Think Differently

Seems to me it was Cool Hand Luke himself who told his jailers what they wanted to hear when he said he was trying to “get my mind right, boss”. But he never did. Something of an original thinker was our Luke.

I am at a conference where some really original thinkers are trying to quantify the value of innovative thinking to the transportation infrastructure industries. And trying to make innovative thinking something more than a phrase used to mollify those around us by showing them we are using all the thinking tools we can bring to bear on a problem. They think, as you know I do, that innovative thinking can be one of our industry’s most efficient economic tools. It should shake the predictable thinking that we think our superiors and colleagues want to hear to the core

Its the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) TransOvation conference in Leesburg, Virginia. I cherry-picked some thoughts from today’s opening session. And I have to be back to the afternoon sessions shortly so I’ll make them brief:

Paul Yarossi, said the event was a conference of practical ideas centered around innovations and growth. It was about how to think on the job in a different way to increase productivity, growth and safety. The conference will include workshops designed to address a major transportation problem, highway safety, and look for innovative ways road builders can help: “Somehow, someway, it’s become acceptable to have 40,000 people die each year on our highways.”

Ted Zoli senior vice president, national bridge chief engineer, HNTB, said in the case of highway safety, of death on our roads, the work needed was to change public perception about what is adequate, what represents an adequate level of safety. “That is the challenge of our generation. How do we change perception so that we don’t tolerate running over people and animals.”

Zoli defined one industry shortcoming as: “We are missing the connection to people that what we are doing is creating public good.” In fact this theme jumped up several times in the opening sessions, with attendees aware of, but struggling to find strategies to overcome, a public unawareness, or even apathy, or both, of the value of tax dollars spent on roads and bridges.

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John HIllman president and CEO, HC Bridge Company, argued that we must “train our brains to come up with ideas” because, he suggested, without that training we will come up withideas that are generally predictable.”How do we create a culture of innovation within our own professional careers? Part of this is training our brains to think differently. That’s something we don’t teach. We teach knowledge, we don’t teach thinking.”

Jim Pinkerton, author of “What Comes Next: the end of big govenment and the new paradigm ahead,” Fox News commentator and former Reagan and Bush I White House policy staffer, believes the industry needs to make the case for a big, bold, transportation infrastructure “school of thought.” Sell the idea of all the things that transportation infrastructure does for the public, make it cool, then work out how to finance it. Because just as Eisenhower did with the Interstate system and Theodore Roosevelt did with the Panama Canal, selling the big idea can bring the public behind your vision. But once you have the vision sold, he said, you have to tangibalize it. I presume that means build it.

I am with Pinkerton on this one. As long as the public sees transportation infrastructure as something less than cool (and it is cool and it is valuable we just haven’t been able to portray [sell] it that way) then we will be in line for more extensions and less funding. Part of Pinkerton’s point, of course, is that many people in the industry reject cool, define it as shallow or temporary. But the public doesn’t. Again, we’re on the same page.

One final speaker with some unsettling thoughts.

Ross Smith, director of test for Microsoft’s Lync program knows online games. In fact he uses a game controller to control his PowerPoint slides. And games he says are becoming a major factor in modern life — in and out of the office – all over the world. In other words they are a major factor in how the coming generation learns to think.

Consider that more kids today know how to play video games than to swim or ride a bike, by better that two to one. That 60 percent of kids can use a mouse before they can tie their shoes. That in a statistical global village today, you know where 60 percent of the village would be Asian and so on, 70 percent of the villagers would be active gamers. Let’s keep going: there are 86.7 social gamers in the U.S. And American18-24 year olds exchange more than 100 text messages a day on average.

And perhaps more importantly for us, today less than 10 million teens have driver’s licenses, compared to 12 million in 1978. They can get to their friends and social events online, and what’s a little more disturbing, they can enjoy that remote contact more than actual physical proximity.

Okay, back to the sessions.