Thursday, June 2, 2016

Fast Lane: June is Innovation Month – Where Does USDOT Fit in?

In honor of its 50th Anniversary, the US Department of Transportation has designated June as “Innovation Month.”  But what exactly does that mean?
The word “innovation” gets tossed around so much these days that it has almost lost its meaning.  Everywhere you turn, things are being labelled “innovative” even though they often seem, well… rather ordinary.  As a result, the word “innovation” can start to sound like a hollow buzzword. 
When Secretary Foxx asked me to serve as USDOT’s first Chief Innovation Officer, it wasn’t to bring more buzzwords to government.  My enthusiasm to take leave from Stanford University, where I work as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and join USDOT was not because of the trendy title.  It was instead because I saw a huge challenge and a chance to do my part to help meet it.

A demonstration of the Microsoft Kinect system at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City taking interactive training to a whole new level
What is the challenge at the heart of innovation?  My friend and colleague Professor Tina Seelig at Stanford defines innovation as applying creativity to develop unique ideas.  That definition just resounds with challenge.  A challenge to come up with solutions that are truly unique and have never been attempted before.  A challenge to deliver government to people in ways that it has never been delivered before.  A challenge to ensure mobility, enhance safety and provide ladders of opportunity for all of the citizens of this nation.
Everywhere I look in the department, I see people rising to meet this challenge.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is developing the operational guidance that will enable fully automated vehicles to be safely tested and deployed on our roadways.    Through the Federal Highway Administration’s Every Day Counts Program, State DOTs have learned to harness 3D modeling in their highway projects and are further expanding these models to develop accurate time and cost predictions.   The call of the Smart City Challenge has connected some of our most dynamic cities with creative private sector partners and leading universities to demonstrate a city of the future, today.
Alongside these larger projects, you also see brand new ideas emerging as initial proofs of concept.  An innovation sandbox from the Office of the Chief Information Officer now offers access to cloud computing to enable quick evaluation of data hypotheses.  Innovators at the Federal Aviation Administration have repurposed a video game console to mock up a new way to effectively scan through schematics while wearing protective clothing.  The United States Maritime Administration and Argonne National Laboratory are combining their experience to evaluate the feasibility of zero-emission marine vessels running on hydrogen.  This embrace of the culture of prototyping helps ensure that the well of new ideas never runs dry.
So with June as Innovation Month, let’s put the spotlight on the innovators in USDOT and recognize their efforts to change the way we live and move.  But let’s also hear the challenge that the word “innovation” inspires and never stop striving to develop the new ideas and solutions that truly move us forward.


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