To Innovate in the Public Sector, Keep People in Focus

By Ian Sacs

Technology is hijacking the mobility industry. In these “go fast and break things” times, it’s all MVP and no VMT. Mayors want an automated shuttle to claim theirs is a smart city. Private companies are rushing in with poorly conceived mobility solutions. Every consultant wants to touch your data. I don’t mean to sound old and cranky, but oftentimes I find myself saying, “Can we all just stop for a moment and think about what we’re trying to solve here?” Now, I’m no Elon Musk, but I have had the fortunate opportunity to lead some modestly innovative mobility projects leveraging technology in my career, including live public transport mapping before streaming was mainstream, a pre-Uber SMS-based ride-hailing service, as well as America’s first city-wide, on-street car-sharing program. You can tell these programs were innovative simply by all the hyphens needed to describe them. Indeed, I have always found myself pushing the envelope to improve community transportation services. Nowadays, I am regularly asked how to leverage technology to push the innovation agenda that most cities and countries are pursuing. My response, summarized in the three points below, is not necessarily what decision-makers are expecting:

Mobility is About People: Innovation is useful when there is a problem to solve. All too often nowadays, we see technological innovations being proposed for their own sake. If we truly want to innovate in mobility, the starting point is with people, not technology. What are the problems facing the community, and why is the current system not helpful to them? As much as I am excited to see (and experience) many of the recent technological innovations in our sector, I feel strongly that ideas should be born directly from a need to help people get around more easily, not from an indirect desire to be innovative.

Holistic Planning is a Prerequisite: Before we introduce any kind of technology, we must consider the land use and, specifically, the fundamental walkability of a place. Just as the automobile failed to solve our urban mobility needs in the 20th century, so too will any other technology (including my beloved bicycle) if a community is not planned with – and funds appropriated for – people’s most frequent destinations in close proximity so that it is easy for people of all ages and physical abilities to walk to and from most daily activities. Let’s please do this first.

Technology is an Enabler: In certain cases, for certain people, at certain times, a certain technology can fit a certain niche that helps people get to certain places easier. I argue that technology is merely an enabler, it has limited potential and, whether it’s high-speed rail or a robot car, should never, ever be looked to as the panacea to any city’s mobility needs.

One additional point to make is that, regardless of the benefits or the ambition, absolutely nothing happens without a political champion(s) to push the agenda. There is no point attempting the implementation of any innovation if you don’t first win the support of at least one influential decision-maker and keep them involved – at least informed – throughout. When looking back on all of those really cool projects from my earlier years, the key criticism I would have with my efforts is failing to recruit more political champions in the early stages of the concept. I could have saved myself a huge amount of frustration and time if I had known to offer credit in exchange for early support from the people who needed that credit much more than I did.

Ian Sacs is an awesome-city transport planning expert who partners with governments, architects, and developers to realize wonderfully pragmatic urban environments.  His background is in transformative urban transport planning, first working in modernizing multi-modalism in New York City, and then as a city official in Hoboken, New Jersey.  At Ramboll, Ian works with emergent mobility services and their viability in livable communities, including AV, e-mobility, and MaaS. He also works with mobility and transport planning in North America, Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and European countries, and regularly advises municipalities on “future proof” policy and infrastructure.  You can get in touch with Ian here: