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24th May 2023

“A wicked problem – one that is complex, has lots of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements, and is embedded in a social setting, is exemplified when we consider some of the challenges we need to address as we develop the Future of Transport.”


There are three elements of this wicked problem: The transition from a physical, infrastructure dominated transport system to one that is inherently digital; The ‘ironies of automation’ that we need to tackle as we see increasing embedding of automation and autonomous systems within transport; and The Energy Enigma – a consideration of how we can consider all the moving parts of the complex energy system that is needed to enable a transition to decarbonisation within transport.”

The Speaker

The discussion was introduced by Professor Sarah Sharples. Sarah is the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Transport.


Sarah is also a Professor in Human Factors in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. She was President of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors from 2015-16 and is a Fellow of the IET. She has led programmes of research in transport, manufacturing and healthcare including the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Connected Everything Network Plus. From 2018-2021 Sarah was the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and People at the University of Nottingham. 

Introductory Presentation

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. As Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the Department of Transport, Sarah has to advise on the future of transport and the wicked problems that it presents. She emphasised three such problems that we need to address:


1. The transition from a physical system to a digital system.

As we digitise individual elements of the transport network how can we ensure they are joined up in a complete network to be most effective and help the user?

Many components of our transport networks have benefited from technological improvements, with digitalisation and the availability of big data (e.g. TfL’s open data). Uber revolutionised private hire; it has no vehicles, but a system for linking potential users to drivers. Cycle hire, bus services, and rail, have benefitted from digitised systems and provided apps to users to make travel simpler – but if they are not linked to a single site and apps coordinated the disjointed natures of these experiences do not make life as easy for the traveller as they could. We need to ensure that the experience for the user is seamless across modes, and that transport providers pay as much attention to the digital aspects of their services as they do the physical. There is some progress in this area, and more authorities are encouraging MAAS (Mobility as a service) provider systems. Our approach to developing these systems is however still limited. This is a wicked problem!


2. The Irony of Automation.

Automation, when introduced into complex settings, can have unintended consequences. For example, we introduce a technology to do something automatically only to use humans to check what the technology has done is correct. It is harder to build a mental model from digital elements of a system compared to physical elements and this changes the skills and experience needed to use and maintain them. In the past, basic car maintenance was something that many of us could turn our hands to, but increasing automation and digitisation means that only specialists can now do many of these tasks. We introduce automation into our networks, but the people in the system can end up with jobs that are made up of ‘leftover’ tasks, that don’t always provide a coherent role, and can make it challenging to ensure that people are still kept ‘in the loop’, maintaining their situational awareness. We can speed up design considerably, through digitisation, but this may lose something if we do not capture the different expertise and partnership that the skills of designers can bring to a design. We can benefit from the use of artificial intelligence (AI), but need to be aware that AI systems are only as good as the information or data that has been used to inform them. Automation is not a panacea, it can be hugely impactful, but needs to be implemented responsibly, and all elements of automation need to be understood in the context of the whole system, recognising societal, economic and technical parameters. A wicked problem.


3. The Energy Enigma

As we move towards achieving net zero, how do we ensure we are balancing the energy requirements of transport alongside those of other sectors, as well as the provision in other countries? The challenge is much more complex than just decarbonising transport.

The move to electricity and battery technology in the transport sector is not without huge challenges. Decarbonising aviation through a transition to Sustainable Aviation Fuel could consume all the sustainable energy produced at present with nothing left for other sectors. And as we decarbonise aviation we need to work internationally – with airports all over the world working together to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to support future fuels. Batteries offer significant opportunities for decarbonisation, but will reach a point where the size of a vehicle, such as a large maritime vessel, will mean it is too large to be powered by batteries alone. How do we bring all the skills and data sets together to deliver energy for all the sectors (manufacturing, construction, service industries etc)? A huge challenge but exciting and one to inspire clever thinkers. An exciting, wicked problem!


So, three wicked problems and the challenges for us all to discuss were:

  • What does a digital-led transport system look and feel like?

  • How do we get the right balance between embracing Automation and AI and taking people’s trust and engagement with us as we change the way that we design and deliver transport systems?

  • How do we bring all of the necessary skills, data sets and ideas together to tackle the energy enigma?


The questions were addressed by five discussion groups who through rapporteurs’ summary presentations made the following points reflecting much agreement across the groups:


Discussion point 1:


What does a ‘digital-led’ transport system look and feel like?


For passenger transport a digital system should allow end to end transport guidance for passengers that links the myriad of transport modes (which could be automated). This should cover the many preferences of consumers choice. The transport system should be accessible for all.


It should include augmented reality to help improve journey experience and inclusivity (for example navigating through complex interchanges such as Birmingham New Street).


We have digitised systems for freight transport that work well, but passengers are not parcels and so the systems should not be the same.


Key to a successful digital system is data and appropriate IT platforms. We have acquired more data (as it has become open) and in real time, but we also need historical data (for example, to enable predictive maintenance). We also need a system to be complete – for example a comprehensive, readily available charging system to support all electric vehicles!


The speed of digital change means that standardisation is not yet appropriate, things need to settle down and variety is needed to enable choice and competition.

However, without standardisation there are huge interface challenges between transport systems, and administrations within the UK and overseas, making travel more difficult. It was suggested that potentially a single entity looking after the whole system would be beneficial.


The digital experience must be alluring, not clinically inhuman. Concerns are that a digital system can exclude people, particularly the elderly who may not be digitally literate and, people with disabilities.  The experience has to work for all and the benefits be visible.


Digitisation should be applied to physical systems that are decent and widespread in the first place with safety being paramount. Their development should take into account the users’ views and experience otherwise they will fail. The perceived failure of “Smart Motorways” as implemented (rather than as intended) was noted.


The digital experience might help us do things better, but it will certainly enable us to do better things.

Short-term electoral cycles may limit the comprehensiveness of systems to work better – e.g. to allow necessary complementary measures such as road pricing.


Finally, digital is not a substitute for social interaction.  People still need to meet and Covid has taught us that isolation is a real problem.

Discussion point 2:


How do we get the right balance between embracing Automation and AI and taking people’s trust and engagement with us as we change the way that we design and deliver transport systems?


There are challenges in taking Automation and AI forward. Despite the fact we have many automated systems in place, we need to better understand the extent of people’s fears, such as nervousness of traveling without a driver or fears for job security (particularly resistance to embrace intrinsically better systems) to move these forwards. We need to gain people’s trust.


There are good examples of using automation in risky environments – such as working at heights or depths and using autonomous vehicles in mines, quarries on construction sites. But higher standards of safety are required when interacting with humans.


There are cultural and education barriers to overcome to give people reassurance about travelling without a pilot or driver. We need to better understand the real risks and benefits of AI capability and the levels of safety (i.e., Safety Integrity Levels). The assertion that Autonomous Vehicles are better than humans will not prevail if their failure causes human-preventable accidents.


Understanding the role of humans going forward is of concern.  Humans should not be de skilled! Nevertheless, AI is programmed by human beings and so the understanding of legal liabilities for programmers and companies needs to mature. There needs to be clearer decision-making processes in AI systems to address legal and ethical concerns.


To take workers and unions with us, it was suggested that nationalisation might be an answer.


AI has advanced rapidly but is not yet sufficiently advanced to be able to deal with the vast set of variables and responses to real world scenarios. AI is only as good as the data it is trained on, and that data can be imperfect and incomplete. A digital twin for a new building is possible, but for larger systems it should be seen as more of a digital approximation (given algorithmic systems which are continually learning will not necessarily be correct).


It was felt a that a huge effort was needed to have a totally AI managed system and it would take many years. A period of trust building, engagement and cross checking is essential.


Discussion point 3:


How do we bring all of the necessary skills, data sets and ideas together to tackle the energy enigma?


Delivering on government targets for decarbonisation of our transport system will place a huge demand on supply chains for low carbon fuels, technologies and our energy system. It will be a cross-modal, global system wide problem in terms of energy production, use and managing demand. There will need to be a range of energy sources and the need for collaboration across modes (noting that road, rail, aviation, and maritime sectors are following similar decarbonisation routes – largely electrification and hydrogen to reduce carbon emissions). There will also be the need to encourage reduced demand, for example by encouraging more people to walk or cycle or connect virtually where appropriate.


There will be challenges in determining the ‘right’ form of energy transportation, (which will depend on the distance of energy transfer and intended end use); and the impact of various international government subsidies for different energy goods, which with short term market forces may not produce the ‘best’ outcomes.


There will be challenges with electricity utilisation and generation to ensure availability matches with demand across the grid, particularly for rail. There will need to be technology solutions to store and release energy on demand. The use of nuclear, wind and solar generation teamed with micro grids may offer more, but we will need to carry communities with us to take these forwards (particularly nuclear). We also need to consider the ethical challenges in using rare earth metals.


There were also doubts expressed about the role hydrogen will have within the transport system. Given a hydrogen bus costs 4 times an electric bus, green hydrogen is not easy to make, and assets could get written off in 15 years it may not be an attractive proposition for investors.


Whilst concerns were expressed there was more optimism that achieving net zero by 2050 was possible. We need to share insights. Common data and communication protocols can help transport operators and energy providers manage demand. We need to commit to the long-term integrated plan (transport and beyond) with resources and funding now.

Speaker's Response

Sarah welcomed the comments made in the discussions. They gave her food for thought. She would personally welcome augmented reality to navigate Birmingham New Street!


She noted three concerns digital, data, trust. She agreed that a digital system needed to be inclusive. People needed to develop digital literacy. She referenced a recent study by the British Academy that demonstrated how important literacy is as a predictor for digital literacy.


She also re-emphasised the critical need to involve users in the development of digital systems - to build trust and take people with you. 

She emphasised that we cannot automate by stealth. We need to show that automation works really well to take the public with us. A point had been made about 15 min cities potentially locking in inequality, which Sarah said quite often we misunderstand how change might affect others when we think how it might affect us. We need to understand all people, which is often difficult when we only have our own limited experiences.


She also responded to the need expressed for an integrated transport strategy by saying that there was a different balance of national and local powers in other European cities. In some settings, local leaders have more power to determine their own integrated plans (for example with city wide Mobility as a Service Provider apps).  She questioned what more can we do?


A final point was about the role of transport in society. Very often, the impact of transport is on other sectors, such as health, or education. But the way that government decision making and funding allocation works makes it difficult to take these cross-sector benefits into account. How can we move towards more joined up thinking, where we understand clearly the role of transport in access to healthcare, leading to better health outcomes, or the role of transport in economic prosperity, leading to better jobs and access to education. So, what can we do. How do we have more influence? (Another wicked problem!).


Playing back some of the discussion points Sarah finished by saying “Transport enables us to do things better and to do better things”. She thanked guests and members for a stimulating and engaging discussion that provided much food for thought.


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