Rebuilding Port au Prince (Part I): De-Centralization and the opportunity for informality

This is the first half of a two part blog post by Grouspshot’s Adam White on Rebuilding Port au Prince. Adam completed his master’s degree at the London School of Economics in City Design and Social Science last year. For his master’s thesis he outlined the complexity of inclusive participation in the rebuilding process, in contrast to the issues of decentralization facing contemporary Haiti, and proposes a crowd-sourced SMS-based city design process to include in rebuilding.

The earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 was a devastating disaster in a complex and historic country. The earthquake brought about a range of old and new stories about Haiti—from the resurfacing of decades of corruption and tales of poverty, to new narratives of resilience, community, and of course technology.

The technological response to the disaster in Haiti was a combination of traditional organizations and new volunteers (as Clay Shirkey describes in the recent Cognitive Surplus) gathered around new social media and crowd driven platforms. Ushahidi at the forefront of the 4636 project to collect and map text messages from trapped and in-need Haitians provided a new precedent and opportunity for technology in disaster response. Regardless of the actual platform, Ushahidi or otherwise, the story in Haiti has illustrated many opportunities for hybrid and social powered technology, but also begun to bring much needed critical focus into the implications of such tools. While we have conducted some research on this topic ourselves, and will share it in constructive yet critical posts in the future, the focus of this post will stay within the confines and opportunity that technology can provide in the next phase of recovery in Haiti: the Rebuilding of Port au Prince.

My thesis, on rebuilding Port au Prince through these forms of technology, argued around the potential of technology to open up the planning process to a wider audience and expand Haitian civil society. The complexity of rebuilding Haiti is linked to 3 key aspects of a national pattern and discussion of civil society and decentralization.

1)      Haiti has a highly centralized and non-transparent system for decision making which made the earthquake even more devastating to the country
2)      International organizations and Haitian community leaders are advocating for decentralization  and distribution in the rebuilding process to spread opportunities and resources around the country, and remove congestion from Port au Prince
3)      Civil Society in Haiti has great potential as history and local culture illustrate, though the central system has excluded nationwide integration and cooperation.

These key points make a clear case for the need of a less centralized Haiti – which is something intrinsically linked to the Capital city, Port au Prince. Decentralization though it has the opportunity to spread opportunities and resources nationwide, also has the potential to further disconnect civil society from the urban core of the country. This leaves a clear opportunity to actually decentralize decision making – as it pertains to central issues – especially including the rebuilding and replanning of Port au Prince.

To create a less-centralized but also more integrated system from the existing decision making paradigm in Haiti, or even from scratch, is a non-trivial challenge. But at the same time, the ray ban baratas strong and complex Haitian civil society comprised of local organizations, Lakou, Community Based Development Groups, collectives, unions, communities, and religious groups which are all quite active already is an informal proxy for the system which needs to be developed. The informal culture, built on informal capacity, structure, and social capital, is the key ingredient to unravel and expand participation and rebuilding around these themes.

As the ‘crowd-sourced’ disaster response proved, there is a clear, though complex opportunity, for large scale citizen participation and engagement via lightweight technology (particularly SMS in Haiti). The combination of informality and technology makes scalable and genuine civil society achievable.

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