Dignity should be key measure of MaaS success

Money isn’t everything: what if we made dignity into the key measure of success for MaaS? Crissy Ditmore sets out her vision statement for the industry’s developers
Mobility as a Service / December 4, 2020 5 mins Read
By Crissy Ditmore
A lot has changed over the last year © Kit1nyc | Dreamstime.com
A lot has changed over the last year © Kit1nyc | Dreamstime.com

Discussions on Mobility as a Service (MaaS) focus primarily on the potential for it to achieve profit. I continue to push the industry to take the dialogue in other directions mainly because I believe its ability to make money as the sole measure of success limits the potential of MaaS. We can and must go deeper into subjective goals in order to move toward the enlightened future that MaaS can genuinely achieve.

Dignity for instance, is an individual, subjective state. What if we measured the success of MaaS by how well it imparts dignity to its users? Most mobility start-ups likely spent more time on branding than engaging with a diverse stakeholder group of end users. This kind of engagement is a matter of will, not of time or funding. This article is a vision statement for how we can proceed as an industry in a way that dignifies all users and creates systems of services with a much higher likelihood of adoption because the users are party to the design and can see themselves reflected in the end product.

It is impossible - no matter how empathetic you think you are - to truly understand life experiences of others. No individual can embody the intersectional nature of lived experiences. The homogeneous group of founders and boards of directors in MaaS businesses so far is one of the reasons why the message is not translating to the wider public. The industry has a messaging problem, but it is rooted in the fact that the general public does not see their life mirrored in the product. Therefore, we must make the choice to do more to ensure diverse voices are reflected in the services offered, incorporated prior to development.  In addition to the platforms and services, we must also shift the policies that will inevitably shape the fate of MaaS. In doing so we must take care to not reinforce or duplicate systemic inequalities in the existing institutions governing transportation. This can be mobility’s finest moment in history to build something unique, equitable, anti-racist, safe, accessible, environmentally sustainable, and in support of healthier people and inclusive communities.  

Most policies for MaaS regarding regulatory use, incentivisation, taxation and governance are yet to be written. As the MaaS framework continues to iterate we must go the extra effort to create the path for living that allows for resourcefulness: communities are both capable and able to assist in the framing of what freedom of movement should be in their region. The founders of MaaS were resourceful in their approach to combine public and private mobility offerings. The ongoing iterations of MaaS can be resourceful as well as stimulating community resourcefulness. There is too much at stake with widening economic divides and catastrophic environmental outcomes if we try to solve the MaaS opportunity with last year’s ideals.

In January 2020, researchers from around the world gathered in Washington, DC, for the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting. I was there presenting research on the need to have policy leading MaaS solutions.

A lot has happened since then, and I am no longer the same person I was in January. The reality is no one should be. From the pandemic to worldwide reckoning of historical racial injustices to climate emergencies, too much is now at the surface to discuss ‘business as usual’. Instead, we must force ourselves to think deeper and create a better path forward. The current dialogue is focused on ‘resilience’ as the way for citizens and cities to build a stronger future. In practice, resilience requires building upon existing privileges in the system.

‘We must make the choice to do more to ensure diverse voices are reflected in the services offered, incorporated prior to development’ © Designer491 | Dreamstime.com
‘We must make the choice to do more to ensure diverse voices are reflected in the services offered, incorporated prior to development’
© Designer491 | Dreamstime.com

Capitalism, for instance, is inherently resilient because it is readily adaptive to change. Asking people to be resilient offers indulgent thoughts of self-reliance wherein those with means will become more privileged while those with existing inequalities will lose what little they have when left behind in a whirlwind of innovation. If you started with nothing you have no resources to draw from to pull yourself out of your situation into this supposedly shinier future.

Part of what has enhanced my own perspective at this time is the unique approach to urban development as practised by the Thrivance Group, founded by Dr. Destiny Thomas (‘Transit became a way to regulate people to certain communities based on the colour of their skin’, ITS International September/October 2020). She has developed a unique theoretical framing for public engagement of which I am currently a student. The course is called ‘Dignity-Infused Community Engagement, the DICE Method’. Within the curriculum are research papers that lend additional context to the Thrivance Theory. That is what led me to the paper ‘From Resilience to Resourcefulness: A critique of resilience policy and activism’ (MacKinnon, Derickson 2012).

The study offers a critique of resilience theory in favour of a shift toward community resourcefulness.  It states: “Resilience is inherently conservative insofar as it privileges the restoration of existing systemic relations rather than their transformation. Yet calls for alternative utopian visions, and transformations of social relations are themselves not inherently socially just and progressive. Nor does the history of the 20th century suggest that decommodification and state socialism necessarily lead to ethical and desirable social relations.”

It describes the four points of resourcefulness theory and I contend that, within a MaaS policy-setting exercise, the concept of resourcefulness is one way to ensure the needs of the community are met - and is a scalable approach to moving past the limitations we impose by asking cities to be resilient.

With respect to the original authors, I offer these observations of applying Resourcefulness Theory to MaaS:

1 Resources: Identify organising capacity, spare time and social capital, including public, private and community-funded investments of service offerings

Mobility services can be contracted or even owned by the communities they intend to serve. Much in the same way that grocery co-operatives create value to invest back to the members, the community can choose the types of services that best suit their needs and create a financial plan to receive those services. This can be in partnership with either a public or private sector provider. This approach gives agency to rural and suburban communities at the same level as large urban regions. It puts the decision-making process in the hands of the locals who would then have stronger buy-in to the ongoing business operations and use of the service options. This could potentially increase ridership, a specific concern in many markets.

Resourcefulness in action: France enacted a ‘sustainable mobility allowance’ that gives freedom of choice to how people want to travel within a selected set of modes that are better for the environment. Similar to the current US discussion on shifting to a ‘mobility wallet’, both concepts allow employers to offer funds to encourage sustainable travel. It is problematic to tie these benefits to employment - but that is a discussion for another day.  

2 Skillsets: From large cities to rural towns, people in communities have talents and experience that would benefit MaaS framing

The power to create policies that will affect members of the community could be redistributed at the hyper-local level in coordination with elected officials. Even for a platform solution, there is benefit in sitting side by side with representative officials and residents to co-create financial incentives for use, and equitable charging for access including congestion charging. Members of the community include people with businesses, experience in writing contracts, making project plans, but have the lived experience to understand how their specific neighbourhood prefers to interact. There is a mix of renters and buyers to reflect varying viewpoints. Specific concerns including differing needs for those with disabilities, stroller use, unbanked and unhoused residents can be voiced. There are also street vendors and delivery people with unique needs to access kerb space. Input from these varying groups has the potential to identify tailored solutions to time-of-day concerns, employment access, and mobility for young people to attend school as well as extracurricular activities. MaaS operators would benefit from the ability to work in partnership with end users to define regional goals, and in turn boost ridership to the transit agency by meeting the first- and last-mile needs with direct traveller input.

Resourcefulness in action: Cities reference the success London has in its pioneering of low-emission zone charging. What is often overlooked is the work that went into making it a reality. Starting in 2000 Ken Livingstone made adding the charge part of his platform running for mayor. Even after election it was a difficult process with much community input to make the charge relatable to locals who eventually voted to support it. Gaining local support is easier when they are part of the development, and not simply informed after the fact.

3 Indigenous and Folk knowledge: Consult with the community elders to have a deeper understanding of what the shifting social climate and/ or previous approach to development have done to shape the neighborhood.

Communities with a history of being racialized, ignored, or manipulated into compliance have every right to be suspicious of change. Coordination could be an act of atonement for the historical harm inflicted on the community group, but only if it is genuine partnership and not performative activity. Oral history is a unique way to understand how and why the community is what it is today. For good or bad, sometimes what seems like something that technology could ‘fix’, is the actual plan and desired outcome for that community. It is important to understand not just ethical approaches to developing tech, but also when to abstain.

Resourcefulness in action:  In an article from June of this year Amina Yasin, Placemaker and Planner in Vancouver, BC, provides a comprehensive review of the ways in which the built environment has harmed communities. It includes the origination story for Central Park in NYC, the erasure of the Black community of Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver, and much more. In many ways these acts were intentional. It is the duty of our generation to ensure past harms are mitigated, and that future harm is minimised if not eradicated. The best source of that knowledge is local elders and story keepers.

4 Recognition: Philosophers of justice and oppression have emphasised the importance and value of cultural recognition as a requisite condition of justice.

Declaring the importance of the unique cultural differences not just at the country or state level, but at the community level will infer a greater sense of completeness to the eventual offering. In recognition of the historical approaches that essentially went around the community instead of in partnership with it, we can use this time to question, reinvent, and rewrite the structures themselves.

From the pandemic to worldwide reckoning of historical racial injustices, too much is now at the surface to discuss ‘business as usual’ © Adrienne Wallace | Dreamstime.com
From the pandemic to worldwide reckoning of historical racial injustices, too much is now at the surface to discuss ‘business as usual’ © Adrienne Wallace | Dreamstime.com

Resourcefulness in action: Spain has recognised the importance of culture bearers in ongoing city developments. As such, it has incorporated culture into its master planning strategies. In a report prepared with Unesco, it outlined an approach to “promote respect for cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and freedom of expression and creation, as well as the effective participation of all people in cultural life“.  The report details an overview of similar projects worldwide that enable inclusive, human-centred approaches that build on a community-level traditional knowledge base.

Industry colleagues are likely reading this with serious doubt, thinking this kind of local interaction too difficult. A quick Google search will reveal the people that have been doing this work for decades. I’m not stating anything that hasn’t already been done, it is simply that technology companies do not typically take this approach.

I will end by restating these are not barriers limited by available time or money. The effort to ensure we build MaaS to reach its highest potential is entirely a matter of will. In my own actions I know I have not gone deep enough to understand what more should be done, and I continue the process of learning even if I fail along the way. We must all be willing; we are certainly able. In doing so we have the privilege to be part of the transformation of the transportation industry from simple operators into mobility providers. These actions can move communities past historical harm and into a new age of movement where choice is aligned with actions that support the greater good. Only then, in that dignity-infused future where everyone trusts a just system for mobility can we claim the success of MaaS.


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