By Sampo Hietanen, CEO and Founder of MaaS Global

I wonder if they had a version of a scooter moment in medieval towns? Did someone decide that the little tables and stands scattered all over, selling everything from pears to pig carcasses, were simply too much? They jammed sidewalks, caused health hazards, people walked into them, and when you needed one, you did not know where to find one that would suit your needs. Was there noise and aggression and vandalism?

And then someone suggested to collect all of the little stalls together for everyone’s convenience, and the market square was born. Consumers, merchants and the city were all happy. Problem solved.

electric-scooters

The electric scooters came from nowhere. Or at least from the point of view of legislation they did. Practically overnight, in September 2017, the first E-scooters flooded the streets in the city of Santa Monica, California. Many loved them, some hated them. The operator, Bird, had no license for their activity and soon the city grew tired of complaints about blocked driveways and sidewalks. City officials warned them. Nothing happened. The city issued multiple citations but still, nothing happened. Finally, in early December, the city filed a criminal complaint against Bird Rides Inc. and eventually settled the case for $ 300,000 in fines and license fees. A pattern, familiar in the age of digital disruption, was once again enforced: execute, and ask for forgiveness later.

Cities are finding different ways to cope with the E-scooter tsunami. New York City first banned them but recently allowed them again; in British cities they are illegal due to the 1835 Highways Act; San Francisco chose to give permits only to smaller companies; Los Angeles allows bigger operators too but has imposed  MDS data sharing requirements; Paris has 12 operators on its streets but is forcing the number down to three; Antwerp is embracing them with open arms.

Dealing with E-scooters should not be seen as a challenge of its own but as a piece in a strategy puzzle. The next waves are already building up their strength: fleets of self-driving cars, swarms of delivery drones, armies of delivery robots on wheels, flocks of flying cars… To deal with them one by one, always behind in legislation and policy, will be a catastrophe.

With mobility, we are living in a new age that needs new strategies. One city I am watching closely is Hamburg. They are embracing hub-based thinking with their current 45 switchh points around the city. The points, multi-modal parking lots, are painted green for easy recognition and offer access both to the public transportation network and to a varied private offering of taxis, car share, bikes and E-scooters. In the future, all of the offering can be accessed through one app.

Visionary approaches like switchh make it relatively straightforward to deal with individual new introductions: ”So you got a new luggage carrying robot: this is where you can try it and these are the rules.”

Strategic and systemic thinking is, of course, hard when disruptive change is fast, and therefore the discussion often veers towards polarized stands on individual modes. ”Should we kick E-scooters out of our city?” ”When are we going to ban private cars with combustion engines?” Instead of engaging too deeply in these discussions, the cities should build visions of the future and learn to play both the long game and the short game at the same time and with great skill.

A city has a monopoly on planning infrastructure. The overarching vision, I think, should be to make it as flexible as possible but provide a framework in which operators and solutions compete in a fair environment. The competition between the world’s cities is fierce and it will only get more intense. In this game, one key element is the level and quality of innovation. Innovation, of course, happens in non-controlled environments like the early Internet, but also in environments where the framework and maybe the goals are set but the solutions stay open for competition. The latter suits established and complex environments like cities.

On a tactical, everyday level, much more is needed from city officials than before. Skills that are needed to run successful public procurements are very different from sustaining live markets. Instead of trying to organize everything, cities of today must become puppet masters that follow the markets and the solutions as they happen and see that all is fair and functions for the benefit of the inhabitants.

Each city is unique, with its architecture, its culture, and the solutions it has developed over decades or centuries. This one-of-a-kind character is often the city’s competitive edge, but it does not mean that a city should develop and own all of its new solutions. The competitiveness of solutions lies often in their scale. If a city wants the best, it cannot expect the leading companies to build unique concepts for each city. It must develop infrastructure that the most innovative and efficient players can connect to while developing and holding onto its unique character and vision.

The real lesson of E-scooters is that the cities with a vision have it much easier for themselves and their inhabitants, and that they stay competitive. Who wouldn’t want that?