Joshua Schank is the first ever Chief Innovation Officer at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), where he leads the Office of Extraordinary Innovation (OEI). The role of this office is to champion new ideas to improve mobility in LA County by informing the high-level vision for LA Metro, piloting and implementing new and experimental programs and policy. Prior to joining LA Metro, Dr. Schank was President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a national non-profit think-tank. He holds a Ph.D. in urban planning from Columbia University, a Master of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a B.A. in urban studies from Columbia University.
What got you into transportation?
I’ve always been excited about the idea that transportation provides mobility and accessibility for people to go where they want to go, when they want to go there. I learned that idea when I was a child because in my early years I lived in a place where I couldn’t get anywhere without my parents driving me and that was very constraining; it felt like there was no other option for transport which frustrated me. However when I was in 5th grade I had the opportunity to live in Paris and my parents gave me the run of the city, they showed me how to use the metro and said go wherever you want. So to me that was liberating, and that ability to move was freedom and excitement. I felt I was a part of a place, and independent in a place, that I had never been before. Really since that time I’ve been excited about this idea that we can have cities and places that anyone can go anywhere no matter what your age or ability.
What made LA Metro need an Office of Extraordinary Innovation?
Well now, I wasn’t the one that decided we necessarily needed one, I was just the one who volunteered to take the job. I think my perception of why we needed one, and it aligns with my bosses perception (and he’s the one who created it), is that transportation is changing very rapidly as a field and technology is playing an increasing role in how we get around. Things are moving quicker than the typical public sector agency can keep up with. He wanted to create a place within the organization that was focused on keeping up with that change. We work with the latest ideas from the private sector, academia, and other sources while integrating them into a business model so that we aren’t just doing the same thing that transportation agencies have been doing for the last 50 years, especially given the amount of unprecedented change that’s happening around us.
What is the Office of Extraordinary Innovation tasked with?
We have two tools that were handed to us in order to accomplish the goal that I articulated. One was the Unsolicited Proposal Policy. This is a portal through which anyone can submit an idea to LA metro and we will consider the idea and get back to them within 90 days. We either say we like this idea and want more information or we don’t like this idea but thank you for your time. We opened this policy in February of 2016 and since received over 100 unsolicited proposals and many have become projects that are in some stage of implementation. I think we are looking at about a dozen in works at this point – they are a great source of innovation and interest. Critically, even without implementation, they focus the agency on new ideas. Most work we do comes from the outside, so we have to drag experts from across the agency to work together and evaluate the ideas and determine if it is something that we want to move forward with. That’s a great tool in and of itself because a 10,000 person bureaucracy is now forced to think about the future. They must ask, “is this something that can help me do my job better, is this something that will help me service customers better, and is it worth the cost of implementation that it will cost us to peruse it?”. Now those are great questions to ask.
The second tool is the strategic planning process, which is how we were assigned the metro strategic plan within this office. This plan set the mission, vision, and goals for the agency for the next 10 years, which is pretty critical to innovation because, in order to know how to accomplish something more efficiently, you have to know what it is you want to accomplish in the first place. This is what innovation turns out to be, it is doing something you haven’t done before in order to accomplish a task better. This has been the key to the strategic plan, saying here’s what we want to do over the next 10 years that we think matters and here is why and how it will lead us to more innovation outcomes. We are going to focus our resources more effectively on the things that will best help us accomplish our mission
What’s biggest challenge in this role?
The biggest challenge has to be the changing of the culture within the organization. My job is essentially to go to people who have been working on a particular subject area for 20-30 years and who know way more about it than I do and say “hey, you know that job you’ve been doing for all those years? Well here’s an idea on how you can do it better.” People are, in general, going to be resistant to new ideas because they require work, they require thought, and they potentially require rethinking what you are doing completely. Especially coming from someone on the outside like I did; I came here from DC and brought a bunch of other people who were not from LA metro and said “We’re are the smarty pants people who are going tell you to do this instead.” We’ve definitely faced a lot of resistance and the only reason we’ve been successful is that we are a signature initiative of our boss and he is very powerful and effective leader and he has also brought in a new leadership team, all whom are on board with the new idea of innovation, and after a couple years we’ve started to get things going.
So would you say people are less hesitant to your ideas over time?
I would say it’s both. One, they’ve become less resistant to new ideas because it’s become a part of life – they know they’re going to be dealing with these new ideas all the time. At the same time we have also become more discriminating. When we first got here there was tremendous pressure on us. They would say “Oh, the extraordinary innovation team, what have you guys done? What is this great innovation you are going to bring us?” So we had to push things as they came in to prove we were doing something. Now we can be more selective, as we’ve already demonstrated value we can think more carefully about what we do. We are able to find partners within the agency who want to do innovative things and work with them.
Many of these startups, like Uber and the Bird scooters, are changing transportation opportunities. How is an organization like your managing both the positive and negative aspects of this kind of disruption that is happening?
I would say this is the central core of what we do. The technology is out there and it’s being put forward primarily by private sector organizations who want to make money, which is fine and they’re entitled to that, but that doesn’t happen to be what we’re trying to do. We are trying to reach specific public policy goals, we are trying to improve mobility, we are trying reduce inequality, and we are trying to reduce emissions. We have a lot of things we’re trying to do that aren’t necessarily the same end goal that the private sector has. So our job is to see how their innovations can be used in a way that is productive for society, not just for the venture capitalists. That’s primarily what we are doing when we receive these proposals. We find a good idea and we then find a way to make that idea meet a certain public policy objective. If we can, then we pursue it. That has been the basis for a number of our partnerships.
What is a story of resistance you have endured and how was the office of extraordinary innovation able to work around it?
One of my favorite stories is when we wanted to use drones to inspect our rail facilities. We went to the head of the rail facilities and what he thought about using drones. He basically said I don’t want to do that and I don’t think it’ll work for us. So I asked if he had any data to indicate that’s the case since it seemed like a creative way to avoid having to walk to the tracks everyday and all I got was a “No, go away.” After that response I went to the people who operate the facilities directly asked their opinion – of course they loved it and gave it the go ahead. Sometimes getting the idea through is mostly just finding someone to work with.
Can you tell us a bit about 2028 Strategic Plan and how you merge knowable innovation from unknowable disruption?
I think that innovation within public policy often means dedicating resources to things that are difficult to do. I’ve said this before about traffic. Traffic is a problem that is very solvable even without dramatic innovation. We know what the problem is – we give away road space for free and too many people use it. You want to settle that problem? Charge people for using the streets and the traffic problem will be alleviated. The reason we don’t do that, though, isn’t because we don’t know that that’s the solution. It’s that politically it’s very challenging to implement that solution. I think the real innovation is to get out there, call out the solution and make it happen – then we wouldn’t have to sit back and wait for some teleportation technology to come and solve all our problems so that we don’t have to worry about it, because chances are we are going to have to worry about it. You have to find a way to take on politically challenging issues. For example, our bus network is a mess. If we continue to just treat a bus full of 50 people the same as we treat a single passenger car, and not give them their own lane, we’re going to continue to have major traffic problems. These are obvious things we need to do because of spatial geometry, and they’re not going to change in the next 10 years.
So would you say innovation is about being brave? Standing up for logical yet unpopular solutions?
I think that’s certainly apart of it. However, more accurately it is thinking of a way to dedicate resources to create change because things only happen when you have people dedicated to working on it. By creating this office we now have a staff dedicated to researching, tackling, and implementing issues such as congestion pricing. It’s not just about being brave, it’s about dedicating real resources to the forces of change.
Is there a new way of utilizing an old technology —bikes— to be a bigger part of the LA regions transportation infrastructure or are you just looking at future transportation solutions?
I think old technology plays just as important a role as new, which is why we are building out a rail system for the entire county. We still believe rail is going to be a critical part of our infrastructure 50 years from now, same with bikes. You have a fundamental issue, which is that transportation in LA is not working because too many people are trying to drive by themselves all the time. If you want to solve that, you need to be able to provide multiple other solutions for the people that are just as convenient. Our overall goal is getting people from point A to point B in a more effective way than we are today, regardless of the technology.
LA seems to be ruled by the automobile. How do you “innovate” the populace and their behaviors to change how they use transportation, or are you trying to change the behaviors of just using the automobile?
Well it has to be changing how they use transportation in general, we don’t see any other option. We will never be able to build enough roads or highways to accommodate the demand for auto traffic. We’ve added 2.3 million people and 2.1 million cars in the past 10 years to LA county and how has that worked out? I don’t think it’s going very well. We have to have some strategy other than adding more people and more vehicles, and that strategy has to be creating alternatives. The strategy we have planned is based off a survey of LA county which stated that the reason people aren’t using public transport is because it isn’t going where they need to go and it doesn’t get there fast enough. Those responses makes it pretty obvious why we have to provide better alternatives, not just more auto routes and better driving behavior.
So something we ask everyone is, what are some personal life hacks you use to stay innovative?
Well, while it’s in my nature to keep innovative, I do spend a tremendous amount of time talking to people about what it is we are doing and what they are doing. If there is no input, then your output is going to be terrible. I am constantly facilitating input to know what is going on. I read a ton of stuff about what is going on around the world with transportation and I go to a lot of conferences and listen to how other people are doing it. I do this because I want to know what is out there, to know what it is we should and shouldn’t be doing in LA. I am always interested in learning about the intersection between technology and public policy. This is where I feel my role is and where the most interesting things are happening. I always follow what partnerships the public sector is forming with the technology sector, since that will be the future of technology.
What is a misconception people have about innovation?
It’s not my job to come up with ideas. I think this is a misconception that many people often have about an innovation office. There are no new ideas – if anyone has an idea, chances are they got them from somewhere else. See, the hard part isn’t the ideas, the hard part is how you’re going to get the resources dedicated to implement, which means determining which ideas have the most merit. So most of the time we look at different ideas and figure out the benefits and the cost, which are worth the time and money. In the end this prioritization is what innovation ends up being about, which is why strategic planning is such a big part of it.
Metro (the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) is unique among the nation’s transportation agencies. They serve as transportation planner and coordinator, designer, builder and operator for one of the country’s largest, most populous counties. More than 9.6 million people – nearly one-third of California’s residents – live, work, and play within our 1,433-square-mile service area. The Office of Extraordinary Innovation was established by Metro to explore new ways to move LA by finding and testing leading-edge ideas that have potential to improve mobility for the people in the region. From public private capital partnerships to cutting edge new technologies, OEI is tasked with identifying, evaluating, developing, and implementing these new approaches. These efforts may be undertaken by Metro on its own or jointly in collaboration with private sector firms through public-private partnership agreements.
Illustration by Ewelina Karpowiak “Klawe Rzeczy”