(TNS) — Peter Leyden found a perfect metaphor for how America and the Lehigh Valley are adapting to the brave new world of “digitization” — the conversion of information into an electronic format that has revolutionized how we live, work and communicate.
From his hotel room at the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, he could see Bethlehem Steel, a leading industrial power of the 20th century, re-purposed into an arts center and a casino. The change is indicative of a nation transforming itself amid rapid technological changes and economic shifts, said Leyden, a futurist and former editor of Wired magazine.
He was the keynote speaker Tuesday at FutureLV, an all-day Lehigh Valley Planning Commission event designed to discuss, understand and help plan for what’s ahead.
“It’s a great reminder of how America has gone through some fundamental reinvention,” Leyden told the crowd of about 120 business leaders, government officials and regional planners at Lehigh University’s Iacocca Hall.
Those local leaders will look to keep insights offered by Leyden and other experts in mind as they piece together a regional comprehensive plan. The plan, due next December, will attempt to position the Lehigh Valley for growth and success over the next 30 years by anticipating the Valley’s next big economic, transportation and housing challenges and identifying potential solutions.
Leyden compared these shifts in lifestyles with past revolutions that changed the face of America. The last cycle, he said, came in the boom years after World War II, when the rise of automobiles and America’s manufacturing might created the suburbs. That economy and lifestyle demanded, among other things, a new road network and an increase in college educations.
The rise of computers in the last 30 years, Leyden said, has had worldwide effects similar to the creation of the printing press. Today’s near-instantaneous exchange of information has redefined the world, and innovators are finding endless uses for new technology.
“If you went to FDR and told him that you had this device that could answer any question in the world and prioritize the answers for you in less than a second, he would say, ‘That’s magic.’ And you would say, ‘no, that’s Google,’ ” Leyden told the crowd.
But the side effects of that technology have created new challenges. Automation has killed many of the assembly line manufacturing jobs that helped build the middle class, and the same is beginning to happen for white collar jobs that perform routine tasks, he said. While technology companies like Apple, Alphabet and Amazon have accumulated massive wealth, the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened. Bridging that gap in an era of widespread automation, he said, will be the greatest challenge of the next 50 years.
Panels of experts teased out finer details of that challenge and others during the event, including changes to the economy, local land uses, education and transportation. While the topics varied, speakers were generally optimistic society would figure how to address lingering problems.
For example, college educations may not remain as critical to success as the need for key technical skills. Consumer tolerance for slow connections or dead zones has disappeared in less than a decade.
Joseph Divis, an assistant vice president of external affairs for AT&T, said the telecommunications company has seen its customers’ data usage increase 250,000 percent in the last decade, and the company spent $8 million to maintain its network just in Pennsylvania. To keep it fast in the future, it’s hiring more technicians and retraining staff.
“We just have to continue to talk about those other opportunities that don’t require college degrees,” Divis said.
Fast networks are promoting the rise of online shopping, which is hurting many brick-and-mortar retail stores. But Nancy Dischinat, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board, noted that technology retail stores like Apple are still packed. As new devices come out, consumers need to be trained about their capabilities and how to use them. While some traditional retail jobs are disappearing, the shift is birthing opportunities for workers who can learn new systems and communicate the technology’s capabilities to customers.
Conflicting visions of the future emerged in other areas such as transportation. While post-war baby boomers’ flocking to the suburbs left the cities empty, some millennials are returning to urban cores. That will mean, among other things, more biking and pedestrian paths in future transportation plans. The paths would be cheaper to maintain and promote healthier lifestyles while providing safe routes away from vehicles, Lehigh Valley Planning Commissioner Executive Director Becky Bradley said.
At the same time, technology has reached a point where experts believe self-driving cars may only be a decade away. Features like cruise control and lane detection already exist, and advances in GPS and obstacle detection remain the last technological hurdles. Human errors are responsible for most crashes, so taking the wheel away from people should improve overall highway safety, Bradley said.
Will Calves, a senior transit planner and project manager for AECOM, recalled seeing a simulation of how a fully automated system of cars would flow through an intersection without traffic signals. With a computer hive mind-controlling the flow of traffic, the cars could travel within a few feet of each other without concern for collisions. But that system doesn’t take into account people slow to transition to automated cars — or people on foot.
“Like a ballet, they just pass each other without hitting each other. And then you realize there’s no pedestrians in this simulation. There’s no bicyclists in this simulation,” he said.
Stephen Buckley, a former general manager of transportation for Toronto, compared the development of automated cars to the Wild West. Individual companies are creating the technology, but there’s little government regulation in place. For a system of self-driving cars to go live, someone will have to establish standards for a shared network or ethical decisions about whether a self-driving car should risk the lives of its occupants or pedestrians in the event of a crash.
“Right now it is happening to us,” he said. “Everyone is kind of afraid to pump the brakes on this out of fear of appearing as a Luddite.”
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