Sunday, January 27, 2019

Drones and Human Choice at the Frontiers of Innovation

Not long ago, a drone sighting shut down Gatwick Airport, the second busiest airport in the U.K., for 36 hours. In what officials described as an “unprecedented” event, multiple sightings within the airport’s secured perimeter affected 1000 departures, upending the Christmas travel plans of over 100,000 travelers. In response, Gatwick officials and their counterparts are pursuing countermeasures like the secretive, military-grade anti-drone technology. Whether intentional or not, the incident has brought to light a real potential downside of a burgeoning personal drone industry, and has put pressure on politicians and regulators everywhere to figure out how to address it.

It is fair to say that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about drones and their societal role. I’ve just come off spending the better part of the last several months pinging back and forth between South Africa, Rwanda, and Tanzania interviewing drone companies, pilots, regulators, and funders to better understand civilian drone development. This work, part of a broader ongoing study of robotics and society conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute and South Africa’s University of Cape Town, seeks to understand how and why drone experimentation is taking place in these countries. Policymakers in these global hotbeds for drone innovation are at the forefront of wrestling with how this new technology is woven into, or disrupts, existing institutions, communities, commercial markets and governance structures. The idea in researching this process is to provide guidance on how governments might develop drone policies.

The research topic raises a number of interesting considerations revolving around the choices made, explicitly or implicitly, in the process of innovation: Do individuals, or corporations, or the government, have a right to use the space above our heads, and for what reasons and on what terms? Are drones best controlled through embedded technologies or laws and regulations? Is it justifiable to promote an industry for its own sake, or should we ask first where it is headed? The answers to these questions affect the process of innovation itself, and ultimately how we perceive and engage with the resulting technology. The cycle is iterative and continuous, but the inputs may radically alter where we end up.

Technological innovation in many ways defines modernity. It enables our lifestyles and shapes our identity. And like identity-shapers of the past, its impact becomes naturalized and invisible to us. We take for granted both the benefits and costs that our technologies present, and forget that the consequences are, to a great degree, choices we have made and continue to make. This complacency can, in my opinion, bring us to places where we can assume carelessness and unkindness through technology that might otherwise horrify us.

The potential to wake up, to remember technology’s role, is what I find captivating about some of the most profound technologist thinkers of the past century. People like Lewis Mumford, Bruno Latour, and Ivan Illich have in their own ways sought out means of showing the dynamic relationship between society and technology. I think there is a lot to be learned from these thinkers, and to be applied to drone development, which is still in its infancy. We have the chance to be thoughtful about how drone innovation can be valuable and beneficial, before its infrastructural composition ossifies. A prerequisite, however, is for us to recognize that we have the choice to dictate the terms in the first place.

Over the next few months I plan on following up on this stream of thought, to provide a more complete picture of how choices being made today in Africa are driving drone innovation, and how those choices may well become embedded in the drone infrastructure of tomorrow, and along with it our modern identity.

Looking forward to it!

Friday, December 21, 2018

What’s it Take for Cape Town to Clean Up Its Mess? Let’s Start By Rethinking Waste

“The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don’t.” -Joseph Jenkins

It’s no secret that Cape Town’s picturesque beaches are some of its crown jewels, their images plastered on the front of many a tourist pamphlet and magazine cover. Spread out over long arching coasts, tucked within coves, or squeezed between the vastness of converging oceans and exponentially rising mountains, they provide a stunning contrast to the blues and greens of the water on one side and opposing urban landscape and undulating terrain on the other. Their allure brings thousands of residents and tourists alike to them for enjoyment and adventure. Beyond them, the water stretches out towards the horizon, as if to the ends of the earth.

Perhaps it is because the ocean seems like a limitless entity that we choose to treat it as such. Ironically, some of Cape Town’s most coveted and fetching beaches--Camps Bay, Green Point, Hout Bay--look out onto what are essentially the city’s septic system. By design, massive pipes located at these arresting areas pump millions of litres of the city’s raw sewage out into the ocean.

If you spend time along Cape Town’s coastline, you can sense these systems, literally. It’s a fairly normal occurrence for me, depending on the winds, to take in the smell of sewage while passing along a certain point in the Green Point promenade. The smell’s general location marks the proximity of the otherwise innocuous or cleverly hidden shoreline infrastructure, the departure point for our sewage’s seabound voyage. Kayakers and professional photographers know its indicia by sight, apparently, having documented great brown plumes from both near and afar (after all, a picture is worth a thousand words).

Contrary to the illusion engineered by the architects and designers of our infrastructure, the byproducts of our consumption don’t disappear altogether when they leave our sight. Almost unthinkingly, we use the ocean as a massive repository for many things we’d rather not deal with, including the unmentionable contribution that every one of us makes basically daily: our excrement. Every day, the City of Cape Town helps us flush hundreds of millions of litres of water soiled with our literal crap (and many other more metaphorical types of crap) into the ocean. Much of it passes through water treatment facilities, which separate out solids that are deposited in massive detention lagoons. However, water treated at these facilities retains polluting concentrations of nitrates, phosphates, salts, and organic particulates, which cause environmental damage in the volume and form we dispatch them. Treated water may also include, at lower levels, whatever other non-biological materials we decide to pour down our drains or stormwater ditches, as well as the chemicals used at the treatment facilities themselves. A smaller fraction of our used water, still tens of millions of litres a day, flows untreated directly out into the open ocean. Sometimes, predictably, it promptly flows right back to the sandy shore. Although the City asserts that the impacts are undetectable, local scientists have found otherwise.

And that’s the system when its working properly. At times, particularly during flooding, Cape Town’s water treatment facilities overflow, releasing raw sewage into rivers and ultimately to the sea. In high density and under-serviced informal settlement areas, lack of adequate sanitation combined with vulnerability to flooding means that untreated sewage runs freely from these areas as well.

Urban water use isn’t even the worst contributor to water pollution. In areas of farming, which includes much of the Western Cape, the exodus of materials flowing into the ocean include artificially produced fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and the topsoil itself, which drains away due to farming techniques that untether it from the ground. These contributions, in the concentrations that we create, are a leading cause of water pollution and can dramatically alter the terrestrial and marine ecosystems through which they run.

But in many ways the closest and most intimate of these pollutants, to me and to you, is our own excrement. Our modern sanitation system is an incredible thing--and I mean incredible in its most horrendous, ridiculous, insane sense. Modern sanitation systems use massive amounts of clean water, a critical and limited resource, to flush away our byproducts in unmanageable concentrations to places unequipped to deal with them, through a complex and highly centralized system over which we have virtually no direct control. And we hardly even notice. “The flush toilet,” the ecocentrist Paul Kingsnorth writes, “is a worthy metaphor for the civilisation I live in. . . . You can do your business and never have to think about what happens next: never have to think about what happens to the faeces and urine you have just produced, just as you probably never thought about the origins of the food that created it in the first place” (92).

The system, once revealed and considered, appears highly problematic, at least to me. But, you might respond, our human waste, my waste, must go somewhere. Where should it go?

Embedded in that question (which I have admittedly attributed to you, my dear straw man/woman), is a central fallacy at the heart of our waste problem: the concept waste itself. In fact, there is no such thing. Or at least, there need not be, if one reframes how we perceive nasties such as urine and feces. As Joesph Jenkins notes, “waste is not found in nature — it’s strictly a human concept, a result of our own ignorance” (22). We characterize our byproducts as “material with no inherent value that is discarded and has no further use” (25). In fact, there is incredible value in our urine and feces, as Jenkins explores in depth in his book The Humanure Handbook.

The key to unlocking this value? Composting. Composting, when properly conducted, converts all forms of biological matter into nutrient rich soil that sustains healthy plant life, and thus, our lives. In the process it destroys harmful bacteria, viruses, and other possible pathogens more effectively and economically than any other commercially feasible and practically accessible system. This is done largely, although not completely, through prolonged exposure to heat generated internally through aerobic bacterial activity. Like a large mass of people steaming up the inside of a car or room, the activity of microbes in compost heaps will warm up the internal temperature to surprising levels. “Hot” composting, i.e. compost heaps generally of a sufficiently large mass (e.g. square meter or larger), under the right conditions will easily generate sufficient heat to kill off pathogens. Constant temperatures at or above the 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit), will kill practically all pathogens within a month, and 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) will do so in a day (see Jenkins, 167, 174). Hot compost bins can often far exceed these temperatures. Smaller composting piles at lower temperatures can also effectively break down organic material and remove pathogens, although the time scale will likely be much longer. In any event, in order to cycle through the full gamut of biochemical processes and obtain the complete transformational benefits, it is important to maintain a compost pile for one to two years before use for planting, particularly if composting potentially pathogenic materials.

While composting in conventionally “modern” contexts is often narrowly aimed at kitchen scraps and yard cuttings, it is entirely effective for converting all types of organic matter (again, when properly done). Human feces and urine can be unhealthy and dangerous to us and the environment if not handled correctly. But if treated correctly as a potential resource, it can be, as Jenkins says “a valuable organic resource material rich in soil nutrients” that “originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil” (28). Of course, it is especially important to compost excrement correctly, due to the particularly harmful potential of pathogens that reside in our feces (fresh urine is generally sterile). This means maintaining the right mass, composition, air circulation, temperature, and dampness. But the potential for completely eliminating this and other organic waste-streams from our lives, while saving water and producing something of high value, all at relatively low cost, seems incredibly promising.

So, why aren’t we moving towards this? For one, there are the social conventions about cleanliness and propriety that prevent us from even publicly discussing our own crap, let alone actively handling it in an environmentally responsible way. This limitation, which is tied up in our conceptualization of waste, is both self-induced as well as socially-reinforced. Fortunately, the water crisis inched many in Cape Town towards a more serious consideration of how to reframe waste as resource. How to handle waste has become an acceptable (if still not comfortable) public topic of conversation, and writers, businesses, and public figures have done their part to normalize it (my favorite example is Cape Town writer and poet Helen Moffet). Local groups like the Guerilla House have also stepped up, providing classes on humanuring and composting (which I have yet to attend but am looking forward to in the future). However, the taboo factor is still massive, as are issues of racism and social equity embedded in the city’s waste management system that, as always, complicate the issue further.

The other factor, of course, is the practical constraints of operating in a highly centralized system designed around a water-intensive waste removal model. The infrastructure systems that supply us with resources and remove our byproducts are hardwired around the mindset of waste and plentiful water supply. Nearly all formal homes and buildings have been designed to accommodate the toilet and trash bin, not the compost heap. Meanwhile, the densities of many townships limit the amount of land available. Building and health codes combine to reinforce the physical infrastructure, as do municipal budgets, policing, health services, etc. Our food systems, from our diets to our packaging, similarly militate against composting.

This is the frustrating part—feeling trapped, wanting to make a change, willing to make a commitment, but unable to see how to act within a largely incompatible system. The entire city is locked into the system, needing to devote huge resources to a system that demands them, and making impractical serious investment in supporting an alternative compost-based system.

This is, really, the modern predicament, and it’s difficult to see a way out. A prerequisite, however, is the shift in our minds from thinking waste to thinking resource. There’s no other way, because the system itself is built on a mindset that makes fundamentally flawed assumptions about the value of our resources and the capacity to sustain our lifestyle. Until we allow ourselves to reconceptualize our waste, we will lack the incentive and perspective to retool our systems. Cape Town’s enormous resource and service challenges, spawning both from environmental limitations and massive societal inequality, provide the opportunity, and potentially the incentive, to support this mind shift. On the other hand, it also complicates these processes.

Where does all this leave me? At the moment, peeing in the compost bin, guiltily trashbagging my cat’s litter, and pondering whether my eight square meter balcony could handle humanuring (which I doubt, although I still daydream). I’ve got no good answers, except to continually reflect on my place in this mess, and to search for opportunities where I can assert control over my own metabolic cycle. And potentially second-guessing whether to test the water the next time I’m at the beach...

[Disclaimer: Please do your own research on composting, including humanure composting, before trying it yourself.]

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

From Water to Electricity - The Resource-Constrained Future of South Africa (and the Globe)?

Sunday evening. I sat out on my apartment’s back patio, watching a silent armada of silver clouds move slowly over Table Mountain, shielding the city from the setting sun. Dusk comes fairly late to Cape Town at this time of the year, but still early enough that, at half past seven, the City Bowl’s street lights began to awaken from their daylong slumber. Slowly, as the bluish glow of the sky gave way to dark, a comforting smattering of twinkling yellow specks of light emerged from the urban landscape.

Although I often enjoy this view, my observation that night wasn’t completely casual. Earlier in the weekend, the City of Cape Town and news outlets had warned that the city, like the rest of the country, would face rolling blackouts due to insufficient power supply to the national electricity grid. According to the City’s loadshedding schedule, power to Cape Town’s city centre would be shut off at 8pm that night.

Taking a big picture view, the timing was incredible. Based on the first healthy rainy season in several years, the City had just announced a reduction in severe water use restrictions that had hung over the city for nearly a year. Within the same day, South Africa’s parastatal electricity provider, Eskom, announced new rolling blackouts across the country due to coal shortages and maintenance issues. While the cause of Eskom’s dwindling coal supplies are largely due to government and corporate corruption, the consequences, as with the Western Cape’s drought, are likely longterm and bring into focus the real possibility of a future with tightening resource constraints. It appears that just as one resource crisis loosened its grip, another is coming into focus.

As I sat, I wondered what exactly I was about to experience. How much of the glistening lights I was viewing would disappear? Would the blackout happen all at once, or in stages? Which parts would go completely black, and which ones, for reasons of governmental priority or private investment, would stay alight? Failures like these, planned or not, are a unique opportunity for observing the infrastructure networks that otherwise remain largely hidden from our view. As with water, food, and other basic resources, we take for granted the system of electrical power upon which our modern lives are totally dependent. It is only when a link in the chain fails and these systems stumble are we compelled to contemplate how they work... or don’t.

Infrastructure failures can also reveal the power dynamics, wealth distribution, and political priorities of a place. To what extent, I wondered, would the back up batteries and generators pick up the slack in this, the economic and political center of the city? How prepared, how energy self-sufficient, how well resourced were the properties around me? To what extent could elements of this city insulate themselves from the crisis?

The severe drought of earlier this year reflected both the best and the most troubling aspects of our relationship with our environment and each other. Capetonians mustered admirably to cut their water consumption in half, while the municipal government (belatedly) wrestled with a city-wide contingency plan and (more commendably) sought to inform the public about the nature of the crisis. Sadly--or perhaps fortunately?--all areas of the city faced the threat of water shortage that normally only the poorest areas regularly face. For many, dealing with the drought meant resorting to private boreholes, a somehow typically South African solution to the failure of government service: protecting those with means while impoverishing the collective resources available to those without.

Would access to electricity would play out the same way? Thankfully, the City has said it will take into account the impact of electricity failure on the areas of Cape Town most exposed to crime and violent gang activity. But uncertainty regarding the provision of power will likely drive those who can afford it to find their own way out of darkness, which I imagine means less collective dependence on public provision of resources. Something about that, likely the potential for unequal access, strikes me as troubling.

This all says a lot about the future. The future is likely to be a place where resources such as electricity and water cannot be taken for granted and are in more sporadic supply. It is also a period that, as it stands, will be experienced by a country, and a global population, with radically extreme economic and developmental vantage points. Where public infrastructure systems fail, where government institutions cannot deliver services, and where wealthy interests feel safer depending on self-sufficiency, we may expect a schism between those who are insulated from the increasing pressure on resources and those who are more vulnerable. Unfortunately, it seems to me, insulating the wealthy from the resource constraints facing the rest raises the long-term social, economic, environmental and psychological costs for everyone. In South Africa, the impacts of and responses to environmental crises preface what a more unequal world can expect when the pressures of climate change and resource extraction hit other more stable parts of the world with greater force.

As it turned out, my wait on Sunday night was, happily, for naught. Lights continued to ping on, and I began to realize that, for whatever reason, the loadshedding was not reaching this corner of South Africa (although it did others). I watched a television screen flicker through a far-off apartment window. In the distance, at the base of Table Mountain, the lights of residential areas continued to twinkle. I watched the normal traffic (its own resource story) continue busily along. But with the long-term threat of more loadshedding to come, I’m guessing this won’t be my last chance.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Paths Towards Technological Innovation and Sustainability in Rural Rwanda

Ironic (or perhaps karmic?) that my last post was on the Metrorail. Things have only seemed to get worse for passenger rail in Cape Town. Last week there were more apparently coordinated arson attacks, which came along with coverage of atrocious on-time performance. My own experience getting robbed at gunpoint midday during the week on the Southern Line a few weeks back has very much contributed to a personal pessimism regarding PRASA’s ability to serve passengers safely and efficiently.

But rather than dwelling on that, I’d like to share some thoughts about the trip to Rwanda I’ve just returned from, where I was working on research looking at the implementation of drone technology there. While the focus of that research does not precisely line up with this this blog, I nevertheless found myself considering afresh some themes around sustainability and development, particularly in the context of self-suffciency.

Rwanda is an interesting country for many reasons, not least because of the government’s mission to turn around the narrative regarding Africa and development. As I saw throughout my trip, the government there is working to promote new technologies that can, in the cliche’d parlance of development-speak, “leapfrog” the path of technological development followed in Global North countries. The mobile phone is held up as the best example of this--this technology is ubiquitous in Africa, which never developed the landline infrastructure that presaged mobile communications technology in places like the US and Europe. From common wifi access throughout the capital Kigali, to an expanding medical drone network serving rural areas, Rwanda is chasing the concept of technological leapfrogging, and seems to be succeeding due in part to the unified and centralized hard and soft power that the ruling party exerts.

On the other hand, it is clear, particularly in the country’s rural areas, how poor Rwanda is by conventional standards. Subsistence agriculture is the dominant form of living in the country, and access to capital very limited. I learned in the rural area I visited that a primary savings/investment vehicle is the keeping of farm animals, who are not kept to be eaten but to be sold if a life event requires cash. Living is very basic, difficult, and often tenuous.

In many ways, rural life in Rwanda could be said to reflect an ideal of "deep" ecological movements, including a self-provisional economic approach best advocated for (in my opinion) by Molly Scott Cato. A self-provisional economy is one in which people primarily take care of their own basic human needs. The idea is that this sort of living reduces consumption and avoids over-dependence on outside resources, goods, and services, thereby reducing the ecological impact and economic cost of sustaining massive centralized markets, practices, and systems. For instance, this style reduces or eliminates reliance on industrialized monocrop agriculture, while can be supported only through enormous resources inputs and result in similarly enormous outputs, that contribute to imbalanced ecologies.

I like to think that I’m not naive about the costs of moving towards a self-provisioning lifestyle, and I believe that many of these costs are offset by the benefits that urbanites like myself have lost in the transition towards modern lifestyles. However, it is hard for me to say that I would trade my modern life of convenience in for the tough lifestyle of rural Rwanda (although, then again, I may not know it well enough to judge). Part of this, no doubt, is highly cultural, but part of it is the real benefits I have enjoyed through centralized modern structures, including education, access to technologies, access to capital, etc.

Can the best of both these worlds be merged? Can they be made complementary in a manner that allows us to move towards self-sufficiency and an environmentally sound needs-based approach while not giving up the value, and yes, some of the convenience, of our technologically sophisticated modernity? I’m still optimistic, that it can be done, but I’m less certain about how it can be done practically, transitionally, and equitably. I’m also aware of the enormous obstacles, practical and psychological, that we have put up in our way.

As to whether the Rwandan government and Rwandan society at large sees this, I am also uncertain. Are technologically-advanced projects such as Rwanda’s medical drone network seen as a vehicle for supporting or replacing Rwanda’s rural and self-provisioning character? From my conversations with Rwandan stakeholders it appears that there is a dedication to serving rural populations, but there is also a desire to respond to demographic changes that are urbanizing Rwanda’s population. There is also the siren call of modern living, with its convenience and luxury, which I saw plenty of in Kigali. The extent to which Rwandan officials would like to protect what I would call its its self-sufficiency developmental advantage is unclear to me, but is something I would like to follow up on as the research progresses.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Metrorail up in flames

Cape Town’s rail public transport is literally going up in flames. For the second Saturday in a row, in the historic heart of Cape Town, billowing clouds of tar-black smoke have marred the otherwise clear blue winter sky. The source: arson attacks on passenger trains at Cape Town Station. This latest fire marks the sixth act of arson on Cape Town’s Metrorail system in the six weeks, and the third event in the past week.

The impact of the fire damage has been tremendous. Dozens of railcars, tens of millions of Rands of damage, and a 30%+ reduction in passengers over the past year, which will create even more issues for the struggling parastatal agency. Metrorail’s failure will also have a huge impact on the City’s long-term plans to address important issues of congestion, climate change, and economic activity. Earlier this year, the City came out with a Municipal Spatial Planning Framework whose long-term vision was premised on a functional rail system. While some questioned why the City would plan around a rail system that has long operated inadequately, I agree with the City that any long-term vision must be built around the rail system. It is an asset too valuable to discard, particularly in light of the imperative to move towards public transport and away from private automobiles.

There are a number of theories regarding who is behind the attacks. One, promoted by the civic organization #UniteBehind, is that elements within Metrorail itself are trying to destabilize the organization in order to enable continued corruption within the organization. Another is that the minibus taxi organizations, many of whom at times have used mafia-like strongarm tactics to maintain their economic power, are seeking a competitive advantage. It is hard for me to not look towards the minibus taxi organizations, which are well-placed to benefit from a hamstrung rail network, the only effective alternative for many people commuting from the township areas to the economic centers of Cape Town.

Arson isn’t Metrorail’s only problem, with vandalism and theft also having a big impact on operations. However, the acts of arson, I would argue, are in a different category. While there may be an economic motivation for them, and a desire to sabotage Metrorail, these acts seem more akin to terrorism. The symbolism of huge black smoke clouds emanating from Cape Town Station, for the City’s political and economic elite to see, seems intended to elicit a sense of fear, a threat, an assertion of power and control.

In addition to horror, I watched these clouds from my balcony this Saturday with a great sense of sadness. The people who are hurt most by this are marginalized, hardworking people who can least afford it. Whatever shortsighted goals this machiavellian act will achieve, it will almost surely also deepen the entrenched economically and racially based transportation segregation in Cape Town, which in turn will make it even harder to move towards an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable future. One can only hope this may instead serve as the nadir for rail in Cape Town, and galvanize reform and support for this much-needed service.