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Community Development Strategies: The Future vs. The Obsolete

by | Dec 27, 2021 | Community Development, Uncategorized

Community development strategies were on my mind the other night when I decided to sit down for an evening to watch a movie. If you watch a movie, on what do you watch it? Do you go on your Netflix account, or perhaps Apple TV, to pick something? Perhaps you pull out a favourite Blue Ray disc, or maybe an old DVD? How many of you still use VHS tapes to watch that old favourite movie with the family? There are more people than you would imagine who still use older, and in some cases obsolete, technology. It’s natural to stick to what we know, because it is comfortable, but we must be careful we don’t invest our future into obsolete technology.

I know an older gent who still has all his old VHS tapes and refuses to buy any new movies because he is ‘invested’ in VHS. You may quietly chuckle at the thought of still being ‘invested’ in VHS, but we all invest a little bit into the obsolete. There are a lot of modern people who still fax documents. The patent for the first fax machine was applied for in ’43 . . . 1843. In 1860 it was successfully demonstrated to Napoleon, who put into use in Paris in 1865, over a decade earlier than the invention of the telephone.

An old friend asked me last year, to what number could he send me a fax. I explained I couldn’t get one because of where I lived. In a surprised voice he asked me where I lived. “The 21st century”, I replied. I was being a little cheeky when I said it, but with new technology the fax has really become obsolete. We can now email pictures or scans of documents right from our cell phones in less time, and with less effort, that it takes to send a fax. I don’t even keep paper receipts for taxes anymore. My phone scans them to the cloud where they are stored as PDFs securely, and for as long as I need them.

When it comes to community development initiatives, so many of our communities are still investing in the obsolete because they think everything will be, or rather they think things should be, as they have always been. There are a lot of communities investing in curling rinks, even in communities where the number of people curling is in steep decline, and within a decade no one would be using the facility. There are communities investing in connectivity and broadband in ways that will be functionally obsolete within a decade. There are communities investing in traditional economic development strategies that may show very short-term returns, but completely fail when those businesses become obsolete within the decade.

The mindsets that lead to such decisions are one of two types. Either we seem to feel that, when it comes to community development, there is no time to see where the future is headed and prematurely commit to investing in something with very high probability it will become obsolete. Or, we abide by the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’, where we presume we must keep investing in what we already own to preserve its value. It’s a fallacy because investing in the obsolete does not preserve its value.

Trying to manage where the future is headed and what type of community development you should invest in is hard to do. We too often don’t realize where change is coming from and where it is headed. It is important, for the future of our communities, that we do our due diligence to ensure we aren’t investing in the obsolete, or soon to be obsolete. We know everything is about to change, and though we don’t know exactly how, we must do our best to anticipate and prepare for what’s coming. Below we’ve listed three areas we feel are worth paying particular attention to. We encourage you to start thinking about how you might incorporate them into your community (if you haven’t already).

Urban Agriculture

I am sure the title turned you completely off. Honestly, it seems only farmers are interested in agriculture. Who else would want to talk about beef and chicken production methods, or grain varieties and their heartiness, or how to grow fruits and vegetables in our climate? The impression most people get is that agriculture is boring and dirty, which is why fewer and fewer folks choose it as a profession. Most people don’t know where their food comes from these days, but nonetheless there exists a growing desire from locals to buy ‘local’. The concept of local food usually means a farmer produces goods within the consumer’s region or province, but the concept of local still places the production of the food outside of urban boundaries. That has got to change.

The production of food in efficient and environmentally supportive manners is critical to the success of the human race. That may sound dramatic, but a human can only live for three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food. A human can survive, although miserably, without everything else, but the absence of any one of those three things means certain death. That’s not drama, that’s just reality.

Community Development with rooftop agriculture in the city

We gravely underestimate the importance of food because we have had it in such abundance for so long. Honestly, when was the last time you went hungry? I don’t mean the sense of missing a meal because you were busy, and now you have hunger pangs. I mean really hungry. After 24 hours the hunger pangs go away and your body begins to digest its fat reserves, followed by its muscle. I doubt any of us have been truly hungry to the point our bodies did that, but perhaps our great-grandparents remember a time. Food is critical to the survival of the humans, and the human race.

I know the argument, “Doug, food is in abundance more now than ever before!” True, our food supply has increased dramatically. In fact, the world’s population peaked at about one billion people for quite a while, until we had more food to feed them. Now we have grown our global population to over seven billion people. What allowed us to grow more food was the discovery of oil. Oil and gas production allowed equipment to grow in size, and allowed greater efficiency in growing and harvesting crops and moving them around the world. It also allowed greater production of efficient fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides which all lead to faster growth cycles, healthy crops, and less crop loss, and it meant the products of agriculture could be grown using less water.

The world is going to change abruptly, however. The war on the use of fossil fuels will have a huge impact on large scale agriculture, as well as the use of fertilizers and chemicals to increase crop production, or at least add efficiencies in production. Compounding that with a desire to buy more local will necessitate far more localized food production than ever before. The food coming from just beyond the walls of the city gates will no longer be adequate to sustain us. When we consider community development initiatives, we will have to grow more food within the city walls.

We will need to use our city rooftops more, not just for green spaces, but as I witnessed in Nagoya, Japan, where they have gardens and greenhouses on rooftops all across the city. Trees once planted for their beauty will start to have to shift to trees that bear communal fruit. Acres upon acres of grass in backyards will have to be converted to full gardens that supplement what may not be ready and available in the grocery store. 

Ok, this isn’t going to happen overnight, but it will happen and it will come faster than we realize. Change always seems a long way away until it gets here. What we need to be considering is whether we are designing our communities to meet future needs and realities. We currently design as though there is enough space and opportunity to continue to pave over the best agricultural land in the world, put the parts in between the pavement to unproductive grass, and then drive to grocery stores where ample food will continue to come in from around the world thanks to oil and gas production.

Things are going to change. They always do. Considering what may come is important to ensure a prosperous future for your community.

High-Speed Internet

An important community development focus for the future is high-speed internet. High-speed internet is now as important to your communities as clean water, sewage systems and roads. High-speed internet won’t guarantee success any more than having a baseball diamond, clean water, and a paved main street guarantees success. However, those who don’t have it could guarantee failure as their populations shrink when families and businesses leave. Having high-speed internet does not assure success, but having it certainly gives you a fighting chance to be competitive.

Some municipalities discover they have a challenge when they try to lure in private ISPs (internet service providers). The ISPs aren’t interested because the returns from a sparse or small customer base don’t support the investment in infrastructure. That can be frustrating, and leads some municipalities desperate to get the service, to make poor decisions. Namely, instead of building infrastructure and paying it off by leasing it to multiple private ISPs, they often decide to build the infrastructure and BE the ISP. Therein lies the problem.

The municipal ISP usually won’t let any private sector ISPs rent or use the infrastructure they built with taxpayer dollars. And no ISP wants to offer the service anyway, because they would be trying to compete with a municipal corporation that can use tax dollars to subsidize their rates. That means no competition.  Yet, competition is what keeps the technology up to date and prices reasonable. So, costs creep up, while technology becomes obsolete. Soon, the municipality is in a bind and must invest more tax dollars into technology to support an inefficiently operated and costly ISP. You are stuck with a high-cost white elephant that no longer meets the ever-growing technological needs of the community.

A smart way for municipalities to avoid this is to focus on infrastructure only and leave the rest to the private sector. Imagine it this way: Not a single trucking company can afford to build all the roads it would need to have a successful hauling business. That’s where government comes in. It builds the road infrastructure, and private companies pay taxes and fees to access that road network. That is how it works with high-speed internet technology. Building towers or installing fibre that is open to any company to rent allows the municipality to pay off the infrastructure over a longer time and more affordable rate.

There is a second mistake municipalities make in this step of the decision making, however. It still needs to be affordable. Municipalities are responsible for using tax dollars well. There must be a business case done that indicates the investment and its payoff period, the opportunity for revenue from private ISP rentals, and the opportunities for use. If the investment brings high-speed internet, which attracts new families and businesses, and a new tax base, so that the costs can be paid down in a reasonable time, that is wise planning. If the investment is too large, can’t generate revenue, or is simply going to mean faster Netflix and gaming downloads, you have to question the value of the investment.

High-speed internet is critical to the future of your community, but make sure you aren’t driving away business, or overbuilding on the presumption that high-speed internet alone will save your community. Roads are important, but we don’t build four lane highways everywhere as though that alone will bring in traffic. Establish a sound business case. Ensure an affordable investment that can reap dividends for the community. Ensure your plan encourages competition and business growth. 

Autonomous Vehicles

A lot of folks think autonomous vehicles are far from dominating our highways. However, the average of estimates predicts a 35% uptake in autonomous vehicles within 10 years, and 85% within 15 years. As much as we struggle with technology as individuals, collectively, society gobbles up every new gadget and integrates it into our daily lives quickly. Autonomous vehicles are being tested by almost every major vehicle manufacturer. Autonomous vehicles are already delivering semi-truck loads of beer, hauling rock and ore in mining operations, cultivating and seeding thousands of acres of land, as well as taking people to visit their grandma. They are here to stay.

Autonomous vehicles will cause more changes to our communities in the next 15 years, than every other piece of technology has in the last 150. Imagine a city full of autonomous vehicles. An entire network of vehicles all talking to each other would be exceptionally safe. The biggest risk to public safety would be human drivers who aren’t tied into the system. People may not be allowed to drive in that system — to prevent the human element of chaos disrupting the order. Keeping roadways safe would then come down to disallowing human drivers in such a system. And without humans driving there would be no need for stop signs, merge signs, and traffic lights. Imagine that. I bet the first progressive mid-size city makes such a proclamation within 15 years.

Community Development with Autonomous vehicles

Imagine how many fewer vehicles you would need on the road and how many fewer parking spots you would need — if you need any parking spots at all in a city entirely made up of autonomous vehicles. With so many fewer vehicles, we would no longer need the wide multi-lane roads we are currently building. A driverless car, requiring no refueling, with virtually no maintenance, always on the road, and being close when you need it. What does that mean?

In a few short years, you could be using an app on your phone that calls up that car. An algorithm in the network would help it determine where it should be, so it is never too far away and doesn’t leave you waiting long. As well, the vehicle would have very low operating costs. It would be so cheap and quick to take one of these from one end of the city to another — and you get door to door service no-less. What does that mean for public transportation? The chatter is often that autonomous vehicles will destroy the automobile industry, but I believe it will destroy the public transportation industry.

Why would you buy a ticket for the bus or subway when you can take one of these new autonomous vehicles already appearing on our roads, door-to-door for the same price? Could you imagine the embarrassment felt by municipal leaders who spent billions on a subway that takes years to construct only to have no one show up at the ribbon cutting or to ride it from that first day on, because that investment is already obsolete? That doesn’t mean we should not build subways, but are we even considering the municipal disruptions coming that could cause such an investment to be a waste?

Will three-car garages be necessary in a world where autonomous vehicles are so prevalent and affordable? The costs of owning a vehicle averages about $10,000 per year, for something that is parked 95% of the time, on average. Is that investment worth it? I talk to the generation after me and they seem to have very little interest in owning a vehicle. I know vehicles are still a status symbol for many of us, but so too was wearing wingtip shoes or a bowler hat. What we believe is important changes, and status symbols do too. Owning a vehicle isn’t going to be as important as it once was.

Technology has caused many disruptions in many industries over the last 200 years. The design, operation, and construction of communities has not changed drastically in a few generations, but all that is about to change. The next 15 years are going to see disruptions that will affect us, right where we live, and for the sake of our future, it is time to prepare and adapt to what is coming.

It is critical that our communities plan and prepare for the future. It is also important that we note see every change as a threat, but rather as an opportunity. That can be difficult, however, since so many of us truly dislike change, and resist it at any turn. As a community leader, your success depends on helping your community adapt to changes that are coming.