Can Birmingham become a global leader of new transport technologies?

This event brought together speakers from a start-up, major IT company and the public sector, to try and establish whether Birmingham had the potential to become a global leader in new transport technologies.

Over the course of the afternoon, there were several strands of thought on the link between the institutions and characteristics of Birmingham and the wider West Midlands region and its suitability as a ‘living lab’ for new transport technologies – some of the main themes I observed are below, but please feel free to expand on these in the comment section:

Location

Birmingham sits at the heart of England, giving it a geographical advantage as a transport hub – and by extension, a logical location to develop a smart, low carbon transport system. Chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) Andy Street highlighted how this could feed into the city region’s ambitions for the HS2 project: not to be “the end of the line”, but the centre. This was not solely about location, but also a challenge to make Birmingham the home of the associated engineering and technological support, research and development that accompanies such a key infrastructure project.

An associated point to location is size: Birmingham is a large city, the largest local authority in Europe: solutions that work here will be applicable to other large conurbations. And as Paul Zanelli, Chief Technology Officer for the Transport Systems Catapult noted, these solutions are as much about identifying what you no longer need to travel for – for example, if high speed internet is regionally available, homeworking (or working in other spaces closer to home) becomes more viable.

Breaking down barriers

All of the speakers made some reference to making new technologies easy and natural for users to adopt, as a gateway to making a usable, sustainable transport system for the city region. As Roger Burgess of SCC noted in his presentation, it’s all very well if it excites a technology geek: but will their parents be able to use it?

Karen Hughes, Brand Director at Droplet – which is based at Innovation Birmingham Campus – talked about their innovative ‘disruption’ of the payment space via their smartphone app, which enables a smoother payment experience for customers. One example was their work with Chiltern Railways: a two week trial of allowing customers to use Droplet to pay for on-train catering soon became permanent when Droplet payments outstripped card payments. Customers gravitated to the method that worked best for them. Centro CEO Geoff Inskip also made reference to ease of payment, suggesting that facial recognition software could potentially replace travel passes before long.

Another barrier identified was the ease of transferring to a different mode of transport, both in terms of locality and ticketing. One element of this is realtime information – increasingly available in key locations around the city – but still limited. As our CEO David Hardman noted, a smart city’s transport system should feel smart regardless of where you are in it: a fundamental element of ensuring that the benefits of big infrastructure projects benefit the city region as a whole, and not just central Birmingham.

Intelligent ticketing was also added into the mix: for example, in London, a pay-as-you-go Oyster card will eventually cap the price you pay in one day regardless of the number of modes you use and journeys you undertake. Furthermore, there was also an acknowledgement – both in Andy Street’s presentation and in a question at the end – that sustainable transport modes, notably cycling, have had historically low support (both in terms of actual £s and in transport planning more generally), and have therefore not seen as strong an uptake as in other cities. This is on a more positive trajectory now, but is a long way from having equal weight to other modes of urban transport, despite its health and cost advantages.

Hugo Russell from Innovation Birmingham also raised an interesting point in a question at the end: when it comes to innovation – as with so many other things – messenger matters. A new technology may seem exciting and dynamic when announced by Apple, but if the same technology appeared in a Birmingham City Council app, would it get the same energy behind it?

Creating the conditions

Within large private companies, there is scope to drive change in how transport affects the locality of the business. Roger Burgess used a fascinating example of ‘gamification’ being used to encourage good driving practices in US-based HGV drivers: essentially that drivers would compete against one another to encourage driving at an appropriate speed, on ‘hard braking’ and other key indicators. Aside from engendering generally good driving practices, this initiative saved as much as $4000 per year, per vehicle.

Andy Street acknowledged that it was not GBSLEP’s role to actually deliver the projects that would create the step-change for systemic transport innovation in the Birmingham city region. However, their role in creating the conditions for that step-change is key – and of the LEPs six strategic priorities, two relate to this agenda: stimulating innovation and improving connectivity.

To view a Storify of the event here>>

To view all the pictures of the event visit Flickr>>

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