Isaac Asimov’s ‘Hari Seldon’ is a role model for the social scientists and urban planners whose profession it is to predict the future from 50 to 500 years and longer. We are able to predict with a high degree of accuracy sewer flow for a new town of 50,000 people, how many desks are needed in a new school and the social tension that will arise if you propose a landfill in a community. When planning high level nuclear waste disposal we expect to be cross-examined on whether the engineering will be robust enough to keep society safe circa 2512. While David Weinberger’s speculations about predictive abilities of big data crunching models are intriguing, (“The Machine That Would Predict the Future” Scientific American, December 2011), planners and social scientists aren’t about to step aside just yet.
As an example of ‘big data’, IBM’s “Watson” has impressive computing power when the human question is clear. But, important societal questions are rarely so. For the near future we don’t see large computing power successfully responding to the simple questions facing modern societies: “How do you motivate Asian governments to take action on climate change?” “How do you reduce poverty?” “How do you get people out of their cars and onto public transit?” These are simple questions with highly complex answers.
Weinberger postulates that large computing models may yield advice that humans might not be able to understand. Might we also want to program the computer to explain why? The article also suggests that large computing may force us to examine, “…what is knowledge?” Welcome to Philosophy 101. While new knowledge may be a ‘continuous argument’ we have a rich 2,500 year body of thought that we rarely draw from today. Talented urban planners and social scientists commonly accept metaphysics as a core discipline supporting prediction. Thinking trumps computing.
What is understated is, we already do large computing. We bring well educated and informed people to conferences, colloquia and seminars, with hundreds of years of combined experience to focus on both complex and small, manageable environmental, social and economic problems.
The challenge to prediction today is successfully integrating philosophy and the social and behavioural sciences with the physical sciences, physics and engineering. Just witness the failure of climate scientists to advance the climate change agenda, due in part, to social, behavioural and political scientists being left out of the conversation. With multidisciplinary cooperation as a starter, ‘big data’ might be better equipped to predict the future.
David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL). He is a Registered Professional Planner and trained facilitator and has extensive experience in all of these areas. Dave has participated in over 75 environmental assessments. He has also facilitated close to 1,000 strategic planning meetings and public consultation plans for public and private clients; conducted multi-stakeholder consultation and mediation in numerous sectors; and completed environmental planning assignments for a variety of water and waste water projects.