The Future is Now

by Tanya Zwahlen

On Thursday, June 25th, Sue Hopkins, a planner at Bergmann Associates, and I facilitated a futurology brainstorm at the Region 1 American Planning Assocation Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY. The session topic was how will autonomous vehicles change the way we plan.

Sue has an interest in autonomous vehicles, and has been reading up on the topic for a few years. She realized that there is a lot of discussion about insurance and safety, but there has yet to be a focus on the impact these vehicles will have on communities. With this in mind, we set out to facilitate a brainstorm with our planning colleagues to develop ideas on the topic. We intend to develop a white paper on the topic and our discussion in the coming weeks.

At the start of the 90 minute session, the 15 participants introduced themselves. Sue provided a short overview of the state of research on autonomous vehicles. She showed some of the following images to get people thinking:

She also shared some background information on the different levels of automation, and the estimated timeframes that we will see cars developed at each level:

After the presentation, I led participants through a method called focused discussion (also known as ORID), with four questions that intended to draw out four types of reflections: objective, reflective, interpretive, and decisional. The questions were:

  1. What is memorable about what Sue just told you?
  2. How did it make you feel personally?
  3. How are autonomous cars relevant to the planning profession?
  4. What are future implications and considerations that we, as planners may want to consider? What additional questions does the planning profession need to ask? What will be the biggest opportunities over the next 30 years for the planning profession?

(It’s true. That was more than four questions. You are so attentive.)

To solicit responses to the first two questions, we used a mobile polling technology called Poll Everywhere. Participants joined the poll by texting a message to a specific number associated with the poll. Once they had joined, they were able to respond to questions using their phones.

While it was only a group of 15 people, and everyone was excited to get talking, Sue and I wanted to use this application to break the ice and engage everyone right off the bat. Here are a few of the responses we received with those first two questions:

Everyone enjoyed reading other people’s responses. As I read each out loud, participants remarked and added additional information that resulted in everyone talking to one another. It worked well.

When we got to the third question, we switched to paper and markers. We brainstormed the areas of the planning field that will be influenced by autonomous cars and we came up with more than 10. Then we chose a few key topics and broke into small groups to discuss the implications related to land use, equity, the environment. A fourth group decided to focus on the short-term benefits.

All in all, it was a fascinating discussion. The 90 minutes went quickly, and several participants stayed in the room well into the session break to keep talking. I hadn’t really thought about this topic at all, but now I keep daydreaming about the day my car will valet itself in February when I’m going to dinner at my favorite restaurant.  I have also been thinking about the implications of these cars for equity and land use. And how they will likely pop up in large metropolitan areas before they arrive in places like Western New York.

Sue and I have started to review our notes and think about the white paper. We plan to share a draft with the 15 participants of the session and get their feedback. We also hope to post it in The Upstate Planner. When we finish it, I’ll also be sure to post it here on the blog.

Truth be told, my favorite part of the session was testing out Poll Everywhere with the group and using ORID as a guide to the facilitation. Those are two methods that I learned about from the IAP2 training I attended in February. I think that proves I am practicing in the right area (i.e. doing what I love). Lucky me.

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