Reflections: Predicting is hard, especially the future

Famed physicist Niels Bohr once observed that “It is very hard to predict, especially the future.” And yet we keep trying to do it, for a variety of reasons.

Although pollsters continue to vehemently deny that polling predicts the future, the rest of us keep trying to use polls for exactly that. The 2020 presidential election was one more good example of why pollsters keep insisting polls are not predictions, but rather they’re snapshots of current opinion. The election, however, seems to have proven that a lot of those polls were not even snapshots of current opinion.

But polling is only one example of using one method or another – outside of crystal balls or that old Magic 8 Ball you keep on a shelf in the closet – to try to predict what’s going to happen and why.

Many of the pioneers who sold their homes, packed up their worldly goods and headed west to frontier Illinois in the 1830s and 1840s were making predictions that were based on not much more than gut feelings. They certainly felt the area would develop in the future and become a lot more than a string of isolated hamlets strung out along the banks of the Fox River.

Those town developers had even more reason to hope the future would bring ever more settlers to the region. If their newly laid out towns were to grow, they needed to attract not only people, but the infrastructure of settled civilization: canals, newfangled railroads, decent roads, post offices, and businesses of all kinds. Those, in turn, would attract more people to keep the cycle going.

Not all of the predictions made by those early visionaries proved correct, of course. Many of the earliest arrivals to Chicago saw little but a disease ridden collection of hastily constructed, already-dilapidated buildings sinking into the swampy banks of the branches of the Chicago River. Those were the pioneers who pushed farther west into the valleys of the DuPage and Fox rivers to settle on the rich prairies. But it was the muddy collection of huts by Lake Michigan that rapidly grew first into a vigorous competitor with St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, and then its master thanks to its providential geographic location.

Meanwhile, those settlers who pushed farther west, but who stayed close enough to take advantage of the ever-growing market at Chicago, saw their towns, villages and farms prosper and grow throughout the era of settlement up to the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War.

It’s doubtful any of them foresaw that the war would lead to a decadeslong population loss on their communities. Here in Kendall County, the population began a slow decline after the war that didn’t end for a century. In 1860, the county’s population stood at a respectable 13,074. Despite a positive blip in 1880, the county’s total population didn’t exceed its 1860 total until 1960, fueled by strong growth after World War II. That growth itself was fueled by robust government programs aimed at the millions of white World War II and Korean Conflict veterans (the programs’ rules were written to largely shut out veterans of color), giving them low interest housing and college loans in return for their military service.

And that led the growing communities in the Fox River Valley good reasons to try predicting the future, at least in terms of population growth and how to handle it. Oswego and Oswego Township became one of first small communities in northern Illinois to hire professionals to develop a comprehensive plan for growth.

Completed in 1957 by the Chicago firm of Everett Kincaid & Associates, the plan laid out, for the first time, parameters of growth in the area.

The predictions the planners necessarily had to make were startling to some, including the number of schools they said would be eventually needed (nine) and the amount of park land they suggested. As it turned out, Kincaid’s predictions were substantially lowballed. As were subsequent ones.

In the early 1980s as growth accelerated, the Oswego School District Board frantically tried to predict what the area’s population would be during the next several decades in order to build enough schools, without overbuilding. They decided to use population estimates generated by the Illinois Bureau of the Budget, whose staff was filled with professionals. The best estimate of those folk was that by 2020 Oswego Township’s population would have nearly doubled from its 1980 total, soaring to 30,485 residents. Just like in the late 1950s, area residents were skeptical the numbers would rise that far.

As it turned out, of course, the folks at the bureau of the budget were far too conservative in their estimates, and Oswego Township’s current population stands at an estimated 55,783, missing the experts’ predictionby 80%. Which really was not the worst miss in the projection, of course. NaAuSay Township’s population is 570% higher than that estimate of 40 years ago, while Seward Township’s population is 379% higher than estimated back then.

But to be fair, who in 1980 was seriously contemplating that the municipal limits of Joliet, Plainfield and Minooka would be pushing into those once overwhelmingly rural Kendall County townships? Or that children from those towns, along with students from Aurora, Montgomery and Yorkville would one day be attending Oswego schools?

And to be even more fair, as the years passed, the Oswego School District got very good at predicting enrollment numbers – as long as the community was growing. With the real estate bust of 2008, school officials found it more and more difficult to make accurate predictions, a situation recently exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local government still needs to make predictions about the future in order to adequately plan for schools, streets, municipal water and sewer services, parks and all the other things local government is responsible for. But it’s far from an easy, cut-and-dried task. Sometimes, it’s a lot more art than science. But reading that plan from 1957, it’s pretty remarkable how many of their predictions, for the near future at least, came true. And predicting those nine schools that got everyone so excited? Today the Oswego School District operates 22 school buildings.

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