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How do we get off this train?

Most of us do not live in abundant riches. Our nation, our states and our cities are confronted with problems and limited resources to throw at them. For every dollar thrown at a problem, there is some alternative use of that dollar that didn’t get funded. Economists call this opportunity cost. Among the many benefits of foresight for  public policy, an awareness of how trends may intersect in the future may prevent us from wasting scarce resources funding projects that will lose their value prematurely.

Recently, I’ve been doing some research on self-driving vehicles (SDVs).  Along the way, I’ve developed a strengthening sense that two trends that are headed for collision.

  1. SDVs seem to be the best bet for achieving Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), primarily through car-share and for-hire models (Uber, Zipcar, Lyft, etc.)  Even SDVs that are individually owned may be monetized during down time by loaning them to a share service.  Except perhaps for those who reside directly on transit routes, PRT is a superior option relative to mass rapid transit (MRT).   PRT will deliver the person from origin to destination via the most optimal route, minimizing waiting and eliminating transfers.
  2. Cities are spending billions on light rail installations.  For example, Houston recently expanded its rail system by adding a North line and a Southeast line at estimated costs of $143M and $125M per mile respectively.  An analysis in the Houston Chronicle estimated the cost of 8.9 miles of rail at $1.4B (  Because buses operate on public roadways, bus-based MRT is flexible and can more easily adapt to need. But rail-based MRT is much more capital intensive, requiring expensive infrastructure to operate. Because of the capital involved, rail-based MRT projects are major bets with time horizons in excess of 30 years.

I also have two hunches or assumptions about the impact of car share models on the future:

  1. They will provide an alternative to car ownership for the poor, even in transit-weak cities;
  2. Because of 1), they will accelerate the adoption curve for SDVs by eliminating the back-end of the traditional vehicle life cycle.

While the earliest models are coming on-line now (Tesla, 2017 Mercedes E-Class), I think fleet models (like Google) will roll-out around 2020 in the first cities (San Francisco, Austin, etc).  I expect most luxury brands to roll-out SDV capabilities around 2020 and mainstream brands to follow around 2025.  If there were no changes in car ownership patterns, half-the vehicles in service will turn over in 11 years and most will be out of service in 15.  However, viable and cost-effective SDV car-share fleets could eliminate the need for the poor to own a vehicle and secondary car markets (used cars) could take a shock.  This would shorten the life-spans of non-SDV stock.  It is plausible that the public fleet could become majority SDV around 2030.

If SDVs realized the potential of PRT, then what will keep MRT ridership up, particularly on the fixed routes of light rail?  All the cities making light rail investments presumably are anticipating system lifespans beyond 15-20 years, but SDV delivered PRT could threaten those systems within that period. At great cost to society, light rail systems may lose economic viability prematurely. When cities are paying for expensive light rail projects long after PRT has taken their riders away, there will be fewer resources for public safety.  Urban planners need to keep in mind the potential impacts of SDVs when making grand pitches for rail.

It’s New Year’s Eve.  Here is a virtual toast to our readers, members and colleagues, wishing all good fortune in the coming year.  Bonne annee!

This time of year, people naturally become a little more future focused.  They reflect on the recent past and develop hopes for the coming year.  Many of us will make a New Year’s Resolution, a commitment to some action that we think will mprove our lives.  In our organizations, we make a shift to the new year.  Calendar year stats get a re-boot. 

This is an excellent time to have conversations about our futures, both personally and professionally. So much of the practice of foresight involves fruitful dialogue.  In my formal training, the most exciting methods – the very ones that separate futurists from the pack of forecasters, analysts and consultants – are focused on facilitating effective conversations about the future.  

Last month, we published a piece from Rick Myers, who has since been appointed as the chief of police in Newport News, Virginia.  BTW, Congratulations, Rick!  Rick’s article drew on his past experience as the chief of police of numerous departments and a consultant for many others.  His comments struck a chord with me.  Let me draw attention to a particular section:

 I enjoy thinking about the environment of policing 25 years from now and what we need to do to prepare.  However, I’m finding a definite tension that draws me back to dealing with today’s crises, which often have little resemblance to what the forecasts say lie ahead.

I enjoy thinking about the environment of policing 25 years from now and what we need to do to prepare.  However, I’m finding a definite tension that draws me back to dealing with today’s crises, which often have little resemblance to what the forecasts say lie ahead.


As a chief, I often had to fight off being bogged down with today’s crises, personnel issues, nagging policy snafus, etc.  Even tougher was getting my staff out of the daily funk and thinking forward.  I believe it is a forever battle.


But, now, as someone who finds himself consulting at different agencies, I’m really drawn away from the future as I attempt to assist agency leaders try to fix what’s broken today.  And, there is plenty out there that’s broken.

I think Rick is expressing the very real and necessary tension between the demands of the present and the lure of the future.  The necessities of the present often work against our future aspirations.  Dealing with the urgencies of the present yields immediate fruit while investments for the future require delayed gratification. But, failure to prepare adequately for the future imposes future costs.  But, social science is pretty clear: when faced with two choices, one with immediate rewards and deferred costs and the other with up-front costs but delayed rewards, people will choose the first option over the second nearly every time.

In recent years, a new method for encouraging dialogue that confronts this tension has emerged: Three Horizons.  While there are some American practitioners, the center of gravity for the method is clearly the United Kingdom, with prominent practitioners in London, Oxford and Edinburgh. 

Three Horizons holds a simple proposition: at any given time, there are three essential and valid voices about the future: the managerial voice, the entrepreneurial voice, and the aspirational voice.  These are voices of the present that speak to different views of the future.  

The managerial voice addresses the need to get work done.  It is the voice that responds to the urgencies of the present and the need to service those needs in the future.  The managerial voice seeks incremental change – to evolve in response to changing demands.     

The aspirational voice challenges the current practices and dreams of a better future.  It pursues transformation (large scale change) and seeks to prepare for future dangers.  It is the voice of sudden, dramatic change over incremental change and revolution over evolution.   

The entrepreneurial voice is opportunistic, seeking to exploit smaller scale improvements in current practices.  It is the voice of action that implements change.  Ultimately, it becomes co-opted by the other voices, usually by the managerial (incremental change) but occassionally by the aspirational (transformative). 

Three Horizons provides a way to map and value these voices.  It grants structure to discussions about the future and helps participants understand from which perspective a particular idea comes.  The organizations that have used Three Horizons are finding it easier to make the critical linkage between the present and a distant, desired future.  Consequently, they find it easier to take concrete actions toward that future while respecting the demands of the present. 

As we move foreward into the new year, let’s have better conversations.  To good futures! 

The Tension Between Today and Tomorrow

I’ve met a lot of great, impressive people in PFI.  One of the more impressive figure is Rick Myers, a former chief in a number of departments, a CALEA commissioner, a former president of PFI, and a colleague in the Futures Working Group.  Rick has graciously agreed to do a guest post on the blog titled “The Tension Between Today and Tomorrow.”  Drawing on his experience, Rick draws attention to the fundamental challenges facing every chief in their battle to lead for tomorrow while managing today.  His insight follows:

Being a charter member of PFI, and having been fully indoctrinated by Dr. Tafoya way back in 1989, I’ve been thinking about the future for a long time….so long that some of it has come and gone!  I enjoy thinking about the environment of policing 25 years from now and what we need to do to prepare.  However, I’m finding a definite tension that draws me back to dealing with today’s crises, which often have little resemblance to what the forecasts say lie ahead.

As a chief, I often had to fight off being bogged down with today’s crises, personnel issues, nagging policy snafus, etc.  Even tougher was getting my staff out of the daily funk and thinking forward.  I believe it is a forever battle.

But, now, as someone who finds himself consulting at different agencies, I’m really drawn away from the future as I attempt to assist agency leaders try to fix what’s broken today.  And, there is plenty out there that’s broken.

In one setting that I’m assisting at, they’ve set a goal to become accredited in the next few years.  Now, as a CALEA Commissioner, I’m all about encouraging more and more agencies to achieve this proven demonstration that they’ve crossed the bar and sustain adherence to best practices and high standards.  But, in this setting, the agencies involved have so many issues to address, I’ve had to express my sincere observation that they’re wasting cognitive energy worrying about accreditation that should be poured into just basic requirements of a police agency.  In other words, I’m discouraging futures thinking! 

Lest you think, good reader, that I should turn in my membership card, I assure you that I haven’t stopped thinking forward.  In this setting, I’ve engaged some of my colleagues to be thinking about how we could help the struggling leadership totally re-think how policing is done and organized in this setting.  Are there alternative structures?  Are there services that “the police” won’t or shouldn’t be preoccupied about in the future?  How can emerging technology improve services there?  And, what about the human equation, what future recruitment, training, and accountability processes might benefit in this setting?

I recall in my second chief’s position, going from being “the dayshift” to actually having a quiet office where I could think.  It was during this time that I attended the NA and met Dr Tafoya.  I’ve been thinking ever since. Futurists know about this tension between today and tomorrow.  As leaders, there is no way to abandon the problems of today simply to dream about tomorrow.  The key may be to use that tension to CONNECT today and tomorrow. Bridge builders sometimes use tension as a key ingredient of constructing spans that last a long time.  While I don’t think like an engineer, I am thinking that this tension might be a bridge for us to say, “ok, here is one of today’s major issues; if we do nothing, what might it look like in 5, 10, 20 years?  If we do X, what might it look like?  If we do Y?, etc”  Similarly, something that might resemble a minor concern today might appear more like a major crisis in the making from a forecast perspective.  So, instead of struggling with the tension between today and tomorrow, it can serve as a daily reminder that no matter what we’re up against now, there are implications and, if we’re lucky, maybe even strategies lurking ahead.  Likewise, if we’re scanning today’s environment and see a trend that has little impact on us today, let’s not overlook it until it blows up; perhaps we can roll it into our strategic thinking.

If we do a little less structured Strategic Planning (I believe in it, but hate going through the process) and instead daily use the tension between today and tomorrow to think more strategically every day, we might find that we benefit both today AND tomorrow.  Just a thought…


Rick Myers


Us, Them and Shaping our Problem-Solving

Lately, I’ve been attracted to the notion of group identity as a way of structuring problems.  The logic lies in social evolution and the expectation that groups that exhibit collaborative behaviors should have an advantage over groups lacking that behavior.  Over tens of thousands of years of prehistoric human society, these groups came to dominate.  But, collaboration with the wrong people can be costly and, particularly in times of stress like war or famine, may create a threat to survival.  In order for collaboration to provide an advantage, the boundary between those with whom we will collaborate and those we will not must be clear.   

Identities matter.  How we identify ourselves and others defines how we will relate to one another.  Is she like me?  If so, I can expect that cooperation will work out.  If not, I will need to be more wary. Determining whether someone is part of “my” group or someone else’s group is a fundamental human behavior.  Scientists distinguish between “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  Group identities give meaning to the words we, us, they and them.

We treat members of in-groups and out-groups differently.  I will cooperate freely with members of my in-group.   With out-groups, I will either ignore them or I will be vigilant for threats. 

However, in-groups are not free of risks; I might not be treated fairly.  I might have to carry the load of freeloaders or cheats might take too much of the rewards, leaving me with a smaller share.  I will have to keep an eye on the other members of my in-group.  But, they will all be watching me too.  So, I will have to demonstrate my loyalty to the group by adhering visibly to group norms.  Social scientists call this social control.

This brings me to a critical point. The boundaries of fundamental in-group identifications are not static.  The in-group that matters NOW! depends on what’s going on around me.  How context is framed influences how I navigate my identities.  

We can imagine that small societies have a small number of potential groups.  Think about a primitive hunter-gatherer tribe in a remote jungle.  The people as a whole will be one group.  The elders might be another.  It is very likely that labor will be divided by gender, so we should expect that men and women might be separate groups.  Children are probably yet another group.  Immediate families probably form another group.  Every person in that society would have at least four potential identities: family, child/adult, gender, and “the people.”

In a more complex society, we should expect new identities to enter play: specialty (such as trade or profession), political faction, sports, hobbies, race or ethnicity, region, religion, etcetera.  People in more complex societies will have larger inventories of in-group identities. 

I am a member of numerous in-groups.  Relatively speaking, I may be in-group wealthy.  I have the in-groups of my department, my rank, my profession, PFI, the Futures Working Group, my academic field, my university, professional futurists, etc.  I am a fan of my home town sports teams.  I can jump from in-group to in-group easily. 

Framing provides an opportunity for leverage. When faced with an issue or conflict, how we frame it can influence how other people process it.  Framing can be used to unite people, or to divide them.  Framing signals which group identity should be salient at the present.   

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Americans across the country watched planes crash and buildings burn and fall.  On that day and for some time after, the most salient group identity for most people in the US was “American.”

The dynamics of group identity impact the practice of policing.  It does so within our organizations and it impacts how police officers relate to the public.  It also impacts how members of the public relate to one another.  Consider:

  • How many group identities run in your organization?  Do you have distinctions between supervisors and officers? sworn and civilians? crime-fighters and slugs?
  •  How do group identities impact your officers’ relations with the public?  Do your officers have a strong “us vs. them” perspective?  Does the public see the police as outsiders?  How quickly do officers classify people as criminal?  Is it permanent? 
  • Are there strong group identities activating conflict among members of the public?  Are gangs evidence of an in-group poverty?  Do people who join gangs possess too few in-groups?  Are antiquated gender group identities driving domestic conflicts? 

It may not always be possible to control which group identities are active when police become involved in a situation.  But, the police can use the insight of group identities to manage these situations better.  By framing issues strategically, we can improve outcomes for all.   

For example, it is tempting to fall into “cops and robbers” thinking where the police stand in opposition to the perpetrators of crime.  This frame reinforces police group identity as an instrument of force.  But other group identities, such as race or ethnicity, may become activated on behalf of the perpetrator, shifting public support away from the police.  If in its communications, the police define the conflict as victim versus offender, group identities are activated differently.  The public aligns with the victim and the police identity remains part of the public, and to the extent there is distinction, takes on the character of rescuer.

We can use this group identity perspective for creative problem solving.  When we are faced with a problem, we can change our perception of the problem by viewing it from different in-group perspectives.  We can also test our solutions through various group lenses.  It’s a good idea to capture all the stakeholders, each of which is a group, and look at the problems and solutions from each perspective.

Understanding how identities work, within ourselves and in others, will make police more effective in the future.

Improving the Handling of Calls for Service

Since at least the 1930s law enforcement’s standard method for handling calls for service has been a linear method in which an informant calls a dispatcher who then listens to the informant and makes a decision on the nature of the call and who best to handle it before assigning it to a deployed patrol unit who then drives to the location verifies the information and takes appropriate action.

 Given the ubiquitous nature and advanced capabilities of modern smart phones, portable computers, WiFi, video capture and transmission and the like, how could the law enforcement community exploit these technologies and increase the effectiveness and efficiency for calls for service?

Sid Heal