Game changer #4: Confusion on a higher level

What if we stopped taking the growth of the economy as the ultimate goal and instead took solidarity, circularity or the assurance that we can still breathe oxygen in 2090? In other words, what if we change the rules of the game?

In the blog series Game Changers, we talk to artists, musicians and do-gooders who do things differently. We ask them: 'what new rules of the game are needed for an open, fair and inclusive future?' Today we speak to Marco te Brömmelstroet, professor of Urban Mobility Futures at the University of Amsterdam. He researches mobility innovations, from self-driving cars to bicycle highways. With his work he tries to make us realise that there is more than one way to look at the way we use our streets.

How would you introduce yourself?

'I usually introduce myself as: 'I am Marco te Brömmelstroet. I am a father of two children, and I love playing guitar.' That's always a bit disruptive. It bothers me when people identify themselves with their work. That's usually what people ask of you when you introduce yourself. Of course, my work is only a small part of my life. I try to push myself more and more to think about who I really am.

I work for the University of Amsterdam. I mainly try to play the scientific role of 'honest broker'. The 'honest broker' is a scientist who constantly tries to show that there are multiple ways of looking at things. I don't necessarily make a decision in that.

'I call that 'confusion on a higher-level. You try to confuse people so they start asking better questions.'

And yet, sometimes you have to take a position to make people think about other perspectives. Then you call yourself the cycling professor. To a lot of people, you are suddenly not an 'honest broker' but an activist. As soon as people think I am an activist, I want to jump away. You pull people out of their fixed positions by taking a different position, but you also change that position again. I call that 'confusion on a higher-level. You try to confuse people so they start asking better questions. That's my main goal.'

What do you think are the rules of the current system?

'Capitalism has won. There is no alternative narrative anymore. The only thing left is the question of optimisation. Everything becomes a technocratic issue and there is no more political discussion about the underlying goals. There is just a game of experts and policymakers who can solely say: 'we either follow the experts or we don't'.

The street shows this very well. By the street, I mean the public space from facade to facade that we have now mainly designed for mobility. There are lots of things we take for granted there. If you want to cross the street, you press a button to get the right of way. If you look out of your window at your street, you see that 60 per cent of the space is filled by moving and stationary private vehicles. Many people feel that the cars in their streets are driving to fast, so their children do not feel safe there. We spend eight billion on solving traffic jams and spend a minute every half-hour on every radio station on what traffic jams are in the country: 350 minutes a week per radio station! About all these things we think: that's just the way it is. Mobility is a field dominated by engineers, it has been for a hundred years. We no longer wonder at all why we press a button in the first place or who decided that the street is mainly for cars and people who want to get from A to B.'

What's about these rules is not working? And why?

'A technocracy has been set up. This technocracy is unable to solve the felt dilemmas of our time. If I have a question about the experience of unsafety in my neighbourhood, I am helped at the municipality by a traffic expert. The traffic expert then tries his best to answer my question, but he fails to do so. This is because the answer to my question cannot be found in a handbook. My question is political.

You must peel off the rules of the technocracy to find out what the core assumption of these handbooks is. In the world of mobility that core assumption is the idea that people are primarily consumers. Selfish and isolated individuals who maximise their own utility, the homo economicus. If you apply that to mobility, being on the move is a negative utility. You want to be at location A or B because that's where you can be productive. So, the street has to be a place that can get those individuals from A to B as easily, comfortably and quickly as possible. For that, literally everything has to give way. That is why you have to press a button when you want to cross the street, fast traffic gets priority over slow traffic, and 70 serious accidents happen every day in the Netherlands.

According to this core assumption, if you can reduce travel time by solving a traffic jam, you have huge economic benefits. That you also disturb nature or increase CO2 in widening the motorway does not outweigh the benefits of all those selfish people who can get from A to B a little faster with that new motorway. It turns out that this current set of rules does not allow us to properly solve a social problem like the nitrogen crisis.'

'I want to show that there is not one future, but multiple futures. We need to be much more aware of what choices we make now.'

Suppose you were allowed to redefine the rules of 'the street'. What would you change?

'The street must become political again. We need to radically disagree with each other about what goals should be served in that public space. That is what the political debate should be about. We can stretch our thinking by thinking that the streets should actually be there for our children. Think about a public space where the autonomy of our children is central: what would that mean? Thinking about children forces people to step out of their own narratives.'

How do you push for an alternative to the current system in your work?

I am Professor of Urban Mobility Futures. I fought for the s in futures for a very long time. That is the core of what I do. In my studies around cycling and mobility innovations, first, I try to show what rule or narrative lies beneath each mobility innovation. Furthermore, I look for alternative narratives. What happens if you unleash those narratives on those same innovations? For instance, could you also use the self-driving car to optimise social cohesion instead of getting people from A to B as easily as possible? I want to show that there is not one future, but multiple futures. We need to be much more aware of what choices we make now.