Against the backdrop of the explosion in new data from connected citizens, in 2016 Artificial Intelligence (AI) guru Richard Susskind predicted decline of most of today’s professions. Professional power to implement transport designs has often relied on technocratic evidence from large complex transport models accompanied by a lot of professional experience and judgement. Certainly, many people working in transport have been slow to recognise that algorithms in social media and retail systems have become relatively more influential over public opinion and the case for transport change. Susskind envisaged that the emerging new roles for professions were more likely be: craftspeople, process analysts, system engineers and even specialist ‘empathisers’.
With the growing power of AI, many transport staff see a steadily widening gap between aspiration and delivery. Technology systems are using data in increasingly complex ways and the linking of technology systems with financial systems, not least in the value of the technology companies themselves, can make people feel powerless. The balance of top down power has changed in favour of machines. Far greater power remains within communities where many connections are made that cannot yet be translated into machine intelligence. Humans can retain the capability to rewire ‘the system’ to better reflect human creativity, needs and values.
A common complaint is that transport stakeholders lack the powers they need e.g. control over buses. However, sustainability demands that power is distributed to ensure diversity. Wider powers are gained less though increases in top down control than through working in partnership. The local council, national government, politicians, transport operators, consumer/citizen advice organisations, campaigning bodies, and many others, all have some stake in sustainable transport, but no one of these organisations could ever achieve what is necessary.
The real power at the top is the ability to delegate to people and organisations that are able to deliver. It is less important to worry about the transfer of top down power from humans to machines than to celebrate the superpower of humans to make connections from the bottom up.
When the City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) say in their latest place making consultation “Every neighbourhood in Edinburgh has its own story” they reflect the unique skills of people to identify citizen centric designs. Over the last 20 years community planning processes have been regularly refined and improved to achieve better local engagement. However cross sector working is difficult, and professional skills in designing business models for connected smart places and inclusive circular economies have substantial room for improvement. CEC’s statutory remit in community planning is to be a ringleader not a director, but these organisational skills remain weak. Even collaborative working between public bodies still relies more on fragile relationships rather than hard wired business models. The NHS, or local business groups, are far more likely to be influenced by patients, customers and staff than by a planning mechanism but too often organisition of service delivery remains largely top down.
Transport professionals sometimes regard how much top down public funding they have spent as an indicator of success, but to be sustainable, this needs to change. Investment approaches should be integral to the organisational design of stakeholder responsibilities, rather then over-reliant on one source of resources. Every successful eco-system relies on diversity. In order to be sustainable, power must be distributed. Financial sustainability needs to be designed in from the start. The currency of sustainable transport is the value of the lived experiences of affected people, and it is within each community that power and funding for investment is built.
Too many people in transport currently feel disempowered, but focusing on everyone’s capabilities enables their collective power to be pooled. Algorithms and machines cannot design future sustainable transport systems to reflect the richness of human needs. A fresh approach to transport rooted in communities of interest will make sustainable transport much more achievable. Over the last 20 years much has been learned about smarter business models when planning for events, and organising transport for defined communities of interest such as schools and workplaces. More widespread dynamic community planning continues to be work in progress, with the legislative changes framing community empowerment still needing matched with stronger action to support local leadership.
The growing power of top down AI driven change can be a positive force when moderated through strong community planning mechanisms. However, the top down forces have been growing in influence far faster than the bottom up navigation and management of benefits within communities. Transport authorities need to refocus investment programmes on enabling opportunities for people and places, rather than on legacy top down service delivery structures.