September 25, 2015
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

A focus on mobility: interview with Rosabeth Moss Kanter

A focus on mobility: interview with Rosabeth Moss Kanter

All the talk about potholes and creaky bridges is getting us nowhere, says Rosabeth Moss Kanter. To kickstart the infrastructure debate, we should be talking about mobility and the economic opportunity it makes possible.

By Peter Bradley

The state of the nation's transportation infrastructure, the need for greater investment, and how to pay for it are frequent topics of discussion among logistics and supply chain professionals. But it's not a topic likely to gain a lot of public attention until a bridge collapses or, as happened in Boston last winter, public transit comes to a halt.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, one of the nation's leading thinkers on leadership and innovation, hopes to change that. In her new book, Move: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead, Kanter seeks to draw attention to the urgency of fixing our infrastructure and kickstart the national discussion. She also offers a fresh approach to drumming up public support for infrastructure investment: frame the debate not around fixing roads and bridges or dredging ports, but around mobility and economic opportunity. We can get there, she argues, by using the technology we already have to create "smart" transportation and infrastructure. Among other benefits, she writes, "reinventing transportation and infrastructure has the potential to save lives, cut costs, add convenience by easing congestion, reduce pollution and mitigate climate change, and create future growth opportunities that generate new jobs."

Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School as well as chair and director of Harvard's Advanced Leadership Initiative, has been named one of the 50 most powerful women in the world by The Times of London, among many accolades. She is the author or co-author of 19 books.

She recently spoke to Editorial Director Peter Bradley about her new book.

 

Q: What led you to write about infrastructure?

A: It is a very, very important national agenda item that doesn't get as much attention from the public as it should. I am part of a project at Harvard Business School on U.S. competitiveness, recognizing that we are a global economy. We began digging into what are seen as the strengths and weaknesses of America, and one of the big areas of concern was education, K through 12 education. But next in terms of concern level was logistics and infrastructure. ... So I said, "All right, I'll just convene a summit to see what business leaders, government leaders, advocates, and activists have to say." The summit was highly successful because many of those leaders had not been at the same table together in the same conversation. They, too, felt that the general public didn't understand the magnitude of the problems in America, that something that was once an area of strength has been deteriorating badly.

Right after the summit, with the encouragement of the participants, I decided to write a book, which became Move. I want it to be helpful to people in industry, but I also want infrastructure to be on the agenda for the presidential candidates because the situation is urgent. I am known for my work on leadership, and I finally decided that although there are a lot of technical dimensions to the problem, the real key to change is leadership.

 

Q: What response has the book received so far?

A: Well, the response that I have seen is very, very positive. I have had some great reviews of the book itself. I had the chance on my book tour to speak on national radio and television, including an appearance with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." I'm still getting requests. So there is tremendous interest in the topic, and that gives me hope that we can get a public dialogue going. It's a topic that affects people every day on their commute to work. Yet people don't feel there is anything (being done). I hear a lot of frustration.

I also get a lot of mail, e-mail, in response to the national media attention. Invariably, I get e-mails of two kinds. One is people talking about their own frustrations in their local communities, projects that are not yet finished, goods that move too slowly, roads that aren't repaired, the problems with an airport. They vary in what they think the solutions are because at the moment, there is somewhat limited trust in the public sector. Then I get a second kind of e-mail, where people write me about their innovations. They have a new road surface material that can be put in faster. They have a new bridge inspection device that can spot weaknesses faster and before there's a need for really big repairs. I hear from people who are working on new forms of personal transportation using rail, pods that can run along rail lines when they're not being used. I see there is a lot of imagination in this country. We need to use that imagination to deal with the frustrations.

 

Q: It does seem, though, that we only pay attention to infrastructure when something goes terribly wrong. How do we get a consistent sense of urgency?

A: Well, if that's a sense of urgency as in, "My gosh, the pain is so bad we can't stand it any longer," I'm not sure. I mean, we would need a lot of bridges collapsing at once. You can't scare people into change. There is a flurry of reports and then it goes away. Something else takes the front page.

What you need is people, leaders with a big enough vision that they can convince people that the benefits are worth some of the immediate costs. That if they pay a little bit more to use roads, whether it's in the gas tax or in the form of a toll or a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, they're going to get enormous benefits—not just relief from frustration, but real benefits in being able to get to work, being more productive, finding jobs, moving goods more expeditiously, saving lives, being greener, avoiding the health consequences of breathing bad air, and seeing economic growth in areas that right now can't attract business. Those are benefits that people can see. So you need leaders who can sketch out that vision, show the connections across modes of transportation. In your industry, trucks and rail play together very well these days. The biggest increase in traffic is in the intermodal arena.

 

Q: Enough to the point that the railroads have capacity issues now.

A: So now we need more terminals. But if those terminals are part of a plan for regional development that includes the rail lines and the ports, and the connections to the ports, you can tell a story that is a vision for our future. We can use technology in a smarter way, and leaders can talk about how that will make a difference. We can use technology that we have but aren't always using to prevent train derailments, speed trains up, or prevent truck crashes.

The first thing you need is a leader with a fairly comprehensive and compelling plan to present to everyday concerned Americans. You know, there are certain kinds of economic activity that are not happening because of the problems of moving goods as well as moving people. So you have to have a visionary leader who tells that big-picture story, ties it to the concerns of everyday Americans. Can I get a job? Can I get to my job? Can I get my kids to school? Will the emergency vehicles be able to reach my house in a disaster?

Then you have to start with the highest-priority projects and show progress on those projects. We need to hold whoever is handling the project—whether it's the public sector or the private sector—to high standards. We need to invest in upgrades, or we will have more lives lost, more frustrations. We are operating on borrowed time. And we're not always using all of our own technology. So it's time to get moving.

I think it requires leaders to tell that story in a compelling way. I know that state and local departments of transportation would like this, but they tend to be off to the side. It really takes presidents, governors, and mayors. And we need new models to do all of that, so my book Move is all about new models.

 

Q: Yet when we can't even get a highway bill renewed, where does that leadership come from?

A: The highway funding debate has now gone several rounds on Capitol Hill because Congress is way too partisan. Also, I don't know if between now and the end of October, Congress can take the time to really think through tolls, vehicle miles, and travel fees. The gas tax has run out of steam itself because it was a 1950s policy. We have now reduced our usage of fossil fuel because we have more fuel-efficient vehicles. ... I think we should continue the gas tax because a tax on fossil fuels is a good thing. In fact, I think we should raise it, but I think we should also rethink it.

We also have to get the private sector more involved because there are private sector investors who would like to invest in infrastructure. They often see it as a good long-term investment. But they don't always want to invest when there are so many political uncertainties. And you don't want to start repairing the roads only to have the project come to a halt because they're running out of money. So it all requires national leadership with the cooperation of regions. I think we could get it done, but I don't think we're going to get it done between now and the 2016 election, unfortunately.

 

Q: As I read your book, it struck me that you're suggesting we reframe the argument from infrastructure, which can elicit a yawn, to the whole idea of mobility.

A: Yes, mobility, which is all about moving. There are other forms of infrastructure that we should care about—water pipes, sewers, energy infrastructure—but I think the first thing we have to fix is transportation, and it is all about mobility: how we move, how we get around, how we get what we need.

Let's say we want to stay home and shop or work remotely. That also requires infrastructure. It requires physical goods getting to your doorstep somehow. Also, it requires more broadband. So we should be thinking about communications infrastructure in the same breath as transportation infrastructure. My favorite chapter title is "Smart Roads Meet the Smart Phone." The smartphone and autonomous vehicles and even the kinds of information reports that trucks are transmitting to fleet management systems ... all of these require a lot of broadband and we are not investing in that either in the U.S., so I want to see all these issues talked about together.

 

Q: I also want to ask you about the concept of the "quintuple wins." You went back to that over and over again in the book. How did you develop that, and how do we use that to drive the argument forward?

A: Well, thank you for picking that up because that is something the public can understand and get—that for every project, we should be evaluating it against its contributions to five different things, what I call the "quintuple wins": safety, cost efficiency, productivity, a cleaner environment, and economic development.

You take something like the Miami Port Tunnel project, which I talk about in the book. Within a year after the tunnel opened, it had already taken 80 percent of the truck traffic off the streets of downtown Miami and funneled it directly to the interstate. That has at least five wins in it. It's safer because it diverts trucks from areas where they're likely to be in collisions. It is very cost effective—the project came in under budget and it is now saving time, so that takes out a big cost. It is very efficient, boosting productivity by allowing trucks to get on the road or to the intermodal terminal a lot faster and thus, to carry more goods from the port. This is incredibly environmentally friendly—they didn't disturb the ocean floor, so that project met the environmental sustainability criteria. And it's a perfect model of how a project can promote economic growth—in this case, providing a way to take advantage of the larger ships that are going to come through the Panama Canal. It's going to make that area even more of a cargo shipping center. So that is one example of something that has five wins.

I want to hold that standard. I want to say we don't just spend money on bridges to nowhere. We do things that are going to make us healthier and safer, and make our system more efficient. We will raise productivity, make it more convenient for everybody. We will see environmental benefits and a reduction in carbon emissions, and it will create not just today's jobs in construction but also create jobs for the future.

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editor Emeritus
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

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