How can a major international corporation benefit from partnering with an urban university? In this installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we’ll explore how a partnership between UPS and Georgetown University created a new learning experience for future urban planners to explore one facet of today’s urban environment: how to effectively and efficiently deliver packages and develop solutions for tomorrow’s smart cities.
MetroLab’s Executive Director Ben Levine sat down with Uwe Brandes, associate professor of Practice in Urban and Regional Planning at Georgetown University, and Thomas Madrecki, Director of Urban Innovation and Mobility at UPS, to discuss the collaboration.
Ben Levine: Could you please describe what the New Urban Technologies Studio Class is? Who is involved in this project?
Uwe Brandes: This class was a cross-listed class between our Urban and Regional Planning and Systems Engineering master’s programs. It was structured as a studio class where students spend the semester responding to a real-world client and a challenge. We have a lot of these classes in the urban planning program, but this was the first time we brought students from both programs together to focus on a digital, data-enabled urban problem.
Levine: What business need motivated this collaboration?
Thomas Madrecki: In a nutshell, traffic congestion, urbanization, the rise of e-commerce and the need to improve quality of life in cities, with more sustainable and efficient movement of goods, services and people. We want to work collaboratively with cities like Washington, D.C., and academic partners like Georgetown to address future challenges and to develop proactive, win-win solutions that work for both cities and businesses at the intersection of logistics operation, urban planning and policy, and applied data science.
Levine: Can you describe the project?
Brandes: The focus of the studio was to explore how e-commerce is impacting traffic congestion in individual neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and to look at what new operational and policy solutions might be put in place to mitigate congestion related to package delivery.
Madrecki: What I loved about this class is how it took a practical, real-world approach, bringing the conversation out of the classroom and immersing students in real problems facing UPS and Washington, D.C., every day. That meant students could engage with real data and use that information to research operational and policy-based solutions to mitigate congestion, increase operational efficiency or improve the way deliveries are made in urban environments.
Georgetown University students meet with UPS delivery personnel in Washington, D.C., to learn about daily route-planning as part of the New Urban Technologies Studio Class. Image courtesy of Georgetown University.
Levine: What were some of the advantages of a partnership that involved graduate students?
Brandes: There are so many! For the students, this class required "design-thinking," which required them to work together and collaborate to find new value propositions for UPS and for the city. Students are remarkably unencumbered, and there is enormous value generated by looking at urban problems in new ways. In this case, it was entirely unclear where future public value would be generated and by whom, so I think that all of the studio participants got something out of it.
Levine: What were your major takeaways from the process?
Madrecki: One of the most inspiring things was how much the students were able to do with limited resources and a modicum of background information about UPS’ business model. These students weren’t experts by any means, but they came up with some really fascinating proposals that warrant additional research and scrutiny. And that kind of creativity and desire to put forth new ideas and solutions is frankly refreshing. We need more of that to inspire innovation.
Brandes: A few things. One, there is a wide spectrum of creative solutions available to us if we think expansively about these urban logistics challenges. A single delivery company or a single public agency is not going to "fix the problem" in isolation. Second, traffic and logistics do not reside in a vacuum. Some of the best solutions might be to shape the behavioral demand for deliveries or re-imagining our zoning and building codes. These are not obvious solutions. Third, we need to create new ways of convening stakeholders (and their data), which allows for creative problem-solving. The role of universities is critical in this respect. In this project, we demonstrated that the university is a safe harbor where creative inquiry can occur in a non-threatening way and outside of the political process. We were able to welcome all stakeholders into the dialog.
Levine: Where will this project go from here?
Brandes: We are so happy with the outcome that we have institutionalized this course in our curriculum. The word is out and other students are chomping at the bit to engage in the next class. I believe universities have a special role to play as honest brokers between government and industry, and this class showed how to generate co-benefits for everyone involved. Clearly, we live in an era where urban challenges need to be addressed in new ways, and with that comes the need to rethink professional education and the definitions of the professions themselves.
Madrecki: I’m leading our urban delivery and mobility initiatives and want to incorporate this research and student thinking to push forward the development of new best practices and potential collaborations with cities around the world. For example, we will be testing a number of urban delivery solutions in Washington, D.C., over the coming year and that pilot project will be informed by this research, which will, in turn, generate future ideas for other cities. Where possible, we want to elevate this research internally and externally because some of the ideas are spot-on in terms of where urban delivery is heading and how cities will need to approach congestion issues.
You can read more about this project here.
About MetroLab: MetroLab Network introduces a new model for bringing data, analytics,and innovation to local government: a network of institutionalized, cross-disciplinary partnerships between cities/counties and their universities. Its membership includes more than 35 such partnerships in the United States, ranging from mid-size cities to global metropolises. These city-university partnerships focus on research, development and deployment of projects that offer technologically and analytically based solutions to challenges facing urban areas, including: inequality in income, health, mobility, security and opportunity; aging infrastructure; and environmental sustainability and resiliency. MetroLab was launched as part of the White House’s 2015 Smart Cities Initiative. Learn more at www.metrolabnetwork.org or on Twitter @metrolabnetwork.