Monday, April 24, 2017

Conversations with Will

Even if I had completely given up on blogging, this post I would have to write. An understated obituary notes the passing of my friend Will Steger in the Post-Gazette today. If you do not know Will, if you are an Pittsburgh East-Ender you probably recognize his consulting firm if only from its name. At the center of East Liberty (on Highland, just a few buildings away from the corner of Penn and Highland) you would see the CONSAD building.  Basically Will founded CONSAD since he came to Pittsburgh in the 1960s and set up shop doing economic and policy consulting. If nothing else, he had a front row seat to a lot of East Liberty history, but that is just the beginning. 

As a lesson on what never to put off what you want to do, I long wanted to make time to do a more complete oral history project with Will on his life in urban economics and all things related. Alas, I let that slide and now regret it. But I have had the chance for many a long conversation with Will over the years (decades) and am grateful for that.

Really if you dig into it, Will was really at the beginning of all that would later be called urban simulation and modeling.  He was literally one of the earliest employees of the RAND Corporation and became one of the earliest folks to try and apply their skills in security world to urban problems. He told me he had been recruited here by Ben Chinitz, who was at the University of Pittsburgh then, to start work on urban simulation and modeling, and in particular to build a computer model of growth and change in the City of Pittsburgh. In the early years Will said he would share, or borrow, student programmers from the computing laboratory still in its early days at CMU. Really you will see his name routinely referenced in the academic literature on all the early work of folks trying to build computer models for cities and to apply the results to planning and policy. If you think that is normal stuff these days, 1) it still isn’t and 2) at the time was really an immense challenge. Basically he was years or decades ahead of the state of the field.

There was so much more Just in passing he once said he was a tutor for Daniel Ellsberg when they were both graduate students at Harvard.  Ellsberg being a game-theory economist of some note, but later much better known for his role in the leak of what became known as the Pentagon Papers. Will’s early work at RAND almost inevitably included defense and security work and he said he once was part of an interview with Curtis LeMay, famed commander of the Strategic Air Command early in the Cold War. 

I took the opportunity to scan where Will pops in the academic literature and some things I didn’t know.  Are you a transportation or citizen participation wonk?  Here is an article from the 1970s that was probably before its time: Reflections on citizen involvement in urban transportation planning: Towards a positive approach” Transportation, Vol. 3, No. 2, July 1974. 

But one thing I’ve never been able to track down Will always thought that what later became the entire SimCity franchise of computer games (are they even really just games?) somehow grew out of his early work on urban simulation and computer models. I never was able to find any definitive provenance behind that, but I am sure it is true in some form.  The genesis of SimCity includes references toother urban computer modeling efforts from late in the 1960s, but not the jump to Will’s earlier work. If anyone has any more specific info on how that early history may have translated to what became SimCity, I would love to hear it.

CONSAD grew and he wound up working on a lot of other policy issues over the many many decades.  He would tell me about work with President Johnson on the War on Poverty and with subsequent administrations to include a few more presidents. Later the firm wound up doing more energy work and other topics, but still the field of urban infomatics (a term only coined long after he was practicing it) owes a lot to Will.  And the rest of us just appreciate the conversations. 

2 Comments:

Blogger joe said...

Loved reading that Chris, thanks for sharing.

Friday, April 28, 2017 12:57:00 PM  
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