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Libyan Writer Ghoma
الكاتب الليبي غومة

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Thursday, 31 December, 2009

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A 19th Century Solution to 21st Century’s Problem?

(Part II)

By: Ghoma

“In the 19th and 20th centuries we made stuff: corn and steel and trucks. Now, we make protocols: sets of instructions. A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass… A protocol economy tends toward inequilibrium because some societies and subcultures have norms, attitudes and customs that increase the velocity of new recipes while other subcultures retard it. Some nations are blessed with self- reliant families, social trust and fairly enforced regulations, while others are cursed by distrust, corruption and fatalistic attitudes about the future. It is hard to transfer protocols of one culture onto those of another.”

                                              David Brooks, “The Protocol Society” NYT, Op-Ed, 22 December 2009

        Those who manage urban systems have to think spontaneously in two ways: one is how best to keep the system running as it’s; and the other is how to predict the future and plan for it ahead of time. In other words, they’ve to be both pragmatic and dreamers in the same time. Folks practical enough, who take politics as the art of the possible, to handle the day-to-day stream of tasks; and in the same time imaginative enough to scan the foreseeable horizons to see where the trends are leading, and be able to winnow the substance from the rot, to prepare their cities for what is coming their ways. It’s a task fraught with all kinds of miscalculations, given the nature of predictability in general, and complex social interaction in particular. This would be a taxing set of tasks and it’s a heavy burden and incredible effort for most humans, but not all humans get to enjoy the label of ‘city fathers!’

        Cities historically grew to serve some purposes which went from their immediate hinterlands to nationally or even beyond those. The functions ranged from being a port, an administrative center, a distributive, an industrial, mining hub, or just serving its immediate surroundings and providing the products, crafts and skills needed. The post-Colonial city has broken with those traditions. Most of 3rd-World cities grew out of no purposes at all except as poles of attraction to the rural surplus populations. A parasitic city by definition. It doesn’t produce rather consume. As such it s birth was forced and its growth was deformed. It grew because of either government functions or multinationals’ choice as a seat to their businesses.

        While the industrial city, was the locus of energy and creative work, and dealt with most of the problems that came its way, hesitantly, if not grudgingly, but it dealt with them nonetheless. The same couldn’t be said for the post-colonial city of the 3rd-World. It’s a parasitic-city in a 3rd-World contest. A consumption-city, which doesn’t have the capabilities produce what it consumes. Because it was built on imported technology and know-how, whenever it met with a problem, it looked up North to find if there was any similar that had occurred there and how it was faced so could it emulated. Importation was its mainstay. It imported whatever were available, lock, stock, and barrel.

        Where imagination lacks imitation starts! Tripoli, a city which has never been an industrialized city, and which has recently attracted a huge number of freshly transplanted peasants, is now searching for a solution to its traffic problems. As usual, it decided to go the way(s) of other 3rd-World cities, in importing an old and well-tried solution. But unfortunately for Tripoli, the world has changed since those solutions were invented and implemented. Today’s technology is way different from that early and late industrial city levels. Contrary to its expectations, Tripoli, in this sense, is not importing the latest technology, though the trains themselves maybe the latest technology hit, the use to which they were to be put is not anymore that which rise to them back then when. In other words, Tripoli is not looking forward to solve its problems within the framework of the 21st century, but rather is looking backward, to history! It’s importing, once again, as a wholesale-antiquated solution of 19th century’s industrial city type. What could ultimately end up being merely a band-aide of a solution! Out of the industrial age cauldron and into the fry pan of 3-World chaos: the Subway system!

        Tripoli, a city in its own class, apparently has not yet heard of the passing of the industrial age into the dustbin of history, except perhaps in China! And therefore the solutions belonging to that age don’t meet 21st century problems anymore and thus had already been relegated to the historical records also. The Post-industrial era is upon us! It’s supposed to usher in a new brave world, with its service-oriented knowledge economy! Whatever that means? It’s also true this new-brave world is still in the offing. Whatever its traits and attributes this new-age will not have an intensive-labor industry, as that of 19th century Europe and North America, as part of its repertoire. Thus it demands new way(s) of taking stock of the world; and new way of the phenomenon of urbanization. A new way to use the land and a new way imagine the city.

        The new scientific-technological revolution has made it possible to imagine new possibilities. Time had acquired new speed and thus its dimension is truly becoming tangible and now part of the equation of any human activity. There’s no more need for concentrating activities in space too. Places such as offices, banks, firms’ headquarters, as well as perhaps factories could be one day relegated into the virtual space. There may be still a need to locate some nodes of transportation somewhere convenient to disburse the consumer and leisure traffic that will be there as long as humans are the way they’re now. What about face-to-face, space-bounded relations? There’s the possibility they’ll be treated as relics of past ages. Since technology has made it possible that one could be anywhere on the planet or outside of it and still converse and see the other(s) as if they were sitting together! What is left for people to crowd each other for in big urban concentrations? With these in mind, cities, as we knew them, perhaps are also a relic of bygone eras. Future cities, if they could be called as such, or perhaps conglomerations! or just scattered conurbations which extend as far as land and resources allow them, such as the Eastern and Western Seaboards of the USA have to imagine themselves afresh on new basis. No more center and periphery type but rather homogenous extensions a la Los Angeles!

        We come back thus to Tripoli subway. Why in the world one has to go back to the 19th century urban problems and their solutions to borrow from. Who will say for sure that Tripoli, Benghazi, Sebha, etc. have to be the way they grew in late 20th century. They may not have born with oil but now the oil is the only thing that keeps them running. They may as well, one day when the oil is no more, return to their status back then when ‘the King was still a foreman!’ Small sleepy agglomerations of few tens of thousands of slumbering humans. A few thousand of people with perhaps one or two activities to perform. Since knowledge economy is built on high levels of specialization.

        Thus today’s Libyan cities, since still new to the foray of big human concentration, have to think about their problems with fresh mind and eyes too. From what is the best size, given the shortage of water and agricultural hinterland, to what is the function(s) to be performed in the post-oil world? If a framework can be envisioned then solutions, which may lead to the desired outcome(s), could be elaborated. As far as the traffic goes, the solution must be of the flexible type. It must not commit the country to rigid, expensive, and technologically driven solutions. These only increase its dependency and when oil is over, they’ll rot. But simple solutions of the monorail types, or some surface transportation network that would extend and contract as need arises, etc….


Part 1    Part 2    Part 3

More Articles Written By Ghoma

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