18 January 2005

18/01/05. Plain-speaking on carsharing strategies and support in Brussels next week

The need for innovation is not being met by the top-down, highly bureaucratic and geopolitical funding offered by the EU.

As we prepare to join next week’s “Keys to Carsharing: Moving the City of Tomorrow” meeting of the European Commission’s moses program in Brussels (see yesterday’s mail on this subject and http://213.170.188.3/moses/index.asp?page=96 for meeting details), we have an opportunity to do some creative international expert-based plain-speaking on how the EC can best help in both the specific area of supporting and extending carsharing where it is showing that it can do the job, and indeed the whole matter of supporting creative innovation in the New Mobility Agenda more broadly. Important stuff and a fine opportunity to make our voices heard.

Without wishing to seem to be overly cruel or argumentative, it is my bet that in a world where sustainability is treated as a REAL PRIORITY (as opposed to the usual costless posturing and rhetorical messages) our hosts should be gearing their loins to take advantage of this occasion to get real feedback as to what is working, what is not, and what is needed to do better in this chosen sector of sustainable transportation. Coming to Brussels after all are quite a collection of capable people, a number of whom have real hands-on experience at the operational level, and who in many cases have some pretty sharp views on what is needed from the public sector… views that need not only to be aired in public but also somehow made to stick.

I got to thinking about all this in particular this morning as I read an article about another attempted innovation here in Europe, the recent failure of the MIT spin-off Media Lab Europe (details at http://iht.com/bin/print_ipub.php?file=/articles/2005/01/17/yourmoney/medialab.html ). And in particular the comments of the always ebullient, always provocative Nick Negroponte:

"The need for innovation is not being met by the top-down, highly bureaucratic and geopolitical funding offered by the EU," Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab's founder, said in an e-mail interview. He said that he had hoped that the Dublin operation would be "a virus," spurring innovation and prompting reviews of legislation like bankruptcy rules that handicap entrepreneurs.

My point is that this is equally valid for much that is going on in the transport sector as well, carsharing included, and that this approach of “top-down, highly bureaucratic and geopolitical funding” now needs to be challenged.

But OK, what do we propose to put in its place? We can see for sure that their old model of how to go about this is not only truly old (at best a 1960’s concept with a bit of 1990 sauce), but it is creaking and truly ready for the dustbin of history. So… it will not be enough just to drink their beer in Brussels next week and whine among ourselves, we need to step forward with a positive set of suggestions when it comes to putting carsharing to work in the cause of the sustainability agenda. And who better to come from than this group.

Our friends at the Commission need a whole new model for their operations in this area I am afraid; it is not just a matter of applauding what they say they have done and eventually suggesting a bit of fine tuning here or there. But a major overhaul and new thrust of both policy and practice. Let me see if I can suggest one, just to get the ball rolling over these next days.

A No-Fault Grassroots Carsharing Grant Program for the EU – to start immediately: (A first cut outline for discussion)

Objective: Program to respond in a timely and creative 21st century, Open Society fashion to requests from specific cities or groups to carry out specific initiatives to advance the carsharing agenda in their city or more broadly.

1. All grants of a single amount: € 50k (we call this a no-brainer approach)
2. Funds to be made available as a lump sum within 60 days of grant application.
3. Whole thing to be mediated on the net with a low overhead, low interference, zero policing structure.

The core idea is to seek out worthy projects, competent people, give them the money and get out of their way.

Also worth a thought or two:

* Local partners must be prepared to put up at least x2 this amount in local support, including in kind from NGOs.
* All requests to be made in 2 pages or less, counter-signed and actively supported by at least three local partners, including local government and the core group to whom the planning and implementation reasonability for actually getting the local carsharing operation up and going.
* Grant to be “countersigned” by at least two recognized members of an independent international expert panel to be named not by any bureaucratic or political organization but by this consortium in cooperation with, say, two other highly thought of, independent non-governmental groups with deep expertise in the transportation/sustainability agenda (for example the Sustran group and Gender and Transport network, among others). (Panel members to be compensated at a standard rate of € 500 for intitial study, verification and support of the grant application. From the overall panel, two more members will be chosen for their final independent assessment and views for future projects and work. Also be to be compensated by a likewise non variable € 500 honorarium for a final independent assessment.
* Entire process is to be publicly traced real time on a central website open to all comers, and supported by commentaries, views and suggestions.
* Grant recipients engage to report results in a timely fashion on their web site, and in enough details so that the lessons of this taxpayer-funded experience can be viewed and learned from, world wide.

Okay, fair enough. This is still pretty hairy, but suppose that we really put our brains together and come up with an improved version of this – or some better proposal for them – what might we anticipate would be their reaction. Among the first things we could expect to hear would be an exhaustive listing of all the reasons why this will not be possible. Hmm.

But will we make any mistakes with this?

You bet we will. Inevitably and no matter how tough minded and creative we manage to be with our slimmed down non-bureaucratic process. But at worse these will be very small mistakes, and if we get it right they will also be made in the bright light of the public domain where all can see and learn from (nothing being stashed away in drawers and kept from any eventually prying eyes).

Indeed in this particular sub-set of sustainability policy and practice, we need more and more honest feedback – and often as not we have more to learn from failure than success. But not is we are forever going to hide away the failures.

On the other hand in barely more than one month the Kyoto Protocol becomes operational and this at a time when virtually all of our cites are moving steadily and without a murmur of apology in the opposite direction. Here is a chance to get the ball rolling in the right direction and with minimum delay.

There you have it, a modest proposal for next week’s meeting, and an equally modest challenge to you all to do better. And once again please be sure that all of this will be conveyed to the meeting in one form or another. And you and turn will be kept informed of what if anything happens next.

Eric Britton

The New Mobility Agenda at http://newmobility.org

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