Innovation At Scale: Demonstrating a Digital Infrastructure for the Rail Sector

The UK rail industry is ripe for innovation. Challenges and frustrations faced by passengers are frequently hitting the headlines. But where should the industry start with making innovations to improve the customer experience? And how can it make sure customers are listened to as part of managing the innovation process?
Rob Munro shares some insights into AIR4, a government-funded initiative to bring a more structured approach to making innovation happen in the rail sector. As an associate of IfM Engage he was lead with responsibility for innovation design and process facilitation and he shares his thoughts about the practical pros and cons of the experience of digitalisation of strategic roadmapping. A version of this article first appeared in the Manufacturer in April 2019.

If passengers could decide how to improve their rail journeys or their experience at train stations, what would they prioritise? When you take a train, what would make the most difference to you and your fellow passengers on your journey?

As part of a national initiative to stimulate innovation in the rail sector, customer input and feedback has actively been sought from experts from the many organisations involved in the rail service ecosystem.

At London Bridge Station (itself having been through a recent major redevelopment) an ‘Innovation Hub’ was installed, providing a space where passengers can find out more about new concepts currently under consideration for improving rail services, and share their feedback and insights. Using touch screens and smartphones, members of the public are actively encouraged to give their input. The Hub is staffed by project partners and suppliers, adding valuable personal interactions as another way to prompt the exchange of ideas.

Places for innovation, such as physical hubs in key locations need to be conducive to allow creative thinking and conversations to occur. They can be a relatively low-cost way of tapping into a larger crowd who bring potentially greater or different wisdom about the problems to be solved.

Innovation Hub

Photo: The Innovation Hub at London Bridge Station – a space for gaining passenger insights as well as running strategic innovation workshops with stakeholders.

Taking a structured approach to managing innovation

The Innovation Hub was part of Advancing Innovation in Rail 4 (AIR4), an Innovate UK-funded initiative, which builds on work done previously under AIR3 to develop a passenger-facing IT infrastructure. The objective of AIR4 is to identify a range of digital innovation tools, platforms and assets that the wider supply chain and passengers can engage with and use, with a focus on passenger experience at stations.

Over the past decade, the UK rail industry has undergone significant growth in passenger numbers and increased investment in infrastructure. But with the higher demand, the quality of passenger experience has struggled to keep up.

This presents a pressing need to identify innovations that can bring a dramatic improvement to the customer experience. But crucially, these innovations must be managed and planned strategically, by focusing on customer-centric priorities, and by creating a roadmap for development and implementation.

It’s useful to organise any innovation process around a grand challenge – sometimes referred to as challenge-led innovation. It provides permission, incentives and focuses on the objective; new products services and solutions to solving relevant problems.

But taking a structured approach to managing innovation is required but not straightforward particularly in a traditional sector like rail with legacy standards and ways of working. The fragmented nature of the UK rail industry—encompassing train operators, constructors, rail operators, suppliers, station operators and passenger bodies—can hinder the pace and scale of innovation. So, industry-wide collaboration is essential to deliver improvements successfully. This requires involving a broad range of passenger-facing organisations (PFOs) and the supply chain – any organisation that has products or services that impact passengers.

Bringing these parties together, a series of workshops were held with stakeholders across the rail industry to clarify the challenges for passengers, identify key innovation themes and hot topics. Strategic technology roadmapping was used as the central tool to do this which has the advantage of combining many different and related perspectives from stakeholders.

For the rail industry, the whole process was itself an innovation. Starting out, it wasn’t clear what the end output would look like, and the process was refined as the project progressed.

Careful design of the innovation process is required to deliver high-quality outputs. This needs to consider who are the Right People to get into the Room and the focus, scope and objectives for the innovation process. You may need to design a number of levels to do this; with a high-level overall topic scan followed by subsequent more detail to the individual innovation – the product or service level.

The innovation funnel

An initial workshop with 50 people from across the industry kicked off the project with an exploration of the passenger experience. This identified 20 themes for improvement where innovations could be focused, including areas such as sustainable rail infrastructure, ticketless travel, station platform upgrades, and smart techniques to manage passenger flows.

Using data-driven decision making and established frameworks for supporting the selection process, six themes were chosen for further development in a second workshop. Each was assigned a theme leader and a team of 3 or 4 people who focused on creating an innovation under this theme during and between workshops.

In the final workshops, the teams produced specific concepts for real potential innovations based on the six themes. These were presented to a portfolio steering group led by a project partner to decide which of the six ideas would go forward for development.

Innovation Funnel

Photo: AIR4’s innovation funnel. Credit: The Manufacturer

From ideas to reality

To implement these ideas and take them through to commercialisation, high-level strategic roadmaps have been produced with a focus on a longer timeframe, as well as more granular innovation roadmaps to apply to specific and tangible improvements currently being worked on.

An IT innovation infrastructure is used to scale and expand the initial part of the innovation funnel through development and commercialisation. The IT tools chosen was SharpCloud, a data visualisation platform that can be used to create online visual roadmaps. This open digital asset was made freely available to the rail industry as a way to stimulate collaborative innovation at a faster pace. All ecosystem partners were being encouraged both to access and to contribute to the digital assets. An embryonic community of practice and innovators was formed that can be scaled up at will.

Digital tools for strategy and innovation can play a role in facilitating innovation practices through collaboration at a greater scale with customers and the innovation ecosystem. Digital tools have greater information-handling capabilities that can reveal deeper insights.

But digital innovation processes are not Set and Forget. After the process design, facilitation whether it be of physical workshops or remote-working sessions is needed to help get workshop delegates into the right mindset and maintain focus.

Several roles need to be installed to run an innovation infrastructure: To design the process, run the workshops, providing leadership and motivation as well as supporting IT, and stimulating creativity and decision-making about innovative ideas emerging from the process.

Innovation Workshop

Facilitated working in the London Bridge Innovation Hub.

Listening to customers

So in the midst of this complex process, involving many different organisations and innovations, and taking place over a long-term period, how can the AIR4 project partners ensure that the customer’s voice is still heard loudly and clearly?

AIR4’s aim was to drive a customer-centric approach: listening to customer opinions and ideas and building innovations that are focused on improving the customer experience.

This involves providing a chance for customers to share their views and to get involved in testing innovations. Often finding ways to do this requires innovative thinking of its own. The Innovation Hub at London Bridge Station is one such example – by physically locating a means for gaining customer input visibly in a place where customers are passing through, and by talking with them during their journey when their rail experience is fresh in the mind, AIR4 are gaining immediate and engaging interactions.

Involving customer (passengers) offers the possibility of more engagement in problem-based ideas generation. But this needs to be carefully set up to generate high-quality insights, otherwise, one can be faced with the same old problems and the same old solutions meaning speed and innovativeness can suffer.

Digital approaches require some shifting of personal behaviours, but preference by some for paper and pens is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Establishing ways of working for digital workshop delegates will take some time.

There are many possibilities that physical spaces like the London Bridge Station Innovation Hub can offer, including harnessing technologies such as virtual reality (VR) for gaining feedback. VR is increasingly being used in construction and manufacturing for testing new designs, structures or other innovations, and can be a valuable way to trial new concepts through immersive experiences.

Such spaces are also an important channel for customer service, promoting better communication with customers and a more inclusive relationship between customers and the range of suppliers they interact with during a transaction.

Innovation workshops rely on interpersonal interactions; digitalisation tools won’t be changing that fact anytime soon. But once the inter-personal relationships and clear rules are established, the facilitation of delegates in dispersed locations can be more easily handled. Conceivably, organisations with staff spread across the world can benefit from online working.

AIR4 have used other means for gathering customer feedback too, including online tools such as the open innovation portal to provide an interactive means to facilitate dialogue.

Often the best ideas come from the people who need to use them. In the rail sector, a cultural change to place passenger experience at the centre of change will be fundamental to delivering innovation successfully.

What Next

After the innovation process and digitalisation of your roadmap, what do you do? It’s essential to have well-functioning innovation machinery to take ideas, sometimes radical or breakthrough ideas through the organisation. Do you have such an innovation machine?

Find out more 

Accelerating Innovation in Rail (AIR) 4 draws on cross-discipline skills and experience from its project partners, Costain, IBM, Milne Research and IfM Engage at the Institute for Manufacturing. The aim is to deliver a scalable digital innovation infrastructure to help make the UK rail industry among the best in the world. A version of this article was originally published in The Manufacturer in April 2019.

Read about the 10 learning points in building a digital innovation set-up here.


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Want to know more?

Rob Munro is an innovation strategist and consultant focussing on improving innovation results within organisations. Rob was the lead innovation process designer and facilitator in AIR4 designing the process to identify and select ideas for innovations that improve the passenger experience on the Mainline UK rail network through his association with IfM Engage, the knowledge transfer business of the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University.

Please contact me to discuss ways to bring greater effectiveness to your innovation processes.

Read more about the approach to innovation planning.