Implementing a Spatial Decision Support System forPuerto Rico: The Political Process
Elías R. Gutiérrez, Ph.D.
Presented at Bruges, Belgium, April 2008
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Human activities take place in the time-space dimension. Policy makers face complex, interconnected, and ever changing circumstances. Planners are supposed to support the analytical processes that provide policy makers with options and criteria to for decision-making. The spatial dimension, in particular, reflects and conditions social interaction and, largely, sets limits to quality of life potentials. In a world of accelerated change, structures are not constants. Forecasting, based on the assumption of such constancy over time is, to say the least, dangerous. Ecosystems are fragile. Management of resources –natural, artificial, financial and human– is a basic requirement for raising living standards. Planning falls essentially within the management domain. Exploring the future by anticipating likely patterns, assessing risks, and providing options to support decisions is the role of the planner. It is in this context that planning acquires relevance.
The failure of central planning or even the ever increasing difficulty of governing democracies in this age of instant communications and travel, porous borders and a new global economy driven by cities, has driven some to raise the question of whether planning has a future. In addition, if it does, what kind of planning is scientifically sound and politically feasible? What instruments are available and which are useful to evaluate alternatives, in making choices and in carrying out policies while avoiding the demonstrated pitfalls of central planning? What role will technology play in what may be the most sensitive dimension of planning, i.e. space. The developments that have been taking shape inPuerto Ricomay be of interest to those seeking answers to these questions.
Urban planning, coastal zones management, and the design of policies for sustainable economic development all pose the problem of dealing with complexity. Geographical systems in which natural and human factors are thoroughly intertwined exhibit such complexity. In fact, geographical systems are in many respects the most complex phenomena that we confront, because they constitute the nexus of physical, ecological, and human systems. Human systems are an integrated totality — but also in their component parts, and in detail, since many of the most important interactions among their components take place locally. Understanding the likely impacts of land use policy changes –for instance, those related to climate change– immediately poses the question of how to deal with complexity. The resulting impacts may be experienced at all levels and scales, from global to local, and the causal chains through which they propagate are both multifarious and characterized by numerous feedback loops that explains non-linearity and inherent instability.
Puerto Ricois an archipelago composed of three major islands and a number of very small ones. The largest is approximately 160 km by 50 km. Amazing variety of ecosystems are found close together in these islands. Its 4.4 million residents make it a very high-density region. Its 3 million motor vehicles and its annual energy consumption per capita at 6,000 megawatts per capita put the island on the top tier of world rankings (compared with 13,800 for theUS). These statistics reflect the land use pattern developed inPuerto Rico. It follows the most extreme of theUSsuburban sprawl. Some interests see changes to this pattern as immediate threats. Others see a more rational use of land space as indispensible if long-term sustainable development is to have a chance.
The development of a Spatial Decision Support System (SDSS) for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico provides integrated spatial planning possibilities: specifically for policy design and evaluation. Integrated in this context encompasses the social, the economic, and the natural sub-systems and the intricate linkages between these. As part of the natural sub-system, climatic events, and changes therein, may now be explicitly incorporated. However, the adoption of such a system requires a cultural change at the level of the planning agencies. It will also require extensive public education in order to gain trust and to set expectations in synchrony with the capabilities of the system and the knowledge base that sustains it.
The process to develop and implement a SDSS inPuerto Ricohas been difficult and has required enormous effort. The implementation phase is now underway. However, it should not be surprising that, in light of the land-use patterns now in place, that a common denominator to all phases of development has been the parallel political processes required at all scales to make completion of this project a reality. Gaining confidence in the system has become a political necessity. As part of the implementation phase, the application of leading edge remote sensing technology are programmed to produce up-to-date land use maps with sufficient accuracy to permit calibration of integrated models within the SDSS and to withstand public scrutiny. Thus, as a by-product, the Commonwealth government will acquire an invaluable knowledge base to manage increasingly risk prone land use practices. These practices have become widespread and almost endemic, due to inadequate data, lack of planning, uncoordinated monitoring, and absence of control.
The disillusionment with large models applied to prediction has come in tandem with an ever-increasing complexity in their internal specifications. However, that complexity sought to incorporate reality through disaggregation. Ever more details, incorporated in the models to describe the workings of the systems, increased complexity, data requirements and computational effort, but provided little improvement in predictive capacity. At the same time, the system was modelled in disconnect with other interrelated systems. The macroeconomic system, even when modelled through systems of hundreds of equations, remains disconnected from the political system, and sometimes disconnected from the demographic structure that serves as a platform to any economy. Moreover, the quality of data on which the systems relied did not improve at the same rate as their complexity.
Expectations, whether based on reality or speculation, are key to decision making. Political reality and power are determinants to investment decisions that create infrastructure and wealth. Thus, speculation and politics are powerful forces that determine economic behaviour. This, we can stipulate. However, when the economy is modelled, i.e., when a theory about economic behaviour is put forth, it is apparent that we prefer to abstract from the forces most influential on economic behaviour.
The intervention of governments in the economy reflects the relative configuration of political power. In fact, the structure of government expenditures, investments and revenue sources, are the resultant of political processes. It is through political process that relative social forces net out and ultimately become budgets. Understanding the economic system from the observation of historical data is not possible without understanding the behaviour of forces that act counter to what would be expected from economic theory. Such is, for instance, the heart of countercyclical public expenditures. Fiscal policies designed to regulate the economic cycle by going against the grain and stimulate aggregate demand when other economic forces are driving it down must be coordinated with the cycle. However, the political system usually acts too slowly to be effective in counteracting cyclical economic phenomena. Then, delay may transform anti-cyclical policy into an exacerbating force, rather than a regulating mechanism. This is especially true when parliamentary or congressional actions are required. Sometimes, delay is due to obstructionist legislatures bent on causing political damage to incumbent administrations.
Central banks try to manage money supply through the manipulation of short-term interest rates, and sometimes by injecting liquidity into the financial systems. Central banks have as their primary mission keeping inflation under control. To do this, the central banks will risk and sometimes even provoke recessions. Monetary policy may be very unpopular. This is especially true when the central bank tightens money supply raising interest rates and chocking final demand. In order to be able to opt for these politically incorrect policy options a central bank must be autonomous and protected from political forces.
When macroeconomic models abstract from the behaviour that institutions follow, they inexorably fail to simulate macroeconomic behaviour. Similarly, when land use models abstract from the speculative behaviour that results from announced plans to develop infrastructure, or from land use policies, the models will fail to anticipate changes through time and likely land use patters. When informal activities, cronyism, and corruption become endemic, or even relatively significant, land use policies and plans may have completely different effects from those sought by the authorities. The policies put in place would not be the cause of such failures. Rather, the implementation and enforcement of the policies will determine how rent seekers and speculators achieve precisely what the policies may have sought to avoid.
The mechanistic mentality that expected point-solutions and stable systems has to adapt to a new reality. As a rule, we should expect the indeterminacy of a duopoly market, a la Cournot (Antoine Augustin Cournot). This must no be seen as an imperfection or a mere lack of elegance in theory. On the contrary, this is reality, and reality is non-linear and dynamic. Realistic models must accommodate non-linearity and even the possibility that solutions may not be achievable. Approximation becomes the best we can expect. Game theory provides a clue to what may be a most common situation in reality.
The key government institutions were structured inPuerto Ricoduring the 1940-47 years. President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and institutions became the model. Planning was seen by Governor Rexford Guy Tugwell (the last mainland born US governor appointed by a President) and Luis Muñoz Marín, then President of the Senate (and would be first elected Puerto Rican governor) as essential to extract the poverty-stricken island from its misery. The Puerto Rico Planning Board was organized. Macroeconomic statistics, social indicators, health and education statistics were collected and analyzed by the Board’s technical departments and programs. With these providers of information, progress was measured and lagging areas were kept under the scrutiny of policy makers and politicians.
The best minds were brought to the island to study it and help with policies and tools. They produced an impressive armament of analytical and forecasting tools. No other than Leontief (Wassily Wassilyovitch Leontief), father of the input-output analysis, advised on the construction of an inter-industry transactions table and an input-output matrix. Latter on, Walter Issard, creator of field of Regional Science, and some of his closest collaborators, applied their talents on industrial complex analysis to map the intricacies and interrelations of the petrochemical sector that eventually developed in the island. Macroeconomic forecasting models, transportation studies for the metropolitan area, cost-benefit methodologies applied to decision making on whether to go ahead with copper mining in the central-western mountains were applied with rigor. These were validated by Robert Dorfman. Another Nobel laureate James Tobin was brought in the mid 1970’s to provide guidance to bankrupt public sector precipitated by the dismantling of the petrochemical complex produced by the oil embargo and the fourfold increase in prices.
Land use planning has always been a topic of policy and politics. However, zoning was put in place only in urban areas. Urban areas were less populated and thus, the electoral risk was considered less than in more populated non-urbanized areas. Here is one of the key factors that explain wasteful and chaotic patterns of urban sprawl that now are typical on the island. The urban areas were less populated. These areas were less politically sensitive when the decisions that established zoning were taken. In other words, the votes were in the rural areas. Neither the authorities, nor the political establishment, anticipated the growth that eventually took place. Rural areas were left alone so as not to step on too powerful or numerous toes. The result has been a continuous expansion of urban uses toward the cheaper, more distant, not zoned, rural land areas. This, together with rapid growth during the 1960’s, gave rise to speculation.
The need for “integral planning” has always been a constant of the island’s political discourse. Everyone is for planning. However, little planning has been systematically followed and conducted. To say nothing of “comprehensive”, “integral”, “strategic”, or whatever kind of planning. Politicians hate planning, they love improvisation. Thus, improvisation prevails.
Partisan politics has made things worse. One polar extreme is, at least rhetorically, for planning and the best use of resources, balance and all the rest. The other polar extreme sees planning as a government activity incompatible with theUSsocial philosophy. Thus, given that a polar extreme of the political spectrum is for annexation to theUS, it is not enthusiastic at all for anything that may sound incompatible with US social policies.
Everyone is for planning and order. As long as it is his or her plan the one that is put into effect. This are the general conditions of the environment in which the development of an SDSS (Xplorah) project evolved, the system was developed, and is now being implemented. In parallel to the Xplorah system’s first prototypes development, so called “environmentalists” pushed through the legislature a bill ordering the Puerto Rico Planning Board to produce a land use plan for the Commonwealth. This would be the first time such plan would be produced. The law was finally approved giving the PRPB a dateline and no funding to come up with the plan. A group of technicians was put together by deploying them to the task, but retaining their positions in different agencies. The group finally came up with, literally, their plan. The PRPB amended the draft and distributed a document for public hearings, belatedly complying with the law.
The result was pandemonium. The technical group was fired when its leader accused the PRPB of “changing“ the plan. Activists of all hues attacked the plan as being too liberal. Developers and land owners attacked the plan as being confiscatory and a violation of property rights. Serious criticisms to the land use maps brought out gross inconsistencies and plain errors in classification, morphological characteristics, and other factual basics. How could a land use plan be based on unknown present conditions on the ground?
Furthermore, the PRPB admitted that it had evaluated no other alternative plan and that, in fact, it lacked the tools to perform such evaluation. The law that ordered the drafting of the plan had provided no funding for that essential planning task.
This is where the Advisory Commission on Urbanism entered the picture. This blue ribbon commission had concluded thatPuerto Ricowas widely urbanized but lacked was lacking a city. The Commission identified the development of true city as a strategic requirement to compete successfully in the world economy. The global economy, as established by the Commission, was a phenomenon created by and for cities, not national entities.Puerto Ricolacked both. The Commonwealth lacked a city in physical and functioning terms and a nation state, in juridical terms.
The Commission recommended the adoption of the Xplorah system and the application of the latest remote sensing technologies to remedy the lack of accurate land use data. The Governor agreed and the project was funded. This was a major victory. The fiscal crisis, brought about by past irresponsible fiscal policies current political partisan divide, resulted in the first government shutdown in the Commonwealth history. Part of the outstanding Commonwealth debt was driven to junk-bond status by the credit rating agencies. The opposition-controlled legislature had succeeded, through obstruction, in bringing the government to its knees.
Technology increasingly pushes toward a condition where sampling may be increasingly unnecessary. We will be able to scan the totality of certain populations directly rather than relying on sampling and statistical inference. Monitoring populations, rather than samples, continuously will become ever more feasible in technical and economic terms. Real time data would come into line and will constitute the basis of market decision making. Once that happens, it will rapidly become the basis of instant political reaction to public opinion. Whether that leads to more perfect democracies or to continuous manipulation is a question that has perplexed thinkers for decades.
To nonlinearity that characterizes social evolution, and the difficulties inherent in forecasting any social phenomenon, becomes strikingly clear from the fact that it was precisely the lack of accurate and updated land use maps and the promise of a solution to this stemming from VITO’s Pegasus system that made it possible for the Xplorah SDSS to start its implementation phase. When this lack of factual base became public, political support to remedy the situation started building up. The need to evaluate alternative plans was then evident. Otherwise, the risks that a plan produced by technicians or reflective of one or another special interest was too grate. The solution for all was to do things right. To do that an SDSS was needed. To remedy the lack of basic land use data, within the bounds of the limited resource that the Commonwealth government can now muster, the technology embedded in the Pegasus system became a feasible solution. A solution to a problem with facets in the technological, economic and political realms.
The application of remote sensing, robotics and alternative energy sources is already a reality. For instance, the management of land, which happens to be a disproportionate share of total wealth in small island states, the benefits of continuous monitoring of special uses seems like a dream come true for planners and policy makers. It may also be “a dream come true” for private investors and even speculators, for the insurance industry, and for those institutions entrusted to deal with emergencies and catastrophes.