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Future of Warfare in a Post-COIN Conflict Climate
SWJ Discussion with Dr. David Kilcullen on his recently released book “Out of the Mountains. The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla”, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Dr. David Kilcullen is the founding President and CEO of Caerus Associates LLC, a strategic design consultancy with a focus on the overlapping problems of conflict, climate change, energy, health and governance. His academic background is in the political anthropology of conflict in traditional societies. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 2000, is a study of the impact of insurgency on political development, and draws on extended residential fieldwork with guerrillas, militias and local people in remote parts of Indonesia, New Guinea and East Timor. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including The Accidental Guerrilla (2009), Counterinsurgency (2010), and Out of the Mountains (2013), all from Oxford University Press.
“The future is hybrid and irregular conflict combining elements of crime, urban unrest, insurgency, terrorism, and state-sponsored asymmetric warfare—more Mumbai, Mogadishu, and Tivoli Gardens—and we had better start preparing for it”. (David Kilcullen)
SWJ: What does the pattern of Arab Spring uprisings (predominantly in urban coastal and highly connected areas) tell us about the future of conflict in connected cities?
David Kilcullen: Before the Arab Spring, in 2007, the French geographer Olivier Kramsch did a study of coastal urbanization in the Mediterranean basin. His conclusion was that three of the most heavily coastally urbanized societies in the entire Mediterranean basin (Middle East, Southern Europe and North Africa) were in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. What I concluded in my research is that there was a strong correlation between a high degree of coastal urbanization and a high degree of unrest in the Arab Spring. I asked myself why is that the case? There are a couple of reasons. One is that all these societies experienced rapid growth of coastal cities in the 20 or 30 years before the uprisings and to some extent, all three cases show a common pattern: cities under stress, marginalized urban and peri-urban populations, high youth unemployment, lack of carrying capacity in a society experiencing significant population growth and urbanization, but at the same time limited economic opportunities.
In the half of century before the revolution, Tunisia had experienced rapid growth, its population doubling from 4.2 million (in 1960) to 10.7 million (in 2010), with a high rate of coastal urbanization. If you moved to a city in the last 20 or 30 years ago, most likely you still have relatives in the countryside and retain close ties to your village of origin. Many urban Tunisians maintained human networks that allowed information to quickly circulate among urban, peri-urban and rural communities. In the Tunisian case the uprising actually started in a small town (Sidi Bouzid) not in the main city, but the connectivity between urban Tunisians and their relatives in the countryside allowed the awareness to spread rapidly. Quickly the information reached the main city about what was happening in the countryside. When the uprising actually hit the capital where 25% of Tunisian lived (Tunisia is a really a heavily coastal urbanized society) many people called their relatives in the countryside and step by step, many others city rose up against the regime. So you have this conflict spreading effect that was really carried out on the back of the connectivity that hadn’t existed before.
In the case of Libya, the old King of Libya, King Idris al-Senussi, came from Cyrenaica, from Eastern Libya. The king was overthrown by Gaddafi in 1969, who came from a tribal group around Tripoli and institutionalized a regime that favored heavily the Western part of the country (Tripolitania) by comparison to Cyrenaica. He put more resources in developing Tripoli and the urban systems in the Western part of the country than into developing Benghazi. There was unrest in this part of Libya against Gaddafi, but people for the most part sat down quietly because they were not really aware of what was happening. It was only in 2003 that Libya, for the first time, got access to widespread cell-phone coverage availability, satellite television, Internet— and at that point a lot of people in Eastern Libya looked on television for the first time and saw how Dubai and Abu Dhabi have prospered under their government’s policies and said: Wait a minute, we generate the bulk of cash and revenues that boost Libya and we see Abu Dhabi and Dubai and we are not living like that. In Benghazi, outside the urban core, streets were muddy and only the main roads were paved. The city’s infrastructure (governance, housing, public sanitation) was neglected for years and the lack of capacity made impossible for the city to cope with the inflow of population and the unplanned housing growth. So the access to connectivity in this overwhelmed, underserviced, coastal cities generated the level of unrest that pushed back against the regime. From many perspectives Benghazi is the ideal illustration of the way in which population growth, urban sprawl and rural-to-urban migration can stress a city’s metabolism leaving it with insufficient capacity to manage the toxic by-products of urban overstretch. This reality, coupled with the lack of opportunities for the educated, politically aware, unemployed, alienated youth that populated Libya’s cities, with the economic marginalization of populations inside Benghazi and the political marginalization of Benghazi within Libya prepared the ground for the later uprising.
The final example would be Syria. Hafez al Assad was able to crush the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the 1980s by going from town to town, one by one, and crushing a series of uprisings, one at a time. Bashar al Assad was not able to do that because the number of people with cell phones, satellite television access, and Internet access had dramatically spread. So when the uprising began in early 2011 in Daraa, it rapidly spread in other cities and within 6 months was in 20 cities and it got to the point where the regime couldn’t handle the uprisings one at a time. The regime was overwhelmed. This is an effect of connectivity. Access to connectivity not only created a lot of the unrest that led to the violence, but it also enabled that conflict to play out in a different way when it actually began. When are thinking at the starting point in Daraa, this was a city already under stress because of a severe drought coupled with an influx of population into the city’s outlying districts. In the end, the influx of a large number of displaced people, seeking water, into a city already rationing its water supply generated one of the most severe possible stresses on a city’s metabolism. The same trends can be identified also in the case of Mogadishu, Mumbai or Kingston: long-term processes of population growth, urbanization and coastal migration lay beneath the violence.
There is nothing new about urban coastal environments. We were talking about this since the 1990s, when General Krulak advanced the idea of “three block war”, and Ralph Peters and General Scales were talking about urban environments. But this was before the cell-phone era, before the Internet had penetrated into the developing world, before widespread access to satellite television. So, in the 10 years that we’ve been busy in a landlocked war environment like Afghanistan doing counterinsurgency against non-state actors, the environment has dramatically changed. As we come back from the last decade of fighting, we are going to come back to an environment that is actually fundamentally altered, not only because of the number of people that are now living in urban environments, but because of how connectivity changes how conflict plays out in these environments.
SWJ: Should we expect that when we see all these clustered elements conflict is more likely, the societal environment more conflict prone?
David Kilcullen: There are two different ways to look at this set of relations. If we look at this from the standpoint of the military or law-enforcement, then it is pretty clear that we really need to get comfortable with operating in a very littoral, very urban and very highly networked environment because that is where the bulk of the people on the planet are going to live in the next generation. If you are not comfortable operating in such an environment you are not going to be effective. But this doesn’t mean that the solution to this problem is a military one. Seen from the perspective of the city in itself, it is pretty clear that the solution is not to bring the hawk cops in, and apply hard power tools to stabilize the environment. This is often a recipe for disaster. The paradox is that, on the one hand, there are no military solutions, but at the same time there are no solutions at all without security. Someone will provide that security and it is better for it to be the locals, but if the locals cannot do it, then history suggests that we will be drawn into this kind of conflict with about the same frequency as in the past.
SWJ: You emphasized in your book, and also at the New America Foundation launching event that in the future we will face operational continuity and environmental discontinuity. What if the environmental discontinuity can in itself be a variable able to change the operational continuity?
David Kilcullen: That’s possible, to the extent that we have data -- information based on historical patterns. On one hand, it seems that there is a lot of unwillingness on behalf of the American politicians to contemplate future engagements like Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress has no appetite as we’ve seen in the case of Syria for further military activity overseas. The military leadership is very reluctant to recommend that kind of operation. But going back to the 19th century we see a cyclical pattern in American military history where we repeatedly have leaders coming out with this kind of statement and yet we end up doing these kinds of operations anyway, on about the same frequency. There are deep structures about the way the US is connected to the international community that lead to this kind of behavior. It is possible that we won’t do this in the future, but it is not the way to bet. If you are going to bet on what is likely to happen, the pattern suggests that we are going to see a specific “conflict climate” (shaped by population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness) within which wars will arise.
SWJ: What does the battle of Mogadishu remind or tell us about the future of conflict?
David Kilcullen: There is a huge number of lessons that we should be aware of. The way I explain Mogadishu in the book is through the lens of Richard Norton’s idea of feral cities. There is an assumption that cities exist because governments sustain them, and if the government falls over, the city will disappear. But as Richard Norton argues, and as I think Mogadishu demonstrates, what a government does is to domesticate a city and when the government collapses, the city goes feral and wild. What happened in the case of Somalia is that the state collapsed in 1991 and the city was taken over by a whole of series of non-state armed groups that were able to preserve the functioning of the systems of the city and thus were able to dominate the population. And this continued actually for the past 20 years during which Somalia didn’t have a central bank or a functioning central government. Yet the Somali schilling has survived as a currency for all these 20 years. There is an incredibly sophisticated market based system that was essentially invented by the community itself in order to cope with state collapse. Overall we tend to understand this sequence of events as first, the state collapsed and then, the city went feral. But what the evidence suggests is that it was the other way around: the city went feral first and then the state collapsed. In fact, what happened was not so different than what we saw in Tunisia or Libya. In the 30 years after Somalia won its independence, there was a giant flow of population moving to the city that generated the emergence of slum areas, a patchwork of informal urban settlements where different non-state armed groups started to dominate different parts of the environment to the point that they actually tore the city apart and the state collapsed as the result of the city being already feral.
The critical tactical lesson of Mogadishu is the need to understand the city itself as a system of flows, a dynamic disequilibrium of patterns. When you go into that environment, the city itself can push back as we saw in the Black Hawk Down battle. Interestingly in the case of the 2008 Mumbai attack the LeT terrorists deliberately attacked the city in order to make it to shut down. In the case of Black Hawk Down the Rangers attacked one house to get specific Somali leadera, but inadvertently poked the city in the eye and the city punched back. There is a lesson here. You need to treat a city like a living organism that has an immune system and a metabolism of its own. In the case of Black Hawk Down battle, the Rangers intersected with the metabolism of a feral city, but they didn’t nest in the city’s natural flow (like LeT in Mumbai), they deliberately ignored it.
The other thing that I am trying to develop in more detail in the book is based on the time that I spent last year in Mogadishu, going out with the Somali National Army drawn from the same militias that fought the Rangers in 1993. Watching how they operated and how they fought Al Shabab, you see that even if the Rangers had succeeded in capturing General Aidid, it may have had no effect on the Somali militias they were dealing with, because Somali militias don’t work that way. Ever since J.F.C. Fuller, in 1918, the foundational concept of maneuver doctrine for the 20th century is not to fight the enemy bit by bit, but to find his headquarters and put a pistol shot into the brain. Fuller talks about finding and killing the enemy headquarters, putting a deep penetration armored unit behind the frontline looking for the enemy headquarters to kill it. That is on what blitzkrieg is based on, it’s what Russian maneuver warfare is based on, it is a fundamental guiding idea for Liddell Hart or Guderian. The scary thing that Black Hawk down tells you is that because of how these guys operate-- with tactics completely emergent within a self synchronizing swarm-- there is actually no headquarters in the Western sense. The guy I sat with. a Somali brigade commander, didn’t have a bunch of guys with radios in a command and control center. What he had, it was walkie talkie and a larger truck than everybody else, carrying a reserve of fighters and ammo. He just listened on the radio and drove around the battlefield to where the fighting was heaviest. He didn’t need to give an order for the attack because the self-synchronizing tactical system didn’t require that. The scary thing that Black Hawk Down tells you is that if the Rangers were able to capture Aidid, it might not have any effect at all. They were going after a headquarters that didn’t exist.
SWJ: We see an emerging nexus between crime and warfare, between gangs, cartels and insurgencies? What explains this kind of emerging hybridity, this blurring of once clear-cut domains?
David Kilcullen: I use in the book the concept of “non-state armed group” because I am looking for a single construct that applies equally to both gangs, smuggling organizations and to insurgent groups, because I think that we tied ourselves in a lot of conceptual knots by trying to make distinctions between things that are not really distinct. We have to step away from the more traditional models and think just about what we are seeing on the ground. For this reason, I wrote the chapter on competitive control to try to come up with an explanatory theory that would work just as well for criminal groups, or communitarian militia, as for an insurgent organization. In this sense, in irregular environments, the local armed actor that a given population perceives as best able to establish a predictable, consistent, wide-spectrum normative system of control is most likely to dominate that population and its residential area. This is not the final answer, it is just a start, but this is in part, what I am trying to encourage as a debate.
What we’ve got now is a situation where we are going to see a paradigm shift in respect to counterinsurgency. It is a paradigm that explains very well certain kinds of environments, but the environment that we are going into now really breaks the paradigm. It raises questions that the theory can’t answer. This doesn’t mean it is a bad theory, it doesn’t mean that is wrong. Like any human theory, it eventually gets to the point where the environments shifts and the theory is no longer able to explain what you need to explain, and at that point you need to come up with a new theory. The guys that argue that counterinsurgency is wrong and has always been flawed are totally incorrect. But so are the guys that say that counterinsurgency has the answer to any problem. To me these are extreme dogmatic ideological positions.
If you look from the rational scientific point then you have to see that counterinsurgency is the best theory that we’ve got right now, but it is not adequate for the environment that’s coming, and so we need to look beyond classical COIN. The generation of people that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan with field experience -- that is the community that we need to listen to as we start thinking about a theory for dealing with the new environment. Today there are a bunch of junior officers in the US Army probably below LTC who are deeply upset because of the tendency to shift back to where the things were before 9/11. There is a kind of anger at the lower levels that reminds me a lot of the British and French officers after WWI. Even if the French and British won the war, they realized that the theories that were available to them were not adequate to deal with the future threats. And the Germans who lost the war were prompted by that experience to go out and find that new theory and crack the code on maneuver warfare, which became the dominant paradigm for the rest of the century. What we were able to craft together under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan carried us through the fight, but it is not going to take us to the next stage.
SWJ: As we start pivoting beyond COIN as it was implemented over the past decade, what principles remain valid and should inform the process of designing an approach tailored to deal with the emerging challenges in megacities that you’ve described in your latest book?
David Kilcullen: I think that the main one is the principle of involving the community in its own defense. If you read counterinsurgency theory, you won’t see that stated directly, but it is an implication of the way counterinsurgency develops. You don’t just come in and marginalize the population, put them aside and do whatever you need to do. You involve them in the process of securing their own community. In Iraq and Afghanistan the units that succeeded were units that got along side the communities and were able to involve them as key players in the process. This is also a common idea in urban development, the idea of co-design or participatory involvement where communities get involved in what happens in their environment. This is what best practices in counterinsurgency theory have in common with best practices in urban development. The local community brings insight into their own environment, an understanding of their own spatial and social system, what drives what, how things work, what makes them tick.
The challenge that I would put forward to people in the urban studies community is how do you do participatory development when someone is shooting at you? The paradox is, on the one hand, that there are no military solutions here, but, on the other hand, there are no solutions at all without security. Someone has to provide that security. I would look at programs like VSO in Afghanistan, at our experience of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, at the urban fighting in Basra and Bagdad, battle of Kandahar or battle of Kabul, as ways to understand how we might need to operate in such an environment, but there is no predetermined template here. There are many similarities in terms of principles among all these environments, but specific techniques and approaches that we developed in one country can’t necessary be used in another.
SWJ: Are these hybrid non-state actors becoming proficient in mastering the Clausewitzian trinity of warfare (army-government-people)?
David Kilcullen: What we see is that non-state armed groups in many of these environments can now apply the same kinds of military technology and particularly the same kind of communication technology that used to be in the hands of states. We have a sort of democratization of technology, not only weapons, but also communications technology, that allows non-state armed groups to do things that only states used to do a decade ago. And we start to see now some non-state armed groups recognizing the power that is available to them particularly in the developing cities, that don’t have the capacity to contain them. This is a very dangerous situation.
As people flock into the cities you get this donut shaped ring of outside territory dominated by non-state armed groups. And these groups can actually lock the city down, they have a choke-hold on the key resources that the city requires in order to survive. You don’t see them doing this too often. You see individual groups striking deals with the politicians from the center of the city because politicians realize these groups can shut the city down. But you don’t see 3-4 local gangs palling up together saying let’s hold the whole city ransom. When you do start seeing that kind of behavior, like in Pakistan where the Pakistani Taliban unified a whole bunch of disparate groups in one movement, becoming more powerful. It is only a matter of time to see such a trend more often, because of the increased connectivity. At that point the distinction between war and crime really becomes academic. The problem is such groups can really kill a nation-state as we saw in Somalia.
SWJ: If we study the behavior of gangs and non-state armed groups in the Tivoli Gardens case, in favelas and slums, it seems that all have developed a governmental dimension. They all seem to be in a competition for governance, in delivering governmental services. Why is profitable for them to be in the business of Deiokes (to make the connection with your previous book), in the business of state making?
David Kilcullen: You have to look at this from the point of the people in these groups. They don’t have any other legitimate economic options, they are marginalized economically, they are disenfranchised politically and they don’t have access to the normal productive economy because that is not the environment they are in. The other thing that we need to point out is that when we look at a group like the one in the Tivoli Gardens we might say that it is a drug trafficking organization. But it is not only a drug trafficking organization. That is just one of the things that it does, it doesn’t define what it is. At the same time, a group like this is also the local government, the local health service, the local law and order, the local police, the local contracting company that gives you a job, they are the ones who represent you in your interactions with the state.
The group has a whole series of social, political and economic functions. Like the Taliban version of local courts, “the System” in Tivoli Gardens provides an informal justice network able to deliver dispute resolution and mediation services, and to make populations feel safe under the order and predictability enforced. “The System” provides also access to government contracts, housing, health care, so all kinds of social incentives to attract popular support. Looking at the Tivoli Gardens case and saying that the gang there is a drug trafficking organization means ignoring 95% of what “the System” does. We need to see the group as a multidimensional phenomenon, not just as a solely criminal organization. We can say the same thing about Hezbollah or Jabhat al-Nusra, which is starting to act like a Sunni version of Hezbollah. If you think about these as local institutions, as part of a system of flows and patterns that interact with each other rather than putting them in separate boxes of crime/war, illicit/legal, urban/rural, domestic/international, and you start looking at the overlaps, you will find very strong common features that you can plan around. The thing is to focus on the common features that all these different kinds of non-state armed groups share with each other, rather than focusing on the few areas in which they are very different from each other. A common unified theory, if you like.
SWJ: What are the forces and the most persuasive incentives that mobilize the people in slums areas to end up being on the gang side of the equation? What explains the presence of people in this non-state Clausewitzian trinity?
David Kilcullen: I think the most important force is the human drive toward predictability and consistency. Populations respond to a predictable, ordered, normative system that tells them exactly what they need to do, and not do, in order to be safe. The communities that are in these environments are at the disposal of groups that compete for their allegiance, and are willing to kill them to get it, but they’re also at the mercy of a whole series of urban systems that don’t necessarily meet their needs, they are disenfranchised and they feel that they don’t have the ability to affect their environment. And so what they are desperately looking for is predictability and consistency, they are looking for some way to know how to be safe – “what do I need to do to survive today”. The feeling of safety that this predictability promises, in dangerous environments, trumps everything. A group like a gang or a militia or an insurgent group comes in, providing a rules-based system, a normative structure: “I am going to tell you exactly what to do. If you do this I will protect you, if you don’t, I will punish you.” By saying that, the group creates a normative system of rules and sanctions – in effect, it is the same thing that the government is saying to the population. Normative systems of this kind are exactly how the police or government courts work.
In the end, we are talking about a competition among organized armed groups (state and non-state) seeking to control populations through normative systems. This is a construct that applies equally to insurgency and crime, to non-state actors, but also to states and governments. From this perspective we can reinterpret Max Weber saying that a government is a political organization that has successfully outcompeted its rival organizations, allowing it to establish an uncontested normative system over a given population. My favorite analogy is the rules of the road:. Road rules give you a degree of order and predictability that brings you the confidence to function in a dangerous environment when you drive your car. It is the predictability inherent in the existence of rules, publicly known and consistently enforced, not the content of those rules, that matters, less still the popularity of the enforcers. . You don’t need to like the police for the rules of the road to make you feel safe. Likewise, you don’t need to particularly like a non-state armed group, or agree with its ideology—but you receive a sense of predictability from the order it creates, and that can be enough to make you follow its directions. Even if a group is in general terms noxious, it will still generate a lot of support because of its ability to generate predictability and a sense of wellbeing. Stathis Kalyvas wrote brilliantly about this in 2006 in The Logic of Violence in Civil War – all I’ve done in this book is to locate his ideas in the context of normative systems theory, validate them through a series of field studies, and apply them more broadly to all kinds of non-state armed groups, not just insurgents or combatants in a civil war.
Another thing that these groups are deliberately trying to do, in the urban environment in particular, is to generate a backlash from governments against the community which then pushes the people into a corner and makes them feeling that they’ve got no better choice than to back the group. When you look at Al Shabab’s attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, one possibility of why they did the attack downtown was to force a crackdown on the local Somali community in the slum area of Eastleigh. In the end, Al Shabab is a group that relies heavily on support from town-dwellers: but it lost its control over the major urban centers (Mogadishu in 2011, other towns in south-central in 2012, Kismaayo in 2013) and Shabaab no longer has a major urban environment to use as base. If they can force the Kenyan government to push back so hard on the Somali community in Kenya, that community may close ranks against outside threats, it can be increasingly alienated from the communities around it and from the state, it can become a no-go area for the state and Al Shabab could end-up with a new urban safe haven. We need to be very careful about going into these environments thinking that we understand what is going on and treating the population as fundamentally the enemy, because that actually can create an environment that gives rise to powerful non-state armed groups that otherwise wouldn’t have a major hold on the community.
SWJ: Why and how is Bernard Fall useful in understanding and decoding the logic of many of the contemporary non-state armed groups’ behavior?
David Kilcullen: We need to make a distinction between insurgency theory and counterinsurgency techniques. People may disagree legitimately about how and where to apply different counterinsurgency techniques, but insurgency theory is still a very good way to understand the environment that we are looking at. This is something that has not been fully developed in the American thinking in particular in the last generation. We haven’t really drawn a distinction between insurgency and counterinsurgency. As practiced over the last decade, counterinsurgency is a particular set of techniques, which may or may not work, may or may not be appropriate in the future environments. But in fact COIN can encompass an extremely wide variety of methods, almost like a golf bag of different clubs that you can use to deal with the environment as you find it. Population-centric COIN is just one club, and not always the best one to use. It is very important to remember that Bernard Fall was a member of the French Resistance in WW2 and unlike Galula or Trinquier, his practical experience was as insurgent, not as a counterinsurgent. I find him very persuasive when he talks about the specifics of how insurgencies behave and mobilize populations. In a 1964 lecture he said that during WW2 “any sound revolutionary warfare operator used small-war tactics [ie guerrilla techniques] -not to destroy the German Army, of which they were thoroughly incapable, but to establish a competitive system of control over the population”. This is the same normative system idea I mentioned earlier: it implies the presence of a system of incentives and disincentives, of a normative system (behavioral rules correlated with a set of consequences) that is used to generate control over population groups. An actor can apply a spectrum of means ranging from persuasion through administration to coercion. The most persuasive element is the feeling of security and predictability, order and cohesion that comes with accepting the normative system of an actor, coupled with tangible administrative benefits (like justice systems, mediation and dispute resolution mechanisms, some basic services) that make it easier for people to follow the rules. Moreover these kind of normative competitive systems of control, that we’ve seen in Kingston and Mogadishu, Afghanistan and Iraq, across rural and urban environments are not necessarily habitat-dependent, but most likely specific to the human nature, they are an enduring feature of human behavior.
SWJ: Having in mind images of cities under stress, marginalized urban and peri-urban populations, high youth unemployment rate, is Marx with his theory of urban alienation becoming relevant for the future of conflict?
David Kilcullen: Marx has always been relevant in a number of ways. Whatever else Marx was, in the end, he was fundamentally a social scientist. He, and other people too, like Friedrich Engels, or even Charles Dickens, were writing about European cities in the 1850s, at the end of the first century of the European industrial revolution. It was a time when urban environments in Europe were experiencing a lot of the same stresses and systemic breakdowns that we are seeing now in the developing world (rapid population growth, lack of community infrastructure, lack of policing, urban no go areas).
What really remains relevant is what the urban ecologist Abel Wolman did in the 1960s when he took Marx’s idea of “metabolic rift” and built his idea of the metabolism of cities. What I have done in combination with a lot of other people is to take Wolman’s idea, that of a city that is an organism with its own metabolism just like a body and take this out of the realm of material flows (like carbon, water, fuel, air) into non-material flows (money, energy, people, information) and applied this in the specific context of irregular conflict. The idea is that urban systems need enough carrying capacity to absorb, process and deal with inputs and metabolize waste products, otherwise toxicity develops in the system and it begins to break down.
So Marx through the lens of Wolman through the lens of urban metabolism theory gives us one possible framework to understand future challenges. We already see cities with overwhelmed systems of governance lacking the carrying capacity to metabolize the scale of the population growth they are experiencing. In time, this will lead up to an accumulation of toxic effects (urban poverty, marginalization, alienation, disease, unemployment, social injustices) that will most likely generate social and political unrest, violent crime and conflict. Importantly, using models we already have for things like urban pollution, and sources of data that only exist in modern, connected, networked cities, it’s possible to model, quantify, analyse and address these kinds of issues in ways that just weren’t possible until recently.
Overall there are three categories of actions that we can take. One is to look at the rural environment and see what drives the people out of the environment into the cities: poverty, lack of opportunities and connectivity, lack of health services. The question becomes what can we do in the rural areas to control or slow this flow. A second set of things that we can do is to look at the urban ecosystem to see how we can increase the carrying capacity of the city. In this context I think we should move away from concepts like “stabilization” and focus much more on resilience—how to make people who live in a dynamically unstable city better able to cope with the flow. The third kind of “framing” intervention is to look at the connectivity among different cities, among different populations, and think what are the things that we can do in spatially distant places that may not have an obvious connection with the problems that we are trying to deal with. Framing system interventions,, demand side and supply side interventions: doing those three things in a co-design, participatory development approach with the local community – and figuring out ways to do all of these while somebody is shooting at you, while trying to avoid being trapped into a Black Hawk Down kind of scenario—that is the real challenge that I think we need to focus on.