Researching the future of transport

Big Potatoes has been commissioned by Nesta to write a research paper on the future of transport, probing the current dynamics of innovation in the UK, and recommending how to improve them. Our short proposal follows.

This is intended to be a quick, responsive report: short, informed, with strong opinions on key talking points, with concrete policy proposals, and relating to key related initiatives.

The paper will continue in the Big Potatoes tradition of interrogating the real and supposed impediments to innovation, and of uncovering the potent sociology of innovation – sociology in the sense of relations of power, authority and legitimacy. Analytically, the paper will consider empirical evidence not just from the UK, but also from overseas. In terms of policy proposals, however, it will have a pragmatic focus simply on what the UK should do next, and in the medium and long term.


Our approach involves a literature review, first-hand interviews with key academics and researchers, government representatives, industry organisations, consultants, and commentators. We are also convening discussions with our Cities and Transport Workgroup (see the report on the first discussion). And we are keen to get others opinion: do get in touch if you would like to contribute.

We will share our findings as we research material and develop our ideas, and this material will be available independently of the report. We are also hoping to innovate in the form of the final report, to help realise the real value of the research, ideas and debate.

Finally, we hope to programme and event around the report themes, to better share the ideas developed and raise the debate.


Many policies in transport, as in energy, aim at demand smoothing or reduction, often through smart IT, or road tolls/pricing. Similarly few new roads have been built in the UK over the past decade or more.

Innovation on the UK supply side – in car and engine manufacture, motorsport, aerospace, trains – has moved ahead. At the same time however, the mass penetration of all-electric vehicles in the UK, as elsewhere, looks a long way off, as do visions of hydrogen-powered transport. In automotive, more change has been registered in engine efficiency, self-driving, convoy driving, shared use, in-car information and entertainment, and integration with other transport modes. In the EU there are also important developments in air-rail hubs and cross-border rail and associated rail IT.

Such change is useful but does not equate to the rates of innovation in transport that obtained from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century (steam railways, the internal combustion engine, turboprop and jet powered aircraft, and rocketry). The power density of today’s electric batteries remains no match for the internal combustion engine, where – sadly – improvements in energy efficiency are nearing their limit.

This paper would argue that, to be much more ambitious, transport innovation must operate in:

  • A political environment that approves of mobility and looks forward to high-tech solutions to congestion and pollution
  • A culture that supports the technological development of biofuels for cars and planes
  • A regime of planning and land use that puts the building of HS2, airports and Crossrail 2 in perspective
  • A consensus that transport and telecommunications usually buttress, rather than substitute for, each other


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Nico Macdonald,

    Thanks for your input Ian. We haven’t considered the UK planning system in particular — other than noting the general hostility to development and the agility of project such as HyperLoop in avoiding major planning issues — and will study this further. Any references you have would be welcomed.

  2. Well done on getting the commission. In Britain there is constant discussion about the planning system, which the state controls through Local authorities, but there is no National Plan for infrastructural investment. The reason is simple – the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was explicitly framed to avoid national planning. It was merely interested in the national denial of development rights. Perhaps one of your recommendations might be a National Plan, if you could stand the squeals of every Local Planning Authority in the country.

Add Your Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.