“It has to be disruptive technology,” bleated the consulting firm facilitator at the Future Transport Summit in Sydney earlier this week.
The hapless, but well paid, consultant — a depressingly frequent feature of Australia’s current ‘ideas boom’ — was protesting when one of the participants at his ‘ideation session’ had raised topics such as integrated timetables and changing commuting habits.
Mr Consultant’s running orders for his ‘ideation session’ were to focus on ‘digital disruption’ and his employer;s cluelessness illustrates a danger for business leaders and policy makers.
Selling the snake oil
Digital disruption is real however it’s not just the only factor facing governments and industries. Demographics, economics, politics and climate change will have greater influences on business and society.
Uber, the favourite lovechild of those spruiking digital disruption snake oil, is a very good case in point. While the service certainly has disrupted the taxi and motor vehicle industries, these sectors were facing major challenges as governments enacted policies to reduce carbon emissions, voters became tired of cartel like taxi companies and the Western world’s young and wealthy moved back to the cities and away from owning motor vehicles.
If anything, Uber was the result of GenY entrepreneurs like Travis Kalanick finding existing services didn’t meet their needs rather than the result of technology desperately looking for a problem to solve finding a niche.
While the smartphone was critical in Uber’s success in disrupting the global taxi industry, technology was only one facet of a much more complex set of changes.
The motor industry is a good example of the complexity of change. A hundred years ago it was clear the transport industry was about to be disrupted by the automobile, it was by no means obvious access to affordable personal transport would allow urban sprawl and the suburbanisation of western society.
Coupled with the motor car and truck, the availabilty of mains electricity meant refrigeration also became accessible which lead to the rise of supermarkets after World War II. This disrupted the local corner store in ways shopkeepers could never have foreseen in the interwar years.
Now, the opposite is happening as the young and affluent reject long commuting times from distant suburbs and city densities start increasing.
The social and economic factors that drove Uber are affecting public transport usage patterns and it’s no coincidence that the cities where ride sharing services have most successful, such as Sydney, also have underfunded public transport systems that are struggling to meet their population’s demands.
Which brings us back to the foolishness of discussing the future of transport only in relation to technology. Smartphones, apps, big data and the internet of things will all be critical parts of future transportation but the social and economic factors will shape how people use the networks.
Focusing on technology while ignoring the other big influences is a folly that will cost businesses and government dearly. Although one suspects the management consultancies will do well regardless of how well change is managed.