07 March 2012

Self-Interest And Collaborative Systems

Something else I wrote ended up on the Undercurrent blog today; this is something I've been working on at varying levels of intensity for months and months. I'll save the whole story for a bit later, so here it is: Self-Interest And Collaborative Systems.

I'm pasting the body below, so a little preview before you dive into one of the longer things I've written: Driving a car is a hassle for a lot of reasons – more and more cars for limited road capacity is one of the big ones. Congestion can lead to a lot of frustration, feelings of isolation (which is interesting since driving is a communal activity), and selfish behavior (cutting people off, not letting other cars merge into your lane, running red lights, rubbernecking at accidents, etc). I explore how different forms of digital in transportation can be used and combined with other things to lower selfish behavior and encourage drivers to be more collaborative on the road. Traffic is a system, after all, and one selfish move can throw ripples of inefficiency throughout the entire thing. Interested? Read on!


The increase in the number of cars on the road over the past few decades has created headaches for everyone, from drivers to transportation planners and law enforcement. Advances in digital technology over the past several years, however, have made driving in some places less of a pain. For instance, digital signage on busy roads can alert drivers of alternate routes if there is an accident up ahead. Automakers have been working on Adaptive Cruise Control technology to help regulate your car’s speed in relation to the ones around you. GPS systems now plan your routes based on real time traffic data pulled from sensors, news stations, and other drivers over time.

But a well connected network is only part of the solution to chronic traffic issues. For the past few years, drivers have been using tools that largely focus on making each individual user’s life easier, when we really need to be moving toward innovation designed to make the system as a whole more efficient. And for this to fully work, people must then learn to use new technologies in less self-interested (and more responsible) ways.


From driving to work to standing in line at the store, people don’t tend to think of themselves as part of a system when they make decisions. Everyone has an agenda when they’re on the road, and different individual factors – personal speed preferences, schedules, and desired destinations – contribute to the fact that drivers largely act in their own self-interest. Personal agendas are compounded by the fact that, despite being a communal activity, being stuck in traffic can feel very isolating – everyone is alone in their own vehicles. This lowers their perceived proximity to (and empathy for) each other even more. What results is a transit version of the tragedy of the commons, and yields the opposite of what drivers are working toward – each person reacts to the unpredictable and selfish behavior of others near them, which, like dominoes, sends ripples throughout the entire system that lead to more delays and frustration over time.

Why do systems that transport things other than people run more smoothly? With fiber optic networks, for example, light is sent down a tube at different frequencies, and (like traffic) all of these pulses of light travel at different speeds. The difference here is that each of these pulses never goes at any other speed. When you design a fiber optic network, you can account for all of these predetermined differences, and everything will keep running smoothly. Humans are not pulses of light sent down a fiber optic tube, and are not programmed to interact with each other in predetermined ways (or drive at a constant speed at all times). But small digital steps can be taken to help drivers understand their role in a larger system, and encourage them to collaborate a little more with each other to help everything flow better than it does now.


The first step in increasing collaboration between people in a system is to help them understand that they are, in fact, part of one. The Spectrum of System Awareness below broadly outlines the different levels of understanding that one is part of a bigger network of people. A person acting in completely self-interested ways is at the very center (A) – they are going to get to their destination no matter what, other drivers be damned.

The next ring (B) represents a broader awareness to include people in one’s immediate vicinity – in front of and behind them, and on either side. People at this level may exhibit some degree of collaboration with the drivers around them – they will switch lanes if they see the person behind them is driving faster, for instance.

Drivers at the third ring (C) have an awareness of everyone else on the road, and while they might not think expressly that they are “all in this together,” they do tend to think about their actions invariably affecting everyone else.

People at the fourth ring (D) are the holy grail for a truly collaborative human system – they have a full understanding of the fact that they are part of a system that necessitates collaboration between all participants to run well.

The farther out from the center someone is, the more they realize that the whole (traffic) is greater than the sum of its parts (each driver), and the higher their likelihood of understanding the benefits of collaboration. Rather than trying to get everyone on the road to level D at the same time (which is unrealistic), the goal for automakers, technology companies, software developers and transportation planners should be to keep all of the levels in mind when designing new technology and experiences – this will ensure that there are tools in place to broaden everyone’s degree of system awareness, organically. Real-time reporting and feedback loops are two of the most straightforward ways to give people more awareness of the system they are part of, their position in it, and the effects of their actions on it as it is changing.

  • Real-Time Reporting– Traffic reporting is not new, but it has traditionally happened on a mass, one-to-everyone scale within cities (usually via the radio). Since digital technology has afforded us the option to slice content to make it more relevant and personalized to us, we have some interesting opportunities to zoom in a little and put real-time information into a more personal context.
  • Feedback Loops– You’ve probably heard of the kind of sensor technology that gives cars awareness of their immediate surroundings: cameras to help you parallel park better, or alert you when you’re getting too close to another car. A Volvo concept car debuted a new form of sensor at the Shanghai Motor Show last year: touch screen dashboard controls are embedded with eye tracking technology, and are only activated when you glance at the screen.

    What if sensors and behavioral tracking (think Prius’s consumption monitor) were combined? Layering both external and behavioral reporting together make understanding one’s place in the broader system much easier. Imagine a combination of sensors that tracks your driving behavior and its effects on the cars in your immediate vicinity. Or, combine real time traffic data with Volvo’s eye tracking technology, allowing you to know if you’re rubber necking too much at accident scenes, or constantly scanning your surroundings for a chance to pass everyone.

    Either of these Frankensteined combinations of software and hardware can accumulate information about your own behavior, resulting in a report that tells you how much time you wasted by passing 4 cars and stalling at a traffic light over the course of your 20-mile trip. It could also tell you how much your actions delayed everyone else’s trip, and that 60% of people in your town drive better than you, on average. Reports on the effects of one’s driving behavior on the entire traffic system over time – framed in a personally-relevant context – would eventually give people a higher-level awareness of the ramifications of their actions.


    How do we now encourage more collaborative behavior on the road? One way to do this is through a marriage of unconscious and conscious behavior change techniques.

    Unconscious Collaboration
    Unconscious collaboration results from a system using behavioral guides to influence how people act in relation to each other. The stoplights on highway on-ramps that seem to randomly alternate between red and green are called ramp meters, and they use real-time traffic information to regulate the vehicles entering a highway. Most drivers don’t realize that this guide changes based on current traffic conditions, or that they have been helping traffic as a whole flow better for nearly 50 years.

    Conscious Collaboration
    Getting people to consciously collaborate with each other is obviously trickier. Revisiting feedback loops: More than just receiving spoken turn-by-turn directions, drivers with certain GPS systems can now benefit from the integration of real-time traffic reports with detour features and rerouting suggestions. If the real-time tracking technology that makes ramp meters work connected with GPS systems, a driver’s Garmin could help them (and their fellow drivers) better navigate their surroundings smoothly by making contextual recommendations. Smarter, more-connected GPS systems could provide directions such as “Based on the traffic ahead of you, you will get to dinner 5 minutes faster if you stay in this lane and drive 5mph slower.”

    Balanced Collaboration
    Unconscious and conscious collaboration should not be looked at separately – a combination of smart behavioral guides and educational behavioral recommendations is the ideal.

    Small digital steps can be taken to help drivers understand their role in a larger system, and encourage them to collaborate a little more with each other to help everything flow better than it does now.

    Let’s combine our previous two examples together. Someone leaves their house to meet their friend for dinner, and punches the restaurant’s address into his dashboard (or mobile app) when he turns his car on. The car takes both traffic reports and information about other cars’ destinations into account when giving that evening’s driving directions. The car is also outfitted with proximity-based sensor technology – like Ford’s Adaptive Cruise Control – to regulate his speed when he’s actually on the road. The driver’s mind is operating on both the unconscious and conscious level – he realizes he is being directed along a route that makes his car “work with” all of the other drivers in traffic that day, but may not realize how much more efficient his regulated speed is actually making him and everyone else on the road. Over time, he might consciously make the decision to tone down his self-interested behavior and help the system run more efficiently.

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