[Interview] - Mobility as a Service - Dr. Alastair McInroy

Posted 21/8/2019 by Georgina Deas

This week we're chatting to Dr. Alastair McInroy, Senior Programme Manager at Technology Scotland. Ally champions Mobility as a Service (MaaS) in his current role at Technology Scotland. We had a chat to find out about his career journey, his views on the Scottish technology sector, and what the future holds for MaaS.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

I'm Ally McInroy, I'm a chemist by education with a PhD in chemistry from the University of Glasgow. I started out my career as a traditional benchtop chemical researcher and scientist, working at organisations including Ciba UK and Johnson Matthey. About 10 years ago, I moved into the world of biotechnology and healthcare, working for six years at Renishaw Diagnostics, part of the health care division of the Renishaw Engineering Group. About three years ago, I started my current role as a Senior Program Manager for Technology Scotland, the industry association for the enabling technology sector in Scotland. As part of this role, I lead two of our networks – MaaS Scotland and Product Design Scotland (our third network is Photonics Scotland). The MaaS Scotland network is the largest of these, now representing 75 private and public sector organisations that are engaged with, or are looking to engage with, a new and emerging transport concept called Mobility as a Service.


What attracted you or inspired you to that role?

Prior to joining Technology Scotland, my career had been exclusively in the industrial sector and I was keen to take on a role that allowed a broader perspective. The main attraction of the role at Technology Scotland was the opportunity to interact with a really broad range of companies, all operating in different sectors and using different technologies to create some really amazing products and services. That variety and the opportunity to expand my own horizons in the Scottish technology sector was certainly very attractive. The role itself, by its definition, means engaging with a large number of people and organisations and that's something that I've always enjoyed. There's a lot of great stuff going on in Scotland and three years ago it felt like the right time to start getting involved.


Are there any challenges that you've had to overcome in your career?

I think everyone, obviously, has day-to-day challenges in their careers. One of the bigger challenges for me was around 10 years ago when I made the conscious decision to change career tact slightly and move away from the laboratory research environment and into a more commercial and business orientated role. I think whenever you make that call it's a bit of a one-way street. It's very different operating in the commercial world, so that was a big learning curve for the first couple of years. However, it's proven to be the right decision for me. I really enjoy working in the commercial side, but also doing so within the technology space. My passion has always been in science and technology, and more particularly the application of these two things; seeing that real-world impact that people who are not necessarily ingrained in the technology sector can appreciate. The movement to that commercial space allowed me to work more on the commercial application of these technologies, but it was a challenge and a steep learning curve at the time.


What makes you passionate about the tech industry?

Touching on what I mentioned before, I'm most passionate about the applications of these technologies to solve real-world problems. Since starting at Technology Scotland, I've had a renewed appreciation for the impact that technology is having right now on our lives. I think it's fascinating to see the evolution of technologies that could have a profound effect on our lives within the next 10 years. For example, things like autonomous vehicles or the massive improvements we're making in the way that we provide health care. In particular, advances in technology are providing solutions to some of the world's biggest problems, like sustainability, climate change, and population growth, etc. What's even more exciting, for me, is the recognition that these solutions are being driven and supported by technologies developed right here in Scotland.  

If we want to inspire the next generation of technologists and scientists, we have to make sure that people are aware of the role Scotland has to play in enabling technology. These developments are not only happening on the west coast of America, in Japan, or in Europe; Scotland is part of it. That's where Technology Scotland comes in. It's our job to get that message out and make people aware that these opportunities to work in these exciting areas that exist much, much closer to home.


Can you tell us a bit about Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and why it's important to have an industry body like Technology Scotland?

Mobility as a Service is an emerging transport solution. At its core, it's about allowing passengers to plan, book, pay and update their journeys, all through a single source. It's about allowing true multimodal journeys. What I mean by that is that in any particular geographic region, there will be all sorts of different transport modes available; be it bus, train, tram, taxi, car share, bike share, scooters etc. MaaS is about presenting these transport modes to users in such a way that they can plan, book and pay for a journey using any of those modes or multiples of those modes, all under one account. This provides a great opportunity to make our public and shared transport services much more navigable. One of the key observations of much of the public transport in Scotland is that it's relatively good but it's not very joined up. So MaaS is a way of making it more joined-up and more accessible.


It's all built on a core of data, including basic things like fares and scheduling but potentially extending to things like traffic congestion, environmental monitoring, and vehicle positioning. All of that is fed into a single source to allow the user to make the most informed journey that they can at a particular time on a particular day. The real beauty of MaaS is that you can begin to personalise how people consume transport by aligning the available options to their own personal preferences. As an example of that, you may want to travel from A to B on a particular Wednesday afternoon, so you would plug into your MaaS app, and it would give you four or five different options as to how you might do that journey. Depending on your own preferences/drivers you would perhaps choose the option that was fastest, or maybe it's the option that is cheapest, maybe it's the option that's greenest, maybe it's the option that includes some kind of active travel, like cycling or walking, within it. It gives you the opportunity to make that informed decision because all that information is laid out in front of you. Not only that, no matter what decision you make, you can pay for it all without having to engage with multiple different providers, etc. MaaS is emerging; it's something that is going to happen.


It is recognised that there is a lot of experience and expertise within this area in Scotland. Combined with excellent representation across the MaaS supply chain, we have the beginnings of a cluster. With any cluster, it is important that you have somebody to facilitate it and drive it forwards. That's where the idea of formalising MaaS Scotland under the Technology Scotland umbrella came from. It allows us to support companies and organisations who are looking to work in this space, and that's really important for two reasons.


Firstly: as Mobility as a Service is emerging, there's still a lot of evidence gathering to be done on its impact. There also needs to be some serious discussion around the business models and technology solutions that will be used. It's a very dynamic market, it's a very immature market, and it’s a very fragmented market, which means that collaboration is going to be key. Even the bigger players in this space, acknowledge that they cannot do it on their own. There has to be a collaborative response to this. Where you need a collaborative response, you need somebody to help facilitate that collaboration and that's what we work hard to do as a part of Technology Scotland.


Secondly: because MaaS is a relatively new concept, there's an educational part that has to be done as well. We have to raise the profile of MaaS and what it can do for those who will really help to deliver it, in particular, the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland. In the early years of MaaS Scotland, we've been lobbying hard to make the case for Mobility as a Service as part of Scotland's future transport strategy and make the case for future investment. In this regard, we were really pleased last September to see our work recognised when the Scottish Government announced, as a result of one of our white papers, a £2 million MaaS Investment Fund, which will help to support pilot projects for MaaS across Scotland.


Is it true that other countries are now modelling their MaaS networks on Mobility as a Service Scotland?

Yes, that is true. As MaaS is still a relatively emerging concept, there's a real opportunity for Scotland to be at the leading edge of it. We've already got some of the thought leaders and experience required within Scotland, so we're in a really good position for progress. There are countries, like Finland, New Zealand and Denmark, that are arguably ahead of where Scotland is at the moment but there's still a real opportunity for us to be right up there, and the Investment Fund is going to help us do that. In terms of an actual organisation to drive it, we have heard from multiple organisations from other parts of the UK and Europe, who are envious of the fact that something like MaaS Scotland exists because they see the need to have organisations like us. It's true to say that we were the inspiration, for example, for MaaS Catalonia, which launched about 18 months after we did. They had looked very closely at what we were doing here in Scotland and we had many conversations with them, sharing our story, and as a result, they created a network. So in that sense, we have been a blueprint for at least one or two similar networks across Europe.


What are your members currently telling you are the greatest challenges or threats currently in the market?

There are quite a few challenges for MaaS but I think one of the biggest challenges is that delivery requires a complex landscape of numerous different stakeholders. You need the local authorities or city administrations involved, as well as transport operators, the MaaS suppliers, the technology suppliers and lots of other people in between. It's really quite a complex landscape and what everyone's role is within that is still somewhat debated, or unknown. For example, what is the role of the public sector in delivering MaaS? What is the role of the private sector? These are questions that still need to be answered. Obviously, the answer will be dependent on situation or location but those types of questions, along what the business models will look like to deliver MaaS are still being argued.


I think the key to answering some of those is generating evidence for how MaaS will impact travel behaviour. I think that is something that is sorely lacking at the moment, and something that we acknowledge. While we can talk very positively about what MaaS will do and how it will encourage people to use more sustainable transport, we don't have enough evidence to back up many of these claims, as intuitive as they may be. That's part of the reason for the MaaS Investment fund. We need to build that evidence base.


There are two more very specific challenges around the delivery of MaaS. Firstly, it is built on a core of data; the more open that data is the better - we can't have is silos of data, it just doesn't work. We need the data to be open and preferably in a standardised format. That requires buy-in from lots of people within the supply chain, which may ultimately need to be forced through with some kind of legislation, as has been done in places like Finland.


Another big problem is digital connectivity. MaaS services are operated through some sort of connected device, and if you are not connected, then you will not be able to engage. Connectivity is a big problem, particularly in some of our more remote and rural areas.


What do your members perceive to be the greatest opportunities right now?

This is the great thing about MaaS, it very much depends on the prism through which you're looking. I don't think it can be ignored that the potential economic benefit for those operating in this space is huge. It depends on which market report that you believe but you're looking at a multi-billion dollar global market. As it's still a really immature market, it means that people who are first in the race towards this, or the first to develop solutions, are going to be in a very strong position to reap the economic benefits.


On the other hand, for a lot of people and organisations, the opportunity to bring societal benefit is more important. A lot of our members are public sector, local authorities, regional transport partnerships, etc. and they are more interested in what MaaS can do in terms of providing much better transport services to their citizens. There is also an opportunity to provide better services to those who require additional support to access our public transport network. It gives those with disabilities, who may require extra support and extra information, the confidence to engage in our public transport and shared transport services, and that's going to be really important.


At the core of Mobility as a Service is a drive to get people out of privately owned vehicles, and into public transport and shared services. The aim is to dramatically reduce the number of cars on our roads, which of course, would have a dramatic impact on things like carbon emissions and Scotland's goal to become a low carbon economy. There are also benefits in encouraging people towards active travel and how that will impact public health. Local authorities, transport partnerships, and certainly Scottish Government and Transport Scotland are looking more at these societal benefits than economic benefits.


You've just had the MaaS annual conference, what were the main takeaways from the event?

For me, it was another great opportunity to see the enthusiasm that we have in Scotland for Mobility as a Service. We have a true end-to-end supply chain within Scotland that can support MaaS. We have a lot of experience and a lot of skills but maybe just as importantly, we have a huge amount of enthusiasm. The real focal point was the launch of the Scottish Government Fund, by the Cabinet Secretary, at the event. It is going to really garner some of that enthusiasm and give people the chance to progress their ideas.


We had speakers at the event from various other parts of Europe, and people speaking on projects elsewhere in the world. It was great because you could see a truly global change in the way that we are likely to consume transport in the next five years, which really isn't that far away. We built our program around some of the key potential positive benefits of Mobility of as a Service around rural connectivity and around inclusivity and accessibility. It's always quite reassuring to hear the genuine desire within the sector to provide better services for people who are perhaps not benefiting from the public transport services that we have at the moment.


How is Scotland better facilitating its tech industry?

I think it's beginning to recognise the role of technology and the impact that it can have, not just the economic benefit of the products and services that are developed here, but also some societal impact as well.


Part of the battle is just that recognition part. Is the technology sector in Scotland getting the recognition that it deserves? I think, arguably, in the past, that has not been the case. However, I think we’re seeing signs of change over the last 5 years or so. Investment in things like our Innovation Centres and other translational assets is helping people to deliver new and exciting technologies; particularly our small and medium enterprises that struggled to do some of this on their own without that support. There are other various supporting networks, like incubators and accelerators that are helping technology SMEs, as well as a fairly broad array of funding routes. I think the important thing, of course, is just to keep expanding on that and make sure that the good stuff that is happening is not only maintained but is grown further. I think we are beginning to create a positive ecosystem that is supportive of the tech industry and we need to continue to do to do. I see skills, in particular, as a potential issue in the future. We have to make sure we're feeding that skills pipeline adequately going forward. We're getting better but the skills gap does still exist, so we'll have to put extra focus on that over the next decade.


What's your best piece of advice for anyone navigating the tech industry?

The rate of change in technology development is faster than it has ever been before. This makes it a very dynamic sector, which heightens the need for collaboration. For those navigating the tech space, you need to be prepared to embrace a collaborative approach; understand the landscape, make sure you've got good visibility of all the potential stakeholders, all the potential partners, all your potential suppliers, all your potential customers, and make sure that you're collaborating with them at the earliest stage possible. Don't develop technologies completely separately from the end markets that you're looking to serve. Making sure the fundamentals of your technology solutions match up with your real-world problems is critical.


Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. We find technical leaders for the emerging and enabling technology industries. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, software and IoT in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us hello@enigmapeople.com or call us on + 44 131 510 8150


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