Silent Jewels in the Desert

By | Urban | 8 Comments

I think a cautionary example of what Jassem is describing would be the Freedom Towers debacle. They had a very public competition, in which hundreds of designs were submitted. The winner, Daniel Libeskind, had a really cool looking but ultimately unfeasible design. With the bureaucracy and interests involved pulling the project in so many directions, the end result was an architectural farce. The design was compromised endlessly and it still hasn’t been built, 10 years after the attack. I guess what i’m saying is that even when things are (supposedly) open and in competition, there’s still lots of room for things to go wrong.

Also, my problem wasn’t that these designs are done after an architect is selected and there’s no motive to do good work. That’s not what i’m worried about. Most of the buildings that are the work of famous architects, buildings that are conceived to celebrate the city or the patrons, are usually show-off islands. They don’t integrate well with the city. We have too many bad examples of this in Kuwait, buildings that are surrounded by highways and aren’t really part of something more. They ignore their context, culturally and physically. We have too many silent jewels in the desert. It’s time to start thinking about how make a city that works, not a building that would ignore it.

Transit Oriented Development

By | Neighborhood, Urban | 3 Comments
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/17384147 w=400&h=225]

This video encapsulates almost everything i’m trying to achieve on re:kuwait in terms of transit oriented development and more walkable neighborhoods. It shows in a very concise and simple way how we can create the sort of neighborhoods that I describe in posts such as this.

Faith in Accountability

By | Social | 3 Comments

Money has no real value. We use it to exchange goods and services only because we all have faith in what we collectively agree to be its worth. If we lose that faith, money is worthless.

I think a similar sort of faith exists in civic life. When people have faith that there is accountability, civic life flourishes. If there is no faith, people end up doing what they want without fear of reprisal.

Kuwait is not just corrupt but also corrupting. Most people assume that success is achieved only through ‘wasta’ or some other unfair advantage. I don’t think that’s because Kuwaitis are inherently corrupt or bad people. We just live in a state where it’s easier to break the rules than follow them and it’s infinitely more rewarding to let corruption continue than to stop it. With time even the most well intentioned person is corrupted or is at least demoralized to the point of submission.

We have simply lost faith in the rule of law.

In order for us to change we first have to reinvent the environment of civic life. To transform a crumbling neighborhood the first thing you do is replace all the broken windows. That one simple act communicates to people that the neighborhood is being taken care of and it is not being neglected.

The problem in Kuwait is not that we don’t have any laws. We do, but they’re not being enforced well enough. Before we can see any kind of progress at a political, economic or cultural level we have to start aggressively and ruthlessly enforcing the laws that are in place. Once people regain their faith in the rule of law, that everyone is treated equally and fairly, we can confidently begin rebuilding Kuwait.

Metro Worry

By | Metro | No Comments

A mass transit system can potentially be a very valuable investment, but the success is dependent on dense development near the stations. A line along the 6th ring road wouldn’t be very efficient because there’s no real density there. In order for it to be effective, you’d have to be able to walk somewhere.

I think we should start the metro project only in the densest areas of Kuwait, places that are already dense and walkable. Salmiya, Hawally, Farwaniya and the City are the best options.

Kuwait 2030: Traffic Sanity

By | Other | 5 Comments

For males in Kuwait, traffic accidents are the second leading cause of death (after heart disease) with about 40 deaths per 100,000. For women, the number is much less at 8 deaths per 100,000. Something is very wrong with that number and it scares the hell out of me. Driving in Kuwait is more dangerous than the risk of cancer. Reducing traffic accidents would have the same effect as curing cancer. Imagine that.

Traffic Sanity:

If we can bring the risk of death for males down to the more normal level of women we would save the lives of 300 people every year, people you know and love. Sadly, everyone knows a dear friend or a family member that died in an accident. These are mostly preventable deaths and it’s a disgrace that this is not our highest national priority. There are an average of 453 traffic fatalities per year.

There have been some good steps taken to get us on the right track. The National Traffic and Transport Sector Strategy 2009-2019 for Kuwait’ has some good ideas about smart data collection. They propose reforming the way police officers collect accident data so that the information is standardized and includes GPS coordinates of the events. That way they can create a detailed map with a historical record of where accidents frequently occurred so they can identify ‘black spots’ which are high frequency accident areas. Those are good ideas, but I don’t think they’re radical enough. We need more. What do I want by 2030?

  • Traffic related deaths to plummet from 400 per year to 100.
  • Foolproof anti-speeding system
  • Web based, real time traffic map
  • The ability to choose a car free lifestyle

I think these are all realistic and achievable goals and the technology exists today to make it happen. The steps we need to take are somewhat drastic but necessary to solve the problem:

  1. Blanket the country with average speed cameras.
  2. Link the data collected by the cameras with an open-source traffic map API so cars, phones and computers have access to a real time map showing traffic on all major roads.
  3. Since average speed cameras use infra red, you wouldn’t know when you were caught speeding. No flash. To avoid this, cars would be linked with the mobile phone number of the owner and receives an SMS every time they get caught.
  4. Traffic police to install cameras on their dashboard to record what goes on and any harassment of police officers that might occur. Yes, it happens.
  5. Implement NIRIS, which is the system I mentioned about accident data collection reform.
  6. Sticker prices of cars must include the cost of petrol that the car would consume in a year.
  7. Cameras everywhere and especially at ‘black spots’ and highway overpasses to stop dangerous driving such as overtaking on one lane flyovers. I’m sure there’s a way to automate the system so that dangerous driving could be flagged and a police car alerted to the situation.
  8. Very slow driving should be penalized as heavily as speeding and can result in revoked licenses.
  9. A congestion pricing system for traffic going in and out of the city during rush hour. If it costs 1KD every time you go into or out of Kuwait City during rush hour, you’d see a lot more people using public transportation. See Salik in Dubai.
  10. Gradually and loudly reduce and eventually abolish the fuel subsidy. This will make it more expensive to drive and incentivize people to use public transport. The revenue generated will be given back to Kuwaitis as a rebate. If you drive less, you still get the same amount as someone that drives a lot more, so you might profit.
  11. Invest a lot more in public transport infrastructure; buses, bus stops with real time maps of where the buses are (it’s so easy to do once you have the data), the metro, real bus lanes, better pedestrian safety. Make it easy for people to live without a car and they will drive less.

The situation today allows people to speed without consequence. Everyone knows how to game the system. We have to make it so hard to avoid punishment that it becomes practically impossible to get away with speeding. Current camera technology can allow us to do that. We can stop speeding on major roads and that’s generally considered the main cause of fatal accidents. Awareness and marketing campaigns are useless and do nothing but waste time and money. We need strict rule enforcement and penalties. Nothing else works.

Our ultimate goal should be to reduce fatalities, ease traffic and lower pollution. A comprehensive plan should include investing in alternative modes of transportation as well as better driver education during licensing and strict penalties and enforcement. In the end this has to be a serious national project. I want to constantly see giant numbers on buildings and newspapers showing the average number of deaths in the past year and to show that number go down every week. This is way more important that petty political squabbles and insignificant pay rises. We can sort of cure cancer.

Kuwait 2030: Merit Pay

By | Education | 2 Comments

I think we need a way to better reward good teachers. Right now, there’s a sort of secondary market where the best teachers are getting paid really well privately tutoring wealthy students. That’s not fair because the energy and attention of the teacher is usually reserved for the evening and not during class time. I think we can come up with a better way to solve this imbalance.

There is a sweeping change going through the American public school system with many arguing that merit pay (rewarding good teachers with better pay) is the best option. The challenge is to come up with a way to quantify how good a teacher really is. Do you just look at test scores? How about differences in parent involvement and family background?  It is a very complicated issue, but its clear that treating all teachers the same and rewarding seniority has failed. We have a very similar system in Kuwait and there is no way to reward talented and creative teachers.

There is also a lack of variety in the choices of schools in Kuwait. I want to see more experimental schools and more distinctly different options that I can choose from based on my values and concerns.

Merit Pay:

  • Creative, energetic and talented teachers are handsomely rewarded without having to resort to private tutoring
  • Parents can choose from a wide variety of different schools each with their own pedagogical philosophy and structure
  • Terrible and unimaginative teachers are retrained or promptly fired

The idea is to create a competitive environment between schools to attract the best teachers. We can achieve this by slowly handing over control of public schools and turning them into ‘charter schools’. These are schools that have a charter, or an agreement with the government, which dictates what it is they’re trying to achieve and what the goals and milestones are for the school in order to remain active. As long as those rules are met, the school remains open, but the inner workings of the school is completely independent and without interference from the government. How can we achieve this?

  1. Create a large team of Teacher Auditors. This team would systematically sit in classes and quietly observe all the teachers in Kuwait and grade them based on their teaching skills. Slowly begin to install webcams inside all classrooms to observe remotely and record infringements and misbehavior (on the part of students and teachers).
  2. Renegotiate teacher contracts and reward the highest scoring teachers with hefty bonuses and fire the lowest scoring teachers.
  3. During every summer, all teachers are to attend mandatory teacher training programs and will not be allowed to resume teaching until they pass an exam at the end of the summer.
  4. Install a web based teacher evaluation program, where students can evaluate teacher effectiveness. This will be monitored by the Teacher Auditors and used to guide their audits and examinations and which classes to observe via webcam.
  5. Make it absolutely illegal with strict penalties for full time teachers to teach privately. They can work overtime at the school and be paid by the school to teach students privately, or in small groups. The students do not pay the teacher and as a result, wealthy students do not gain an unfair advantage over others.
  6. Instead of making public schools free for all, we offer vouchers to students that are valid to use as tuition for any school. This will lower the entrance fee to private schools and give an incentive for independent public schools (charter schools) to be better than the rest.
  7. Every school will be required by law to provide free tuition for a certain percentage of students based on need and merit. Poor but worthy students will be guaranteed entry into the best schools.

The idea is that by the end of this process, the line between public schools and private ones is blurred to the point where there isn’t a distinction. There would be a fierce marketplace between the schools with each of them fighting to survive and attract the best teachers and students. Failing schools will have their charters revoked and a new management will invest in and take over the school.

The free market is a powerful force for change and progress. We can use it to energize our school system. We don’t know which teachers are good and which are bad. We have to devise a way to know this information and then use that to create a marketplace that can attract the best talent in Kuwait. I want the job of a teacher to be a very financially rewarding profession. All we need is more transparency, agressive training and ruthlessness in dealing with incompetence.

Kuwait 2030: Solar City

By | Energy | 3 Comments

I’m going to start a series of posts called Kuwait 2030 where I will outline  some ideas about where I would like Kuwait to be in twenty years. I’m going to outline each idea and then some realistic steps on how to achieve the goal.

Solar City

  • Kuwait as a worldwide hub for solar energy research
  • A new manufacturing industry for Kuwait exporting solar panels and creating manufacturing and research jobs for Kuwaitis
  • Kuwaiti energy supply to be 20% solar

    The idea is to create a brand new research and manufacturing industry in Kuwait. It is a challenge for the nation in the same way Kennedy challenged Americans to land on the moon. How can we achieving the goals outlined above?

    1. Create a Solar Institute somewhere out in the desert with a practically unlimited budget, as an offshoot of KISR or even as an entirely new entity. It should be an independent authority that is held accountable to agreed upon milestones and deadlines. It is a research center, patent holding entity and a post-graduate school.
    2. Purchase many established and new foreign Solar energy companies to acquire talent and patents to get a head start at the institute. All of the acquired firms will relocated some of their research and training facilities to Kuwait.
    3. Select the best and brightest young Kuwaiti engineers and guide them through PhD’s and promise them a generously rewarding future (both financially and scientifically). This would be a national patriotism project in the same way kids were inspired by NASA to become engineers in the 50’s and 60’s.
    4. Provide generous subsidies to Kuwaiti industrialists and allow them a financially feasible way to build solar panel manufacturing plants using the patents and methods acquired by the Solar Institute. Yes, that would be picking winners and losers, but we have to do this in order to start the ball rolling.
    5. Begin to slowly raise electricity prices while providing an energy rebate to compensate.
    6. Offer to install solar panels for free on rooftops in Kuwait which will be leased by the homeowners. That way, they cannot be resold, but the homeowner and the country benefit. If the solar panel is removed, the homeowner is fined.
    7. A national initiative whereby homeowners and industry can sell back excess energy generated by them back to the national grid. This means if your home generates more energy than it consumes, you can sell this energy back to the grid and make money doing nothing.

    This has been attempted by Abu Dhabi with their Masdar Institute. It’s a great idea, although their plans for Masdar City were  unrealistically ambitious. They have a big head start. I don’t see why we can’t do the same and share our research with each other. KISR have already been planning for something similar and I hope lawmakers take their ideas and calls to action seriously.

    Solar energy is almost perfect for the Gulf. We have so much capital now and all solar energy needs to take off is a huge initial investment in the research and manufacturing base. Once we have the research and the solar panels moving out the door, the whole thing becomes self sustaining. It is such a great investment for the future of our country and the GCC. The time will come when we will no longer have oil to sell to the world. Oil will run out, but the sun will always shine. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make some money off that too?

    Collaborative Consumption

    By | Other | 3 Comments
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQa3kUJPEko&fs=1&hl=en_US&rel=0]

    A beautiful presentation by Rachel Botsman about the rise of collaborative consumption and how technology is bringing us back to the ideas of sharing and trust. She covers the same ground as Clay Shirky and others but the presentation is too good to pass up. I can see this working in Kuwait. Maybe it exists already, but I can see it working, trading DVDs, fashion accessories, old phones, etc. The bigger point is that these transactions are happening purely based on trust, even though you don’t know the other person at all. It’s really impressive how we create a communal credit score when people review your actions and through that you can get a feel of a persons reputation and reliability and have all this just emerge naturally.

    A 1000KD Gift is a Terrible Idea

    By | Energy, Social | 11 Comments

    As if to prove my point, this 1000KD ‘gift’ is a perfect example of short sighted gimmickry. People don’t want to think about how it will cause accelerated inflation, how most of the money will be spent outside Kuwait and what it means when Kuwaitis think of this as a patriotic act.

    Patriotism is sacrifice. It is about working hard to make your country better than how you found it. It is about planning and preparing for a future that is not by any means certain. Kuwait and other petro-nations are driving towards a brick wall. Instead of wearing seat belts, slowing down and ultimately trying to avoid the wall, we’re shutting our eyes, listening to some great music and trying not to care. Some people feel that they can just jump out before it’s too late, and maybe they can, but the car is still going to crash into the wall.

    Kuwaitis will be fine, for now. But Kuwait won’t for long. Patriotism is about knowing which is more important.

    Sacrifice

    By | Social | 15 Comments

    I have a few thoughts in response to an interesting article in the Arab Times by Amer Al-Hilal. I don’t think it’s generally productive to lament gridlock and hope for progress. Kuwait has major structural problems, but those can be fixed if we can identify them and propose adequate solutions.

    At the heart of it, I feel that we are all to blame for the mess we’re in. It’s easy to point fingers at the government and blame it for the way Kuwait has regressed. Yet nobody seems patriotic enough to offer meaningful sacrifices to help pull us away from peril.

    In 50 years Kuwait will no longer be able to provide for its citizens. A sane reaction to this reality would be to slowly enact rules that would alter the habits and lifestyle choices of Kuwaiti citizens so that when the time comes we would be able to withstand the shock.

    An example that i’ve mentioned before is to slowly raise fuel, electricity and water prices every year. When the time comes, our children will have understood the value of conservation and we would have avoided the cataclysmic shock that is otherwise inevitable.

    No politician is brave enough to propose this. I don’t hear ordinary Kuwaitis asking for this. All I hear is more calls for higher salaries and benefits. If all we expect from Kuwait is to provide for us without personal sacrifice, then we will continue to live in moral and intellectual poverty.

    There is so much traffic on the roads not only because of bad planning, but because everyone has a car and we drive everywhere all the time. That’s a personal lifestyle choice and nobody is willing to change. There aren’t any trees on pleasant shaded sidewalks because everyone is demanding bigger houses that are getting closer and closer to the street. Nobody accepts that the reason why we have blackouts in summer is because everyone keeps their AC on all the time even when nobody is in their oversized home. I drive a car and I hardly ever turn off my AC. I don’t want to change because i’m living comfortably. I am to blame, too.

    If there was a structural reason for me to change, I would gladly do so. If I had to pay 1000KD every year to maintain my energy consumption, I’d be first in line to install solar panels and buy a hybrid. Everyone is just too comfortable to care.