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Corporate Innovation leader interview: Rikesh Shah, Head of Commercial Innovation at Transport for London

Whitespace logo By Whitespace
29th October 2020

The first of an ongoing series of interviews from innovation leaders in the Whitespace innovation community, Rikesh talks about their approach to bringing innovation to London’s complex transport network whilst maximising value to the UK taxpayer.

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Think of Transport for London, and the London Underground’s iconic logo may come to mind. Or you might imagine red London buses, and perhaps cycle lanes.

And you’d be right to. TfL, after all, is one of the world’s most famed public transport organisations. Its infrastructure is so deeply integrated with London — both physically and culturally — that it is inseparable from the identity of the city and its inhabitants.

But it would be a mistake, however, to assume TfL is an organisation with a narrow focus. Buses and tube trains are just the start.

The organisation’s remit is so broad it presents a fascinating case study when it comes to Corporate innovation. TfL works to encourage walking and cycling, undertakes vast urban engineering and development projects, owns a substantial retail estate and maintains an immense advertising display portfolio. Equally, it takes responsibility for regulating the taxi and private hire sector in London, the city’s air quality, its strategic major roads, and more besides.
“We move 30 million people around London every day,” offers Rikesh Shah, Head of Commercial Innovation at TfL. “Innovation is a core part of that.”
Clearly, TfL has a lot going on. Furthermore, it needs to ensure that every pound is reinvested wisely, its responsibility to deliver value makes innovation a highly important function of the business. That value might come through cost-saving, generating money, or delivering a policy outcome — and in each case, innovation can be a powerful driver.

“If I think about design thinking and innovation, it’s in the DNA of TfL — and of our predecessor organisations,” Shah muses. “Whether it’s the first traffic light that was developed and built in London, the first metro train, or whether it’s more recent innovations like smart ticketing such as the Oyster card and contactless ticketing, or whether it’s the open data policy, we’ve always been innovating. So, with our open data, we essentially release that data, and in return, innovators have developed products — primarily customer information products — and now there are 700-plus apps out there that use that data. So, you might be Apple or Google, using TfL’s data to tell people where a bus is, when a train is coming, or where there is heavy traffic on a road network. Or you might be a start-up using our data for something innovative.”

Open data and broader transparency are core tenants of the ways in which TfL operates, and as a publicly-funded body, it has to tackle the likes of procurement in ways other Corporations may not have to consider. But when it comes to innovating, according to Shah things are fundamentally similar to what is seen at private Corporations.

“In many ways, the challenges we face are similar to other corporates. We strive to develop good engagement and buy-in internally, to build meaningful engagement with the market — and particularly the market innovators, to have access to the right people internally to develop innovative solutions with the market, and to define clear outcome-based problem statements. And all of this needs the right culture and openness to trying new approaches, whether it’s developing a pilot or testing ideas. Creating that culture is something we do within innovation.”
To maximise value for the taxpayer, however, TfL has the aforementioned procurement guidance in place. It’s not just an internal policy; it’s a legal requirement Shah and his colleagues must abide by.

Recently, for example, TfL’s innovation team began their London Road Lab challenge, with a view to reducing the negative impact of road works. To do so they had to apply a rigorous, robust, rarely used EU procurement process known as the ‘Innovative Partnerships Procedure’. That let TfL establish the challenge, run a ten-week R&D program (with nine different companies at the same time!) within it to test and develop solutions, and procure at the end of that process.
“What that does is it incorporates the procurement process into the challenge,” explains Shah. “As such, in a few months, nine products have come out of the challenge. It really helps us keep pace with other Corporate innovators’ projects, and we have just selected four companies to the commercial negotiation stage where we could spend up to £2m.”

Being able to move with that pace and efficiency is key to TfL, simply because it needs to deliver value and performance at the standard that any private Corporation would. And being charged with delivering the Mayor’s Transport Strategy through until 2041, TfL has plenty to keep it on its toes; namely offering healthier streets, improving public transport experiences and supporting the ongoing growth in homes and jobs in London.
All that considered, you might think Shah would struggle to have the capacity to attend the Corporate Innovation Club’s meetings. For him, though, there’s a clear value that makes attending worth his time.

“Primarily attending the Corporate Innovation Club enables me to engage with other peers in the industry,” Shah enthuses. “We’re able to share thoughts, ideas and best practice, which we can take back to our respective companies. I think, also, it helps us all have a consistent definition of what we mean by ‘open innovation’, ‘corporate innovation’, ‘accelerators’ and so on. That’s really helpful. Thirdly, it allows me to assess where we could potentially work and engage with individual companies down the line.”

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