A growing, ageing population and the rapid depletion of our traditional energy resources, and the corresponding impact on the environment, are arguably the three biggest drivers of change in today’s global economy. A fourth is urbanisation.
Seven years ago, United Nations figures estimated that the number of people living in cities around the world had for the first time surpassed the number of rural residents. The same report predicted city dwellers would account for 70 per cent of the world’s population by 2050.
With people and businesses clearly seeing strong benefits in being physically close to other people and businesses, this presents significant challenges for those in charge of city planning and infrastructure. Of course, technological advances in areas such as augmented-reality and 3D printing could soon render unnecessary some of our journeys and deliveries. But the smooth movement of growing numbers of people around the world’s already congested global cities won’t be solved by technology alone. It is how we deploy technology that will determine which cities prevail.
Equally, a mind shift is needed among policymakers, industry and the public that focuses more on end-to-end journeys and less on individual modes of transport – on mobility rather than transport. Intelligent Mobility, if you will.
Recent improvements in route planning software that consider multiple transport modes is an example of the first steps being taken towards achieving this, but there is still a long way to go. Part of our remit at the Transport Systems Catapult is to overcome the silo thinking that has typically dogged the transport sector, and encourage collaboration among all transport providers.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss talk about connected journeys and smoothly running transport systems as something that would be “nice to have” by authorities whose efforts are focused on “bigger issues” such as healthcare provision and revenue raising. But Intelligent Mobility is crucial to a city’s wellbeing and prosperity, and will become essential in the years to come. People and businesses function best when they are close to other people and businesses. While connectivity between different cities will continue to be of major importance, the risk of increased congestion within our rapidly growing global cities will ensure that the efficient movement of people and goods inside the city limits is of equal importance.
Research by architect and urban planning consultant Tim Stonor found that the most connected city areas are more successful at attracting retailers and generating high property prices than their less connected counterparts. This demonstrates how cities can improve their citizens’ quality of life by using intelligent systems to improve mobility, rather than resorting to the old (and expensive) approach of simply throwing more infrastructure at the problem. It should offer comfort to transport providers and city authorities to know that more can be achieved with less. Important too that authorities see improved transport systems not just as something that needs funding, but as a long-term revenue source.
A recent study into the business potential of Intelligent Mobility suggests that the global market for this new sector will be worth around £900bn per year in just more than a decade; our vision at the Transport Systems Catapult is to help unlock that commercial potential. How? By bridging the so called “valley of death”, when great ideas are born but fail to achieve commercial reality, often because an SME or research organisation lacks the business knowledge and contacts to turn their invention into a successful product or service.
One example is the LUTZ Pathfinder programme. Managed by the Catapult on behalf of the UK Automotive Council, this project will trial three self-driving pods on the pavements of Milton Keynes, with a focus on “last-mile” journeys. The vehicle’s developer, RDM Group, is an example of how the Catapult’s projects serve as springboards for growth. Since winning the LUTZ contract, RDM has won a major government contract and is being courted by potential clients worldwide.
In another project, a move away from silo thinking has resulted in a data-sharing exercise that is delivering economic, environmental and customer benefits across the UK air transport network. Elsewhere, the Innovation in Rail Franchising initiative looks set to transform the rail travel experience.
Many projects are informed by and feed into the Catapult’s data visualisation programme, which, by deploying and visualising data holds huge potential for Intelligent Mobility. This enhanced use of data is only possible because of the explosion in digital connectivity, and as this paves the way for transport connectivity, the impacts could be significant. Cities that get it right will be amazing places indeed.