Monthly Archives: March 2010

Taking Over Freeways

By | SAM Street, Social, Urban | 4 Comments

This is an urban renewal proposal in Los Angeles that, although at a much grander scale, is similar to what we want for SAM Street. The idea is to literally cover a portion of sunken freeway with a large park.

“Plans to develop four so-called freeway cap parks have recently been announced in Los Angeles. The cap concept, which essentially covers a portion of a freeway with a planted concrete lid, has gained popularity in the last decade as an urban “greening” solution. The multibillion-dollar projects are meant to knit together previously disparate neighborhoods, theoretically creating cohesion and larger-scale community gathering places without having to destroy or displace existing infrastructures.”

Think of this as the city healing itself from a painful wound (the freeway) to remake the skin of the city. The flow would become uninterrupted, creating a seamless urban fabric that is green, clean and triggers a virtuous cycle of healthy urban living.

The only way this would work is through a public-private partnership, and this diagram shows how the project could be funded:

The properties in pink will be developed by the people that invest in the infrastructure. This would give the private sector ‘skin in the game’ and get them to promote and sustain the project indefinitely. This is a model that’s being used in Kuwait for the new Metro proposals (as far as I know), meaning that whoever invests in the project would get to develop the, all of a sudden, very desirable real estate adjacent to the station (and the station itself).

People are finally beginning to understand the damage being done to our lives by insisting on a car-only lifestyle; having our transportation system and urban design be generated by automobile patterns and parking needs. We can’t sustain this, not just because of the damage to the environment (again, I really don’t care about that) but because it has had a deep influence on society. Being fully dependent on a car has profoundly damaged the Kuwaiti psyche. Kuwait, the land of scorching heat, has become a city of asphalt and concrete. We have blindly built ourselves a frying pan to live on and now hide in giant refrigerators.

This project in LA is an example of how we can turn the corner and chart a new course for our city. I’m not suggesting we build parks over the 5th ring road, but I want us to start thinking big in terms of how we can create a pleasant and livable city. It’s going to take a lot of effort and time and money, because we’ve been ignorant of our actions for so long, but we can change.

Yes, we can.

-Edit: A few more images:

Deploying our Cognitive Surplus

By | Social | 2 Comments

Please take the time to watch this video. I can’t seem to embed it, so you have to click the link.

In the video, Clay Shirky talks about the revolution happening in social media. We used to be passive because there wasn’t much we could do in our free time other than watch television or shop. Now, because of social media and networking, we can do so much more but we can also start producing and thinking and creating collective networks of valuable information. So where do we start?

“The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you’re going.”

We haven’t yet developed that culture of experimentation, yet. We still have a crippling fear of failure, but we have to realize that this is how evolution works; with lots of mostly failed experiments, a few good ones survive and thrive. So much precious time is dissipated by idle workers and bored Kuwaitis looking to ‘waste time’ at work and at home. What if we channel that surplus time into something useful and productive?

Let’s think about some possibilities for Kuwait. A website that tracks energy use per household and rewards those that are below average with a large financial prize. People can look at the map, and see how much they’re consuming in comparison with other people in their neighborhood. They start challenging for the prizes and learn the best ways to save energy from each other. The prizes won’t be a zero-sum game (I win when you lose) but would be designed to encourage people to help each other with ideas.

People could join together and create a micro-governance task force that looks for local problems in infrastructure (badly maintained public park, potholes, stupidity in general) and have direct access to the people responsible. We must get government assurances that if the people responsible don’t act in time, they get punished. The way this works is because of the beautiful sudden transparency of the internet.

I’m sure there are lots other ideas we can think of and most of them won’t work, but the few that do will change Kuwait for the better.

Charter Schools

By | Education | 8 Comments

Why doesn’t Kuwait have any charter schools? These are independent publicly funded schools (no tuition, religious affiliation or selective student admissions), but are separated from the rules of the Ministry as long as they abide by agreed upon performance standards.

A charter school is authorized to function once it has received a charter, a statutorily defined performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success.

The point is that they end up experimenting with better methods of teaching without being restricted by bureaucracy, while still being held accountable for student achievement. Successful examples in the US include High Tech High and Seattle Girls School.

I would love it if we had such choices in Kuwait. Most of the private schools are getting too expensive for most people and are attracting rich, spoiled kids that demand special behavior because they’re paying exorbitant fees. Students start developing an feeling of entitlement which defines their behavior throughout their lives. Public schools aren’t any better, but that’s because they lost interest and have settled on a comfortable rut that no one in power wants to change. A little competition can’t hurt.

Update: If not charter schools, then at least strictly not-for-profit private schools. It’s the profit motive that, I think, ruins most private schools.

Later Update: The reason why i’m asking for this is that education, like security and healthcare, is a right and not a privilege. Public schools have no innovation and their ability to develop well-rounded, curious and creative young men and women is weak. They teach to the test and have been stuck with the same curriculum taught in the same way for generations.

Experimenting with charter schools, or at least non-profit private schools, is simply a way to disrupt this stagnation. It will show that there are alternatives to the way we teach. If I was in charge of a school, i’d make these changes:

  1. Have a much later starting bell than usual, in the region of 9am. The school opens as early as 6:30, and parents would be free to drop their kids in anytime they want. Breakfast would be served in school for those that don’t have time at home. Kids that are there early can work on their projects or just socialize with their friends.
  2. Mandatory 15 minute exercise for students and faculty first thing in the morning.
  3. School would end much later than normal, somewhere around 4 or 5pm. They wouldn’t be expected to do any homework, all work is done in school. That means that they don’t carry their books home. Most kids don’t have good work spaces at home, and some have loud or disruptive home environments.
  4. Lots of extra-curricular activities (teachers would be encouraged to each start something in a field that they’re passionate about, for example astronomy, chess, wrestling, dance, gardening, cycling, etc) Every student would have to pick two or three activities as part of their schedule.
  5. Students would be served lunch in school at around noon, a healthy, nutritious lunch that’s made specifically for each student (there would be a nutrition specialist on staff that would ‘design’ each child’s menu for the year, based on clinical tests and physical exams. And no, I don’t think that’s crazy)
  6. Major emphasis on creativity and self-empowerment. There’s a test at the end of the year, but the weight of the test would be much less than usual. Team projects will be a main tool of education. The aim is teach kids how to learn.
  7. Much smaller classes than usual, depending on the subject and students.
  8. Troublemakers would be weeded out of the normal classes and put together with each other. They would be taught through tough, discipline oriented methods. They would have a second chance to go back to Gen-Pop, but only if they behave and work hard. This idea is from Season 4 of The Wire.
  9. No useless technology. Sometimes schools think that simply having technology will replace the act of teaching. Technology is a tool, and using it in the wrong way wastes time and money. Only stuff that works and is proven effective will be used.
  10. Community awareness. The kids would be constantly involved in local initiatives, cleaning up the park for example, or proposing and enacting changes to things they decided needed to change. Basic acts of micro-democracy and showing how when people organize and get involved, they can make stuff happen.
  11. Students will be constantly encouraged to make things. The school should have a pervasive and contagious feeling of creativity and experimentation. Students are taught not to say what they’re going to do, but what they did. Wet labs, wood shop, photography studio and dark room, art space, a theater. There’s always something happening.

There’s no way that this school could exist as part of the Ministry. It has to be separated from the rules that govern all public schools. I don’t see it being successful as a private, for-profit school, either. The motivation there is to make money, and that drive supersedes the desire to teach honestly and enthusiastically.

It has to be independent from the rules and not driven by profit. The only options are charter schools (free, public schools that are accountable to the Ministry, but don’t follow their rules) or a non-profit private school.