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Issues in Higher Education and DePauw University

Eudaimonia and Liberal education: Reflections on World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur

Posted in Reports

by Glen Kuecker (History and City Lab)

Off the plane from Tokyo, cleared customs in Detroit Metro, passing the concourse to the gate for the connection to Indy, I look up at the giant television monitor that provides omnipresent background at the 21st century airport, and I see the scenes of yet another school massacre, this time the blood ritual was in Florida.  After five days at the week long World Urban Forum-9 in Kuala Lumpur, I thought to myself, “welcome back to the United States where violence is normalized.”  The thought passed, I am on the plane, I have to transition back to my world at DePauw.  I have a long checklist of tasks that guide my work, things to do to make it all happen, a routine that fits within the narratives of professional academic life, the deeper structures of 21st century higher education that Cathy Davidson’s The New Education brilliantly frames as an anachronistic vestige of a faded industrial era.

One of the WUF9 logos

The next day, I received a Facebook message from a former student, one of the best and brightest, Kartik Amarnath.  We communicate when the matrix shows its glitches due to the preliminary phases of the longue-duree of civilizational collapse.  The message is just a link.  He does not need to provide text.  Kartik’s first class with me was a dreary and dreadful on-campus January Term, which was one of the first iterations of what became my conceptualization of complexity thinking as the critical thinking skill of the 21st century.   I open the link and read an article by a guy named Umair Haque in something called Eudaimonia, a title that must mean something, but there was no time to track it down.  Drafting this essay, I look it up and realize I learned the word in high school, New Trier East, back in the glory days of industrial education, where the architectural design of the building would make Foucault smile, a factory, a hospital, a prison, an asylum.  Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities tells us that this particular factor-hospital-prison-asylum-school was especially good at reproducing race and class privilege.  I learned the word in one of those special SAT prep classes where they drill Greek and Latin roots into you head so you can get the best score.  The tedium of privilege reproduction was good enough to land me at St. Olaf, where I guess I became a critical thinker set on a trajectory of life-long learning, but really just learned how to leverage being a relatively wealthy, white, male.  At least, I learned to love the Grateful Dead and Dostoyevsky, the happier parts of privilege. I re-learn that Eudaimonia means “human flourishing.”  Google informs me that it is a better word than “happiness.”  Thoughts of unpacking my privilege trail off as they always do, lost in the checklist of things I have to do, along with checking my privilege.

Kuala Lumpur

The story sent by Kartik carries the title, “Why We Are Underestimating American Collapse:  The Strange Pathologies of the World’s First Rich Failed State.”  How ironic for an on-line magazine named for human flourishing, and to read the essay after coming home from the World Urban Forum, where 22,000 urban experts gathered to figure out how to implement the New Urban Agenda, which is UN-Habitat’s blueprint for how humanity will make it to 2036 – the agenda has a 20-year mandate and was launched in 2016— a time when humanity will be well on the way toward 10 billion people by 2050 of which two-thirds will be urban.  Eudaimonia lurks within.

Umair Haque’s essay unpacks the riddle of why kids are massacring kids on such a regular basis.  The author weaves together analysis of school shootings, opioids, and why the elderly live lives of migrant labor in order to survive.  The analysis boils down to how deeply set pathologies spike with collapse, especially when a civilization is a predatory society like ours, when we have destroyed the commons in our misguided quest for “human flourishing” within the rule-set of late modernity.  Those Greek and Latin roots that reproduce our savage inequalities, I think that New Trier Class was called “Word Power.”  How ironic.  Predatory society lingers in my mind with a nagging doubt about the capacity of liberal education to fulfill its Enlightenment promise of human liberation.

The Opening Ceremony of WUF9

I email the essay in Eudaimonia to my 100 level City Lab class, which pretends to teach them complexity thinking as a way to prepare them for the perfect storm of a collapsing modern civilization.  Predictably there is no response from the students to the email.  Silence.  But, there is hope. I had a conversation with a student at Roy O. West Library, our intellectual commons, on a cold, rainy, Sunday evening.  I hang out at Roy O. as a way to invite students to use the commons and engage in conversation about big ideas.  The student had not read the essay in “human flourishing,” but he was full of questions about the challenges his generation faces.  He knew we are not in Eudaimonia.  He clearly sees the perfect storm, but he is not yet in an intellectual space to be empowered by its liberating possibilities, the ways his generation will be the first to create the new epistemic for a post-collapse world.  It’s the raw material for the longue-duree of Eudaimonia.  The nagging questions surface in the back of my mind as I engage the student:  how do we get these students to this place?  Word Power.  I now have a power word for that place, Eudaimonia.  How do we transform our institution to fulfill the promise of liberal education for these students?  What are we doing?  How can I get the student to read the Annales School?  Longue-duree, collapse, is the work of this generation of college students, the work of Eudaimonia, the word better than happiness.

One of the many “side sessions” sponsored by Next City.

I’m back in Greencastle from the airport, it’s 9:00PM.  First class is at 10AM, followed by 2:20 and 7PM.  City Lab Complexity Thinking comes first.   City Lab is my attempt at making liberal arts education relevant for the 21st century.  It’s an experiment, one that faces the recalcitrant headwinds of industrial era education:  knowledge constituted by disciplines organized in departments presented in classrooms within rigid time-banks.  Cathy Davidson has it right, we are an anachronism, but just try to break free from the prison of the structures of late modernity.  We have the rhetoric of a vision, but remain trapped in the past with our attempts at implementation– we promise jobs when all the evidence tells us that in 15 years 45% of the jobs will be fully automated. .

Complexity thinking tells us that we are at what Mark Taylor calls the Moment of Complexity when a tipping point between systems defines the structures that define our context. It is what actually happens when I walk into the classroom at 10AM after 20-plus hours of planes and airports returning from the World Urban Forum and find myself back in a society far from Eudaimonia, a reality where kids massacre kids.  Some call it “chaos.”  I call it City Lab.  The moment of complexity is a time of deep structural instability, a time of radical – as in the roots – oscillation between periods of systemic reproduction and collapse.  That’s my classroom, that’s DePauw, that’s liberal education in 2018.

Scene from the exhibition hall at WUF9.

How does that moment of complexity become Eudaimonia?  How do we empower our students to make that happen in their lifetime or the lifetimes of their children and grandchildren?  Do we have the vision for the longue-duree?  Do our students even care who Braudel is?  Should they?  I walk into a room defined by faces staring at palms holding electronic devices.  Word Power?  It’s 10AM.  I’ve taught at DePauw for 20 years and I don’t know what to do with faces staring at electronic devices.  Eudaimonia.  Predatory society.  Kids massacre kids.  Pathologies of collapse.  I am an anachronism trained by and for industrial education.  Word Power.

One of the many plenary sessions.

The food was good in Kuala Lumpur, especially the curry dishes.  I had a good restaurant guide, a researcher at University of Melbourne named Kris Hartley.  I met him last spring at Lewis and Clark.  We were invited to their flagship International Affairs Symposium, which follows a debate format about important issues facing the global community.  We were asked to debate the future of cities.  Kris recently invited me to write a chapter for a collection of essays he is co-editing on the future of Asian cities. I offer one that builds from recent fieldwork about India’s Smart Cities Missions. I am co-writing the chapter with two students, Farukh Sarkulov and Tristan Stamets. I accompanied them on the research trip to Delhi, Bangalore, Jaipor.  They hang internet routers in trees in Bangalore, and call it a “smart city.” In Kuala Lumpur, Kris and I had time to plot and plan a research collaboration between City Lab and a network of urban researchers Kris is assembling.  We decided to center the research collaboration on Smart Cities and opted to take a critical urban theory perspective.  We plan to launch an on-line platform that we will call the Smart City Monitor.  The dreams are big when eating good curry, noodles, and drinking lime tea.  Word Power.

Reproduction of the neocolonial development agenda.

The conversations with Kris weaved in and out of sessions at the World Urban Forum.  We wandered the halls of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, spending a wonderful couple of hours academically touring the exhibition hall, a place where cities brand their branding, nation-states promote their modernity, universities recruit students to graduate programs in urban design and planning, and non-governmental organizations promote the good deeds they do for humanity.  We marveled at the number of posters featuring diagrams of “smart cities,” most of them had wheel diagrams that promised to show a cycle of something “smart” about the city but disappointingly proved to be cycles to nowhere.  Truly, they were empty nonsense, all of them.  But, they looked good, a re-assuring message that we have the future figured out, a visualization of Eudaimonia in the urban form, the smart city in diagram.  Perhaps as Kris and I critiqued the diagrams with the word power of scholarly smugness the shooter in Florida prepared for the massacre?

The highlight at the exhibition hall, besides the fabulously strong coffee served at Indonesia’s booth, was two guys from Mumbai, Priam Pillai and Suman Kumar.  They were hawking their wares, a start-up called Valectus, which uses GIS to create an Atlas of Urban Expansion.  Here it was on display, finally.  Henri LeFebvre’s implosion/explosion, the story of planetary urbanization digitized on maps. We interrogated the two guys from Mumbai for an hour.  One has a PhD from MIT.  The other a master’s from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.  They have a team of programmers and IT gurus in Mumbai deployed on cranking out the maps.  They were proud of their work and for good reason:  the product is a wonderful spatial analysis of sprawl done city-by-city throughout the world.  Check it out, but budget your time, once you start exploring an hour will pass quickly.  All during the conversation, I am thinking, “how can I get City Lab students to do this?”  Maybe GIS is the key to Eudaimonia?  Priam and Suman’s project is associated with IDFC Institute, the think tank for the Infrastructure Finance Corporation.  The institute specializes in research on transitions and state capacity, and appears to have a keen interest in big data and machine learning.  It is also associated with New York University’s Marron Institute of urban ManagementEudaimonia, something better than happiness?  The quaint version of word power.  Analytics.

One third of the exhibition hall.

Next, we sat in on a plenary session about big data and the urban form.  Here we found a set of experts on stage in a huge auditorium, bigger than Kresge.  A moderator asked questions and the experts went at it with their word power.  They were a lively group, sharply engaged in the project of unpacking what big data means for 21st century urbanism.  It’s near the top of the list of burning questions that will determine the outcome of the perfect storm.  They had my attention.  Word Power. The analysis swung wildly from utopian to dystopian narratives about big data.  Analytics.  The swing even happened within the space of a single sentence as speakers struggled to find traction for their ideas and how to capture the depth, scope, and scale of the great transformation that big data is bringing to the urban world.  World power destabilized.   An oscillating system of thought comes with the turf of an oscillating, collapsing civilization; we live in the time of the posts, after all.  Big data, analytics, blockchain, machine learning, artificial intelligence—the speakers knew it was huge, but the “it” –the epistemological shift, the word power—has not happened yet.  The thought, the power of the word, has not been uttered yet.  Adam Smith has not yet written The Wealth of Nations.  But, it’s the moment of complexity, a time when knowledge becomes a messy, contradictory, stumbling mosh of ideas that emerge into a new way of being, seeing, thinking, and acting.  That’s what was on the stage.  The power of the word emerging.  Eudaimonia, something better than happiness, is the process of emergence, the place of liberal education where ideas ferment in a hyper-space of lines of inquiry and analysis.  Will it be done with equity and equality.  Whose Eudaimonia?

City Lab 10AM, how do I bring Eudaimonia into the classroom when the faces are glued to those phones?  How do I do that in the basement of Asbury, Room 017, what must be the worst room on campus.  Eudaimonia it is not.  Each semester I do a plenary lecture that frame’s City Lab’s our research topic that defines – word power—our intellectual commons.  This semester the plenary began with the question:  Why is City Lab in the basement of Asbury Hall?  The question turned Asbury into a metaphor for DePauw’s struggle, really the struggle of all liberal arts colleges, to be relevant in the 21st century.  City Lab needs a space that invites innovation and creativity, a place where ideas become Eudaimonia.  It’s a research workshop that is a lab, an open space of exploration, where people can drop, spend time, engage, ask, debate, and think.  Asbury Room 017 is the epitome of industrial education, a rust belt waiting for renewal, the Detroit becoming Pittsburgh within DePauw.  I use the Asbury Room 017 metaphor to introduce students to Cathy Davidson’s The New Education and I make an argument for why they are at DePauw.  Predatory Society.  Kids killing kids.  Smart City diagrams to no-where.  Basement of Asbury. Faces glued to the wrong text, the text of instant messaging.  Word Power.  What are we doing?  10AM.  How do I bring 5 days of World Urban Forum into City Lab?

World Urban Forum branding.

Maybe I can use Atul Singh as the hook?  He is the founder and CEO of Fair Observer, and has an impressive collection of degrees from places like Wharton and Oxford.  Post colonial Word Power.  He teaches at UC Berkeley, but spends time in London and Delhi, where I met him in January at the home of a student, Tristan Stamets.  Atul was visiting Russell, Tristan’s dad, who is a DePauw alum.  It was a late night conversation, a Saturday or Sunday, after we had arrived from research in Bangalore.  A great conversation ensued, and an invitation to write for Fair Observer resulted.  Word Power. On the flight from Singapore to Tokyo, returning to Greencastle from Kuala Lumpur, I drafted an op-ed for Atul, one that explored the delusions of World Urban Forum-9.  At 10AM I gave students what I gave Atul.  Word Power.  

In October 2016, at the World Urban Forum 8 in Quito, Ecuador, UN Habitat launched its third planning cycle with Habitat III, now known as the New Urban Agenda.  The agenda defines the work of the global community until 2036, a time when humanity will be quickly moving toward an estimated global population of 10 billion by 2050, of which two-thirds will be urban.  The New Urban Agenda established an ambitious and aspirational agenda for how we will manage the intensified process of what French Philosopher Henri Lefebvre, writing in 1970 termed, “planetary urbanization.”  Habitat III was part of a larger process within the community of experts working on the great problems facing humanity in the 21st century:  climate change, energy transition, food and water insecurity, demographic shifts (growth, aging, and urbanization), pandemics, ecological degradation, economic stress, and political instability.  Their labors came together to constitute what is known as the Post-2015 development agenda.  The year 2015 was significant because it marked the re-booting of several key development agendas:  first came UNISDR’s re-worked disaster risk reduction platform, the Sendai Framework, negotiated in March 2015; next were the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015; then came the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015; and, crowing the process was Habitat III in October 2016.

WUF-9 and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals

Many see the New Urban Agenda as the key to humanity’s ability to weather the perfect storm of global crises.  As the roadmap for surviving the 21st century, it carries an immense burden, and those working to make its vision for inclusive and sustainable urbanism a reality are tasked with solving a wide array of wicked problems that will influence what it means to be human in the 21st century.  

At Quito, however, it became clear to many observers that the New Urban Agenda was a mile wide in ambition, but not even an inch deep with concrete plans for implementation.  Session after session kicked the can down the road by saying that the work ahead was to figure out how to implement the fine words within the document.

In Kuala Lumpur, World Urban Forum 9 gathered for a week in February 2018.  Its task was to figure out how to implement the New Urban Agenda.  The Forum focused on the SDGs, especially Goal 11, which aims to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.”  It was an appropriate focus for a gathering of the world’s city engaged human development experts and practitioners, as the forum provided a place for them to compare notes, promote best practices, and network.  That praise is a surface level assessment, however.

On a deeper level, World Urban Forum 9 was all about reproducing the development agenda, especially the power of experts who control the knowledge that constitutes the agenda.  The program featured a dizzying array of “workshops” that had the common narrative of “hearing from the audience” and fostering “participatory development.”  The workshops, however, often reduced to stale PowerPoint presentations, many being stock presentations that were barely tweaked for this event.  Content flirted with advertising for the presenting organization’s work.  Content and messages appeared driven by funder mandates, or what was necessary to meet the criteria of the grant supporting participant’s attendance.  Left wanting were those who came to learn something practical to bring home:  how to provide water in the informal settlement; how to prepare for climate change; or how to contend with waste disposal.  Many sessions had a neo-colonial atmosphere as representatives from the global minority – those who run the agencies, ngos, research institutes and graduate programs, corporations, and financial institutions—chaired sessions and constituted the overwhelming majority of talk time.  Their audience sat passively in crowded conference rooms, there to absorb the wisdom of those holding the power and knowledge of the New Urban Agenda.

More logos, more branding, more messaging

The new development at World Urban Forum 9 was the emergence of smart cities as a meta-narrative for the New Urban Agenda’s implementation.  The forum featured a proliferation of sessions about the smart city, plenary speakers dropped the term in their speeches as if it were the gold standard in sustainable and inclusive urban design and planning, and it was omnipresent at the promotional material in the array of booths in the exhibition hall.  Considering that Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda scarcely mentions smart cities, its sudden dominance at World Urban Forum 9 merits explanation.

Smart cities appeared on the stage at World Urban Forum 9 due to a combination of factors.  First, the world’s urbanists needed something big and flashy to represent the solution to the implementation problem for the New Urban Agenda.  Second, the smart cities concept is a flexible proposition that can mean all things to all people.  This malleability makes smart cities more a placeholder for a normative vision of 21st century urbanism than an actual solution that can be implemented.  It’s another iteration of aspiration over pragmatic policy.  Third, and perhaps more important, smart cities is where the big money is flowing.  Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Google, just to name a few, are all committing to smart cities, and they are capturing a huge piece of speculative capital that sloshes through the global system.  One panelist representing an association of urban designers reported on a meeting he had with Google and Microsoft.  The technology giants told him that they were going to build smart cities with or without the planners and designers.  Smart cities are the new form of speculative capital, what Lefebvre once called the “secondary circuit of capital.”  The hot money from the information technology sector of the economy is converging with the hot money in real estate.  Smart cities are the way capital is reproducing itself amid the great global crises; it is making profit from the crises itself.  

Small corner of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center

In Kuala Lumpur, World Urban Forum 9 delegates demonstrated great facility with engaging the smart city narrative.  Its main thesis: by embedding the internet of things into the fabric of the urban infrastructure our cities will become more efficient.  This proposition –more an act of faith then proven formula—was articulated in multiple sessions through a parade of PowerPoint slides that were flipped through quicker than cards being shuffled at a Las Vegas black jack table.  Actually reading the content of any given slide and unpacking the deeper meaning of the content was not the point, after all.  The fact of the PowerPoint being presented by an expert is what counted in establishing the validity of the smart city narrative as the path for implementing the New Urban Agenda’s aspirations for inclusive and sustainable urbanism.  The PowerPoints allow all to comfortably drink the UN Habitat Kool-Aide. Nobody was left thirsty.  

PowerPoints and ten-minute presentations prevent critical analysis, where “critical” means unpacking the deeper meanings of the assumed concepts.  Smart city efficiencies, for example, appear to be objective truth claims when projected on the PowerPoint screen and spoken by the expert.  Yet, we need to ask basic questions about the context of the efficiency.  Is it efficiency in energy saved, transit time, water used, or garbage delivered?  Or, is it efficiency in acquiring day care for children, health care for elderly, food for the hungry, or, the life efficiency of basic infrastructure such as toilets in slums?  Do smart city efficiencies result in what Steve Hallett calls the “efficiency trap,” where increased efficiencies bring greater consumption that undermine the benefits of the efficiency created?  Or, perhaps, we can think about smart city efficiencies from the perspective of Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, which shows how adding complexity to a complex system eventually results in diminishing returns in a path toward unsustainability and collapse.  Thomas Homer-Dixon’s Ingenuity Gap teaches us that technological fixes – such as the smart city solution to the problem of implementing the New Urban Agenda— make the system more complex and that added complexity results in more and more complex problems that become “wicked problems” requiring ever more extensive and expensive technological fixes until a society reaches the critical point that a technology gap results, the point in time when human ingenuity fails to find the solution for the wicked problems created by the previous iterations of crises fixing technology.

Kuala Lumpur Convention Center and the iconic Petronas Towers

Also lurking within the World Urban Forum 9’s PowerPoints’ void of deep meaning are questions about whose efficiency?  Is it an urban efficiency serving the rich?  Should we see smart cities like South Korea’s New Sondgo City as boutique urbanism, the 21st century version of the gated community that protects the global minority from the perfect storm of global crises?  What does smart city efficiency mean for the global majority, the billion and a half slum dwellers?  Does the smart city constitute a more efficient mechanism of their perpetual marginalization and exclusion from the New Urban Agenda’s inclusive and sustainable urbanism?

I am not sure what Atul will think about the op-ed, but I am fairly certain UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda is not the path to Eudaimonia.  But, what about DePauw and its faculty, are we in the hunt for that thing better than happiness, the promise of liberal education in the 21st century? Word Power.

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