On Building New Mobility Ecosystems: A Thinking Exercise

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I understand Professor that you are preparing a major public address on new transport ideas for our city tomorrow.  My staff tells me you are calling it “On Building New Mobility Ecosystems”.  Now that sounds quite intriguing, but can you tell me in a few words that you have in mind to talk to us about?Yes, thank you for asking Mr. Mayor. What I would like to do is see if I can  possibly answer your question at several  levels of successive detail.

For this I propose to use a series of what I call simple mindmaps, basically a cascade raw materials for a “thinking exercise” in the form of, basically, selected  key words, phrases and strategies that are intended to encourage the observer to step back and explore and develop their own ideas in increasing levels of detail and sophistication as they dig more deeply into their topic. What we try to do at each stage is just to suggest, perhaps challenge and hopefully stimulate their thoughts.

So my first proposed level of detail for my talk beyond my title looks like this:

Hmm.  “equity”?   Certainly, OK.  But  “recalibrate”?  I am not at all sure what you have in mind there. Can you be a bit more specific? 

With pleasure, I could if you wish start to go into detail about these two key pillars in my ecosystem construct with you right now.  And in fact I really would, since these are two key building blocks of tomorrow’s presentation. But since your time is short today, suppose I leave that for tomorrow and for now move on and move to the next level of detail on the mindmap, which starts to put a name to some of what I believe to be among the principal things shaping the ecosystem that is your mobility delivery system. ?

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Well that seems pretty challenging. But still awfully general and  philosophic.  I need to be practical and focused about this. Forgive me if I say this but,  for example, other than your mentioning “public transport” I don’t see anything here that looks like transport or mobility in our city. We really do need to be specific if we are going to lay the base for a new transport policy for the city as you have suggested.

Fair enough Mr. Mayor. We are still working here at a global strategic level, but let me show you what happens when we start to dig one level more deeply into the strategic underpinnings of our topic and strategy.  The next stage mindmap starts to look like this.  (You may want to think of this process as a parallel to an archeological dig. As we dig deepen into our ecosystem construct further specifics and even some first rough patterns start to emerge.)

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Okay, that’s better.  Let’s see now . . . trucks, taxis, trams, streets, rights of way, walking, cycling . . .  I am beginning to get at least a feel for your idea.  A lot of what I see here is starting to look more familiar in our transport planning and policy context, and if I understand it by putting all of them into your underlying ecosystem, you are suggesting that we will need to look at each of them in this kind of much broader context. So that’s it, is it??

In fact, not quite, Sir.  What I have been trying to demonstrate  here are several iterations of these mindmaps, all developed around the principle of building New Mobility Ecosystems in a city.  You have thus far seen 4, 20 and just now 50 word iterations each in increasing depth and detail, all of which (and more) to be built into the overall strategy and actions context which a world-level city in our field will need to understand and in time manage successfully.

Here is what it starts to look like if we up the word count the next stage to 150. We are now really starting to work our way into the level of detail which, in our view, you need to have in your sights if your policy is to be world level.

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There are more steps and a lot we coudl say at this point about this process, but let me for now and to save your time just jump to the most detailed one we have developed thus far in support of this strategy and eventually my talk. In the following we are looking at  500 words or phrases, which form  a jumble of transport modes, social values, strategic  goals, concepts and tools, targets and measures, policies and hopes — all of which are germane to the challenges of the New Mobility Ecosystem.

We think of all this as comprising an ecosystem, because in fact it is, at least if we define an ecosystem is a community of living and non-living things that work together. Ecosystems have no particular size or shape. What they have is a combination of entities and multiple degrees of interconnectedness. The study of ecosystems mainly consists of the study of certain processes that link these together.

And this in a rather large nutshell is what I think the main  building blocks of a New Mobility Ecosystem looks like today. (Sorry but in order to read the small print items it is necessary to blow up this image to at least twice the size you have here — and that will happen if you click the image.)

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Hmm.  Well  that looks like an awful lot of detail to fit into a single 60 minute talk, but I count on you to figure out how to keep all this in some kind of order and to come up with something that we can all understand and learn from.

Count on me Mayor  to do my best.

And on your way out the door Professor can you remind me in just a few words of what it is you are gong to be talking about?  Just a few words this.

Surely:  How we can reform (1) our existing  mobility arrangements (2) on the basis of equity as a central pillar and goal of public policy, and then supporting that with (3) systemic efficiency, (4) technical virtuosity, (5) quality of life for all, and (6) a sound economy for the city and those who live (and vote) there.

Thanks.  See you tomorrow afternoon.

Thank you Mr. Mayor.

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Editor’s Note:

This “interview” is as you can see pure invention. But behind it are a certain number of fundamental truths, or at least contentions.  Let me run down them quickly here.

The first is that my experience is that when it comes to cities that basically all the key decisions will be made by the mayors and local government apparatus. They may be shaped and influenced by a variety of factors and interests and pressures brought to bear, but in a democratic society they are the people with whom we as advisors must work, and hopefully be useful.

(In case you missed it, yesterday World Streets featured a piece entitled “A Mayor’s-Eye View of Sustainable Transportation” which in case you missed it you may wish to read in parallel with the above. Yesterday’s article makes that point that these are very busy people with a considerable range of responsibilities, of which even the full transport ecosystem, vast as it is, is only a part.)

The second point  I want to make here is to stress the view that the mobility system of a city is not a collection of independent entities or activities that can be inherited, invented, managed and maintained in some kind of Cartesian never-never land.   Sure, road are roads, bikes are bikes, buses are buses, and all the rest, but when we take a step or two  back we can see that what we have in fact is not a collection of quasi-independent entities that can be studied and fixed in isolation, but really an entire connected ecosystem, which brings in all of the usual transport related factors — but also much more.

Now, one of the greatest causes of failure and systemic underperformance  in transport policy in the past has been that of consistently and close to universal sub-optimizing. All too often the innovation or management function is quickly isolated into a specific task area, within which the technicians and the experts work and then (sub)optimize making use of their terrific technical tools and training (the operation was a success but the  patient died). Which a certain number of us maintain is one of the primary reasons why the overall mobility system is so often and so badly underperforming for the city and its citizens as a whole.

Which brings us to our next and next to last point in this editorial growl — and that is the absolute importance that whatever is proposed, negotiations and finally agreed by the mayor and the other higher authorities, it will only succeed if the teams and people in place that are going to actually carry out the hard work of execution feel that they are a key part of the solution.  Their participation in the problem solving process is going to be vital, so it is imperative that they be consulted and integrated into the overall planning process as important actors and from the very beginning. We want it to be their policy and their project, and not that of some foreign body.

Finally, the full ecosystem as we start to define it here thus consists of not only a very large and extremely varied collection of things, but as the diagram tries to suggest,   as reality would have it, that virtually all of these things interconnect.  Which of course is why we call it an ecosystem.

The draft ecosystem graphics that you find here is a results of my own particular experience in these matters with cities in various parts of the world.Where you run into items such as World Streets , Nuova Mobilità (Italy),  Thinking about China, or Streets of India, well that is just part of my personal and professional world view.  But it will most likely not be yours.  However it may encourage you to give this approach a try for your own working as well as intellectual purposes.

If you set yourself to it, I am willing to bet that your final configuration, and certainly the values which are implied (size of characters) will be different from mine.  All the better!   I am happy to work with yours too and the pages of World Streets are open to you for your comments, corrections  and proposals.

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