Momentum Issue #100

June 21, 2022

How Tech Leaders Can Develop a Collaborative National Vision for Future Mobility to Ensure Every
American Benefits from Technology Innovation

Kristin White, Chief Operating Officer, ITS America

A few weeks back, I had the privilege of attending several key industry events convening the public and private sectors across the intelligent transportation and mobility tech industries – the Intelligent Transportation Society of California (ITS CA) annual conference, TechCrunch’s Mobility Sessions, and Minnesota’s Transportation Conference. These events convened hundreds of local experts, national leaders, and global researchers to network, share the latest updates in their work, see live demos of their innovations, find partners, lift up new professionals, and have fun. It was great to get back out in person to build relationships, meet new folks and reconnect with old friends. Most importantly, it helped me cement my understanding of where we collectively need to go as a nation to advance our collaborative future vision of mobility tech.

What does the future of mobility tech look like? (1) Stronger national leadership to advance a unified vision for future mobility, (2) more collaboration across sectors, (3) less structured conferences and more informal roundtable brainstorming sessions, (4) less ‘tech speak’ lingo and more plain language, and (5) outcomes and performance measures that show the importance of why we’re investing our time and energy into these technological advancements.

  1. We need national leadership to develop an aligned vision of future mobility.

Folks often ask me, “What is your vision for the future” And while I happily offer mine, I wish we had a U.S. vision for the future of mobility. We don’t, despite many pleas for our national leaders to develop one. As the former co-chair of the National Strategy for Automated Transportation with the American Association of Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the coalition for state departments of transportation), we held workshops and conversations from 2018-2020 that attempted to frame the state DOT vision for this future of mobility, which included several key elements: saving lives, promoting sustainability, equitable transportation that grows access and opportunity, and connecting different modes. The state DOT’s discussed achieving this vision through a mission that addressed building a national roadmap to advance these efforts collectively as a nation, building partnerships and collaboratively advancing research, developing the workforce to harness this future, and breaking down silos to share best practices from coast to coast to ensure that all organizations and communities can benefit from this tech. This vision understands that America is falling behind global innovators in Europe and Asia.

What is my vision for future mobility? We need stronger leadership, a united national vision with stakeholder input from all modes and all sectors, strategy to implement those goals, and outcomes that show why we’re investing billions of dollars in mobility tech. ITS America is a key leader in elements of this vision. The tech sector, government, researchers, nonprofits, and community members are too. But the United States Department of Transportation and other executive branch agencies owe it to use to lead this visioning for the future so we all work toward a moonshot for future mobility by 2050.

  1. More collaboration across sectors is needed.

More than 15 years ago, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (known as DARPA) challenge dared innovators to create a self-driving car. Industry rose to that challenge. Those same DARPA participants and tech innovators are now leading the revolution in new mobility, from self-driving cars to rethinking how we use public space. However, as transportation and mobility become increasingly ‘technologized’ – and our infrastructure becomes more digital – we need to come together across industries and sectors. Silicon Valley needs to invite the public sector to join its conversations to ensure we can collaboratively address the challenges of introducing tech to communities. Government needs to attend tech conferences to learn about the latest innovations and be more agile. Nonprofits need to understand their role. In short, we all need to know in some capacity what everyone is working on so we can strategically use our national resources and intellect to fill gaps and not create redundant products and systems. At TechCrunch, I sat at a roundtable where young start-up entrepreneurs asked questions we hear frequently like, ‘how can we partner with the public sector?’ and ‘how do we address inequities in the system?’ There are swaths of resources that answer these questions, so how do we make it easier for people to find information and develop public-private partnerships?

One of the reasons I love my national role is I get to attend these events, listen to national conversations, and have the privilege of ‘seeing the big picture’ – not everyone has the ability or time to do that. It is our responsibility to make it easy to know where folks need to plug in, align resources, and be much more collaborative. It’s not as though we’re not trying, but when you’re working hard to get a product to market, protect intellectual property, or simply meet the challenge of accomplishing your long task list, it’s extra work to volunteer to collaborate outside your organization. We need to institutionalize collaboration time, innovation time, and create space to manage our internal resources – often known as ‘white space’ – so we can get involved in national conversations and communities of practice. How can we make that easier? How can we show what national organizations are doing so folks know where to get plugged in? How can we broaden communities of practice to be inclusive so everyone can learn from each other’s failures and successes?

  1. We need less structured conferences and more collaborative brainstorming.

At any conference, you typically expect to see big keynote speeches, panel sessions, and maybe even an exhibit area or demonstration space, but we need to infuse more of the innovation we’re seeing in tech and design into our own conference structures. Long gone are the days of talking at an audience for eight hours a day and then going to networking dinners. Instead, we need to plan and create spaces where we host collaborative brainstorming sessions, listen to folks pitch new ideas and hear reactions, and facilitate tough yet important conversations. Two great models to inspire this include: (1) vendor and talent showcases and (2) facilitated, informal, and welcoming breakout table discussions.

  • Vendor and talent showcase – ITS California did a great job promoting a vendor and talent showcase – a brilliant idea that intermixed traditional vendor pitches in short 45-second bursts with a talent show. This fun event allowed vendors and attendees to not only demonstrate their products and services but offered a fun way to learn about the personal side of these innovative professionals. From dancers and guitarists to rappers and comedians, attendees learned about companies and more importantly the awesome people behind them and learned fun ways tobreak the ice. The event was hosted by the Young Professionals Group, something we should all empower to leverage the energy of newer professionals who want to build relationships and grow careers and, quite simply, infuse fun into the work we do.
  • Breakout roundtables discussion – TechCrunch hosted something they’re known for: breakout roundtable discussions in which a facilitator hosts a discussion topic at a small table open to anyone. Facilitators open the discussion with a few key thoughts or ideas on the topic and encourage questions, ideas, and discussion amongst the roundtable participants – it’s a more intimate way to meet people and brainstorm ideas.

In short, we need an ‘Aspen Ideas Fest’ for the future of mobility where great minds can come together and envision the future. We need to ask what our moonshot is and challenge each other. Instead of one-way conversations where we talk about our work with a slide deck, we need thoughtful event planning and facilitated conversations that engage innovators and dare us to think even bigger. We must ask: Where have we been? Where are we going? Where do we want to go? And how do we get there?

  1. Scrap the tech lingo.

Are you a TSMO engineer who manages ITS V2X communications? Are you a designer who uses C++ and builds autonomous stacks? Did either of these sentences make any sense to you? Probably not.

Whether you’re in mobility tech or intelligent transportation, many of us fail to use ‘plain language’ to talk about our work. Yet discussing our work in ‘plain language’ – without using lingo, acronyms or tech speak – is critical to raising awareness and support for it.

Plain language is how we talk to people who don’t have our technical expertise or familiarity with what we do. Plain language is defined as talking and writing in a way that someone with a 4th grade reading level can understand. Too often, we immediately dive into talking about our work as though we all have the same backgrounds, degrees, familiarity, and knowledge. We use acronyms. We don’t tailor our message to the audience. We often assume everyone understands our lingo – but not everyone does. Whether you’re an engineer designing artificial intelligence, a marketer branding your company, or a public works professional trying to understand how tech can advance your goals, we all need to take a giant step back and ask, “How would I explain this to a 12-year-old?” In short, what do you tell your neighbors and friends when they ask why you do what you do? What’s your five-second summary of what you do? Whatever it is, cut the lingo and use the words of a 4th grader – only then will we move the needle of progress forward because we’ll all be speaking the same language.

As Arthur C. Clark noted, “magic is science we just don’t understand”. And in our business of mobility tech, we need to let people know we make magic happen.

  1. What are the outcomes? What is the problem you’re trying to solve?

Despite what you may read in the news, we aren’t creating these innovations just because tech is cool (which it is). Most of us in this world fell into this work because we realized the enormous possibilities of technology to advance societal goals to save lives, reduce climate impacts, and provide more access and opportunity to communities. We are so immersed in our day-to-day-tasks, however, that we don’t takea step back to remember why we do this work. We don’t talk about our innovations in a way that connects tech to goals. We don’t look back to reflect on whether the investment was worth it.

In one session, innovative city engineers and private partners discussed the process of how they upgraded local traffic signals in a Southern California town – not a topic that captures headlines. But you know what does? The outcome: after a detailed analysis of the project design and engineering, an
audience member asked a simple question: “So what? What did you learn after all this work?” The team failed to explain the benefits of their hard work, the outcomes, or the return on investment. The audience was astounded to learn that their engineering and low-cost investment cut emergency response times by 30 percent. When as little as one minute can save a life after a crash, their work literally saved lives and prevented injuries – that’s called burying the lead (as they say in journalism).

One of the biggest opportunities we have in the intelligent transportation and mobility tech sectors is to start with the ’so what’ before we dive into the ‘how did you do that?’ We need to do a much better job starting with the goals, outcomes, and return on investment to show why we do this work.

I often ask folks, ‘what is your transportation story’ so I can understand how they fell into this work and why mobility is so important to them. For some, it’s because they grew up in a part of the world where public transportation didn’t exist. For others, it’s because they lost a daughter to a drunk driver. For me, it’s because I grew up in a part of rural America where poverty-stricken Indigenous tribes were purposely excluded from opportunities to access affordable access to jobs and healthcare. These are the challenges we’re trying to solve with our innovations.

Much – if not all – of this innovative technology is advancing our collective goals to save lives, mitigate climate change impacts, and provide more access and opportunities to communities, including those who’ve been silenced and left out…that’s why this work is so exciting. It’s not just about flying cars (which exist) and self-driving vehicles (which are being deployed). This work is about how technology makes life easier, more convenient, and joyful. Our work is about making people happier and healthier. Technology like automated shuttles allow my friend Myrna – a quadriplegic who lives in a rural part of America with limited public transportation – to get to the local community center to celebrate her
niece’s birthday. This work is about reducing harmful vehicle emissions to make sure my two-year-old nephew Loren grows up in a world with clean air to breathe so he doesn’t get lung disease. I wake up each day motivated because we can use tech to reimagine our entire transportation system – from how it impacts public health, to how we create jobs, to how we can bring joy to families.

This work is about vision and leadership.

This work is about collaboration.

This work is about holding ourselves accountable. It’s about asking ourselves the tough questions and evaluating our work.

It’s about asking: After all this investment and innovation, is anyone better off?

Do I have all the answers? Absolutely not. As the adage goes, the more I age, the less I know. But one thing I do know for certain: this is one of the most incredibly invigorating times to be alive because of technology advancements, a renewed commitment to investment in our nation’s infrastructure, and because America has some of the most brilliant minds on the globe to help us do this work together.

We must continue to engage in these national conversations, make space to be uncomfortable, learn new things, and challenge each other with new ideas. Only then can we advance a vision of future mobility that reflects all our voices. We can’t yet bend time to hasten the pace of innovation, but the more we work together, the sooner we can achieve our vision of safer, more sustainable, and inclusive mobility.