Diane Davis, Stephen Graham, Jo Beall, Mitchell Sipus, Saskia Sassen, and Mike Davis, among many others, have added immensely to our understanding of development and conflict in connected cities.”
Mogadishu, Somalia 2011-2014
In August 2011, the militant group al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu, Somalia. After 21 years of war, the city was devastated. In November I was contacted by the city government, who sought my assistance in reconstructing the city. There was very little money and much work to do. At the time I was living and working in Afghanistan, but knew that Mogadishu must quickly seize the opportunity.
When I began working in Mogadishu there was no international presence and no resources. As the Mayor, Mohummud Nur, said "we have no money, no partners, no help - we have 21 years of war and the UN, and the UN has been here the entire time." When he asked what I could provide to change that, I offered little than a desire to better understand the problem. I boarded a plane and several more to follow.
Traditional methods in urban planning were impossible. After several months of street-level research in Mogadishu, I developed and array of interventions to maximize the sparse yet accessible resources in hope of creating a magnet for greater resources acquisition.
Furthermore, commuting between Mogadishu and Kabul for several years, I found that the majority of urban planning beliefs and processes are outdated and ill-fit for today's conflict cities. Much of my emergent philosophy concerning alternative approaches to urban planning has been captured in my blog, Humanitarian Space.
Grass Roots Informatics
Warlords, politicians, ministers and officials fought for limited resources. External groups had no way to measure the impact of contributions or monitor from afar. As a consequence, when assets did flow into Mogadishu they were rapidly appropriated by powerful individuals and not distributed. Furthermore, it was clear that no objective information or means to witness and share that information existed within the city. By transforming the relationship between information and the city government, it was possible to shift the base and flow of power.
Alongside the process of mapping the city, it was also necessary to refine and bolster the municipal development efforts. Without large budgets, nations, or institutions, it was critical to do the inverse of the geospatial effort - to strengthen the interconnections of traditional and social networks of power and influence. The goal, again, was concerned with the circulation and visibility of information, though now by qualitative and socio-cultural processes - not technocratic. In this effort, constant site visits were made by the Mayor and his staff and city representatives - spontaneously - to engage the citizens and see their needs and complaints. Parallel to this effort, follow up visits and informal communication channels were established to maintain continuity toward resolution.
Likewise, deep immersion into the problems were critical to understanding how they were interconnected. The outcome was a rich layer understanding and activity beneath the GIS data, which provided the means to target interventions for maximum impact.
Diaspora as Economic Development strategy
One of the first decisions I made was to make efforts to reinvent the brand of the city. Dubbed "the world's most dangerous city," it was my goal to transform the story of Mogadishu into the world's greatest success story. After 21 years of violence, it was a city suddenly charging into the modern era, rebuilding itself from the inside with little assistance from the international community. Two lines of action were pursued - one, to craft brand international brand recognition, and two, to generate media and information with the Somali diaspora which would lead to increased revenue flows and repatriation in Mogadishu.
Much of the work consisted of contacting journalists to generate interviews and stories on Mogadishu, eventually leading to coverage in publications such as The Economist, New York Times, and The New Yorker.
Another strategy was to create a platform for Somalis in diaspora to connect to the reconstruction process through an online platform to share stories, media, and information regarding the rapid growth in the city. Connecting with City Branding expert, Chris Haller, we launched Rebirth of Mogadishu for a wide community of users to provide content and locate events in the city.
Crafting Messages of Change for Somalis Everywhere
Long known as "the world's most dangerous city," it was my goal to transform the story of Mogadishu into the "world's greatest success."
After 21 years of violence, it was a city suddenly charging into the modern era, rebuilding itself from the inside with little assistance from the international community. Yet it is difficult for people to believe in this change, not only internationally, but also within.
Notably, the citizens of Mogadishu may have also been considered some of the most traumatized people in the world. It is too easy to react to images of blown out buildings and streets of debris and to miss the totality of mental health challenges that come from living in such a high-stress and deteriorating environment.
For Mogadishu to change, and to continue to build the momentum of change while sporadic acts of terrorism took place, it was necessary to publicize that the transformation happening is real. It was necessary to generate topics of conversation, to promote messages, images, and other opportunities for citizens to recognize and participate in the process of greater change.