August 20, 2018
How to Apply Strategic Planning Techniques to Manage Future Technology Unknowns
...make sure 'success' is defined clearly and up front prior to the pilot or first phase. Design an experimentation component to test the assumptions within the success definition."
From Getting Started with Tech Savvy Planning, “…there is the issue of ambiguity and future unknowns. Sure, you can procure something today for this and next year well enough, but what about the year after that? Anything can happen by then, and yet, the hope is that the technology will last for four years. These are tough situations everyone in the field is navigating now. There are rarely clear answers, but there are strategic planning techniques that can be applied."
Focus on the what the product does, not the brand
Try and find a general description for what you need done, and use that language when planning for technology, not a brand, even if you already have it selected. For instance, for fixed route transit planning for bus and rail, route planning could be seen as a general analytical need. Ten years ago, fixed route planning involved data analysis across a number of platforms to understand destination patterns, housing patterns, and key locations for employment, health, and other day-to-day functions. Today, more and more agencies are using route-planning software such as Remix to automate those functions, enabling the professional to focus on evaluating options vs. creating the options. I’m a big fan of Remix and have been for years, but if I were advising an organization on their technology planning, I would suggest they always use the term “route planning.”
Here’s why – technology stays in a pattern of evolution. That’s just what it does. If you focus on the brand, you’ll always feel like you are chasing a moving object over the decades. Who knows how fixed route planning will work 5 years from now? It will likely merge into a hybrid analytical platform of fixed route, on-demand/microtransit, bike/small vehicle share, transportation network companies (TNCs such as Lyft and Uber), and pedestrian networks into a “shared use system planning software.” (I can’t wait to see that!) The general function is known, but the brand is unknown.
Understand your role and your options
There is a current debate in the connected vehicle and autonomous vehicle (CV/AV) space, will the infrastructure run on Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) radio, 5GLTE wireless technology, or both? As urban areas prepare for their growing role in this space, they are faced with this fundamental question. While this is a particularly tricky one, it too can benefit from a few strategic planning techniques.
Stay informed on these trends, understand them as deeply as you can, and pinpoint the options you have now and later. Ask yourself, what types of products am I responsible for exactly? How do they pertain to this issue at hand? What options will I have? What are the partners in the ecosystem planning to do, and how does that relate to what I should do? What information am I missing? Some ways forward seem mutually exclusive as first, and then as you dig deeper, you see there is some middle ground or a way to straddle the options.
Delay major decisions as long as possible
Government procurement, in particular, requires budget programming sometimes well in advance of the actual implementation. For fast-changing technology, this is a major hurdle. I think at some point, it will prove too challenging and a newer approach to procurement will take root. Until then, we need to deal with the reality. If you can, use general terms for procurement like “route planning” to allow for flexibility as you get closer to the time to select a product. Look into all the options you have to select products as late as possible and still get projects implemented on time. This will allow the maximum time for technology maturity before the decision is made. Every little bit of time can help.
Phasing and experimentation are your friends
Do not go all in at once with a new technology. Would you marry someone you just started dating? Pilots and phasing are great tools in the toolkit to dip your toe in the water before you’re fully submerged. Further, make sure “success” is defined clearly and up front prior to the pilot or first phase. Design an experimentation component to test the assumptions within the success definition. Make sure you have a staff member or a consultant looking at these data and monitoring the performance. It may seem ancillary, but in fact, this is a core need for new technology. Establish minimum standards the first phase or pilot must reach in order to progress to the next phase. If they are met, that’s fantastic. If not, research why and find out if there is any way to adapt. Rerun the analysis, and see if the result is any different. In fact, go ahead in the early planning phases and plan for these alternate routes. You’ll be grateful later in the project that you did, and you’ll have tons of documentation about your process in case of an audit or assessment at a later time. Check out all the articles in the Educational Article Series: Getting Started with Tech Savvy Planning.
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Janae Futrell, AICP, LEED AP