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Building a community whilst embracing innovation

As any regional government should, the Province of Noord Brabant places its people at the forefront of all its policies and initiatives. With that in mind, how does it embrace technological innovation within the public transport sector whilst engaging the public, and further, build new and maintain existing relationships within the industry? In an interview for Intelligent Transport, Edwin Mermans, Senior Advisor of International Affairs at the Province of Noord Brabant, offers his perspective.

high tech bridge

What is top of the agenda for the Province of Noord Brabant?

Working in the department of mobility and infrastructure within a regional government, we work closely together with our five largest cities to ensure that a lot of the work we do in mobility is on an integrated level.

Like our public transport colleagues, we work on innovation within public transport, making use of opportunities, smart mobility, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) and so on. We have programmes in smart mobility that are developing in some really interesting ways. Most importantly, our work with smart concepts is part of an adaptive programme. We made the decision to run this programme for 10 years with a budget of €1.2 billion in the south of the Netherlands together with national ministry of transport, largest cities and province of Limburg. This equals the National Road Authorities budget for infrastructure, so is a substantial amount for smart mobility.

It’s impossible to plan for every specific detail 10 years in advance, therefore we were conscious to set up a programme that could adapt and change to meet the needs of our region at any point. Our mantra is ‘learning by doing’ and we’re doing this on many different levels. We have subprogrammes working on partnerships with existing industry, asking them to test their tools, services and vehicles on our infrastructure and in real life. Every year, there’s an open call to industry, looking for the best solutions or the latest innovative app. With Mobility Lab we are also looking to all kinds of start-ups and scale-ups to give them the opportunity to test their stories in real life. After all the big tech companies of today, the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook and so on, were the start-ups not so long ago. Our work sees us continually collaborating with others; for example, my colleagues in public transport who look to Mobility as a Service as a way to improve passenger services also look to our smart mobility programme to find out what ideas and innovations we have that could improve their services.

It’s impossible to plan for every specific detail 10 years in advance, therefore we were conscious to set up a programme that could adapt and change to meet the needs of our region at any point

There are all kinds of crossovers in terms of the programmes that are running throughout the region. An interesting one is a pilot due to begin in Breda in 2020 that uses on-demand shared electric cars which are already on the market, but that are autonomously driven. It is, of course, not autonomous driving at high speed through our cities, but it is autonomous travel of vehicles from charging points, to the location of people who order them at a pedestrian speed. We are already talking with people from the neighbourhood where the testing will take place, as placing this technology into real-life situations comes with very real risks; as you can imagine, the existing autonomous driving technology in these cars is relatively basic.

How do you balance technological innovation with implementation?

Our focus is not so much on the technology itself, but rather on whether it works in a real-life environment. We want to gauge public perception and see how people react to it. As a regional government, our role is not rooted in technological innovation – we trust industry and universities to do that. The problem that we are trying to solve is the adoption of that technology, which is much more complicated.

How do you measure the success of each new initiative?

We have a test group of 6,000 citizens in our region. We purposely made our test group large so that we could make use of it in diverse ways and for many different kinds of testing. We need this wide community of people to give their feedback, initially online, but gradually face to face too. We see that as our capital, this community of real people.

We also work with the region’s technical university, which brings numerous expertise in terms of design and centring these aspects around our projects, around our region. Relying on expertise that would not previously have been considered is still a relatively new phenomenon, not just for us, but the industry more generally.

We’re not only doing this on a regional level, we are also doing it on a European level – most notably with our new mobility services initiative. Organisations testing new initiatives need to build a community of stakeholders, starting with industry, government and researchers, but never forgetting the importance of their region’s citizens, too.

Noord Brabant’s approach of ‘learning by doing’ requires trust between partners and the ability to share mistakes. For every success story you hear there will have been a point where things went wrong, or aspects failed, and for us it is these elements that can be the most useful. It’s because of this that we try to create an environment of trust; when people get to know each other better, trust develops and they are more comfortable in sharing their mistakes – and that’s where the learning happens.

cycling bridge

Hovenring cycling bridge Eindhoven

Do you think that your open approach with your partners and collaborators in turn encourages the public to trust you and the work you’re doing?

In our experience, when we behave in the manner of a typical government, a certain amount of cynicism or scepticism and distance tends to develop. This is why, for us, it is so important to nurture our community and work with them. They need to see that we’re all just real people. The decisions we make as a public organisation affect the lives of thousands. We need to consider them first and foremost, and work with industry gradually.

We, and the companies and other organisations we work with, are all evolving. It is the stark reality of the industry today; if you are not adaptable or able to change, the chances are that your business won’t survive.

Organisations testing new initiatives need to build a community of stakeholders, starting with industry, government and researchers, but never forgetting the importance of their region’s citizens, too

In the last five or six years, we have seen some radical decisions from government, not only from our regional government, but also cities themselves, as we reinvent ourselves in these times. We are also hiring different people. Whilst we still need traditional roles, such as legal advisors, we now need expertise in building communities from a design perspective as well. On the operational side, we now have a wealth of data being generated from these new technologies and, for the first time, you’re looking at data science as a genuine career prospect within public transport – a role that has never really existed in our sector before.

Recently, we had a very interesting conversation with the urban mobility team from Daimler. They asked us what we want for our cities and, naturally, we answered that we wanted cars out of our cities, which they already know. So, the question is: how? We agreed that they should visit our region and begin discussions to see what opportunities there are to test their ideas. These are the kind of partnerships that we are looking for. 

We are already working with Ford with their vehicles using C-ITS. They want to see how, in reality, their vehicles react with our intelligent interactive traffic lights, our iVRIs. We don’t want to work with just one OEM, however, so we are looking to diversify with among others Renault, Volkswagen and Daimler.

How do you view the future in terms of cars within cities?

Car manufacturers are now confronted with the reality that, all of a sudden, the private car is the enemy. Daimler sees this. They might not like it, but they see it is a reality. Cars are moving out of the cities, not only in the Netherlands and Denmark, but everywhere. Even ‘green’ electric cars are causing congestion and taking up parking spaces. It is an inevitable development to more cycling, more micro mobility and public transport and less cars in our cities.

All of our public transport buses will be electric in three or four years’ time

Tests like we’re doing now with autonomous electric shared car in Breda, are a part of this because they acknowledge that cars will always probably be there if you travel outside of the city. But, the focus is on the car coming to you, and then the passenger travelling out of the city when those trips are needed.

Another development within our energy team, is making use of the combination of a growing number of electric battery vehicles with the need for storage of electricity from wind and sun. Their main concern is, of course, to give a boost to the energy transition and they see millions of electric batteries as an opportunity to stabilise the grid.

All of our public transport buses will be electric in three or four years’ time. Tests have been run by VDL, a truck company in our region, working with entirely electric city trucks. In 10 years, there will be a huge amount of batteries in the country. We will be making use of them to stabilise the grid and to store energy.

The development of batteries has grown so fast. I remember 10 years ago, our researcher saying to me, “perhaps batteries will be something for vehicles, but never for trucks.” Now we are building them in trucks, and even have inland ships with batteries in our region.

What do you feel is the greatest driving factor in the adoption of research, new innovations and technology from across different sectors today?

It is brilliant to see some of the research being done in transport, being applied to other sectors as well.  I think without universities and innovators all pulling together in one direction, it wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

In the very short term, greater integration is key

In the Netherlands, and also with our Flemish and Germans colleagues, we still have a lot of discussion about the use of hydrogen in vehicles. Our conclusion, based on input from many researchers, is that hydrogen is not going to be the answer for mobility because of the enormous reduction in battery price that no doubt will continue for a long time. Furthermore it is just still too expensive to produce green hydrogen gas on a really large scale until at least 2030 or probably much later. For vehicles, it is too expensive and inefficient – it costs three times more energy to run a bus on hydrogen than battery electric. As soon as it is possible to produce green hydrogen at a substantial scale we’ll need it to make industry carbon neutral and for seasonal storage of energy.  

In the next 12 months, what do you anticipate the most significant industry trends to be?

I believe that largely we will see a continuation of today, in terms of service integration and micromobility, while on the environmental side looking at alternative fuels, whether that is electric, hydrogen or anything else.

It is easy to speculate, but much harder to give a serious and assured answer to that question. If I look back over the last few years, would I have predicted anything that is happening now? Admittedly, with batteries I always thought they had the potential to be a game changer. That said, their potential is so much more than I could have anticipated. In the field of autonomous mobility, I can’t say I predicted it, or just how complicated an issue it could be. Anyone you ask, even researchers and experts in their fields, will give you very different answers. Some believe that in 10, 20 years we will have full autonomous mobility. For me, I am not so sure.

In the very short term, greater integration is key. Equally important is testing and trialling new technology and services in real life environments, as I discussed earlier. Every new development has the highest chance of failing where it has not been designed, or tested together with our citizens.

One of the biggest developments will be of the industry itself, as more and more companies and organisations see that they need to make a paradigm shift in their approach if their business is to survive. The old school way of doing things is no longer sustainable.

Biography 

Edwin Mermans is Senior Advisor international affairs at the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure from the Province of Noord-Brabant (NL) and Process Manager of the European ‘New Mobility Services’ (NMS) initiative as part of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP SCC).

Furthermore, he is working on the ambitions and programmes of the region related to Trans-European Transport Network, Mobility-as-a-Service, Smart & Green Mobility and Sustainable Urban Mobility such as in the SmartwayZ.NL programme. Edwin has among others a background as a journalist and is experienced in integrating social media in innovation processes. Edwin Mermans has experience in a wide range of European programmes, projects and networks. He is fascinated by the role of governments in dealing with societal challenges – to create value – by building multi helix learning ecosystems using design-thinking concepts.

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