Thursday, January 14, 2010

A major sustainability challenge of 2010:
Building a World-Wide Learning Community

Is there a requirement, a potentially useful role for a more creative and powerful system of linkage, dynamic multi-level interaction, information exchange and eventually collaboration between the many and fast growing number of outstanding programs and their considerable knowledge and competence bases, with specific reference to the issues, roles and possibilities of the new mobility transport policy, planning, and practice? And if so: who, when, what next?

Building a World-Wide Learning Community

Silos of competence and action:

This is an important and in our current view a very promising collaborative effort that got under way in mid 2008 in cooperation with the Sustainable Mobility program of the Center for Advancing Research and Solutions for Society (University of Michigan). We set out to ponder and then to see how we might work together to address these challenges.

Why do we have silos when what we need is deep team work?

Here are some of the structural and psychological reasons that you can spot that in various combinations account for this state of affairs:
• Distance
• Time (zones)
• Language
• Culture
• Time horizon focus (short-term, long-term orientation)
• Geographic focus
• Discipline focus
• Competence level
• Character/attitude
• Interests (declared and undeclared)
• Strategic
• Targeted areas of operations/specialization
• Time limitations
• Financial limitations
• Prefer to work alone
• Technical, communications limitations
• Ignorance (of others and possibilities for creative combination)
• Ego
• Competition for public attention
• Competition for financial support
• Turf protection

That's a lot, eh? But we need to be lucid and this is the dominant physical and psycho-structure of our field as of 2010 as we enter 2010, and it is important as a first step for us to be fully aware of all these often rather tricky and for the most part very human values and differences. This is quite simply the terrain with which we have to work. (And incidentally, it helps if we all look into this mirror from time to time and see if we can spot ourselves. Including the author of this article, of course.)

Hence, all the more reason to see if we can find better ways to break down those silos and create a more powerful, better coordinated, more strategic capacity to work together and address the gargantuan problems we face.
Note: To give you some idea of the dimensions of the challenge, to date in our preparatory work we have identified more than six hundred sources, projects and programs active in this broad area – sustainable transportation and particularly in and around cities – most of them entirely autonomous, some very small, very local and very poor, others quite large and decently funded to make their targeted contributions. But even the largest and best funded of these groups constitute a very small force in the face of the dimensions of the challenges.

Project origins:

The concept of new mobility or sustainable transportation is gradually gaining credibility as an alternative strategy for the policy, development and management of city transport systems worldwide. Starting from a very different series of basic conditions, premises and priorities to the transportation policies and practices that largely dominated the 20th century, these new approaches are increasingly being supported by a wide variety of leading practitioners, authorities, and institutions -- public, private and participatory -- in many parts of the world.

Despite this undeniable progress however, this approach is still heavily outmatched in many cities and parts of the world, in part because it advocates different approaches which are often regarded with doubt or suspicion by more conservative interests.

Fortunately there are a growing number of people, programs and institutions in different parts of the world that have got the message and are leading the charge with these new approaches: strategies and measures which are far better matched with the very different, historically unique and highly stringent requirements of this new century. One of the goals of this first-stage project is simply to identify the leading groups and approaches.

The goal of this open collaborative project is to initiate a constructive dialogue among the people and organizations around the world who know the problems and possibilities best, to see if we can come to some sort of creative vision of what if any best next steps might be.

These first stages are being taken in hand by the New Mobility Partnerships as a public contribution -- and in doing this we note the sense of high emergency associated with this project that is driven by not only the long understood needs for radical transportation reform in our cities, but also and above all by the utmost urgency of the climate issues and just behind them the ever more pressing problems of energy supply, security and prices. It is for these reasons that this project takes on particular urgency and importance.

The project started to take shape in Spring 2008 with a series of exchanges between Sue Zielinski Managing Director of the Sustainable Mobility (SMART) program of the University of Michigan and Eric Britton of the New Mobility Partnerships in preparation for a high level brainstorming public/private conference on "New Mobility: The Emerging Transportation Economy" in which the idea was being turned around that our present information and "knowledge recuperation" tools were not keeping up with the urgent challenges we are presently facing. Britton was asked to lead a presentation and discussion on this during the 12 June 2008 conference, eventually entitled "Reinventing the Wheel (But not all by ourselves".

The discussion was well received and eventually gave birth to this first stage project probe.

Basic principles

This project is defined by the following basic considerations and principles:
1. We are losing the climate war in a very big way - and we don't need to.

2. We are losing the fossil fuel, food, and resource wars-and we don't need to lose them either.

3. Transportation accounts for on the order of 20% of the climate problem -- more in the case of some of the others.

4. More than half of the world population today live in cities -- with more pouring in every day.

5. The vast majority of these people are poorly served by the existing transportation arrangements - and most the plans and projects in the pipeline offer zero prospect of the fundamental structural improvements that are needed.

6. A growing number of institutions and programs trying to make targeted contributions to deal with these challenges --some with fair resources and broad backing, most however working on bare bones budgets.

7. These programs and the people who make them up communicate with each other and collaborate with each other in a number of ways - but there is every reason to step up both by several orders of magnitude if we are to have a chance to rectify these fundamental planet and life threatening problems.

8. Communications and computer technologies offers the possibility to better network these programs, institutions and the people working with them - at low cost and very quickly.

9. The more unified, more deeply seated networking and sharing approach that would come out of these greatly heightened communications arrangements would improve their chances, individually and collectively, at getting to grips with the underlying challenges.

10. This project has the mission of opening up the dialogue that is needed to advance this very specific component of the sustainability agenda.
Dividend: This deepened and more universally accessible knowledge environment is for sure going to open up new project and service opportunities for entrepreneurs, both public, private and volunteer.

Some preliminary observations on this:

1. There is a huge amount of activity going on in this field (new mobility) in many places, though it is widely spread out, extremely varied in quality, quantity and focus, and at the present state of the art not really handy for consultation.

2. To use a common metaphor: we need to find ways to connect the silos.

3. But if one is to do anything at all in this area, we must have a firm understanding of how people go about accessing and putting all this to work in this fast-paced new century. How much detail do they need?

4. How can we bring it to them in layers, tree like structures which give them a bit of information to get started but which then permit them to start to burrow into the topic without having to lose track of all that went before.

5. If we are looking for an analogy, what about the need for getting together to invent some kind of 21st century Dewey Decimal system to allow us to access the contents of our worldwide library.?

6. There is very definitely a "new tools" vector that is worthy of closest attention. Most of us today are working with what in fact is a pretty old tool set (Moore's Law still holds) -- but the fact is that there are amazing new communications and linking tools available/needed that we should be putting to work.

7. Certainly we need to include full access not only to web sites, news groups, blogs, print in its variations, past and planned events in our areas of interest, but also to films, videos, sound, and images, as well as to games and other learning and playing devices that can be useful to sharpen the mind and bring up new perspectives. And 21st century communications options (full range thereof). In all this, if we are looking for models we would be consummately dumb not at least to try to understand by analogy what a "Google", "Skype', "Wikipedia", and even "Facebook", "LinkedIn", "YouTube", etc. new tools approach to this might give.

8. As we see it, there is both an information and an education-communications function to be served in our field. We need better working links between the main players: public sector players, researchers, local government, public interest groups and industry. But we also need much tighter linkages and let's call it "cultural consonance" with the media, old and new.

9. One stark reality is that if you look down our first listing here, you will note that each of these groups is extremely busy and very focused. They have their mandates, schedules, and responsibilities to deliver - all putting tough claims on their time and resources to do anything else. So whatever we come up with is going to have to fit in this tight environment.

10. And unless someone can convince me to the contrary, I for one would be quite opposed to the idea of setting up some sort of one more staffed program for this. I see this as an open collaborative venture with everyone pitching in, and someone very smart and capable coming up with some new cross-cutting software link and search solutions.

11. Finally the sense of urgency. The transport sector accounts for on the order of 20% of all greenhouse gases. We have the means to reduce this contrition at least when it comes to transport in cities by several percent each year, but we are not doing it because we have not made the strong case that is needed to sway policy maker and public attention. This project could be a great help in this creating the necessary now concerns for change.

To conclude: This is an important topic and we have at least the intellectual means and the tools needed to start to deal with it. What is needed is the resources to get it started and then step by step advanced as shown to be necessary and useful.

You know what we really need? It's someone who is willing to step forward and take on the task of becoming the DARPA of New Mobility. To shepherd the amazing discovery of an information highway that this time will carry and connect both people and electrons.

Who is going to have the foresight to take this lead?

What next?

We thought that a good first step to open up the silos and hopefully in parallel get some conversations going as to how to deal with these changes, that we would see if we could get together to build a combined search engine that would allow anyone with access to the net to scan ALL the resources and on line databases of all the groups and sources that we are able to identify. This lead us as a first step to work on something we called "Knoogle" -- KNOwledge goOGLE. Let's have a quick look.

Knoogle – A combined search engine tailored to do (a part of) the job

Knoogle New Mobility 1.2 is the first iteration of a power search engine specifically tailored to help policy makers, local government, researchers, NGOs, activists, consultants, concerned citizens and the media keep up efficiently with the work and plans of the leading groups, programs and sources leading the field of sustainable transport and sustainable cities, worldwide.

Knoogle is a free product of the New Mobility Agenda and the collaborative New Mobility Knowledge Environment: aimed at better linking a world-wide learning community in support of urgent, climate-driven transport reform in cities.

We invite you to test our in-process Knoogle 1.2 combined search engine to view the results of a quick unified scan based on your selected key words, combing through more than one thousand selected institutions, programs and sources in thirty countries that we view as leading the way in their work and
competence in our heavily challenged sector world-wide.

• Click here: to go to and use Knoogle New Mobility 1.1.

Examples of increasing coordination and interaction
We saw some interesting examples of this beginning to come on line with much more force over 2009. We shall be identifying them in the coming weeks and months in World Streets.

For more on this collaborative project, click here.

Get involved. Be part of it.

Eric Britton,
Editor

Print this article