Friday, August 05, 2005

Rational Technology: Behind the Numbers

Some months back, I asked a high-ranking executive of a call center why they were vacillating on plans to set up a large site in Dumaguete. In several categories, the city already enjoyed good marks. In all earnestness, he told me that the city doesn't have a large enough pool of people.

To fill up a 1,000-seat call center working two-and-a-half shifts, the company would need to hire 2,500 agents. To get the 2,500 agents, at their hiring rate of 10 percent, they would need to interview 25,000 applicants. Finally, factoring an attrition rate of 5 percent per month, this means that they need an additional 1,500 agents selected from a pool of 15,000 applicants. That's why, he said, the prospects for a site the size we normally see in Manila or Cebu is still further off in the future.

In light of this discussion, I find it strangely ironic that we are being sold the panic of the prospect of 200,000 Dumaguete citizens in the next twenty years.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm don't hold call centers as an absolute in the future of Dumaguete City. It's something worthwhile aiming for, to be sure, and given our limitations, something that will need to grow organically. Perhaps there might be a better vision, or perhaps not. Neither am I saying that there will be no attendant problems when the population hits 200,000 citizens two decades from now. What I am saying is that it's a complex issue that needs to be thought out well, foreseeing both the problems and the benefits.

The editorial cartoon of this paper beautifully summarizes the alarmist thinking that results from oversimplification. In it, we have two dozen people overloading a single motorcycle, each one wanting to go to a different destination. Below it, the caption: "Dumaguete City 2025 A.D., Population: 210,000." Tell me, what's wrong this picture?

First is the assumption that in the year 2025 the number of tricycles will be more or less the same as they are now. This, I think, is quite improbable. Second is the assumption that in 2025 the mode of transportation will still be tricycles. In themselves, tricycles are inefficient means of public transport and will probably need to be changed. Third is the assumption that in 2025 the destinations will still be the same, that all 210,000 will continue to be served by the same establishments in the same locations.

Yes, it's only a cartoon, but it belies the oversimplification that plagues arguments for population control: foresee a future with a doubled population, but hold all other factors constant.

If we place ourselves twenty years ago, when Dumaguete's population was half of what it is now, would we have imagined that the existing infrastructure would be sufficient to support the population that it does now? But look, within that time we've expanded and adapted with new facilities, new businesses, and new innovations. Could we have done better? Oh, absolutely! But I sincerely doubt if keeping the population steady at 50,000 would have improved our lot significantly. We've moved forward from the economic contributions of each one of us; if we could have done better, it would have to be because of better choices, better cooperation, and more daring.

By 2025, our population may be double what it is now. It's part of the growth of a growing economy. It will grow because the people of Dumaguete will want to have children. It will grow because Filipinos from neighboring cities will look for opportunities in Dumaguete. It will grow because more of our friends like the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Persians will fall in love with Dumaguete and decide to move here. It will grow because our friends the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Persians, will fall in love and have little Chinese, little Koreans, and little Persians; in other words, they will have little Dumaguetenos.

Growth is an inevitable part of our future. It doesn't have to be a bad thing. Let's think of ways so that it isn't.