To be innovative in the public sector, keep people in focus Urban Planning

By Ian Sacs

Technology kidnaps the mobility industry. In these times when “everything goes fast and everything breaks”, everything is MVP and not VMT. Mayors want an automated shuttle to claim it’s a smart city. Private companies plunge into poorly designed mobility solutions. Every consultant wants to touch your data. I don’t want to sound old and grumpy, but I often ask myself, “Can we all pause for a moment and think about what we’re trying to solve here?” Well, I’m not an Elon Musk, but I had the lucky opportunity in mine Careers led some humble innovative mobility projects that used technology, including mapping public transportation before streaming became mainstream, a pre-Uber SMS-based ride hail service, and America’s first City-wide car sharing program on the street, You can see that these programs were innovative by simply typing in all the dashes needed to describe them. In fact, I’ve always tried to improve municipal transportation services. Nowadays I am regularly asked how I can use the technology to drive the innovation agenda that most cities and countries are pursuing. My answer, summarized in the following three points, is not necessarily what decision-makers expect:

Mobility is about people: Innovation is useful when there is a problem to be solved. Nowadays we see too often that technological innovations are proposed for themselves. If we really want to be innovative in mobility, the starting point is people, not technology. What problems does the community face and why does the current system not help them? As much as I look forward to seeing (and experiencing) many of the latest technological innovations in our industry, I firmly believe that ideas should be born out of a need to help people get around more easily, and not out the indirect desire to be innovative.

Holistic planning is a prerequisite: Before we introduce any kind of technology, we have to consider the land use and in particular the basic accessibility of a place. Just as the automobile in the 20th century didn’t meet our urban mobility needs, so did any other technology (including my beloved bike) when a community isn’t planned with the most common people in the immediate vicinity – and the resources are provided for it easy for people of all ages and with all physical abilities to go to and from most daily activities. Let’s do that first.

Technology is an enabler: In certain cases, for certain people at certain times, a certain technology can fit into a certain niche, which makes it easier for people to reach certain places. I claim that technology is only a pioneer, has limited potential, and should never be seen as a panacea for a city’s mobility needs, whether it’s a high-speed line or a robot car.

Another point to address is that, regardless of the benefits or ambitions, absolutely nothing will happen without one or more political advocates pushing the agenda. It makes no sense implementing any Innovation if you don’t first gain the support of at least one influential decision-maker and keep them – at least up to date. Looking back at all of these really cool projects from previous years, the main criticism of my efforts would be not to recruit any more political masters in the early stages of the concept. I could have saved a lot of frustration and time if I had known that I offer credit for the early support of people who needed it much more than I did.

Ian Sacs is a great urban planning expert. He works with governments, architects and developers to create pragmatic urban environments. His background is in transformative urban transportation planning, first in the modernization of multimodalism in New York City and then as a city official in Hoboken, New Jersey. Ian works at Ramboll with new mobility services and their viability in livable communities, including AV, e-mobility and MaaS. He also deals with mobility and traffic planning in North America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe and regularly advises municipalities on future-proof policies and infrastructure. You can contact Ian here:,

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