Five things Bertrand Piccard can teach public transport

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Dr. Bertrand Piccard – Solar Impulse leader, doctor, psychiatrist and aviator – was the keynote speaker at the UITP New Year Reception in Brussels last week. His inspirational speech gave the assembled international public transport community plenty of food for thought. Here are some key takeaways: 

1. Innovation: we know it’s important, but what does it actually mean?

“Innovation is an old belief that you leave behind,” explained Dr. Piccard. Ideas are often consigned to the drawing board because of constraints based on “certitudes, habits, paradigms and dogmas”. When we have beliefs, we are stuck in a single direction. As in his around the world balloon flight, to change direction we also need to “change our altitude in order to progress”.

Urban mobility is stuck in a rut: we are still using 100 year-old technology and systems, such as the combustion engine, to move around in today’s cities. 97% of emissions are “on the ground,” as opposed to aviation’s 3%, so there is a lot to be saved even by simply optimising existing technology.  

In order to advance, we need to learn from what didn’t work in the past and try to understand why. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, real innovation is based on failure. If we do not allow failure to happen, then there will be no progress.

Innovation is an old belief that you leave behind

“It’s not the people who were selling candles who invented lightbulbs,” so if we want real creativity in public transport then we must look “to the outside of the system”. 

2. Public transport needs to be more entrepreneurial

The entrepreneur is the person who implements the innovation. Public transport receives both too many tasks and restraints, so we need to redefine those tasks starting from what people actually want from us.

Implementing a culture change in public transport companies is crucial therefore. The challenge is to make people working in public transport consider that they have a noble mission: “they help people, they move life”. Power is not enough anymore: we need more communication to take people with us, whether it’s users, governments or employees.

Making an analogy with Solar Impulse, which employs approximately 150 people, Dr. Piccard explained that though they sometimes do boring tasks, the employees are highly motivated as they all share the same goal of “changing the world”. Equally, companies that are the most successful “are those that respect their employees”.

3. Public transport has an image problem

Just look at airlines, high speed trains and Uber: they all convey an image of modernity. If public transport had the same modern image, it would attract more customers.

As a result, public transport should work on its image, to give greater consideration to the customer experience and to communicate its values of what it does and why.

If public transport had the same modern image as airlines, high speed trains and Uber, it would attract more customers.

4. Getting the word out

Public transport is a tool that governments can use to lower their carbon footprints: we might know that, but do politicians? Hence the importance of working closely with the media so as to convince political decision makers to be more ambitious.

Public transport is a long-term game and lead-times on projects do not easily lend themselves to the timescale of politicians’ vanity projects or terms of office. To interest politicians in long-term projects we need to show them the short-terms results and benefits of investment in public transport.

5. The profitability of efficiency

What’s the difference between COP21 and COP15 in Copenhagen back in 2009? The difference is that renewable energy is now affordable and we’ve reached a “critical mass” consensus on the issue of climate change.

“What is there left to be conquered? We even conquered the Moon. Quality of life on Earth is one thing left to be conquered”. So the key to do get things moving in this direction is to show “the profitability of [energy] efficiency. Today, the solutions are profitable so they can be implemented”. 

By the same token, we should not become fixated about restricting habits such as travel: “When we try to convince people of our ideas, we create resistance. We need to show there’s a mutual advantage”. We can create this mutual advantage by working on urban density, concentrating economic and social activities and making cities more attractive. 


See more pictures of UITP's 2016 annual reception on our Flickr account.


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