Suffocating, solving the wrong problem

Smog

I was in Mumbai at the back end of last year. At least I thought I was. As I looked out of my isolated-from-reality-and-sound proofed hotel room I realised I couldn’t hear the city. And I couldn’t see it.

The smog was dense and wound its way to the back of my throat despite the many layers of hotel between me and it.

Where's Mumbai gone?
Where’s Mumbai gone?

“This is nothing, you should go to Delhi, that’s proper smog” someone said to me; the first time I’ve ever come across competitive pollution. But Mumbai was smoggy enough for me.

Out on the street it was easy to see why. Every form of overloaded motor vehicle – buses, lorries, precariously balanced scooters, cars – was arranged in a belching, largely static, avalanche of steel.

Fixing the environmental impact of moving around is an urgent, urgent task. We don’t have time to sit back and think about it, we have to get on with it now. The fall in oil price gives us the economic breathing space to invest in cleaner modes of transport. Now is the time to act.

But how?

The wrong question

Most mainstream car manufacturers are focused on bringing some form of cleaner propulsion to the market – batteries, fuel cells, hybrids – all different ways of powering vehicles. Some are making significant progress – notably Toyota. There are several rinky dinky start ups experimenting with new materials to make cars more sustainable or batteries more affordable.

But it’s not enough. And worse than that they’re probably concentrating on solving the wrong question. No matter how visionary (and there’s bags of vision) they’re all working on making cars better. And I’m not sure that’s right.

India’s pollution is deadly – the tiny particulates (PM2.5) that abound in the atmosphere penetrate the deepest parts of the lungs. In Delhi the levels are 15 times higher than WHO safe limits. It’s now reckoned that Delhi is 45% more polluted than Beijing. Yikes.

Tiny and deadly
Tiny and deadly

The solution to this problem is a much bigger issue than “making a better car”. It requires a much more collaborative and systemic approach looking at the entire transport infrastructure – most especially focusing on where the bulk of the journeys are made: commercial vehicles, trains, buses, taxis, bikes. And why they are made. And when. And how.

Any business serious about tackling environmental issues has to work across a much broader canvas than simply “cars” – it’s just not enough. We need to be looking at every kind of journey and rewiring how ‘movement’ works.

Which is why the most exciting innovations in this field come from left field. The genius of business models like Uber or Google’s driverless cars is that they utilise resources better. A car is only useful when it’s moving. 95% of the time privately owned vehicles are sitting around doing nothing. And if they are moving they generally have only one person in them. Which is a shocking waste of resources. Google’s trials show that if the cars are moving all the time, are utilised all the time, by synching their movement with journey needs using their fancy pants predictive technology, then the total car fleet only needs to be 15% of the size it is today.

Google's cutesy car - it knows where the parking spaces are
Google’s cutesy car – it knows where you want to go before you do

Now that’s a big difference.

Swapping the propulsion system of the existing vehicle fleet away from fossil fuel to something else is going to take a long, long time (so far only 0.2% of the world’s cars are battery electric) and – even if successful – will perpetuate the basic problem: privately held cars just aren’t an efficient use of the world’s precious resources.

It’s solving the wrong problem. And worse consuming a huge amount of creativity and energy in solving the wrong problem.

But marry say Uber and driverless technology and fuel cell propulsion and you’ve got a paradigm shift in the way people move. Apply it to commercial vehicles and you’ve got a big shift in how stuff moves around. We need to think beyond cars, beyond people, beyond personal transport and focus on movement, all movement.

If I’m David, you must be Goliath

For many years I have been convinced that for business to be truly effective in tackling big societal issues like environment, or inequality, it has to be properly, truly collaborative, and to loose itself from the old school doctrines of competition and market share.

But sadly – even as we face these enormous issues – most business, and most business people, are locked into competition mode even by default. Tackling an issue like pollution from transport requires a whole set of actors to come together and work together – and to do so with agility, far sightedness and generosity.

Unfortunately there’s precious little collaboration to be seen today – but plenty of “my solution’s better than yours”. Check out the pro-battery anti-fuel cell arguments that rage – stoked up by the likes of Tesla.

This kind of technology one upmanship now manifests itself most acutely in the new game of “giving away patents” or “publishing our designs so that everyone can copy us”. Superficially altruistic but actually hugely arrogant. What’s noticeable is that nobody cares. Nobody has rushed to copy Tesla’s technology – in fact many folks I have spoken to are, well, a bit sniffy about it. Last month even the mighty Toyota made 98% of its patents available (what on earth is the 2%?).

There is an intellectual competition here that is very unhealthy. And the truth is that nobody, not even Elon, has a monopoly on the “right answer”. But there seems to be a race to prove that “I’m right and you’re not” – where everyone in the race casts themselves as David versus Goliath.

And if you cast yourself as David, everyone else looks like Goliath.

Which is mighty unhelpful – because we need all the Davids, and all the Goliaths, to work together on this one.

 

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