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SMART Ideas for Urban Transport

2/14/2011 --

Case study illustrates the opportunities and challenges of tackling urban transportation.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — City populations worldwide are growing faster than transportation systems can be built to move people around. One effort to tackle that problem emerged at U-M, Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation, or SMART. The idea is to create efficient and sustainable ways of moving people by aligning government, private business, and NGOs.

One of SMARTís main approaches is Integrated Hub Networks, where people can access different modes of transport that are linked seamlessly through connection points, or hubs, and receive real-time updates on schedules and availability, perhaps on their mobile phones. In his case study co-authored with SMARTís executive director Sue Zielinski, SMART: Global Urban Mobility Solutions, Ross professor Nigel Melville asks readers to help SMARTís executive director pitch a demonstration pilot to an investment firm. But Melville also likes the case because it encourages people to think about whatís possible. The content touches many disciplines, including management and organizations, information systems, and finance. In this Q & A, Melville, an assistant professor of business information technology, illuminates some of the caseís key takeaways.

How did you connect with SMART?

Melville: Jon Coleman of Ford Motor Co. suggested that Sue Zielinski and I connect based on our shared interests in sustainable transportation and the role of information and information systems. Weíve been interacting for the past year-and-a-half and Iíve also had the great fortune to meet with folks from Ford, which is heavily involved in this, in particular, Dave Berdish. [Zielinski] has a depth of awareness of the role of IT in SMART urban mobility Ė she has great energy and an ability to get people excited about these important issues. We both thought writing up something on SMART would be a good idea. This issue of urban mobility is one of the big, wicked problems facing all of us. It also has significant implications for business. But at the same time MBA students usually donít discuss it holistically, other than particular aspects, like the auto industry and electric vehicles. We talk a lot about those things but we definitely can do some more work when it comes to looking at the problem as a whole. And thatís one of the things this case allows students to do.

The themes in the case study cover a lot of ground: transportation, sustainability, IT, management and organizations, public policy, and finance. What are some of the key takeaways you want people to grasp?

Melville: The key takeaway is that there are substantial risks and opportunities when it comes to urban mobility, especially now as the world is urbanizing so fast. Business organizations are among several key stakeholders, and as such, they can help to shape the discussion and generate profitable solutions to benefit society and their bottom line. At the same time, problem complexity necessitates multiple lenses and new types of problem framing.

What are some lessons students and readers can learn from the way SMART interacts with business, government, and NGOs?

Melville: Probably one of the most important things is that itís important to have a few specific demonstrations -- real life, not-pie-in-the-sky -- of how this can work in particular situations. Thatís not to say the solutions that have been piloted and developed just get rolled out everywhere. But to know that under a SMART umbrella, you can turn a crank and develop and implement effective solutions that change, and sometimes transform, aspects of urban mobility for the better? I think that is a big takeaway. SMART has pilots in place and local partners who are very excited and see the tremendous potential to solve some of these big problems. Probably the second thing is to push beyond this case. Thereís current thinking and infrastructure on how to solve urban transport problems, so how do we push that and go beyond it? For example, how do we think about something simple like one of the worldís most ubiquitous IT devices Ė a 2002-era flip phone? Itís probably more in use than anything in the world so how do we use that simple device in the hands of so many people worldwide to enable some of these SMART solutions? In some ways, it can be viewed as a design case as much as an analysis case. So not just analyzing what is, but designing what might be.

You noted that business organizations are some of the big stakeholders in SMART. Does business, particularly IT, normally get left out of the early parts of the public transportation discussion?

Melville: Sometimes they do. It depends on what part of the globe youíre talking about, and which companies. If you think about whatís going on in certain European cities such as Amsterdam, which have always looked at this issue of transport more holistically, I donít think private companies have been left out of the discussion at all. They realize we have to move people efficiently at low cost with a low carbon footprint. If you look at some other cities, itís probably looked at as more of an infrastructure issue.

At the Net Impact conference in October there was a lot of discussion on how business has to understand the local scene and engage the local population and not just plop down their established blueprint. It sounds like thatís part of SMARTís focus, so does this case reinforce that idea?

Melville: It not only reinforces it, but it makes crystal clear that if you donít understand the conditions on the ground, youíre already digging yourself a deep hole. Cultures are different, how people relate to and experience transportation are different, expectations are different, and technology is different. Thatís job one. On the other hand, itís not to say every specific solution is unique. [Zielinski] and I have discussed looking at the characteristics of these mega cities and finding some similarities. Maybe there are groups of cities of a particular type that might have similarities in terms of transportation problems and needs. That way, you donít have to reinvent the wheel every time.

You are an IT professor, so whatís the main IT lesson here?

Melville: Probably more than anything else? The tremendous possibilities for value generation. Weíre in an interesting time in 2011 where we have developed an incredible information infrastructure that is getting to be ubiquitous. Developing solutions and services is much, much easier than it was 10 years ago without that infrastructure. We are only limited by the imagination of individuals and businesses working together to identify real problems faced by large groups of people and to design appropriate solutions. The bits and bytes of technology are enablers now Ė not a hindrance. Itís all in pace. The cell networks are there, 4G is coming along Ė and itís not just in the cities. Thereís simply no excuse not to have better solutions in the area of urban transportation.

Terry Kosdrosky

Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,