Innovation in Rail?: Why understanding the problem to be solved is not enough…

'Innovation' is often publicised as a great way to modernise public transport; a buzz word used around boardroom tables in strategy planning. However, the reality of actually implementing innovation in public transport is fraught with difficulties, for example overcoming prevailing cultural and organisational systems that penalise those who attempt it, rather than rewarding such behaviour and attempts to try new things.

Of course, no one is saying that public transport should emulate the Facebook mantra of "move fast and break things"! In a safety critical environment, one that is broadly governed by public procurement rules where "value for money" is the guiding light, adopting fast paced systems and procedures such as those from Microsoft or Tesla do not work.

Conversely, failure to innovate and change public transport in a post COVID world does create the risk that new technology entrance will actually reduce the need for public transport provision. Consider how virtual meeting technologies, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc have virtually destroyed the concept of peak-time railway season tickets. What parts of the public transport market will be reshaped next? The only assurance around public transport is the uncertainty of how technology will change the sector and how governments will respond.

But there are successful models of innovation within public transport. Consider Transport for London (TfL) in particular. TfL is recognised as one of the best public transport agencies in the world, specifically applying strategic and tactical innovation to create new value. They have a strong history of improvement dating back to the 1850s, consider the first road 'traffic light' and Metro service, or modern-day Contactless system payments and world-class civil engineering feats such as the newly completed 'Elizabeth' tube line.

Interestingly, the TfL 'Innovation Hub' makes the powerful claim that it does not have all the solutions. This approach makes a significant impact by inviting innovators to co-develop solutions, such as: start-ups, scale-ups, corporates, venture capitalists, accelerators and academia. For example, the 'Open data and digital partnerships team' which worked with over 17,000 developers to create new products through TfL's free open data. These innovations have subsequently been used by 42% of Londoners and generate over £130m per annum. Building on this, TfL created the 'Innovation Hub's' team of experts, consisting of design thinkers, horizon scanners, agile delivery teams, world class scouting and partnership specialists, change managers and so forth. The Innovation Hub reviews up to 100 problem statements per year and, like a venture capitalist, focuses on those that can create the greatest value (e.g. time, cost, safety, sustainability and quality) to support the organisation's public policy goals. Examples include scaling products and services to: reduce the adverse impact of freight or roadworks, reducing road collisions or exposure to poor air quality, improving bus driver engagement, encouraging more people to cycle and walk, increasing revenue from retail (TfL is one of London's largest land-owners), or improving customer experience, the team have scaled some fantastic products. Most recently, we have 'ENSO tyres', shortlisted for the Global Earth Prize through its new compound tyre that emits less pollution. This concept came through TfL's Innovation Hub. In times of reduced budgets, transport agencies could follow TfL's example as a market shaper, working with the best innovators to co-invest and co-develop solutions in an iterative and user-centred way.

But how can an organisation begin to operationalise this? A key challenge here is how the additionality provided through innovation can be traced? Perhaps this is where the art of successful innovation lies?; understanding the business case so that managers can collate, promote and sell the balance of risk and opportunity. Another important aspect of success is understanding the procurement route prior to entering into a trial or exploratory contract. Careful consideration needs to be given to the knowledge capital created in the exploratory contract, and perhaps most importantly who has access to this? If exposure of key concepts is provided too soon there is a chance that the investment in innovation could be undermined or reduced. The past decades of innovation in public transport has demonstrated that where innovation is less successful it is often linked directly with traditional (i.e. unclear) procurement mechanisms, with no clear route to organisational agreement on 'what' the business plan is or 'how' it should be funded.

What are the key lessons from all this? In our experience, if you want to innovate in public transport, focus on the business case and procurement mechanisms first, in a way that creates a strategic trajectory and route map for success. One that can be transparently created and communicated. Finally remember these wise words: "Vision without action is a daydream, action without vision is a nightmare! (Anon.)"