After a dozen years away from Hill+Knowlton Strategies with postings on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I return to public affairs to discover that disruption now drives our business in a way that didn’t happen a decade or so ago. Disruption is fun – it shakes things up, it gets people thinking, and it makes change happen. It’s a good thing.
Provided you do it right.
One example of disruption done not-quite-right is particularly close to my heart: electric scooters. I love them. I’ve always been an early adopter of all things tech, and I get excited by pretty much any motorized contraption on wheels. Me and scooters were a match made in heaven. The fact that they make getting around cities easier is an added bonus. I first saw one a year or so ago, unfamiliar and incongruous on the sidewalk outside the World Bank. I didn’t know what it was but had to try it. I downloaded the app, plugged in my credit card details and wheeee! I wobbled off back to my office. The long way.
That was all it took. I was a convert, an evangelist, even, proselytizing to my friends and colleagues about the scooters’ efficiency and eco-friendliness, refusing to entertain counter-arguments about safety or sidewalk clutter. For a while there I was even the (reluctant) face of DC’s “invasion of the scooter bros,” having been snapped by an eagle-eyed Washington Post reporter as I glided past the White House one morning on my way to work.
Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the scooter industry, either in Washington or anywhere else. The scooters appeared, often overnight, unannounced, and in many cases with little or no prior discussion with the urban authorities. Even in Washington, where they were part of an officially sanctioned pilot program, they polarized opinion, with we early adopters facing off on the streets and on social media against drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. “Out of my way, you f*cker,” a cyclist snarled at me one morning, perhaps irritated by my presence in ‘his’ bike lane.
In some cities, the scooters disappeared as quickly as they’d appeared, as local regulators implemented new rules or closed loopholes. In others, vigilantes took to Twitter to share pictures of scooters dismembered or dumped in trees. Rideshare drivers, themselves so recently emblematic of the technology-driven, disruptive gig economy, seemed to become part of the change-resistant, anti-scooter establishment. And even I found myself grumbling at people riding on sidewalks, helmetless and two to a scooter.
All this is to say that while disruption can be exciting, intoxicating even in the heady early days of the hype cycle, it’s absolutely crucial to consider who else might be affected by your innovation. It’s true, for example, that if you were designing a city from scratch you wouldn’t dedicate anywhere near as much surface area to private cars, but we can’t change the jumping off point. Whatever the vision of the future, many cities of today are car-centric to a great extent, and everyone needs to share the road.
So what’s next? For the scooters, belatedly in some cities, we’re seeing genuine partnership and cooperation between scooter companies and local authority. Dedicated parking areas, free helmet schemes and even reduced speed limits are the order of the day – although in the latter case I’d argue that 10mph is dangerously slow. Operators are negotiating fleet numbers with municipalities and discussing expansion into areas where bylaws currently prohibit scooters from going. Campuses and operators are designing geofences together. And eventually, after a bumpy start, disruption will give way to a new equilibrium. Lesson learned.
It’s exactly this sort of disruption that I’m looking forward to being part of during my second stint at H+K. There’s a pivotal role to play in facilitating conversation between innovator, regulator and public and in helping each to understand each other’s needs, issues and concerns. If we get this wrong, disruption can meet with resistance and inertia. But get it right, and we become part of creating sustainable, positive policy shifts. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
James Barbour is a Director in our Public Affairs practice at H+K Washington. He recently worked in the UK and EU diplomatic services, first as Press Secretary at the British Embassies in Moscow and Washington and then his posting with the EU. He was part of the H+K London office from 2004–2006, focusing on government and corporate clients in the public affairs arena.