A Peek at Our Far-Flung Future

A prediction that didn't pan out: In 1955, Chrysler predicted that a 1975 car, above, wouldn't need a driver.
A prediction that didn't pan out: In 1955, Chrysler predicted that a 1975 car, above, wouldn't need a driver. (1955 Futurama Exhibit)
By John Kelly
Thursday, May 31, 2007

Yesterday I sat in an auditorium at George Washington University and listened as experts predicted the future.

I was hoping for tales of flying cars and personal jet packs, of entire meals contained in a single easy-to-swallow pill and instant weight reduction via an odorless, greaseless cream. But this was a gathering of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, so the focus was a tad less sensational. We're talking housing, jobs, transportation, development -- that sort of thing.

The Washington area has changed a lot since COG was founded in 1957, and yesterday was a chance to talk about what it will be like 50 years from now.

George Mason University's Stephen Fuller called up a PowerPoint slide predicting that in 2057, the average annual household income for the region will be $1,307,000.

Whoo hoo! That sounded great. Then he pointed out that in 50 years, the average Washington area house will cost a whopping $14,061,000.

Everyone agreed our region will continue to grow, if not at the dizzying pace of the past 50 years. So many new jobs will be created that it will be hard to find people to fill them. Workers will have to come from farther out, where housing is more affordable.

Virginia Tech's Robert Lang said that doesn't have to mean more traffic jams. A high-speed rail line to an under-capacity city like Baltimore could get workers to jobs in Washington in less time than it takes some people to get downtown from the outer reaches of Metro. (Just imagine what jet packs could do. . . . )

Planning for the future sounds like so much fun. And surely with an entire generation raised on computer games such as "Sim City" and "The Sims," we ought to be able to get it right by 2057. Can't we just click and drag highways where we need them?

When I was in junior high, we studied "Utopia," Sir Thomas More's fantasy about an ideal nation. We used colored pencils to design our own utopias, sketching out where the farms and factories would go, where people would live, where the schools would be. It all looked so neat and tidy when we were done.

Actual humans, on the other hand, are unruly things. We seldom stay within the lines, and we don't always do the best things, even when we know what they are. We hate that we have to drive everywhere; then we buy a house far from our job and far from the grocery store. Local jurisdictions lure jobs, but they make no housing provision for the workers who have to fill them. We think as a region that stretches from Howard County to Prince William County, when we need to be thinking as a region that stretches from Baltimore to Richmond.

It was suggested that perhaps we need a bona fide regional government, empowered to make tough decisions affecting residents in Maryland, the Virginias and the District.

The session's able moderator, NBC 4's Jim Vance, said what a lot of people were probably thinking: Good idea, but he joked that he'd be darned if he was going to listen to "bamas from Baltimore and hicks from Richmond."

Back to the Future

When I got back to the office, I dug through our clips to see what embarrassing predictions have been made by futurists over the years. There were certainly a few: "Aeroplanes for Everybody; English Balloonist Says They Will Cost Only $500 Each in Ten Years" (from 1908); "Science Will Save World From War, Physicist Avers" (1929).

Then again, sometimes they got it right: "China in the Future Will Be Shoemaker and Clothier of the World" (1900); "South Americans Like Baseball; Offer a Great Future for Game" (1915); "Auto as 'Necessity of Life' Predicted; Olds Motor Works President Says It Will Rank With Food and Clothing" (1922).

Let's hear your prediction. Make a prediction about what Washington will be like in 2057 -- the more outlandish, and yet strangely possible, the better. I'll print some in a future column and will pick a winner to treat to lunch. Send your prognostications, with "Future" in the subject line, to kellyj@washpost.com, or mail them to me at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. The deadline is June 14.

Chat with me Friday at 1 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.

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