NC Media Watch

A quest for reason and accuracy in letters to the editor, guest editorials and other issues of interest to the citizens of Western Nevada County.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Planning is more art than science

Our local government officials recently met to address some of the current problems plaguing our community: growth, housing, traffic, and meth. The City of Grass Valley just completed and economic study for the four SDAs with a 15 year planning horizon. That study relied heavily on past population, job creation, housing and traffic trends. Letters to the editor have called for a democratic community vision with a strong stasis flavor. If we use the past to predict our future we are going to be disappointed in the results.

I am currently reading Ray Kurzweil’d The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology In his latest book he expounds his conviction that the human being will be succeeded by a superintelligent entity that is partly biological, partly computerized. While it is going to take a while for me to finish the book, I am already skeptical about superinteligent robots taking over in the next century.

In an early chapters, Kurzweil plunges into an analysis of present-day technologies, genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics, stressing that trends are accelerating in terms of miniaturization and computational power. He has some very interesting charts showing the nonlinear expansion of technology and its acceptance by citizens, the personal computers, the internet and wireless communications being some relevant examples to this discussion.

The Nevada County of today, will not be the same in 2020, a scant 15 years in the future. If we look back 15 years, we found Nevada County without Internet connections, limited cellphone coverage, no satellite TV, no WiFi, and only 12 channels of cable TV. There was no e-goverment, no integrated communications between government departments, no online newspapers, no blogs and no Google. Fifteen years latter we all have instant access to a global knowledge base, we can call around the world for pennies, e-government is expanding, and local business are being squeezed by a plethora of overlapping regulations.

According to Kurzweil, we are at the knee of technology expansion, where new technology improvements appear every few months, rather than every few years. Others have seen the knee and forecast rapid increases in productivity, doubling every few years. Satellites are being launched capable of bring WiFi to our rural neighborhoods. Intel, Phillips, HP and many startup are building suites of low cost health care sensors. Nanotechnology will soon provide a complete blood panel using embedded sensors in a device that looks like your CD player.

The point I am making is that we cannot do our planning based on past trends. We must look forward to assess the impact new technologies will have on our community. Higher gas prices will drive the demand for hybrid vehicles. These more fuel efficient vehicles will use less gas or diesel, thus fewer road taxes will be collected. Population trends will produce more vehicles on our roads, yet government will have less fuel tax money to fund road improvements. Higher gas prices will encourage more people to shop online, to use e-goverment services, and emerging suites of home based medical sensors will soon reduce the number of trips to the doctor for our growing senior population. High fuel prices will impact the local tourism and recreation industries, as people stay closer to home.

Assembly robots and cheaper labor, both offshore and the next state over, will suck most manufacturing from Nevada County. This will have an economic impact as, local sales tax revenues decline. With broadband communication through out the County, which is a great place to live and work, more people will move here and work from home. This will bring high wage earners, but will they shop local? Intellectual property creation and services do not produce much tax revenue, yet the people in these jobs will demand more services.

One manufacturing exception, might be the Idaho Maryland Mine and Ceramics plant. You cannot our source these jobs. I noted that the SDA Economic study showed no growth in mining jobs, yet we have a major mining proposal on the table. Did the study team have some inside information on how City Hall will rule on this project?

Sorry about the length of this essay. Bottom line message is we can not do linear extrapolation of existing trends for our vision of the future. If we do, we will be sadly disappointed with the results. In the next 15 years changes in our world will be accelerating. We need to anticipate those changes and be ahead of the game.

Next time we will look at the impact that 77 million boomers, who are retiring in the next 15 years, could have on our future. Also, more on the Grass Valley SDA Economic Study and local government partnership efforts.


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