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Probability, Predictability and Inevitability

Because much of my work is dedicated to helping public agencies prepare for the future, there are always conversations with highly analytic personalities who scoff at the concept of futuring. Some become quite exercised at the prospect of predictability, while other seem mildly amused that they are even participating in the discussion.

My approach during a recent program was to describe a reservoir that supplied the majority of a community’s water supply. I posed a simple equation based on this proposition – If you know the reservoir’s capacity and its current volume, its inflow (recharge) rate, and its extraction (discharge or outflow) rate, would it seem logical to believe that you can predict its ability to sustain the community water supply? Or, perhaps fall short as the community grows or declines or precipitation patterns change? Data is available on household consumption, leakage rates (the EPA estimates that 1.2 trillion gallons of water is lost annually through household leakage!), inflow, outflow, and community growth, so why is it so difficult to calculate and predict water supply availability? Frankly, it is quite simple.

The same process applies to predicting road surface life, landfill capacity, traffic congestion, new infrastructure requirements, and virtually every element of public management. In my experience many elected or professional managers who initially express reluctance to engage in true strategic or scenario planning become strong advocates once they experience a data-driven If-Then work session.

Having good data is the key. If there are 4,400 miles of asphalt roadway in the county, average weather, traffic weight and volume data is available, and road surface lifespan is known, managers can predict deterioration rates. Replacement can then be scheduled and budgeted. Pretty simple. The key is a focus on the future – and data that allows probability analysis and predictability. It is a learned skill and an earned perspective.

Public managers and elected leaders must aggressively embrace future planning beyond annual budgets. Long-term strategic and operations planning must be taught to all managers as a core skill. Public agencies that exhibit futuring skills are typically more efficient and prepared for the challenges ahead.


With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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