London Transport Museum (2003). Photo by David Levinson

Presents to Our Future Selves

When I try to explain to people (usually my students) why they should get their stuff together, I argue that it is a “present to your future self.” For instance, who cares if bachelor you makes your bed except bachelor you in 16 hours, who might be slightly happier to come back to a made bed. The same is true not only of tidiness and cleanliness, by also things like data backupsorganization, data and software documentation, and saving and investing, and so on. You don’t benefit now. (These things all take effort). No one else benefits now. And in general, no one benefits in the future but you (though documentation may benefit the next person, it is usually just you in a year after you forgot what you did).

Similarly, cities can do things that are presents to their future selves. These benefit the city in the future, at the cost of something today. If the discounted future benefits outweigh the present costs, these are worth doing. Otherwise not.

1. Preservation of land for parks and rights-of-way. The things that make Minneapolis (and as always, to a lesser extent, St. Paul) tops for parks and more recently 18th globally (ahem) for biking is the park system and the associated trails, and these are due to the presents bestowed on the city by forefathers who spent public resources to acquire land rather than let it be developed upon as in other cities.

2. Open data. Understanding the city requires data about the city. Making that data public helps researchers, but the greatest benefit comes in 10 years time, when trends can be studied, and policy outcomes ascertained. Without data, we cannot know what is good and what is not. With data we have hope.

3. Education. Schooling gives private benefit to those who are schooled. We don’t expect productivity out of 5 year olds, we barely expect it out of Millennials (sorry, we are mostly just humoring you when we give you a job). So if you stay in town after you grow up, your education might produce some positive spillovers to the communities that invested in you, and collectively we will be glad we made the investment. If you leave for Denver (you ingrate), your future productivity goes with you.

4. Museums and Libraries. Collections of artifacts are nice. Suppose we spend, say, $100 million opening up the Metropolitan Museum Of Obscure Planning Documents. That only pays off if people can read those documents in 50 or 100 years. It certainly isn’t worth it just as transitory performance art.

There are certainly plenty of things we do that are valuable today, for which the payoff is immediate or nearly so (like eating, or drinking or watching the Vikings lose). Tomorrow those will be forgotten. Ask instead what can we do now that will clearly benefit future us in 5, 10, 20, 50, or 100 years?