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The future of national ITS associations – time for a change


Jennie Martin, Secretary General, ITS (UK)

Recent conversations with colleagues – those who also run national ITS associations – and Members have supported a lingering suspicion of mine: it is time for a fundamental change in how we conduct ourselves.

ITS (UK) and our fellow associations were set up, mainly during the 1990s or early 2000s, to support what was at that time an emerging and not universally accepted technology. The idea was to champion the exciting new concept of using IT and new communications technologies in a roads setting. Using IT to manage the traffic in cities and on motorways, or to run a haulage operation, were new ideas and by no means obviously beneficial to people outside the immediate ITS (not that it was called ITS then) circle. There was a need for strong messages to decision makers and fund holders about the benefits of ITS investment. There was also a need to act as “missionaries” into the sectors of transport planning and civil engineering, without whose support there could be no ITS implementations. We had roads without ITS for millennia, but it is only very recently, with drones and so on, that we have started contemplating ITS without roads.

In some areas of the world this is still very much the case and we have sister associations in the developing world who are making those cases now to the same categories of stakeholders and professionals we were trying to convince twenty years ago. But here in western Europe the argument has been won – nobody would design a road or a public transport system now without including IT and communications from the very start. There is no longer a need for a lobby for ITS – we have done that work and done it well.

This does not mean that national ITS associations can retire themselves with a pat on the back for a job well done. The mature ITS industry needs professional associations same as other established sectors. The combination of enabling networking, disseminating new developments, and supporting the industry when it comes up against outside initiatives which are potentially harmful to it, is crucial. It led to the establishment of venerable bodies such as the IET (electrics and electronics), the CIHT (roads), CILT (logistics) and so on over the past 150 years, and while the activities and the participants have modernised, the basic reason for being remains the same.

It is now time for ITS United Kingdom (and ITS France, Sweden, Germany and so on) to give up our role as pioneers, lobbyists and maybe sometimes even agitators. We need to move onto the stable platform of these older professional associations, and focus on services to members above all. Since most of us have strong public sector membership, this means continuing to inform government about the benefits of ITS, but no longer in the context of basic promotion of the technologies.  Our government liaison needs to focus on the benefits of using ITS, the outcomes and the value for money. In a tech industry like ours, communicating these things rather than the facts of the technology is difficult for many actors. So a key role for ITS associations going forward will be that of technical translation – briefly explaining the methodology in non-technical terms and majoring instead on the benefits including cost-benefit analysis. Another challenge, since robust CBA has not to date been a hall mark of our sector. The providers tend not to regard it as essential enough to do at their own expense and the clients for whatever reason do not commit the resource to doing it. This will need to change.

Maybe you could argue that the resources we no longer have to put into promoting ITS could now be used to collect and present the evidence we need to prove what exactly ITS is worth. ◆