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A Realistic Look at The Future of Central Ohio

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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Columbus Futurists is the local chapter of the World Future Society, an organization dedicated to the intellectual discussion and anticipation of what lies in store for the future of the Central Ohio region. The group meets monthly to focus on specific topics of interest and generate ideas, forecasts and recommendations on what type of plans and visions are most appropriate for our communities.

We recently sat down with David Staley, President of Columbus Futurists to find out more about this organization.

WE: How did Columbus Futurists get started and what exactly does the organization do?

David Staley: Columbus Futurists is the Columbus chapter of the World Future Society, which is an organization based out of Washington DC. It has about 25,000 members in local chapters all over the world. I formed the Columbus chapter in 2001 starting with just three people. About four years ago I wanted to re-brand what we do. The “Columbus Chapter of the World Futurists Society” was just too unwieldy, so I chose the name “Columbus Futurists”. We are a group made up of local professionals and we have a professional insight in thinking about the future. We have folks from AEP, Nationwide, OSU, Battelle… I’m trying to get some TechColumbus folks now too. I think they are great for the city. We meet a couple of times a month, we have a book club that meets and we have a monthly forum. Our July forum will be about the future of transportation. We are interested in the city, education, the environment, health care and other related topics. We are interested in looking forward and developing ideas. We don’t do a lot of visioning, which is what I did on the 2015 Documentary. I laid out a big vision for the city.

I think we do a lot of benchmarking here in Columbus… too much if you ask me. If we are going to do that, I say let’s shoot for the fences, let’s be Renaissance Florence. We can think of our city as the benchmark. That’s how we’ll know we’ve really arrived; when leaders in other cities are asking “What are they doing in Columbus?” I think we have that ability here, but for me it means bringing together the tech community, arts community, research community, university community… Bring all of those groups together and let them work together.

WE: You mentioned the process of visioning, which is much different than creating forecasts by analyzing data and extrapolating on noticeable trends. When discussing the future, is there a balance that has to be maintained between the two in order to accurately see where we are headed?

DS: I do some consulting in addition to my work at the university and one of the things we do for companies is what I call “Realistic Visioning”. You can have the grandest vision in the world but making it actually happen is a whole other question. So with companies I’ll say “Let’s work on your vision and then we’ll work our way backward” and figure out what has to happen for that vision to occur. We look at it as realistically as possible. What are we going to have to do, what’s going to happen to the economy… all sorts of factors.

The two processes actually work together. You can’t just do foresight alone… that’s sterile. That’s just listing trends. You can’t do visioning alone either, as that’s just dreaming. It’s easy to say something like “Columbus is going to be the next Portland.” But what has to happen for that to occur? You have to realistically identify steps to insure that happens if that’s the vision, and then make changes accordingly.

WE: Do you see any particular challenges that Central Ohio will absolutely have to overcome in the next decade, regardless of the goals we set for ourselves as a region?

DS: Yes. The biggest one is “Brain-Drain.” Columbus Futurists did an analysis a few years ago looking at various rankings and things. This city produces a lot research and ideas through organizations like Battelle and OSU… but if you look at turning those ideas into products or businesses or initiatives, all of that creation goes someplace else. We have people who can develop ideas here, but then they go and make it happen in San Francisco or Chicago. We need to work toward keeping more of that closer to home… keeping both the ideas and the people. A lot of people come here for university and then they don’t stick around because they want an environment like Chicago, New York, San Francisco or Portland. They are not finding what they are looking for in Columbus, and we absolutely need to address that.

WE: Personally, I’ve grown a bit skeptical on the issue of brain drain. I think that some of the data being measured to determine what brain drain actually means is skewed in Columbus because we have such a high concentration of universities in this region. Some of those students are bound to graduate and leave for other areas, so we’re never going to retain 100% of our graduates.

DS: I think the root of this problem lies in the fact that Columbus isn’t as entrepreneurial a city as Salt Lake City or even Boise. The big employers here are big and staid, like Nationwide or The Limited. We are starting to see some startups here, but not like in other cities. You go to a city and you can tell, this is a startup kind of city. Columbus isn’t quite there yet. I think if we are going to lose talent, I’d rather see people think Columbus is a great place to go even temporarily. If I’m going to develop ideas, and be around creative people, I’m going to go to Columbus. There’s reasons to believe that we could do that. We’re never going to be Chicago or San Francisco and that’s fine. But there’s a lot of ways we can be more like a Mini-San Francisco. I’d like to see us more entrepreneurial… and I use an expansive definition of that. I think social entrepreneurialism is important as well. Columbus needs to be able to draw on the talent of innovative people even if they are only here for five years. I think that is the direction that we really need to be focused on. Above anything else, that’s the way we need to be thinking about going forward.

WE: Transportation is one topic that inevitably comes up when discussing the future of Columbus, and it often boils down to a chicken and egg debate. Do we build a mass transit system first and have dense development spur around it, or do we need to rezone and build up the density first before implementation?

DS: Let’s assume we have mass transit here… who exactly would be the type of person to use it? I agree that we need it, and I don’t think the city can be sustained the way it is right now without it. I mentioned in the 2015 Documentary that I can see the areas around Columbus like Marysville or Lancaster growing into their own mini urban hubs. I remember going to Marysville as a kid and there being nothing there… but I went there a year ago and now there are some great restaurants in their historic downtown area. It’s really starting to turn into its own city. Once you see arts and culture pop up in places like in New Albany, these suburbs start to become smaller cities. I see more and more of that happening over the next 10 to 15 years. So mass transit today may be looked at as a more occasional sort of thing… you ride into Downtown from time to time to catch a hockey game or something… but in the future it will be just as likely that people are looking to travel outward to go to Dublin or Marysville for more regular events.

WE: A lot of our original urban streetcar lines used to have a destination built at the end, like a small amusement park, to make them more of a multipurpose line. You could go Downtown to work or shop, and head in the other direction for leisure and recreation at the park. Is that almost the same type of idea behind what you’re talking about for the future?

DS: It’s certainly conceivable. I could imagine something like that working well. Of course, the price of gas will have to get a lot more expensive. We talk about change a lot, but Americans won’t consciously make those changes without a good reason. I do think smart cars will look more common place in the near future. We are already looking at new kinds of transportation around automobiles. But I’m also a big urbanism advocate. I’d like to see more people living in condos Downtown. I can’t afford it… but I’d like to see it. I mentioned in the 2015 Documentary that we’ll have more people living Downtown when it is more affordable and when it is easier to buy groceries. We need more services Downtown… more than just restaurants. I think that will really shift the residential patterns in the city.

WE: I agree that the lack of an easily walkable grocery store is something keeping people from considering a move to Downtown, but I can’t help but see a double standard there. In most suburbs, many people have no problem with driving two miles to the nearest grocery store, but the idea living Downtown and driving one mile to the Brewery District Kroger is unacceptable.

DS: True. I do think that having smaller grocery stores would help that. I spent some time in DC and they have that kind of thing.

WE: Outside of Downtown, do you see any particular neighborhoods reemerging in the future in significant ways?

DS: It’s funny that you ask this… I’ve just joined the board of trustees of the Columbus Historical Society. They are emblematic of something we have done in this city… we haven’t built a skyscraper since 1998. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, though. We’ve have become very neighborhood focused. So, if there is a trend, I think it starts with city government. We’ve become more interested in restoring old buildings and neighborhoods. We did go through a huge “tear it down, build new in its place” period. That being said, I don’t know what the next German Village is going to be. What will matter in the near future is seeing all sorts of new people moving in, including families. The University Village area sees this as a problem, they are not drawing in new families as much as the residents would like. Columbus is a really good city for raising a family.

WE: Have you followed the 2010 Downtown Strategic Plan very closely? Just wondering what you’ve thought of that.

DS: I appreciate the push for greenspace. I like the park idea for City Center, as long as they build retail around it. If not, it will be empty the rest of the time.

WE: The one idea that came out of the 2010 Plan process that seemed to draw the most comments here on CU was the that drew the most comments was the River Greenway.

DS: That project has been written into the campus plan as well… making the river into a greenbelt all of the way into Downtown. All of these types of things are terrific, as they will help the quality of life. I like the greening of Downtown.

WE: You mentioned earlier that Columbus Futurists hosts monthly forums. Tell us a bit about the format of those events for anyone interested in attending.

DS: The people who attend are highly educated and very opinionated. They won’t sit still for an hour, so we give a speaker about 20 minutes and then start the discussion. We are very discussion-oriented, idea-generating, and argumentative in the positive sense. The forums take place once a month at the Panera Bread on Bethel Road although we are reaching a critical mass now and outgrowing that space.

WE: What’s the next forum topic that you have coming up?

DS: The next forum will be Thursday July 22 at 6:30 and the topic will be “The Future of Transportation,” a discussion of both urban and air transportation possibilities. There are some readings you may want to consult in advance of this discussion: “Fly the eco-friendly skies” and “Sustainable Urban Mobility in 2020“. Anyone should feel free to join us.

More information can be found online at ColumbusFuturists.org.

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