of structural issues. This has been articulated by the concept of capabilities championed by economists such as Amartyr Sen. Secondly, Agnotti cautions against so-called “physical determinism” in planning strategies.

[Physical determinism is also be referred to as “environmental determinism.” According to Herbert Gans’s People, Plans, and Policies (1968), this concept has a long history dating back to 19th century, when reformers and master planners “assume that people’s lives are shaped by their physical surroundings and that the ideal city should be realized by the provision of an ideal physical environment. As architects and engineers, the planners believed that the city was a system of buildings and land uses which could be arranged and rearranged through planning, without taking account of the social, economic, and political structures and processes that determine people’s behavior, including their use of land.”]

Design and planning does matter, Agnotti says, when it is at the service of grassroots movements. Communities are not always constructing a building; as physical solutions cannot solve deprivation of capabilities. Planners need to engage with social movements, Agnotti concludes, they need to be engaged with institutional transformations.

The second speaker, Giancarlo Mazzanti, is an architect from Bogotá, Colombia. The noted designer of Parque Biblioteca España in Santo Domingo, Colombia, Mazzanti proposes 7 principles that enables architecture to embody social change. They are:

1) multiply uses and expand times — represented by Leon de Grief Library Park in Medellín; 2) building as an icon; 3) transparency and exchange — by breaking down of interior and exterior spaces; 4) openings and public space; 5) adaptive systems; 6) modules and lack of finish; 7) passive power setups and citizens education.

Parque Biblioteca España, Medellin, Columbia (image from Designboom)

After looking at the video and pictures, it is easy to see why Mazzanti’s buildings have become pilgrimage sites for architects. Yet, Mazzani did not adequately address Agnotti’s questioning of physical determinism.  While we could imagine how architecture can convey a sense of hierarchy, Mazzanti is in fact proposing a framework for architecture of (social) equality.  Sadly, there was not much discussion on the panel about this daring and enticing proposal. However, it might be important to contextualize Mazzanti’s architecture in post-Escobar Colombia and socio-economic policies of Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín.

The third speaker was Janice Perlman, an anthropologist who has been working to bridge academia with public policy and civil society. Her new book, Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge of Rio de Janeiro, is probably the only longitudinal study of the urban poor. Comparing three sets of survey data of favela residents from the last 40 years, she finds that the favelas are not the end of the road for many people living in poverty. In fact, many moved on to living in residential neighborhoods — barring that they survive the disruptions of livelihood and opportunities from Brazilian government’s slum clearing policies.

Where does this leave those of us passionate about social justice and the built environment?  Can Mazzanti’s proposed principles be applicable elsewhere for the same effects (say in Dubai? Jakarta? Shanghai?)?  Given that social movements these days have been reduced to a few mouse clicks on (at least for the middle-class professionals), we’re left to the whims of speculators with financial instrumentals that only a handful of people understand. Yet for now, the verdict is still out on how one might document ways in which socially responsible architecture live up to its idealistic promises.