Another excellent video from Rory Sutherland

This video is a cracking watch … Rory, described as a thinking man’s Boris Johnson, discusses “interventions for the good” and transport decision-making gets a special mention.

Rory describes that the problem is that most train journeys start with a car journey.  Hence,  he describes modal shift as an “asymmetric decision” because the vast majority of time, you take the decision on whether to get the train when you’re already in a car. There is all sorts of extra anxiety such as “When is my train ?”, “Is it running on time ?”,  “Will I get a parking space ?”, “Will the car be safe ?”, “Have I got change to buy a parking ticket ?”.  Hence, it is much easier to stick with the status quo and stay in that warm comfy car.

Hence, the technological solution – the journey planner – can help lift the decision-making into a fair playing field. Journey planners, such as Transport Direct, allow the would-be traveller to make the decision on how to travel before they set out.  The best course of action might still be the car, but at least the options are more likely to be considered fairly.

Quick link (whilst I sort out the embed feature).


When is a quote not a quote ?

The theme of this post is on “sound-bite culture” and whether it is a good or a bad thing. I believe that social media (and possibly Twitter itself) are going to radically shake up the traditional  transport industry, just as it has done for many other industries. The problem is I’m not 100% sure when yet.  Every idea has its time and I’m just not sure whether it is the time for Twitter, in the pretty conservative transport industry.

Undoubtedly, it can really help for your idea to be “sticky” so that it catches on, and hence it helps if you are able to articulate it quickly and succinctly. Thus, there are a lot of benefits to a sound-bite culture and some would argue that it is an absolute necessity.  I’ve previously blogged about memes and their importance in behavioural change.

Today’s post was penned on AV referendum day (or super-Thursday as it has been coined) has largely been cribbed from the Independent with my own slant added. Two related stories caught my attention, because they cast doubt on whether social media is 100% a good thing and how we need to exercise caution when quoting others. The two articles were:

The conspiracy theorist in me then got wondering whether the two articles were connected … …

1) “AV is a dirty little compromise” – This is a true quote from Nick Clegg, one which he probably regrets, but he did say it. The No campaign have certainly capitalised on it.  My first key point is  about quoting other people.  Even if the quote might be perfectly accurate, it doesn’t mean that it is set within the right context. In this case, it is important to both look at the context of within which Clegg actually made this statement and the wider context at the time. I think this is a general danger for quotations and dealing with the media, who both like to boil a subject down to its essence and also turn it into something newsworthy. After all, they have to “sell copy”. (Equally, we have to sell our ideas in behavioural change campaigns.)

In this case, the wider context was mid the live US-style television debates for the last election, which resulted the coining of the phenomenum Cleggmania. The Liberal Democrats were being courted by both Labour and Conservatives alike, but at the time, still during the election, Clegg was rightly sticking to his guns on what his party stood for.

The full quote is:

AV is a baby step in the right direction – only because nothing can be worse than the status quo.  If we want to change British politics once and for all, we have got to have a quite simple system in which everyone’s votes count. We think AV-plus is a feasible way to proceed.

The Labour Party assumes that changes to the electoral system are like crumbs for the Liberal Democrats from the Labour table. I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party.”

I think you’ll agree that the full quote puts quite a different context onto what Clegg actually said, especially when it is viewed in the context of the time and the on-going electoral hustings. For instance, who at that time, would have predicted a Conservative / Liberal Democrat Coalition ?

We’ll have to wait for the votes to be counted to see whether the Yes or No campaigns won the argument with the public.

2) The second piece was  by Natalie Haynes in Viewspaper and had the headline:  “Credit where credit is not due?”.  There were three or four social media angles to the death of Osama Bin Laden that Natalie could have taken. Firstly, the news was apparently first broken on Twitter.  Secondly, we watched the viral effect of news headlines in which the typo: “Obama Bin Laden” was spread around the world even in traditional news media.  However, Natalie’s article focussed on the apparent quotation from Martin Luther King, which spread like wild fire on the Twitter-o-sphere: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

For those people concerned about the glorification of another person’s death, the quotation seemed to capture the moment and was tweeted around the world. The only problem was that Martin Luther King never actually said it, instead it was traced to an English teacher working in Japan. I’m not sure that quoting the previously unknown Jessica Dovey has quite the same cache, but nevertheless the captured the mood of a significant proportion of the Western population.

The second key point is that things that are catchy might not necessarily be fully accurate, but perhaps they are “good enough” for their purpose?

Out of interest, King’s actual quote was (although there will be a real irony, if I get this wrong, especially as I have just copied it from the internet):

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”

Dovey’s quote got added in to King’s words, then for reasons of space in Twitter’s 140-character limit, her quote became King’s. Except he never said it. Twitter is just an exaggerated case of how our stories get truncated and simplified, if they are to spread.

Above I mentioned the possibility of a conspiracy theory – perhaps, the editor of the Independent was seeking to re-enforce the meme that “memes are flawed” in that edition of the paper, because he felt that the largest AV meme was currently not pro-AV and hence was detrimental to his message. He might have wanted to change the media landscape.

However, if there is a choice, I nearly always plump for the cock-up theory over and above the conspiracy nature. It’s just inherent in our human nature. We make mistakes. We are flawed.

Mind the Gap – Between the harsh world of economics and the social world that I’d like to live in

Professors Uri Gneezy (from the University of California in San Diego) and Aldo Rustichini (from the University of Minnesota) got the opportunity to establish a series of experiments to explore the transition from social norms to market norms and back again. They wrote their results up in a paper called “A Fine is a Price” in the Jounal of Legal Studies in 2000.

They had been invited in to study a day care centre in Israel to discover whether the introduction of a fine for parents arriving late to pick up little Jonny would act as a useful deterrent. They concluded that the fine wasn’t a very effective deterrent and worse than that it has long-term negative effects. Before the introduction of the fine; there was a social contract in place and hence there were effective social norms about it being unacceptable to keep the carers waiting and in standing out so far from the other crowd of timekeeping parents. In this case (in Israel), the guilt from keeping people waiting, made parents think twice before doing it again. Persistent offenders found the peer pressure from the other Mums (and Fathers) unacceptable. However, after the introduction of the fining system, the nursery inadvertently replaced the social norms and the social contract with market norms and a market contract. Now that the parents were paying for their tardiness, they could now make a judgement as to whether the impact of them having to leave on time outweighed the fines that they knew would be imposed. The number of cases of parents arriving late increased, not decreased, after the introduction of the fine. (Perhaps, they set the value wrong; but I’ve got no information on that.)

However, the story then took an interesting turn for the worse. Recognising the error of their ways, the nursery then decided to remove the fine. They figured that they would then be back to the social contract. Right ? – Wrong ! Once the fine was removed, the behaviour of the parents did not reverse. In fact, when the fine was removed there was a further slight increase in the number of late pick-ups by parents. After all, both of the social restorative effect and the market force had been removed.

The moral of the story is that once a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. In other words, social relationships are not easy to re-establish.

My next post applies this behavioural economics to the implementation of road pricing in the UK and cautions transport policy makers to “mind the gap”.

Will London grind to a halt on the 4th January 2011 ?

On the 4th Jan 2011, London will turn off the Western Extension Zone (WEZ) of the London Congestion Charging Zone. Will London grind to a halt ?

It was mostly a political decision and an electoral campaign pledge but Boris has consulted widely and the result was that the central congestion charging zone should stay, but the western extension zone should go. London joins an elite band of cities who have actually implemented road pricing and then decided to turn it off. In the rest of the country, many cities have struggled to even get on the band wagon: Manchester, Edinburgh and Cambridge all had negative referenda and voted against road pricing (or, in Manchester’s case, against a £1.6bn investment in the transport infrastructure of the City). However, London is now prepared to jump off the band wagon, or at least within one foot anyway. So what happens when you jump off the wagon ?

On hearing a talk from TfL about the forthcoming changes to the zone, I was reminded of some great behavioural science about a nursery in Israel which decided to fine parents who turned up late to pick up their children. What’s interesting in that case is what happened when they decided to take the fine away.

Professor Dan Ariely describes it really eloquently in his book: “Predictably Irrational”. We live in one of two worlds. One world is characterised by social exchanges, the other is characterised by monetary transactions. Unfortunately, these two worlds cannot co-exist. Imagine that you’ve been invited around to your first Christmas meal with your new girlfriend and her family. Her mum cooks up a sumptuous feast and there is everything there that makes the meal special: sausages in blankets, your favourite stuffing, both turkey and ham interlaced together … You get the idea. But, imagine the sound of the “scratching of the record”, as you get up and stretch and proclaim what an amazing dinner that was. However, instead of offering to wash the dishes, instead you break open your wallet and offer to pay for your share of the meal. This approach just doesn’t sit well within the social world. It jars and it grates and it destroys any social relationships. The world of social exchanges, where people amicably take it in turns, return favours and think of each other; and the world of monetary exchanges where we expect hard-nosed contractual arrangements just cannot co-exist. And, the policy-maker who tries to combines these two worlds in his policies does so at his peril.

Unwittingly, the nursery in Israel broke the social norms by introducing the fining system in the first place, and then when it didn’t work for them, they ended up with the perception of a fine that just happened to be set at zero. Social relationships are not that easy to re-establish. As Professor Ariely puts it “once the bloom is off the rose, or once the social norm is trumped by a market norm, it will rarely return.” The owners of the Israeli nursery found that they then had a double whammy working against them and the parents became even more tardy at picking up their children. After all, there was now no social contract and the economic contract had also been taken away.

So the question is: Will London’s road system grind to a halt on 4th January 2011 ?

John Cleese on Creativity

John Cleese is a comic genius. The video embedded below isn’t comedy gold, but it does contain three nuggets about innovation and creativity and John Cleese is one of the most creative brains that I know:

1) If we want to be innovative, Cleese advises us to create a “tortoise enclosure” i.e. to create boundaries in time and space which help to avoid interuptions and destroy the creative flow.

2) When it comes to creativity, the subconscious brain does the vast majority of the heavy lifting. In just the same way that humour can be laboured, when the so-called comedian tries too hard and uses the conscious brain; so it is true of creativity. When we have a mental block, Cleese advises us to “sleep on it”, because unconsciously stuff just continues to get better, to such a degree that sometimes we can’t even remember what the mental block was the next day.

3) An amazing implication of the unconscious brain taking the strain is that the brain continues to work on the masterpiece even after the conscious brain has moved onto new things (or the deadline has passed).

This has a down-side: Because the unconscious brain keeps working on your masterpiece after you have submitted, then in your head your masterpiece continues to get better and better. Of course, the physical deliverable just says the same, which can lead to you remembering it as great masterpiece (which unfortunately, it might just not have had time to become). You might not want to admit it, but does this ring any bells ?

There is an up-side as well: Ever spent ages on something that you’ve then lost before you had time to deliver it ? How annoying is that ? What seems most gaulling is that you’ve already spent all of that time, but then at some point you need to cut your losses looking for it, and decide to write it again from scratch. But, once you reach that point; do you know what happens ? Not only, do you write your masterpiece much more quickly second time around; but also you benefit from that sub-conscious brain and it comes out better second time around. Not quite sure I’m suggesting loosing your work to make it better; but don’t worry so much if it does go astray.

Eco2 – We don’t preach, well let’s see …

Thought I’d make my first attempt at live blogging a conference at Eco2 so apologies for any typos, inacuracies or brevity … …

First up is supposed to be Norman Baker, Transport Minister. He’s the first ever transport minister to have responsibility for alternatives to travel!

Low Carbon future must happen at the same time as creating jobs.

Govt is committed. Transport fared well in CSR as it is investment for the future.

Stimulation at consumer and supplier end of a new market eg new bus fund.

Carsharing, cycling and walking all still get investment.

Focus is on behavioural changes for journeys of 5 miles or less. Cycling and walking have a good return, by any form of economic analysis. Plus, evidence suggests that shoppers actually buy more, when they travel in by sustainable transport. (minister quipped about “I’m not sure but perhaps they spend what they saved on their parking fee?”).

£560M for local sustainable transport fund in urban areas.

Reducing the need to travel by virtual working. Exciting agenda. As per my intro.

The case of the disappearing APIs

I was intrigued by two sagas developing in the blogosphere, which encapsulated the bumpy journey towards open innovation in the transport market. The first was the story of Malcolm Barclay and how TfL (alledgedly!) killed two of his iPhone applications with a user base of 35-40k active users last week, by suspending the XML API on which they depend: London Bus (now called London Travel Deluxe) and London Tube Deluxe Pro for iPad. The API is currently restored and TfL maintain that the API was withdrawn as it was proving to be a security loop-hole. However, how long will it last ?

The timing was interesting, as it came about just as an application purporting to be TfL’s “official” journey planning application made it onto the app store, but only for one day, when it was subsequently pulled. The @MadProf is a member of London’s Digital Advisory Board and long-time proponent of open innovation tells the story in his blog and the subsequent post. Not seen a post yet giving any insight into whether this was indeed discussed at the last Digital Board meeting.

I came across the second emerging saga via @Paul_clarke on Twitter. This saga involves the second behemoth of the traveller information industry: ATOC or NRES (the Association of Train Operating Companies and their National Rail Enquiries Service). You can read this saga of the disappearing APIs in following blog post. NRES currently charge £4.99 for their official application on the UK iTune store.

There is, of course, a big difference between TfL and NRES. TfL are a public body and hence have been lent on heavily by the Greater London Authority with their datastore initiative. NRES are a private body and hence for them the choice of business model is commercial decision. There are pros and cons of embracing open innovation and according to the post above, their intentions appear to be much more financial in nature. The Chief Executive of NRES tells a different story in his blog in which he heralds initiatives such as NRES on Facebook.

If innovation is to flourish, it is essential that innovators and ther innovations are encouraged. I’ll be intrigued to watch this one play out …