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From transport to 'mobility'- innovation in the transport sector

For most of its history, transport has remained largely unchanged, characterised by slow incremental innovation and costly infrastructure. While trying to overcome these issues and cope with increasing stress on the system the industry has largely forgotten the users. But the transport industry is undergoing a potentially major shift in the way it thinks. We are about to see what happens when ‘the unstoppable force of digital innovation meets the immovable force of transport innovation’.

Enter the concept of ‘Mobility as a Service’, aka ‘Intelligent Mobility’.

Intelligent mobility sees transport as a user orientated service designed to provide an integrated reactive multimodal service. New technology is partially driving this movement, making it possible to utilise real time information and create a joined up transport service. But is intelligent mobility a 'disruptive' innovation or just more incremental change?

From our recent Hot Topic event, the four key trends of the intelligent mobility system that have the potential to be hugely disruptive:

1. New players in the transport game

Arguably the biggest disruptive change will come from new stakeholders exploiting and creating new opportunities in the transport sector. IT companies, data management companies and even energy companies are entering this space, driven by emerging technology and a global desire for personalised services. These companies bring with them new business models, new approaches and different priorities that the transport industry has not historically had to deal with. These are large companies and are able to overcome the fractured nature of transport provision by leveraging their size and influence. Xerox was able to make (undisclosed) deals with 19 different operators in the Greater Montreal area to create a common ticketing service for all operators.

2. User focused end to end service

There is a global trend towards personalised services in all sorts of sectors from healthcare to education and transport is no different. This shift from transport as an operationally driven system to emphasising the experience of the user will potentially provide many benefits for the public but require a dramatic change in the way many of the transport companies think. With a presence in other sectors some of these larger companies will be able to offer ‘mobility’ as part of larger lifestyle services.

3. Deployment of new forms of technology

Providing this joined-up mobility service will require a joined-up approach to many aspects of transport such as ticketing. The adoption of new technology right across the transport industry will deliver great advantages and allow those service providers to better understand customers, manage demand and for asset managers to more efficiently perform tasks like infrastructure maintenance.

4. Changing business models

The focus on user centred services over classic transport business models will create a clear division between asset ownership (e.g. buses, trains) and service provision (e.g. computer service providers) as well as a shift in value from the assets to service provision. If incumbents don’t react to this change in time they will be left behind.


Will intelligent mobility work for everyone?

Most of the conversation is centred on urban mobility but even with the shift towards city living there will always be a large rural population who experience very different mobility issues. The same kinds of services are not financially possible in a rural setting and it is unlikely there will be a similar trend towards less car ownership.

A big part of London’s success when it comes to transport innovation has been the creation of common authorities like Transport for London. These overarching organisations enabled the deployment of integrated ticketing systems pretty early on.

While common authorities work well for large cities like London or Manchester they are not necessarily feasible for dispersed rural communities but local authorities will still have an important role to play in ensuring the benefits of a mobility system are felt by all, not just those in cities or those who can afford the service. This is where regulation will need to play an important role as the system develops. Transport costs are prohibitive for many people at the moment and this is an opportunity to reverse some of these trends.

Future capacity

But are we trying to solve transport issues using 19th and 20th century inventions along with the help of a bit of IT and remote sensing?

'In a modern world, the purpose will no longer be to improve the transport system by doing more or building more capacity, but by doing things in a smarter way.'  - Sampo Hietanen

What does not really get discussed in the vision of intelligent mobility is the issue of future capacity. The population of London is predicted to rise to 11 million by 2050, road traffic is projected to be 46% higher in 2040 compared to 2010 and TFL predict a 60-80% increase in use of Underground and rail services by 2050. A user orientated multimodal service with real time feedback is not going to be of much use when all the roads are congested and there is no more capacity on mass transport systems.

Government investments in existing road and rail systems while attempting to increase capacity may be the wrong approach, reinforcing outdated infrastructure and assets. What we need on top of intelligent mobility is a ‘smarter way’ of using these assets and even more importantly smarter, imaginative and truly innovative approaches to the infrastructure challenge. Highway England (formerly Highways Agency) has developed a long term plan for using their assets and improving them- this kind of strategic thinking is badly needed and again where common authorities in the city context have been very effective.

Intelligent mobility will change the way transport is thought about and run but is unlikely to do much to tackle some of the biggest challenges and if it's not managed in the right way may cause more. It’s unclear where transport is going in the long run but for the time being the integration of new technology and the concepts of 'mobility' will push innovation in the sector, even if it is still incremental change.


Harry Armstrong

Harry Armstrong

Harry Armstrong

Head of Technology Futures

Harry led Nesta’s futures and emerging technology work.

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