September 15, 2013

Charles Lawton: Communications revolution the key to Maine's future

We see it everywhere. Enrollment in our elementary and secondary schools is down, as it is in the university system. Hospitals are closing facilities and laying off staff. The state Department of Transportation and local public works departments scramble to keep the most critical segments of our highway system up to acceptable standards.

Across the board, the problem is essentially the same: The per-unit cost of maintaining our public infrastructure rises inevitably as the population using it declines. We are caught in a fiscal vice. And tinkering on the margins -- laying off the part-time foreign language teacher, eliminating the philosophy department, dropping the LifeFlight service, diluting the skinny mix for potholes -- won't solve the problem. Without radical change, revolutionary reimagining of ways to meet our public facility and service needs, Maine will become a quaint and increasingly rustic theme park that rich people from away visit seasonally.

Fortunately, the means for achieving such a revolutionary reimagining is at hand. The digital communications revolution that began in the late 1960s and is still barely beyond infancy holds the potential to overcome our problems of scale, location and distance. Just as the water and then electrical power revolution of the 19th century gave birth to a century and a half of Maine's industrialization, so the digital communications revolution can give birth to an economic renaissance following the deindustrialization of the past 30 years.

If we envision our education system as a cadre of increasingly demoralized teachers toiling in poorly maintained and increasingly underutilized schools, our future looks bleak.

If, alternatively, we can envision education as an array of varied, challenging and individualized learning experiences organized and led by a team of teachers, subject matter experts and employers, some present in person and some virtually, all supported by masses of student generated progress metrics interpreted and made available to all on a daily basis, education becomes an exciting new adventure -- like working at Google or Instagram or Tumblr.

If we envision health care as the bafflingly complicated business of a series of understaffed, underutilized and underfunded hospitals and increasingly expensive nursing homes with a consumer experience characterized by long drives, long waits and incomprehensible bills, our future looks bleak.

If, alternatively, we can envision health care as a combination of ready access to primary care accompanied by constant, comprehensive and quick back-up by digitally connected specialists and a wide variety of in-home digital monitoring devices that will enable high-quality, transportation-free care at a fraction of the cost of nursing homes, health care becomes an exciting adventure, especially if the digital communications revolution is accompanied by payment systems based not on individual procedures but on the health outcomes of all the population in a specified region.

If we envision state and local government as 494 separate municipalities serving an average of about 2,700 people, 602 schools serving an average of about 300 students, plus 16 counties and numerous regional water, sewer, transportation and other special service districts, plus all the agencies of state government, the future looks fiscally top-heavy.

If, alternatively, we envision government as a quick and responsive help desk that's always on, where we can file applications, obtain permits and licenses, pay bills, reserve campsites at state parks, file our taxes, pay bills and get refunds, reserve library books, participate in discussions about town investments, report potholes and give feedback to program managers about the quality of service received, local government becomes less an expensive nuisance and more the means for building successful communities.

In short, Maine is at a crossroads. We can look backward, wringing our hands at the magnitude of the problems we face. Or, we can embrace the communications revolution that surrounds us and use it to turn Maine into the place we want life to be.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com

 

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