Connecting The Dots: Innovation In Transportation And Beyond

07/20/2012 04:26 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

A wise man once said, "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things." That wise man was none other than Steve Jobs. Jobs had the uncanny ability to see things that others either didn't (or didn't care to) see. What I love about this quote is that it shows the honesty of Jobs; he's literally admitting to us all that it wasn't science or math, but simply his curiosity and willingness to take chances that lead him to consistently operate on the cutting edge of innovation.

Connecting the dots has become more challenging over the past few years in many industries. Things are more complex now, and that means that there are many more dots to connect. This is especially true of the transportation industry. There are more cars on the road which results in more traffic; we have aging infrastructure, we're dealing with environmental and pollution concerns and the challenge of making public transportation more efficient.

With the rise of digital and new technology, there are so many opportunities to address these problems -- and the solutions lie in these disconnected dots -- they just need to be connected. Xerox was recently an exhibitor at the intelligent transportation show, ITS America Annual Meeting & Expo, where much of the focus of the conversations was connecting dots to find new solutions to the world's growing transportation problems.

The fact Xerox was even at a conference focused on "intelligent transportation solutions" is really an exercise in dot-connecting, if you will. However, Xerox, which most people associate with printing, is doing some really innovative things in transportation by applying its years of imaging, data capture and research to transportation processes.

Take parking as an example. From a commuter's standpoint, the cost of parking is a moot point when you're wasting time and (gas) money cruising for a parking space that doesn't exist. And if you're a local business, low parking turnover usually translates into less foot traffic. So how can the technology and processes behind managing print environments improve parking? By studying the way people work and behave. Xerox is helping cities like Los Angeles and Indianapolis solve parking headaches by employing the same research processes it has done for years in solving document workflow problems.

In Los Angeles, we observed parking behavior, conducted driver interviews and surveys, and even participated in parking activities ourselves. We spent the bulk of our time standing on streets or in parking garages as we watched drivers parking their cars and using meters, workers making deliveries, and officers issuing tickets.

The result of all this data crunching was a unique algorithm that helps Los Angeles make educated pricing adjustments that can be made in real-time based on demand, time of day and other factors. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation expects a higher utilization of parking in each block - reducing traffic congestion and pollution generated by drivers hunting for curbside parking. Drivers can also take advantage of a parking app that helps them identify open parking spaces as they become available.

There are other fascinating people and companies that are connecting the dots in transportation with solutions that seem obvious now, only after the fact. Take Sobi Social Bicycles, a company that is changing the bike-sharing game. Sobi built the world's first bicycle with an on-board computer, mobile communications, and an integrated GPS-enabled lock. Until now, traditional bike-sharing solutions required people to pick the bike up and drop it off at the same location, which was tedious and counterproductive. Sobi founder, Ryan Rzepecki, realized there were dots that needed connecting. He applied a different process to bike-sharing -- using technology to allow anyone to rent and drop-off a bike anywhere -- and has in turn created a disruptive innovation in this space. Big cities like New York have already taken notice and are currently piloting Sobi's modernized bike-sharing solution.

Another unique innovation that came by way of applying a different process to connect the dots is the Brunswick Explorer, a public transit bus service serving rural Brunswick, ME. The Brunswick Explorer is a small 14-seat hybrid bus that travels a seven mile route every hour in both directions providing much needed mobility to people in the area, and is one of many innovators trying to build transit that meets the needs of its residents rather than fulfill an objective or city agenda. Designers of the service relied on the public's insight to determine routes, rather than solely on examining traffic patterns. Lee Karker, executive director, Coastal Transit, described the process of setting up the Explorer in a recent New York Times article as "more organic." "Before when we looked at bus routes we got input on traffic patterns, not input from the users," he said. "Now we're trying to be more entrepreneurial. We have a tendency to make a transit system look the way we think it should look rather than what the community needs and what they want," Karker went on to say. The Brunswick Explorer has become such a beloved part of the community that they are now considering adding a few more.

As you can see from the above, there are many opportunities, large and small, to connect the dots in transportation and beyond. Sometimes all it takes is stepping back from the problem, applying a different process and trying to see something that others don't. So what are some other industries that could benefit from connecting the dots? Or, better yet, what are some great examples of connecting the dots in your area? Please let us know in the comments below.