Whose future?

Where are we going, and where do we want to go?

As a Hawaii expat, each time I visit the islands I’m struck by the changes that have taken place there. It’s like seeing an old friend or a child after many years – sometimes one is delighted to discover how much they’ve progressed, other times one is shocked to see how much they’ve gone backwards. No matter which way Hawaii goes, however, it will always be a place that is lodged deep in my heart.

So how is my “old friend” doing these days?

Downtown Honolulu with Hawaii State Capitol on July 21, 2014

Hawaii can thrive with the right political decisions and planning goals.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Arguably, Hawaii has not only reached a crossroads in its evolution; the islands are rapidly passing one. For someone from the outside looking in, it’s clear that Hawaii needs to choose which road to take. We need to consciously develop a consistent vision for our future and implement it systematically.

Yet as recent rancor over rail and the development of Kakaako show, little or no consensus exists. How can we ensure that people will have good jobs? What about affordable housing? Can we keep the cost of living at a manageable level? What is our model for urban living? What should the skyline of Honolulu look like? Can we keep the country, country? What is the carrying capacity of the islands, and particularly of O’ahu? Can we stay within its limits? Can we achieve sustainable growth?

From a distance, it looks like a massive confrontation is brewing in Hawaii. Broadly speaking, it is a confrontation between two opposing camps: those in favor of business as usual and those who recognize the need for change.

The situation on the ground may not be as simple, however. The fight over rail, for example, seemed to pit friends and neighbors against each other, with opinion often even split within a single family or couple. Rail showed that even people with vastly different political views can end up on the same side; politics makes for strange bedfellows, as they say.

What is clear is that people are concerned about the future, even though they may be unsure how to tackle it. I have developed five scenarios for the future of Hawaii. Some are an extrapolation from the current situation. Others are more fanciful – they may or may not happen, but let us not forget that truth is often stranger than fiction. Who could have predicted the world that we live in today 100 or even 20 years ago?

Scenario planning is a technique that was developed by strategic planners in the military and business worlds. The technique enables planners to explore different possible futures. The future scenarios do not necessarily need to be logical extensions from present circumstances. They may also be the result of disruptive changes that are largely unforeseen – or even “unthinkable” – at the time the scenarios are created.

In this article, I have broadly applied scenario planning to try to help us understand the future that could be in store for us. The ultimate purpose of scenario planning, however, is not just to understand, but also to take action: to prepare for the future.

It is up to each of us to think seriously about our collective future, to band together with like-minded individuals and then to strive to achieve it. Personally, I hope to return to the islands to play a role in building this future.

SCENARIO 1: Business as Usual

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” — Henry David Thoreau

In this scenario, we continue to muddle along, as we have been doing. Honolulu slowly encroaches upon the countryside. More farmland is swallowed up, although not all of it. The cost of living remains high. People continue to come and go, with many people departing because they can’t make a decent living on “the rock.”

We fail to diversify the economy. Tourism continues to chug along albeit at a more modest pace than in past decades. Military spending moderates but remains relatively strong. Tech never takes off.

Vested interests maintain their stranglehold on politics. A two-track labor market develops, despite the increase in the minimum wage. Unions do a good job of protecting their members, but those who can’t land union jobs are forced to work in low-wage service jobs with little job security. Those at the bottom of the employment ladder working in low-wage service jobs are often young graduates, many of whom are college graduates.

Rail turns out to have been something of a boondoggle, as many had suggested, but not the spectacular failure that was predicted either.

Education in Hawaii improves. Test scores in the public schools steadily rise and Hawaii slightly outperforms the federal benchmarks. The Department of Education cannot seem to move the needle any further, however.

Although land-use regulations slow the pace of development, developers often find a way around them. They continue to pour money into politicians’ campaign coffers as they pour cement all over Oahu and the neighbor islands. Some of the new homes are purchased by middle class kamaaina but many of them are scooped up by foreign investors, particularly newly rich Chinese and Indian investors, who are absentee landlords. The median price of a single family home cracks the one million dollar mark.

Rail turns out to have been something of a boondoggle, as many had suggested, but not the spectacular failure that was predicted either. Although the system is loss-making for a generation, it finally breaks even 25 years after it was built. Given its dismal financial performance, the system is barely expanded. A spur is built to Ewa to create jobs but the UH, Waikiki and the airport are never connected to the network except via bus. The Ewa project creates a mini construction boom but that soon dies down. Annual ridership stabilizes at only about 500,000.

Honolulu’s traffic continues to be horrendous, however. The city takes the No. 1 position worldwide for most hours sitting in traffic per capita. New building, particularly in Kakaako and Kalihi-Palama, gives Honolulu a skyline rivaling Manhattan’s. Due to poor planning, however, skyscrapers dwarf low-rise buildings and even single family homes in a chaotic patchwork of streets.

New big box retailers arrive in Honolulu, further displacing small, local retailers. Mom & pop stores become a quaint ideal celebrated in songs. Many argue that Hawaii needs the discounters, however, as the cost of living continues to rise steadily, albeit slowly, each year.

Hawaii loses its glamor as a choice tourist destination. Articles in the New York Times, Travel magazine and the Los Angeles Times are not favorable. The islands are rarely covered in travel magazines anymore.

SCENARIO 2: Easter Island

Land-use restrictions are relaxed and developers have a heyday. The economy temporarily booms as the last remaining open spaces on Oahu are built upon. Cries of “Keep the country, country” fall upon deaf ears and even the Kaiwi Coast is developed into ocean side suburban homes, many of them gated communities.

The island of Oahu becomes one enormous urban conurbation. There is barely any open space left except for a few parks, the very tops of mountains and military training areas such as ordinance-ridden Makua Valley.

Waimanalo, once one of the last havens for Native Hawaiians, becomes one of the hottest new areas on Oahu. Many homes go for $5 million or more and are bought by wealthy retirees and other out-of-state investors. With Oahu fully developed, developers now turn their beady eyes on the neighbor islands.

Inequality increases and armies of homeless people, many of them working poor, live on Hawaii’s streets and beaches. Shantytowns spring up in lower Makiki, Kalihi and the Ewa Plain. Squatters occupy empty building sites and are often forcibly evicted by the police. Several incidents occur in which poor people trying to enter gated communities are shot by security guards. Honolulu becomes one of the fastest growing markets for multi-national security companies.

Waimanalo, once one of the last havens for Native Hawaiians, becomes one of the hottest new areas on Oahu.

Tourism tanks as new tourist destinations sprout up in unlikely places around the world and as the newly emerging countries become more attractive. With its social problems and environmental degradation, Hawaii simply cannot compete with the more pristine places. The latter become more popular for development as tour operators, hotels, and airlines recognize their potential. In desperation, Honolulu makes an unsuccessful – and costly – bid to host the Olympic games.

Recognizing the limited prospects in Hawaii, kamaaina firms like Alexander & Baldwin pull out of the state. Even some big box discounters like Costco pull out. They are replaced by high-end food boutiques. Most lower and middle-income people now live in food deserts. They have to drive or take the bus up to one hour just to go shopping.

Over-use and mismanagement of the aquifer result in severe water shortages. Water is rationed and disputes over water are common, resulting in court battles that last several years. Ironically, these slow the pace of some development. Despite the water shortages, controversial projects to develop homes in closed watershed areas are approved since Hawaii needs the jobs and income. Eventually, Oahu’s aquifer is so depleted that water must be imported from the neighbor islands.

The Economist runs an article on Hawaii that calls it “the Easter Island of the 21st century.”

SCENARIO 3: Disaster

A global influenza pandemic hits Hawaii hard. Given the openness of its economy, particularly to Asia, the pandemic rapidly infects a large percentage of the population before gradually dying out. The medical services are overwhelmed.

Desperate to stop the pandemic, the state and federal governments agree to temporarily shut down all travel to the Hawaiian islands, except for military and essential personnel. As only two or three days of supplies are in the food chain for many items, food prices skyrocket. Even middle class people can barely find anything to eat.

There is rioting and pillaging in many parts of Honolulu. Oil prices also shoot up. Most people can’t afford to drive anymore and many people have trouble getting to their jobs. The state also decides to shut down schools so children are at home and parents must scramble to find babysitters.

The disruption to air travel nearly destroys the tourist industry in Hawaii. It only survives thanks to bailouts from the federal government.

A year after the first major outbreak of influenza, people are just starting to put the pieces of their lives back together and businesses are re-opening when a hurricane hits Oahu. Waikiki is inundated and many hotels that had just re-opened have to once again shut their doors. Tourists stay away. For all intents and purposes, the tourist industry is now fully moribund. The Wall Street Journal estimates that reviving Hawaii’s tourist industry would cost $200 billion.

SCENARIO 4: Militarization

Rich oil reserves are discovered near the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines. China sinks a Filipino warship and war ensues.

The war draws in all the regional powers: Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and the U.S. As a forward staging area, Hawaii becomes completely militarized. At one point, nearly 500,000 troops swell the local population. Huge demands are put on local infrastructure. To ensure the smooth deployment of forces, the federal government declares martial law and takes over direct management of many services. Apart from pre-existing military areas, additional areas of Oahu are claimed by the federal government to house military personnel or conduct exercises.

Anti-war protests are brutally put down with force. Resentment towards the military grows even though some local merchants profit from the military surge. Tensions reach a peak after a group of drunken soldiers gang rape a local woman.

The war ends inconclusively, but given the tenuous balance of power, Hawaii remains permanently militarized. Direct and indirect military spending now account for 85 percent of the local economy.

SCENARIO 5: Paradise Found

Reformers within Hawaii’s Democratic party gradually gain support for their progressive agenda and eventually stage a revolt. Assuming the reins of power, the new leaders of Hawaii’s Democratic Party usher in a new progressive era reminiscent of the Burn’s years.

A moratorium is put on new development on Oahu and land use restrictions are tightened on the neighbor islands. Contrary to the dire predictions of many developers, however, the new constraints actually result in a boom in construction as existing buildings are retro-fitted to be more energy efficient and intelligent, and many neighborhoods are re-developed.

High-rises are limited to Waikiki and parts of downtown. Some of the eyesores built in previous decades are actually torn down and replaced with architecture that is much more pleasing to the eye. High-density low-rise buildings, many with charming façades, fill the rest of the city, and Honolulu becomes an interesting tapestry of distinct neighborhoods. A new type of architecture, dubbed “tropicalism” by Architect Magazine, is developed by four local architects and becomes known worldwide.

Honolulu is named the most walkable, bikeable and sittable city in the U.S. by the American Planning Association. The Ala Wai Canal is dredged, cleaned and extended with several other small waterways and Honolulu soon becomes known as the “Venice of the Pacific.”

Large swaths of downtown Honolulu and Waikiki are pedestrianized and restaurants and shops prosper in the car-free zones as people flock to them to live, work and play. As the sharing economy and the green economy become mainstream, Honolulu creates a network of safe bike paths and city bike rental points, and a new car-sharing scheme becomes an instant success.

A new generation of business leaders emerges. They are as progressive as Hawaii’s new political leadership. Working closely with the state and county governments, the new business leaders manage to diversify the economy away from tourism and the military. Agriculture booms as previous plantation land and other parcels are leased to small and medium-sized farmers. Hawaii becomes more self-sufficient; it now imports only 25 percent of its food rather than the previous 85 percent. Medical marijuana and hemp become major export industries.

The Ala Wai Canal is dredged, cleaned and extended with several other small waterways and Honolulu soon becomes known as the “Venice of the Pacific.”

An influx of former tech executives helps Hawaii’s nascent tech industry to finally fly. Several spinoffs from the University of Hawaii grow into mid-sized companies and one of them eventually becomes a Fortune 500 company. Young people can now find well-paying jobs in the tech sector, rather than low-paying or mediocre jobs in the tourist industry. Many return to the islands after college or graduate studies.

Part of Hawaii’s success is due to the energy policies pursued by the progressives. They decide to pursue a deliberate strategy of distributed energy. Solar panels are to be found everywhere, and with advances in technology they are even incorporated into windows, roads and other surfaces where they are barely noticeable.

Many buildings are also equipped with vertical axis wind turbines. All of these and other forms of power generation are connected to smart grids on each island. People are able to buy and sell electric power using their cell phones. The distributed system proves to be highly resilient. An ambitious plan to connect the islands using underground cables – which had been in the works for a decade – is shelved because the energy systems on each island are self-contained, efficient and economical in their own right.

Hawaii becomes a test bed for electric vehicles and the major car companies as well as several startups set up shop in the state. Eventually nearly all the cars on Hawaii’s roads are electric powered.

Hawaii’s population grows but with the more efficient use of land, water and other resources, the state is easily able to accommodate the growth.

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