Published 2018-02-27

This post is also available in Swedish

Combating traditional business models for the environment’s sake

Darja Isaksson is the IT strategist who now chairs Mistra Sustainable Accessibility and Mobility Services (SAMS). Jointly with the researchers, she is to direct development towards a fossil-free transport sector. The solutions? Digitisation and the freedom of not owning a car.

We meet in a hotel lobby near Stockholm Central Station late one Friday afternoon. The whole region is seething with people and traffic ahead of the weekend. Isaksson is decent enough to wait for this reporter who, having got stuck in a traffic jam from Södertälje, then had to search for a space in an inner-city underground car park for SEK 150 an hour.

The car, once the key to freedom, is no longer the obvious, intelligent option for getting around in a metropolis.

The first question for Isaksson will be whether this is not exactly the sort of problem Mistra SAMS will solve for us, so that in the future we are spared from traffic jams and expensive multi-storey parking garages in city centres.

Isaksson politely sidesteps the question and replies that it is not Mistra SAMS that will make the actual changes. They will be made by others in society. But the journey will hardly be trickier than today.

‘On the contrary — it will be more convenient to travel when we restructure the transport system. Friction will be reduced. Vehicles may drive themselves, so we won’t need to park. We’ll avoid quite a lot of hassle.’

Isaksson has settled down as Chair and already chaired four meetings in the interdisciplinary research programme. According to the Riksdag, Sweden’s transport fleet should be fossil-free by 2030 and Mistra SAMS is to find out how this can be achieved.

It is a challenge that spans urban planning, law, politics, fuel technology and digitisation.

Isaksson has no research background. According to Anna Kramers, Programme Manager at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, however, she has other crucial skills.

‘Darja is as quick as a weasel and leads our Board straight to the interesting questions. She’s one of the most skilled entrepreneurs in Sweden, with knowledge of how digitisation can help solve public challenges,’ Kramers says.

The solutions are largely about using digital technology. ‘Disruptive’ technologies such as the iPhone, the taxi service Uber and the accommodation website Airbnb are knocking over the pieces on the game board, shaking up markets and starting new ones — with new rules. Isaksson is an expert on these matters and has been an entrepreneur in this area.

It is also a matter of changing the ingrained mindset of consumers. Instead of owning cars, we can just as well subscribe to the journey itself, more or less as we subscribe to music through Spotify.

If we want to go from A to B, we enter the choice in our app, which takes care of the rest, drives the car, displays the bike’s location or puts together a clever set of travel arrangements.

The freedom lies in the fact of moving about with the least possible difficulty — not in owning cars, with all the complications involved in parking hassle, repairs, MOT appointments, tyre changes and so forth.

Isaksson sums up: ‘If you want to leave your hotel, a self-driving car appears, picks you up, drives you to your end destination and then parks itself somewhere outside the city.’

She points to the fact that cars are used only perhaps 5 per cent of the time. For the rest of the time, they are stationary and take up space on streets or in multi-storey parking garages.

The actual pricing of a journey could be dynamic, Isaksson reasons, perhaps depending on the fuel type and on how many people share the vehicle. Similarly, tax rates could be dynamically controlled by an algorithm, and the policy task would then be to design the correct algorithm. Isaksson refers here to urban historian and sociologist Anders Gullberg, who has launched a vision for joint payment systems to solve traffic problems in metropolitan areas.

Here, questions about infrastructure, urban planning, policy, digitisation and consumer behaviour are interwoven in a single tapestry. SAMS will penetrate the complex issues involved.

Isaksson grew up in a working-class home in Piteå, with a father who liked inventing. He spent most of his time in his own room, full of diodes, relays and the like. If she wanted to hang out with Dad, she had to be in there too.

In the 1970s, he was already building such items as a home computer known as the HEZ–80 (short for ‘Hemmapul Z-80’). On it, Isaksson played ‘Snake’ and other games. It was great fun when Dad got a modem.

‘The Internet didn’t really exist, but we called one another on our computers. It became very social. From my teenage room I was suddenly able to get in touch with middle-aged white conservative men in Texas. And we discussed politics!’

As a teenager, Isaksson sat in her room in Piteå and sensed how big the world can be. No one in her family had studied in higher education, but there was pressure on her when she was choosing what to study at upper secondary school.

‘I was told: “You can choose what you like: science or technology,”’ she recounts, smiling.

After completing upper secondary school, she studied engineering at Umeå and went abroad — all in a sort of escape attempt, striving not to end up in Stockholm. It did not go entirely to plan. Today she lives with her family in a rooftop terraced home in the middle of innermost central Stockholm.

‘It suits us well. The kids can ride a bike on the roof and I’m within walking distance of many important clients.’

The only time Isaksson hesitates is when asked whether she owns a car.

‘Well…’ she replies, pausing. Her husband bought a car without permission: parked out in suburbia, it is used for trips to the in-laws. She is herself no car owner.

Isaksson has started a business, which has grown and opened offices in Sweden’s largest cities. Early on, she understood how the market could develop digital services.

But she has also encountered adversities. One such ‘epic hit’ was when she tried to get Sony Ericsson to launch a smartphone with a touch screen and open it up to external services. The year was 2005. The word ‘app’ did not yet exist.

‘I said: “You’ve got 43 different models. Here, one model that can be customised by users for their own needs is enough. Take a retired man who needs four functions, such as calling his wife and two children and buying shares at Avanza. You’ll never find him in your customer segments. Here, he can get what he needs.”’

The company representatives squirmed. Oh yes, maybe… but what would it cost? When they realised they would have to change operating systems to make it work, the idea collapsed completely. However much Isaksson argued and nagged, it made no difference.

‘You’re combating our business model’ was the answer Isaksson received.

Two years later came the iPhone. Sony Ericsson ended up helplessly left behind, was split up and sold. The rest is industrial history.

‘It was a setback I fretted quite a long time over,’ Isaksson says.

She started the innovation agency Ziggy Creative Colony — dedicated, for example, to providing customer-friendly technical solutions to help banks, telecom companies and others.

In 2014, two important things happened in Isaksson’s life:

  • Her father was told he had a severe form of cancer (he survived).
  • Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called and asked whether she wanted to join the Government’s National Innovation Council as a digitisation strategist.

Isaksson was keen to do so, although somewhat startled to get a phone call from the PM himself (thinking there would have been a process behind that kind of decision). It was as a digitisation expert, too, that she was recruited as Chair of Mistra SAMS.

Already, she sees low-hanging fruit to pick. These relate to public transport enterprises. Today, travelling across regional boundaries is troublesome: we have to buy tickets from different places. Buying combined tickets, or trips in different directions — perhaps from the hotel lobby where we are — is unreasonably difficult.

‘That way, the guests wouldn’t take a taxi unnecessarily. We can change this without the need for any new technology,’ Isaksson says.

In other countries, such as Finland, a law on Mobility as a Service (MaaS) has been enacted. There, public transport companies must make it easier for travellers to buy multi-mode tickets seamlessly.

Sweden also needs to manage data storage better. We do not see data as a strategic resource, as many other countries do. Here, Sweden has fallen behind, Isaksson says. This means that innovations are impeded and major infrastructure initiatives slowed down.

‘Sweden’s still good at IT, but it’s mostly due to investments made long ago — broadband development, personal computers and so on. If you consider various other parameters, you see we’re lagging behind,’ she says.

Mistra SAMS is to last only eight years. I ask Darja Isaksson where she thinks the transport sector will be then.

She hedges her bets somewhat.

‘Think or hope? I hope MaaS will become a reality in our cities. There really aren’t any serious obstacles to it. I also think we’ll get more electrically powered traffic. There are so many reasons for it: financial and climatic. And I think self-driving cars and buses will have got beyond the test stage. Then they’ll really roll.’

In her view, development is so rapid that the programme cannot have plans that are too fixed. They must be flexible and ‘work-agile’. But in eight years’ time, things must have happened, she emphasises. By then, there should be a functioning ecosystem for new services. Instead of being the big exception, Uber will one service among many.

‘I also think we’ve changed our view of workplaces and working hours, so we may not need to routinely get to work every day,’ says Isaksson.

Facts: Darja Isaksson
Age: 41 years.
Occupation: Digitisation Strategist.
Does: Chair of Mistra SAMS.
Leisure: Playing FIFA and Minecraft with the children.
Talents: Good at swimming. Phenomenally fast at typing — over 500 characters per minute.

Text: Thomas Heldmark