big systems: disruption and transportation

When big thinkers talk about disruption in professional service firms, they talk about technology as a catalyst (for my own take, see my previous post about disruption and PSFs). In the direct experience of change in NetGain’s little corner of the consulting world, technology has been necessary, but not sufficient, to trigger change, and this is also true in relation to disruption and transportation.

I was around when personal computers became standard business tools, when couriers were largely replaced by fax machines, and when email started carrying the bulk of transmitted documents.  I was an early adopter of hand-held computers, before the computing power of a smartphone surpassed that of the boxy desktop computer everyone had humming somewhere in their office.

What I can tell you with certainty is that none of these enabling technologies were fundamentally disruptive.  The fax machine simply allowed us to procrastinate a little longer before sending documents.  Email cut out a few more steps and reduced transmittal time, but it allowed us to be lazier and later in the production and delivery of content.  Wireless voice and data capabilities are still squandered on entertainment and social media more than on anything critical to enterprise.

What each of these technologies did was to enhance the effect of pre-existing motives for change.  People who wanted to do things differently, who already wanted to disrupt things, found ways to use these new tools that the 800 pound gorillas of their industries didn't adopt until it was too late.  Pick your industry and find your own examples – there are many.  The point is that technology didn’t stimulate the appetite for change.  It looks like a disruptive force because the motive to change was created long before the means became available, and the latent demand for something better, cheaper, smarter had built up until conditions were ripe for wholesale disruption.  The essential precondition is not a particular technology, but a broad emotional and intellectual readiness for a better way.

This is what I was thinking when I listened to Peter Nowak talking about driverless cars at The Walrus Talks Disruption last week.  Of course, the ability to operate driverless cars awakens the mind to all sorts of possibilities, but among them are many scary deterrents to change.  People fear being trapped, lost, or delayed in mindless machines.  Thousands of cab drivers and their Uber rivals fear being put out of work.  Then, there is recreational car culture, which provides countless millions of downtrodden folks a feeling of empowerment and autonomy (no pun intended) the moment they get behind the wheel.  Driverless cars, taken to their logical extension, threaten the value of car ownership far more than all other forms of public and shared transit combined.

Adoption of driverless cars threatens even more than employment and enjoyment of privately owned automobiles.  It throws all the fundamentals of urban design into question.  Look at old aerial photos of Toronto, and you’ll see vast areas dedicated to surface parking.   Over time, parking appears to be reduced.  But, what actually happened was that land values increased to the point where structured parking (underground and elevated) was needed to increase car densities commensurably with human densities.

Now, what happens when a large portion of that structured parking and the remaining surface lots fall into disuse because shared, driverless cars, operating on a smartphone network, are utilized far more than private cars, decreasing the time spent parked?  Are roadways less busy?  Are parking lots less lucrative?  Will we break up and replant our driveways and make granny flats out of our garages?  And will driverless cars, in motion so much more of the time, require more frequent replacement, elevating the environmental damage of resource extraction and manufacturing?  If these questions interest you, see the recent article in The Star exploring the impacts of self-driving cars on real estate and land use.

Against all these uncertainties, there must be an overwhelming motive for change.  It’s human, and emotional, and, though it is technologically enabled, it’s not machine-driven change.

Nowak presents the case in terms we rarely consider, even those of us who sense the disastrous consequence of designing cities for cars instead of people.  He put up a bar chart from a respectable international health agency listing the top 10 causes of death globally.  For the first time in history, car accidents have made this list, and, according to the CDC, traffic fatalities are now the 8th leading killer, responsible for 1.25 million deaths each year.  All the other causes in the top 10 are diseases.  So, Nowak argues that many people are starting to recognize driving as a public health epidemic.

This changes thinking in a disruptive way.  On one side, we have a method of traveling that is a century old and is killing us.  Even if we aren’t personally injured by collision, there are hugely negative impacts on the environment, on the economy, on lifestyle, and on geopolitics.

On the other side, we have an enabling technology that minimizes the risk of collision and reduces other negative consequences of our dependence on cars.  Mere contemplation of this change is legitimately terrifying in its complexity.  It would radically transform the way we live and interact in public space, as well as how we feel and act in private.

As with so many questions of policy and priority, incumbent fear must be overwhelmed by consciousness of our desire for change.  Disruptive thinking stacks the deck in favor of desire over fear and makes us willing to try something different.

Maybe Nowak is right and the public health argument helps tip us toward more rapid adoption of driverless cars.  It worked once before.  A big factor in the attempt to prohibit alcohol in the United States was the need to reduce car accidents.  Americans already had a problem with alcohol, but pressure from religious groups and women weren’t having much affect.  Cars were becoming popular and drunk driving was prevalent.  At a time when the traffic code was still developing, when cars weren’t plated, traffic lights and signs were new, and driving skills were raw, alcohol made a bad situation worse.

Prohibition was an ill-conceived policy response to a form of disruption.  It failed because it was contrary to public desire, making it unenforceable.  In the 21st century, driverless cars may succeed to the extent that the public desire for change gains influence over the public fear of change.  Unlike prohibition, which focused on substance abuse and addiction, driverless car technology is a specific remedy for driver error, bringing a whole range of other benefits.

To re-emphasize the point about technological disruption: virtually all the required technology for driverless cars exists, and most of it has been tested in pilot projects.  Some of it is already a factory installed option, such as automated parallel parking.  It won’t be a brand-new technology that wins the day.  It will be an emotional and intellectual shift, triggered by disruptive words or deeds, arguments, or demonstrations.

It reminds me of an earlier post about the pace of change in electric cars.  With a 10% annual car replacement rate, hybrids should represent a much bigger share of cars on the road, but, after decades, they have been adopted by only a tiny fraction of drivers.  Perhaps the operating cost advantages, the environmental benefit, and the reduced dependency on foreign oil aren’t motivating enough for a disruptive argument to tip the balance.  By leading with the public health issue in advocating for driverless cars, Nowak appeals to a more immediate and compelling emotion.

Disruptive argument isn’t about a debate, it’s about changing the way people frame their challenges and opportunities.  Edward Keenan, columnist for The Star, tried a reframing experiment in a recent article about public perception and the Bloor bike lanes.  Keenan opened with a statement about how car lanes delayed him on his way to work.  This was an inversion of the usual argument about how pedestrian cross walks and bike lanes cause car drivers to be delayed.

My colleague, Emily Parker, reported today that she encounters 53 traffic lights on her daily commute.  If the average light is a minute long and are red half of the time, this would add more than 25 minutes to her ride.    That seems significant in comparison with the eight-minute delay for westbound Lakeshore Boulevard drivers that justified spending more than a billion dollars to reroute an elevated expressway ramp to the Don Valley Parkway.

Disruption, as a tactic for business or social enterprise, is real.  However, it should not be mistaken for the start of a change: it occurs very near the end.  It looks like a decisive moment because, on some level, people have already decided on the direction of change.  A clarification of motive and a reliable means of making the change are necessary ingredients in the disruptive moment.  Without the movie and means, the arguments and demonstrations amount to nothing.  And, absent the disruptive arguments and demonstrations, enabling technologies enable nothing.

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