If you set up tipping points during your planning process, you’ll have a system of indicators that essentially provide an alert to put a certain set of responsive actions in place. Think of this as your contingency planning real-time alert system."
What tipping points are and how to use them
“Tipping points” (also called “triggers”) are indicators showing that what was previously understood as a future possibility is now in the process of occurring, or is on the cusp of occurring. If you set up tipping points during your planning process, you’ll have a system of indicators that essentially provide an alert to put a certain set of responsive actions in place. Think of this as your contingency planning real-time alert system. Understanding what a tipping point might be, since it can take on a wide range of forms depending on your subject area, works best through illustrations with a logic you can apply to your own situation.
Tipping point examples
Let’s take climate change impacts as a thematic area, and sea level rise (SLR) in particular. Suppose a local area has a coast in danger of SLR. Perhaps there has not been any documented sea level rise yet, but some find it very likely. Let’s say the local area has a set of projects in mind already to counteract the SLR, but the funding support is difficult to gain until there is actual evidence that SLR is occurring. In this case, the professionals would need to first understand what the level at which flooding would occur actually is, 3” from current levels, for example. They would need to have conceptual project ideas ready, which could include environmental and restorative solutions for the coast, engineering projects for protection, and/or zoning changes for coastal building and gradual government purchase and acquisition of coastal properties to transform the area. It could be that at .5”, it is clear that the SLR is occurring, and estimates indicate that the time it would take to go from .5” to 3” would allow adequate time to get key projects in place. In such a situation, the SLR hitting .5” would be the tipping point and verify that what was previously an “if” is, in fact, happening. That means the “then,” the projects needed to counteract the impact, are ready for implementation.
Tipping points applied to pilot projects
The concept of “if-then” thinking can be applicable to pilot projects and scaling up as well. Let’s say a local transit agency is trying out on-demand microtransit for the first time in a limited set of areas. They are excited to try this new approach in areas that have always been underserved, but understandably cautious about how it will work. It could be that a tipping point is established defining a level of adequate adoption by the local population to warrant scaling up. In this case, a certain ridership level or number of repeat passengers for a certain period could demonstrate this adoption. But adoption rates like this don’t exist in a vacuum; they are dependent on many other factors. Shifting from a pilot to scaling up has a grey area in the middle where there should be experimentation between the dependencies on ridership for due diligence on getting the ridership to meet its highest potential. For instance, in the case of on-demand microtransit, marketing is huge. Transit agencies tend to provide information about its transit service, but they may not fancy themselves a marketing engine.
For new on-demand services, failed marketing can end the project before it ever gets off the ground. People can’t use a service of which they are unaware. In addition, the situation is even trickier in the cases of people who tried the transit service a few years ago and decided it was not for them. These people, even if the marketing message reaches them, may not absorb it, because they think of the transit agency is providing the service it always did. This message about a totally new type of service offering will need to get to these people as well. Let’s say the ridership figures are not where they need to be to scale up yet. Ensure that the project has an experimentation period built in precisely for this likely roadblock.
Allow a few or several months to play with the marketing messages, review the service feedback, and try new things with a monitoring process to see what sticks. Sometimes a bit of trial and error is required. The worst thing would be to start and finish a project that was doomed from Day 1 for not building in such an experimentation period for an emerging service with associated technology. In this case, the tipping point is far from a black and white concept. It is a notion of when adoption, expressed as ridership, has reached a level that demonstrates it is worthy of scaling up. Reaching this level will more than likely take some elbow grease. It is not a one and done type of thing, but an iterative experimentation process that should be designed into the project from the get-go. In this case, the tipping point determines if the effort is worthy of scaling up, and the project should have a fair shot of reaching this level of success.
A real time alert system
Now that I’ve shared a few examples, imagine your planning effort has 10 tipping points. All of these would need to be monitored, probably in different ways. As a byproduct of the plan, you could have a real time alert system established to track these data. This approach takes on a life of its own, existing both within and outside of the plan itself. It can be a “living” plan component that fosters ongoing responsiveness and adaptability in the face of many unknowns and a high level of uncertainty. Further, it aids professionals in no longer operating in the dark. The situation is changing every day in some cases, and no professional should have to keep moving ahead without gaining incoming information that could change the very nature of the improvements they deploy in their local area. Read all the articles in the Educational Article Series: Getting Started with Real Time Planning to make sure you are prepared.