Innovation. The word itself has various connotations. Whether it’s pushing forward new technologies; adopting a science-driven approach to your operations (think robotics); or thinking outside the box to ensure your company’s relevancy and attract new consumer markets, innovation is critical to the heart and operation of many 21st century businesses.
In May, the PA Chamber Educational Foundation celebrated the thinkers and doers who are embracing innovation across the Commonwealth and experiencing success. The first-ever Pennsylvania Innovation Summit at the Sheraton Harrisburg-Hershey welcomed business leaders to share their stories and best practices for embedding innovation into their corporate culture. To some, this has meant adopting inclusive practices that encourage workers to share their ideas — which was stressed during an engaging opening keynote by speakers Kate James and Tamara Nolte of the famed Chicago improv group, the Second City. Their concept of answering employees’ ideas with a “yes … and” approach spurs a creative dialogue that helps everyone in the business find their unique voice and contribute to the betterment of the team as a whole.
The idea of encouraging employee engagement to bring new ideas to the forefront was interspersed throughout the sessions at the day-long summit. Attendees heard Carnegie Mellon’s Dr. Martial Hebert, the director of the school’s robotics institute, discuss how they obtain research successes in 21st century intelligence through a discovery-based, collaborative dialogue among professors, staff, students, government agencies and industry. In breakout sessions, experts from the energy and education fields expressed how they work to foster a culture of innovation in their respective industries. And the final session of the day featured a panel discussion where leaders from successful Harrisburg businesses shared how their workers are the ultimate driving force in moving forward with an innovative spirit that has enabled them to stand apart from the competition.
The Future of Travel: How Transportation Experts are Redefining How We Get Around
One industry that often seems to come to people’s minds when thinking of innovation is transportation. The 21st century has ushered in a new era in thinking about how people get from place to place — and whether you’re traveling by standard vehicle, signaling a car through a ride-sharing app like Uber or even hopping into a self-driving vehicle — Pennsylvania has all of these options open to consumers and boasts a large share of innovators who are helping to shape what travel will look like in the years ahead. At the summit, the “Innovations in Transportation Technology” panel showcased an intriguing dialogue moderated by Gannett Fleming, Inc. Vice President Eric Rensel and featuring Uber’s Northeast U.S. Public Policy Lead, Kevin Kerr; and CAVita Principal Barry Einsig; who focused on how their companies are propelling their futuristic vision forward through a culture of innovation.
An innovative culture not only helps to attract and retain the best talent, but also aids in working cohesively with state and local governments and private companies to keep your business a step ahead of the game in an ever-changing environment. “A lot of what you saw [today at the summit] looks futuristic and people assume that it’s 20 or 30 years off,” Einsig told the audience. “This [the change in transportation technology] is happening now and it’s an economic imperative for Pennsylvania and Americans in general to highly engage in this market.”
Ensuring that public policy aligns with corporate goals might not fall under ‘innovation’ in the traditional sense, but the relationship building that is necessary to help these ideas come to fruition is a major piece in the innovation puzzle. At the moment, Kerr said Uber is working with the state Department of Transportation to get agency representatives up to speed on where the technology stands at the moment and to prepare them for what will be coming “down the road” from the company while also building a structural relationship. This dialogue is critical in making innovation inclusive of all parties, and it’s helping to ensure that safety and efficiency are paramount as new technologies are being rolled out — with a zero fatality footprint being a shared goal.
In Uber’s case, innovation is rooted in rethinking how people get around. Their urban-centric vision includes thinking about the perspectives of business — including the small business owner. “For small businesses, our thought goes to how people get to that business,” Kerr told the audience. “We’re challenging folks right now to re-use curb space where a vehicle might traditionally sit in a more dynamic way. Instead of parking a car there for up to eight hours at a time, if we have interconnected mobility we can re-imagine how that space is used. It’s incumbent on private companies like Uber to see the economic value of this concept.”
Kerr said that through new technologies, he shares the hope with his colleagues that parking lots can actually become a thing of the past and people can begin re-imagining how to use them. In urban centers, he shared that “parking day” has become a celebration of what could be done to reclaim spots and show how that space can be better utilized. Of course, these ideas are more designed for urban centers, but both Kerr and Einsel agreed that changes can be made in rural areas as well, specifically through ride sharing. A common concept that transportation innovators share is that their efforts can lead to the most efficient movement of goods and people.
The Uber and CAVita teams are also working with various modes of transportation — such as the New York subway system, Port Authorities in other large cities and community-wide biking programs — to allow customers to arrange and pay for transit as easily as possible. These companies are also innovating in terms of using vehicles for goods and services when people aren’t in transit. Thanks to smartphone technology, ideas have been spurred to utilize companies like Uber for quick meal delivery services — bringing the UberEats division of the company to fruition.
Integral to the success of transportation innovators is ensuring that the current system of regulations is working well and is streamlined. The alternative of adding even more regulations to the industry would likely sow confusion and delay the implementation of projects. “The best way to regulate these systems is not to create a bunch of new ones,” Einsel stated. “The auto industry has thrived because it’s been able to innovate and grow at its own pace… If you look at healthcare, energy and other industries, we’re all working down the same path to use the same standards and security groups because when bad things happen you want to be at the front of the line with your peers with solutions. Also, we want to make sure that our policies align with the national infrastructure.”
A Culture of Engagement Sparks Innovative Success
One of the most dynamic questions asked at the Innovation Summit was where the speakers see the direction of their respective industries moving in the future. They all agreed that a true path forward can be forged when companies embrace a culture of innovation where ideas are welcomed and regularly shared; where the employee’s vision is weighed in tandem with the CEO’s; and where thought leaders are encouraged to be champions for change.
When it comes to the transportation sector, the panelists joined other summit speakers in stressing that if our country’s industries aren’t constantly thinking of the best ways to innovate and stay relevant, they’ll get left behind and other nations will be happy to pick up the task. “We need diverse industries to be advocates,” Einsel said. “Industries are radically changing and if we don’t invest, they’ll be exported and sold back to us.”
It’s just more proof that embracing innovation truly pays dividends.
Lindsay Andrews is director of member communications for the PA Chamber.
Founded in 1916, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is the state's largest broad-based business association, with its membership comprising businesses of all sizes and across all industry sectors. The PA Chamber is The Statewide Voice of BusinessTM.