Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Foresight Saga

You may be aware that I was a computer geek for thirty or forty years. As such, I became a member of two professional societies, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) and the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). Disclaimer: in spite of the hardware-sounding names of both these organizations, I'm no way an engineer or computing machinery nerd. It was all software, save for some very amateur tinkering with the innerds of my own computers.

So what does this have to do with transit-oriented development, you ask? Well, I ran across a couple of articles in a recent issue of the ACM's Communications, their monthly "flagship" publication. And though the authors thought they were writing only about computer systems, their observations struck me as spot-on about transportation systems - and very applicable to southeast Michigan.

Peter G. Neumann
Both articles deal with planning infrastructure, the skills needed and mistakes one can make. Interestingly, they discuss not only the systems themselves but how people need to think and be educated to solve infrastructure problems. And that's been a topic of discussion among several people who think carefully about Michigan and its future, including Phil Powers (Bridge Magazine) and Lou Glazer (Michigan Future).

As the title suggests, foresight is a central theme in these articles. I've contended for years that one of the major problems in contemporary America is lack of long-term thinking. Lack of foresight. So as soon as I realized that "Foresight Saga" was focused on long-term planning, I tagged the article as a must-read. And yes, I stole the title. It is actually taken from "Inside Risks: The Foresight Saga, Redux", by Peter G. Neumann, which appeared in Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery, October 2012, vol.55 no.10 pp.26-28. (I'd give you a link to the article, but it's restricted to subscribers.) Following hard on the heels of this article is another with thoughtful material we can apply to transportation: "Viewpoint: Computing as if Infrastructure Mattered", by Jean-François Blanchette, in Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery, October 2012, vol.55 no.10 pp.32-34. (I know, these were published more than seven months ago, but trust me: I'm pleased to have read them while they were less than a year old!)

Jean-François Blanchette

Plan Ahead

OK. Here's what they have to say about foresight, interlarded with my observations...
Short-term thinking is the enemy of the long-term future.
RTA, are you listening? Ann Arbor Connector Study, are you listening?
In general, we know from experience that it can be very difficult to retrofit systems with new implementations to make them trustworthy... Thus, a well-reasoned understanding of the trade-offs is essential before potentially sacrificing possible future opportunities in an effort to satisfy short-term goals. One complicating factor is that much more knowledge of the past and the present - and appreciation of the effects of possible futures - is needed to intelligently mak[e] such trade-offs. (Neumann)
Neumann says "to make them trustworthy" because his focus is on computer security. We can substitute, "to add greater capacity," or speed, or economic value, or safety, or operating efficiency - any of the many factors that make transportation more worthwhile.

"Much more needed to intelligently mak[e] such trade-offs". Yes. Fortunately, transportation has been around much longer than computers, so we have knowledge and experience available - if we care to seek it out and apply it. Unfortunately, some Michigan people seem largely unaware of the wisdom that resides in communities all around us. One of my primary missions now is to gather this wisdom together and disseminate it to Michigan people in this blog and elsewhere.
Requirements. We should anticipate the long-term needs that a system or network of systems must satisfy, and plan the development to overcome potential obstacles that might arise, even if the initial focus is on only short-term needs. This might seem to be common wisdom, but is in reality quite rare. (Neumann)
Rick Harnish, of Midwest High Speed Rail Association, has been asking us to urge officials of the "South-Of-The-Lake" project to make plans compatible with true high speed infrastructure, capable of supporting 220 MPH running. What are our chances that such an alignment will be given the green light? My opinion...Slim to none. "We don't have the funding." True, in the sense that funding for any long-term project other than "national defense" is off the table in Congress. And anyway, a high speed alignment would take longer to build. "Don't we need to get this done ASAP?" And indeed we do need improvement quickly, since we've put off investment in rail for so long.

And what about transit for Detroit? "Bus Rapid Transit!" This is seen as a silver bullet by just about everybody. It's quick. It's cheap (compared to rail). And sotheast Michigan is aching, groaning, torn apart by lack of efficient, reliable transit. "Let's just get something done! Anything!!!" As Neumann says, anticipating long-term needs "might seem to be common wisdom, but is in reality quite rare."
With particular attention to critical national infrastructure systems, we seem to have arrived at lowest-common-denominator systems and have had to live with them, in the absence of better alternatives. The standards for acceptable levels ... and best practices are typically much too simplistic and basically inadequate. Relevant efforts of various research and development communities seem to be largely ignored.
The financial crises of the past few years present another example in which the almost total absence of realistic long-term thinking and oversight contributed to worldwide economic problems. Optimizing for short-term gains often tends to run counter to long-term success (expect for insider investors, who having taken their profits have little interest in the more distant future).
Remember this next time someone says, "The market knows best," or "Private enterprise can do anything better than government."
Research. Solving problems more generally with preplanned evolution, rather than just barely attaining short-term requirements, can be very advantageous. With some foresight and care, this can be done without losing much efficiency. Often a slightly more general solution can prove to be more effective in the long run. There is much to be gained from farsighted thinking that also enables short-term achievements. Thus, it seems most wise not to focus on one without the other. (Neumann)
Yes! It's not necessary to throw short-term solutions out the window in favor of long-term only. But it takes vision. It takes research and thought. This is where the education component comes in: we need people in Michigan who have been educated to apply long-term problem solving techniques.

Cognitive vs. subconscious thinking. A recent book by Daniel Annemarie (Thinking, Fast and Slow; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011) revisits some of the earliest studies of left-brain (logical, linear, methodical) versus right-brain (intuitive, subconscious, out of the box) thinking. Our educational systems tend to prod the former, while in some cases neglecting the latter. Kahnemann's fast thinking (more or less right brain) tends to be checked or modulated by slow thinking (more or less left brain). What is important in the present context is that long-term thinking inherently requires a well-integrated combination of both ... A holistic balance of human intelligence, experience, memory, ingenuity, creativity, and collective wisdom, with slow and fast thinking, is extremely valuable in exploring the trade-offs between short-term gains and long-term potentials within some sort of holistic big-picture foresight. (Neumann, emphasis added)
What is Michigan doing to encourage this "holistic balance of human intelligence"? Why, cutting back school funding, of course! Duh! What a great way to maximize the human capital of our state. (NOT!)
Indeed, for the graduate professional degrees...what is required is a set of skills to analyze the complex forces that direct infrastructural evolution. It is such skills that provide the means to anticipate the curve ahead in a continuously evolving technological world. (Blanchette)
So: Michigan, we need to take the long view. Foresight requires starting with a good, solid, well-rounded education for our kids, our college students, and our grad students. We all need to understand the past, be aware of present trends, and be very thoughtful about what the future may bring. Leaving a meaningful legacy - a sustainable, inviting Michigan - requires investing thought, intelligence, knowledge, effort - and yes, money - for future generations.

Let's get with it, Michigan!
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