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Blue-Sky-Planning

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2016-06-30


While we are in the process of all things economic development — abatements, TIFs, incentives, training grants and the like — we recommend a short reading list including the Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, and Timothy Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week. (The prequel is Toffler’s Future Shock.)

The simple proposition by Ford is that robots will probably take your job sooner than later.

Many of us can remember the scores of operators at General Telephone, or filling station attendants, or armies of auto factory workers at the Harvester. We can remember when every executive had a personal secretary, and the bagboys at the grocery. The book suggests that drones and algorithms will replace most of our jobs. Laugh if you will, but surgery is already done remotely, and, increasingly, by robot. How many traffic cops do you see at intersections? Programmers now create programs that teach robots to learn as they go, much as we do. Your job’s days are numbered.

One hundred years ago a majority of Americans worked the land. Today, a scant two percent produce triple what 50 percent of us did in the 1890s. Driverless tractors ply the fields on GPS.

Those familiar with Moore’s Law will understand. ML argues the power of computing doubles every 1.5 years. Your smart phone harnesses more computing muscle than the first space missions.

What this means for our nation is already visible; the accelerating speed of change is largely why so many people feel anger with government. The speed of change hits the most vulnerable first, the least educated, the least self-reliant, and is a principle reason our economic recovery has not created scads of new jobs. Businesses increasingly strive for efficient or die; fewer ditch diggers are needed, fewer burger flippers, fewer bag boys.

Many local planners have a sense of this bewilderingly fast and accelerating pace of change. They remember landlines, four-page letters, and the challenge of distance. They embrace Facetime and Skype, current advances soon themselves to be victims of Moore’s Law.

Globalization, merely a noun defining the amalgam of changes wrought by technology, means we can move money, people, equipment and finished goods in a fraction of the time of just 10 years ago. Think just of the container ship compared to the freighters of the last postwar era, then contemplate the new wider, bigger, deeper Panama Canal II. Now think 3-D printing, your designer dress at the touch of a button. Who needs a container ship!

Consequently, money, jobs and prosperity are all more mobile, and transient. A community that doesn’t charge into the future will look like Fort Wayne in the 70s.

This is the future that our officials and planners must embrace.

For those of us who depend on others for work, the world will become an increasingly perilous place. Job security is already an oxymoron. Count the number of empty teller windows in the Lincoln Tower, or the empty desks at the newspapers.

The implications for economic development will increasingly turn to education and design.

More and more jobs— entry-level jobs — will become fool-proof and migrate to full automation. Like kudzu, automation continues to creep into more sophisticated job categories. Drones? If you can kill a bad guy in Afghanistan from a “game” console in Boulder how big an army do you need? How many accountants have been replaced by TurboTax? Trucks will soon cross America and dock without a driver, as they already do in Sweden.

That’s where community design comes in. The spectacle of watching a driver spend five minutes docking in some 1930s terminal is as archaic as a hitching post. Think ADA for robots and trucks and container ships. In fact, there are central terminals where the huge transports arrive, are robotically unloaded, packages are mechanically sorted, and distributed by drones. There will be fewer brown trucks in the neighborhood.

Our emphasis in school, according to visionaries, should be one of nurturing creativity, of encouraging problem solving and spurring “envisioning.” My old mentor, John Bonsib, use to call it “blue sky thinking.” STEM must couple with history, dance, debate, and sculpture. In fact, creative individualism is where we Americans, with our relatively freer culture, excel…for the moment. Germany and has caught up. Estonia and Finland are well ahead of us. Others are at our heels.

Hopefully, in our economic development efforts we are taking this into consideration. Perhaps not. (One planner told me they would be deemed deranged if future-thought were introduced to the discussion.) But, without future-thought, our Road to One Million will only produce greater numbers of unemployed. Remember Moore’s Law.

With that in mind it was nice to see city council recently grill abatement recipients about their projects.

During the hearing, companies that had failed to comply with the terms of their agreements tried to explain why they had fallen short, usually on job creation. Most “defendants” had reasonable answers and were given a pass, some were taken to the wood shed for a thrashing. Moore’s Law won’t allow entitlement in economic development any more than on the shop floor or the McDonalds kitchen.

The best option is to place more emphasis on education, reeducation and re-re-re-education. That lifetime gig at Harvester is gone, as is the bag boy. Additionally, our focus should be on redesigning our city to facilitate robotics that, after all, will work for us to make Fort Wayne a more efficient and livable place. While we still, for the moment, need people to repair our IPhones fewer menial tasks will require a human hand. Productive leisure is the new growth industry.

In Timothy Ferris’ book, the Four Hour Work Week, he explains how he transformed his stressful life at the top of a multi-million dollar company by automating, simplification and redesign. Ferriss’ book is the mantra for the future. Download him, then stream the Rise of the Robots to better understand what we are facing as a community and nation. Instead at laughing at our “blue-sky” planners we should embrace the efficiencies they offer as fundamental to our economic development master plan.

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