Tuesday, 30 April 2013


In 1972 I worked as a social planner in Vancouver's Department of Social Planning and Community Development. One day I was asked to start attending meetings of the Inter Institute Policy Simulation Group that had been established at UBC in 1971 by faculty members who were attempting to develop a computer model of the Greater Vancouver Regional District. These were the days of electronic handheld calculators and adding machines equipped with cranks like oars on Phoenician vessels. True, NASA had landed men on the moon in 1969, but most laymen had no idea how "artificial brains" really worked. If they were able to get a rocket ship to the moon using ones and zeroes, we all were sure they could do much simpler things like predict the future price of turnips or make transportation models.

The first Meeting I attended was held on UBC's campus. A senior member of UBC's computer science department introduced himself. I asked him if he had a computer in his house and how many rooms it occupied. He smiled and said, "Whenever people ask that question, I tell them that computers are for calculations. Whenever I need to make a calculation very fast I go to the computer lab and do it. I rarely need to do difficult calculations around the house that can not be handled by a slide rule."

The meeting came to order and a young man in his twenties lectured on the latest FORTRAN computer language which, he said, was even more powerful and intuitive than the earlier one it replaced. There was no automatic update button in those days. Updating was a big job. Vancouver's Social Planning Department represented by Mauice Egan and I were introduced as the latest addition to the IIPS organization.

Peter Leckie, the Director of Finance, explained the model that the Vancouver Finance Department was creating. It would prove useful, he said, in predicting things some of which would be revealed in the near future.

A UBC transportation Planner said that his model had already proved that if one allocated resources to ordinary buses rather than trains operating in right of ways, " It seemed that a stable mathematical complex developed such that it was always preferable to invest in buses than trains."

Someone from the health department summarised their finding that if mothers could only be required to delay the birth of their first child to the age of 27, the population would drop precipitously. Persuading Moms to do this sounded like a good job for the Social Planning Department. Social planning tended to deal with abstract values that were not easily quantifiable,  like the value to be placed on violins in an orchestra when they all play the same tune. From an accounting perspective only one violin was needed. The others could be eliminated and the savings could be distributed to things like bicycle pumps for those less fortunate with flat tires. Today of course you would only have to ask your IPhone and it would explain the importance of orchestral colour.

The Inner Institutional Policy Simulator group sailed along from meeting to meeting. Suddenly it all seemed to pay off. It was announced that the Ford Foundation had contributed ONE MILLION Dollars to match UBC's and Vancouver's contributions . This had an immediate effect on the Committee members' lifestyles. Instead of brown bagging it we were served a very nice, well garnished spread for lunch as we listened to the computer programmers reveal the many things about which they would soon make startling predictions.

The High point of the IIPS program was the night it was discussed by America's most trusted anchorman, Walter Cronkite. Vancouver, which to this point was described as a setting in search of a city, was going to be a "world class" centre of predictions.

The Town Planner, Mr.Graham, said that he was thrilled with the results to date. (He would have been taken down a notch if the Computer had predicted that he would be fired when Mayor Phillips took over.)

I attended these meetings for about a year. The Engineers and Accountants were happily awash in calculations. Bill Curtis, the brightest civil servant I ever met and who was later promoted to head of the Engineering Department, expressed doubt that we were capable of modelling a region as large as Metro Vancouver. He thought they should start with something simple like the weather or religion.

It all came to an end after TEAM had taken control. Alderman Walter Hardwick, attended a meeting and a few days later,  announced that the City was withdrawing its support of the program. He said that this emperor had no clothes. The Ford Foundation borrowed the technique advocated by the group concerned about population growth: - It pulled out  in time.

One of the two professors who were closely identified with the project took off for warmer climes and joined a faculty in Florida. Another one explained that he was not really a supporter of the project and continued to have a stellar career at UBC.

Today if you Google the words "IIPS and Inner Institutional Policy Simulator" you will find that there is almost no public record or mention of it. It was early vaporware.

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