Conferences: knowledge exchange of the past or for the future?

agglomeration economies As I write this, I’m preparing for my second Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The 11,000+ attendee conference takes place January 22-26, and covers all topics related to transportation planning, policy, and engineering and related topics like health and land use planning.

The preparation work got me thinking: a conference this big is a wonderful opportunity, and at the same time it’s also a burden. In order to get the most out of it, that is, in order to catch a raft on the river of information exchange, one must do a lot of prep work – who’s going to be there? Who should I see? What topics are being covered? What topics overlap with my current projects? And then, one actually has to go there and see those people and talk to them in person. It got me thinking. This type of information exchange seems a bit antiquated. Or is it? Today, we have tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even simple email that allow rapid communication without physical proximity. Individuals are putting together knowledge share events, where subject “experts” educate their friends in a fun, relaxed, and community setting, negating the need to rely on a large centralized entity to plan the exchange event. Do these things better facilitate information exchange than the traditional conference? Judging by the popularity of the “unconference,” perhaps a hybrid model is appropriate.

One thing we know for sure: collaboration is the new black. Whether it’s through bike sharing, car sharing, crowd sourcing, or peer-to-peer anything, the 2010s are all about collaboration. What traditional conferences do is exemplify how Richard Florida’s creative class flourishes in Edward Glaeser’s agglomeration economies: bring smart, motivated, interesting people in close proximity with one another and they’ll start collaborating. This collaboration is at the heart of innovation. But again, are traditional conferences the best vehicle for delivering this collaboration, if attendees are meant to shuffle themselves into pre-assigned sessions with pre-assigned topics, hour after hour, day after day?

Would smaller, collaboratively-led “unconferences” be a better answer? Would more or better information be exchanged in these settings? Maybe the success of a conference as large at TRB actually is due to its sheer size: the conference itself is a city of the creative class, rubbing shoulders with one another.

-          Terra Curtis

Developing Countries Developing Solutions

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Introducing mo from LUNAR Europe on Vimeo.

At least three of our partner cities in this round of the Living Labs Global Awards are seeking solutions related to transportation. Lavasa, México City, and Guadalajara, each within a developing country, want to find ways to boost alternative transportation and keep infrastructure maintenance ahead of deterioration.

According to the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), by 2030 almost three quarters of the world’s population with reside in cities, with most of that urbanization taking place in developing countries. In order to maintain health and achieve sustainability in the long term, these cities must stay ahead of the game in developing the transportation infrastructure, policies, incentives, and solutions that encourage limited use of fossil fuels. Several recent concepts are relevant to the challenges faced by these cities. BitCity, a conference on Transportation, data, and technology in cities was held November 4th in New York City. The conference, which will be ongoing, is meant to highlight innovation and expose the barriers currently preventing cities from implementing that innovation. Recorded sessions can be viewed online here.

A second transportation-related tid-bit to come across the radar screen is Mo (short for mobility), which uses smartphone technology with a “bike tag” to link travel data and different modal systems. The idea is to provide users with more choices about how to get around and incentives for making responsible travel decisions. (See the video above.)

Two other mobile apps stood out in a recent scan – Avego’s instant carpool app, Shout and, a mobile web app (works on any smartphone) that compares the cost, travel time, calories burned, and CO2 emitted for several different modes of transportation (e.g. walk, bike, transit, car, or taxi).

Shout is a free mobile app that helps you arrange carpool rides with friends, family, and coworkers in real time. Current “Shout Hotspots” – locations where a critical mass of users has been reached – include Orlando, Florida; Seattle, Washington; Houston, Texas; Bergen, Norway; and Kinsale, Ireland. was developed by fellows in the Code for America program this summer. It is meant to provide users with full information, and in theory they will use that information to make sustainable, responsible transportation choices. Because it relies on several open data sources, its full features are not available in all locations yet, but it will work everywhere. Seattle and San Francisco are fully featured, with Philadelphia soon to follow.

While some of these solutions may not be appropriate for developing countries’ cities currently, these locations are rapidly adopting mobile technology and present models for how to stay ahead of the curve.

-          Terra Curtis