A long-established core commitment in the private sector, the push for innovation has now been taken up by numerous public stakeholders. Far-reaching change is sweeping through today’s cities in terms of spatial occupancy, diversity and the green transition — and transport is no exception. Local authorities, operators, equipment suppliers and all other stakeholders are looking for new solutions to address the challenges facing communities and to meet the needs of “the users of cities”, i.e. the businesses and citizens who live and work there.
Collective intelligence, a prerequisite
When we talk about innovation, we tend to mean ‘open innovation’, a term coined by Harvard professor Henry Chesbrough in 2003 to refer to an approach that encourages cooperation between firms within an open, trust-based framework. Later, in 2011, Chesbrough specified that this approach to innovation is “based on the observed fact that useful knowledge today is widely distributed, and no company, no matter how capable or how big, can innovate effectively on its own.” In sum, companies need each other to improve and succeed in the long haul.
This was the model embraced by the first players in the transport sector to start pursuing the idea, driven by a desire to develop high value-added technology solutions. “Major cities, most of which have their own transport authority like Tokyo, New York and Paris, set out on this track around ten years ago,” explains Maxime Audouin, head of the Keolis Innovation & Digital Lab. “They began by collaborating with startups and then set up their own innovation agencies or labs”. Tokyo Metro and New York’s Transit Tech were among the forerunners.
Same goals, different models
Other cities and communities tapped into the culture and capabilities of private players, such as Montreal with its Quartier de l’innovation while others have capitalised on the know-how and experience of their operator. One such example is Transport for Wales Rail, which launched its own innovation lab in 2019. “What makes Lab by Transport for Wales special is the way it came about,” says Michael Davies, Insight and Innovation Manager, in the Lab’s Customer Experience team. “The Lab was custom created by Transport for Wales Rail to find new solutions to the challenges facing its public transport authority Transport for Wales. It offers an unrivalled wealth of resources for addressing the real needs of passengers. But apart from the way it was set up, we operate just like an outside lab. We identify a need or issue, analyse the passenger experience and then call on startups and R&D firms to pursue their proposed innovation with the support of our 12-week accelerator programme.”
The entrepreneurs, startups and scale-ups taking part in the programme receive mentoring from business experts at various partners, including the cities of Cardiff and Newport, Cardiff University, the Welsh Development Bank and Business Wales, the Welsh government’s support service for businesses in Wales. At the end of the 12 weeks, participants pitch their ‘Minimal Viable Product’ (prototype) to decision-makers from the transport authority, who select the projects with the greatest potential. Successful candidates are awarded a contract with Transport for Wales, coupled with the financial backing and access to resources needed to continue development of their product or service for implementation across Transport for Wales. In the two years since its launch, Lab by Transport for Wales has conducted two acceleration programmes and financed around a dozen promising new solutions, allocating between £5,000 and £15,000 to each one.
Everything to gain
For public transport authorities, launching or engaging in an innovation agency offers a host of benefits. According to Maxime Audouin, the first main advantage is a boost to their image and attractiveness. “A PTA actively involved in this type of initiative shows that it’s flexible, open and committed to continuously improving services for the communities it serves”. Secondly, operating or supporting a lab necessarily delivers results through the development of new solutions — even if they don’t work first time. “Innovation is all about taking risks — especially the risk of getting it wrong,” remarks Michael Davies. “In our business, we’re not afraid of failing. For us, it’s a chance to learn from our mistakes. This is a key aspect of our mindset”. Another immediate benefit is gaining access to local innovation-driven entrepreneurs and companies. Being involved in an innovation lab means contributing to an emerging community with local roots.
It allows PTAs to engage with some of the brightest minds, innovative talent that may have seemed out of reach or simply hadn’t occurred to them. That’s why we tend to talk about ‘innovation ecosystems’, a term taken from the world of living organisms. “It’s an interesting choice of words,” says Michaël Knaute, Sustainable City Manager at Paris&Co, the French capital’s urban innovation agency. “It reinforces the idea of a diverse spectrum of players — businesses, startups, local authorities, chambers of commerce, universities, investors, individuals, etc.” With overlapping activities, areas of focus and goals, Paris&Co set up its own Urban Lab to help address the challenges ahead for the French capital. In collaboration with Keolis and 25 other major firms, the Lab acts as an incubator for startups, testing and implementing innovations through its Urban Innovation Districts.
Regardless of what they’re called — innovation labs, hubs, agencies or ecosystems — everyone involved has everything to gain. This virtuous circle strengthens the attractiveness of both the region and the lab itself and also raises the profile of the innovative solutions spawned there. “Ultimately, local transport players boost regional competition among cities. It’s a win-win situation for all the stakeholders involved — the other cities, other labs and everyone else in the ecosystem,” emphasises Maxime Audouin.
The user experience
“Innovation is not an end in itself, it must always address a real-world issue,” reiterates Michaël Knaute. As far as mobility is concerned, the user experience tends to be the starting point: developing more direct, seamless journeys, more intuitive services that are easy to access, enabling technologies, and so on. For example, the three startups whose solutions have been selected for deployment by the Lab by Transport for Wales all proposed mobile apps to improve the passenger experience or for parking. “Our 2021 cohort will focus on another key and highly topical passenger experience issue: getting passengers back on our trains, against a backdrop of the ongoing pandemic and following several months of intermittent journeys,” says Michael Davis.
At the Paris&Co Urban Lab, which is an urban innovation agency in the broadest sense, mobility issues have accounted for more than a quarter of all successful projects over the past five years. However, as Michaël Knaute points out, siloed thinking is out of the question: “projects now cut across a range of themes and address overlapping issues, such as mobility and real estate, or technological innovation and social innovation.” Developing solutions to optimize the occupancy of public space, like the startup ZenPark did in Paris with its cheap parking app, implies integrating issues other than just parking itself and collaborating with a host of other players — residents associations, businesses and the city authorities. Likewise, when startup Navilens developed a QR code that facilitates access to metro and bus stations for vision-impaired passengers, it was only natural that it extended the service to other places such as pavements, museums and public buildings. This goes to show that inclusive transport leads to more inclusive cities.
Green mobility on the rise
Hot on the heels of digital solutions shaping the future of mobility and MaaS (Mobility as a Service), green mobility has emerged as another key focus in recent years. “In 2016 around 35% of our projects revolved around the green transformation of the French capital,” says Michaël Knaute. “In 2020, this was up to 80%”. A deep-seated trend is clearly underway. “Low tech is also driving fresh thinking, championing the idea of a more frugal city.” This illustrates growing aspirations among citizens for more environmentally-friendly, ethical solutions.
The boom in greener transport choices like cycling and walking, as well as in active transport, such as electric scooters, dovetails perfectly with this idea and is a powerful incentive for startups to pursue their innovative efforts in this area.