Share on Social

Meet our episode 29 guest Tom Fisher

Imagine a mobility hub where you can find not only transportation, but also food, medical care, and other services. Tom Fisher of the Minnesota Design Center discusses his research into how to redesign government services to reflect how we actually live.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Welcome back to The Movement podcast.  Tom Fisher’s research at the Minnesota Design Center requires looking at existing problems with a different lens, whether that is how homeless people in the Twin Cities access government services or how the shared, on-demand business model will change the economy and our infrastructure.  Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: Welcome to The Movement podcast.  Today my guest is Tom Fisher who is the director of the Minnesota Design Center at the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.  He is also the chair in urban design and former dean of the school as well. So, very grateful to be here. We’re in Rapson Hall, which is a beautiful, beautiful building.  It’s a design building. You can tell I’m in a college of design here, and it’s just really, really neat to see how they’ve kind of integrated in some of the aspects of the work they do directly into the actual facility.  So thanks for having me, Tom. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

Fisher: Glad to be here.

Cohen: Let’s start out by just maybe give me a little bit of background on kind of your overall research and kind of high-level, kind of the things that you’re interested in.  I want to maybe start there, and then we’ll dive into a little bit of maybe some of these projects you’ve been working on more recently.

Fisher: Sure.  Well, I’m actually educated as an architect, although a lot of my interests have always been around cities, so I’ve longed pursued this field called urban design, which then leads me into transportation issues.  Early on in my career, actually right out of graduate school, I did a project for the Department of the Interior looking at the early auto industry. And I was particularly focused on the history of the steam-and-electric car industry, which actually was centered in Cleveland, Ohio as opposed to the gasoline industry, which was centered in Detroit.

And so I did a long investigation of Baker Electric, Stanley Steamers, and the whole process by which those two industries were actually quite dominant before World War I.  And then eventually Ford* and Rockefeller joined up to really put first the steam-car industry out of business then eventually the electric car. But I’ve always felt that, and I’ve always wondered what would have happened if we, for example, had kept those three fuel types going as viable options.  And so I’ve long been interested in transportation and the ways in which transportation effect our lives, effect the shape of cities, infrastructure, all of those kinds of issues.

I was an editor of a journal that dealt with some of these issues in New York City for a long time.  Then I came to the University of Minnesota, was a dean here for 19 years. And finally after all of that I’m back now directing this center, which looks at urban issues, and we do a lot of transportation-related research here.

Cohen: So tell me about some of that research that you’re working on right now.

Fisher: Well, probably the biggest project is we’re doing a National Science Foundation grant related to autonomous vehicles, shared autonomous vehicles.  And my group is looking at the impact of this technology on our road infrastructure and land use. So I have colleagues from our college of science and engineering who are working on other aspects of the technology.  There are some people over in our school of public policy looking at public policy issues. And what we do in my center is look at the physical impact of the technology.

So we’re not looking at the vehicles; we’re looking at the impact of the vehicles on land use, on the way our streets are going to look like, you know, parking and all of the kind of physical infrastructure issues.  Another project we just finished was looking at transit, and we did a study looking at how the homeless population moves around the city and learned a lot from them about the role that transportation plays in their lives.  So those are two projects that we’ve recently—or actually the one is still ongoing—that we’ve done here in the center.

Cohen: It’s very interesting because those are very different projects.  Right?

Fisher: Yes.

Cohen: I mean, I’d say one is much more future focused.  Right? You know, and that one I would maybe think is more traditionally what people might perceive as academic, and then the latter one with the homeless population, I think, is much more grounded in today’s challenges.

Fisher: Right.  Exactly.

Cohen: Right?  Which I think some people kind of think of academics as not really thinking about the present realities, but that’s a great example of where you guys were able to participate in that.

Fisher: Well, we felt there was a gap in knowledge.  I don’t think the academic community has spent enough time with people experiencing homelessness to actually understand what their lives are like.  I mean, there’s a lot of people and colleagues of mine who work in the housing area who are always trying to get that population into housing, but we were also intrigued by how they actually got around the city and found resources.  And one of the underlying reasons for that is that we’re part of a bigger effort here at the University of Minnesota on the sharing economy, on the on-demand economy and as we move as a population from this interest in ownership to access and only paying for what you access.  And I realized that the people experiencing homelessness are already in that economy. They do not have a lot of things.

Cohen: Oh, that’s interesting.

Fisher: They can only access things because they don’t own anything.  And so I thought—

Cohen: And they can’t transport necessarily that much.  Right?

Fisher: They don’t have much.  Right?

Cohen: Right.  Right.

Fisher: And so I realized that on one hand we tend to look at that population as lacking something, housing; but on the other hand I realized that in some ways they were out ahead of us and we could learn from them in terms of what would a sharing economy actually look like if you owned very little and you basically only paid for what you accessed.  And so there was also in addition to trying to understand what their lived experience is right now we were also trying to understand how they get things and how they get around.

Cohen: One of the things that I think is—and maybe this is the same grant, or maybe this is different.  What I read about was this grant where you’re trying to connect the dots between different government services.  Right? And so obviously we sometimes think about these services in a silo; Metro Transit just provides transit. Right?  And there’s a couple examples in the U.S., San Francisco being the most dominant one, where they control the transit and they control the streets, and so there’s a little bit more kind of holistic look at this.  But I think the homeless example is a great one, which is that, you know, it’s not just that they need a home, but they also probably need some other services necessary, whether that’s addiction, whether that’s support—

Fisher: Medical issues.  Right.

Cohen: —medical, all those things.

Fisher: Mm-hmm.  Yeah.

Cohen: And so we can’t just say, “Let’s just put them in a home,” because that doesn’t maybe actually solve the underlying root problem.

Fisher: Right.

Cohen: So help me understand maybe whether that’s the same grant or maybe that’s a different one, and maybe help me kind of—maybe take me kind of the next level down with that, which is, like, what some other problems that you feel like if you take this more holistic approach you may be able to help solve.

Fisher: Well, one of the things we did on this transit and homelessness project was to make the recommendations that the homeless are often using transit as their home.  They’re sleeping on them. And actually one of the things we recognized when we interviewed a lot of people is that a lot of the homeless work, and the shelters are only open at a certain point in time.  And some people who are working the night shift and don’t have a home don’t have any place to sleep, so they go onto the transit and they sleep during the day. That basically becomes their bedroom.

And so we actually raised the issue of, “Well, instead of trying to fight this phenomenon, why doesn’t transit also think about itself being a place where people could sleep?”  So, for example, on the East Coast when I lived there I would take the night train down to Washington, D.C. from Newhaven, Connecticut where I—you know, so I slept on the train both going to D.C. and coming back.  And so there’s a long history of sleeping on trains. Right?

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: And so why don’t we think about transportation as a kind of a shelter, as a place where you can get other kinds of services?  We also looked at how the transit platform stations could be providing other kinds of services. What about having an office for a social worker on the platform so that people who are struggling with issues, there’s somebody there who could sort of help them get resources?  Why not have goods-sharing kinds of things going on related to transit? There’s another project that was recently done by the Urban Land Institute. They do these technical advisory panels, and they were looking at the future of three large parking garages in downtown Minneapolis and sort of thinking of them as mobility hubs.

Cohen: Yeah, of course.

Fisher: And we’ve been doing some mobility hub work here in the Twin Cities where we see a future in which people will not only use mobility hubs to move from one transit mode to another, but also it could be where your Amazon packages are delivered, where your dry-cleaning is dropped off and picked up, where you can pick up food for dinner—

Cohen: Prescription.

Fisher: —prescriptions, whatever.  In other words, you bring services to where people go rather than having people always go to services.  So one of the transportation questions I think we face in the future is what about—in an Amazon oriented world, what about bringing goods and services to people and moving goods as much as we do people?  So we’re beginning to think about the idea of driving to a store to pick up something; it may, in fact, be a kind of 20th century way of thinking about transportation and that increasingly those goods may come to you.

Cohen: Yeah.

Fisher: So that’s an example of how it seems that transportation is always a part of the work we do.  Even if it doesn’t start out looking at transportation, it always often ends up there. We’re doing another project with Hennepin County, which is the county that Minneapolis sits in, looking at connecting a lot of their datasets around the needs of people so that if somebody looses a job, for example, then the—you know, and there’s a kind of red flag that, “Well, you know, there may be an eviction coming up, so get eviction services to that family.  Or the kids may start having trouble in school.”

Cohen: Yeah.

Fisher: So in other words you wrap all of government services around people rather than have people try to find their way through all of these siloed, government services.  So I think we’re in a moment in time where we’re rethinking all of these systems, be they transportation systems or government service systems to be much more responsive to the way people are actually living.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, it’s fascinating.  And I know in Wake County near where we live in Durham they’ve kind of consolidated a lot of their services, I think their county services all in one building just to help facilitate that.  Because I think what they’re realizing is that people are coming to one place to get one service and then having to go to another place. And obviously it’s easier if you have a car, but even then it’s a pain the rear.

Fisher: Right.

Cohen: If you don’t have a car, holy smokes.  Right?

Fisher: Really difficult.  Right.

Cohen: It’s really challenging.  And I think in St. Louis with their metro transit they have done some work with bringing health facilities to some of the transit stops and now, I think, farmers’ markets as well, again, to help with food deserts and so forth.  So I think there’s definitely some move towards that. Why do you think that isn’t the de facto approach now?

Fisher: Well, I’ve asked my government colleagues about that, and they say that it’s, in a way, how programs get initiated from legislatures, which is that they see a problem; they pass a bill; they allocate money; they hire staff to deal with that problem.  And so we end up with a public sector that is a series of siloes all aimed at dealing with a problem, be it transportation or housing or childcare, whatever the issue might be. And they tend to develop their own datasets; they don’t share those datasets.  And the point about that is that that’s not how people live their lives.

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: I mean, you don’t just have a transportation problem.  You know, you also live in a house, and you have a job, and you’ve got to get your kids to childcare.  In other words, our lives are integrated; and government tends to separate them all. And so I think the redesign of government that we’re involved in here in my center is really to connect government and redesign government services so that they actually match the way people’s lives are lived.  And that’s a big lift, but we’re starting to see some governments being very interested and rethinking model.

Cohen: One of the criticisms in general of kind of technology is this kind of potential falling in love with the solution and not the problem.  Right?

Fisher: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Gabe Klein who is a former city department of transportation commissioner in D.C. and Chicago likes to say that we fell in love with a solution in the ’50s with the car, and look where that got us.

Fisher: Right.

Cohen: And so my immediate reaction then is, “All right.  Well, let’s fall in love with the problem.” Right?

Fisher: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Which is kind of one kind of—I’m not a design academic like you, but I get that that’s, like, one element of design thinking, which is make sure we’re really focused on that problem.  Now, what I think is interesting is that you’ve just highlighted one of the limitations to that, which is that, you know, in the government example where it’s like, yeah, they might have said, “Hey, we have a problem.  Let’s go solve that.” Even not falling in love with the solution; they’re really falling in love with the problem, but they did it in a very siloed way.

Fisher: Right.

Cohen: So maybe help navigate that a little bit.  Where’s the next level there? Where can we take that?

Fisher: Well, we do a lot of design thinking work.  Obviously we’re coming out of a design college, and so one of the first steps after trying to understand a situation is to try to reframe the problem.

Cohen: Hmm.

Fisher: Frequently we’re solving the wrong problem beautifully.

Cohen: Ah, yes.

Fisher: And we’ve done that over and over and over again.  And so we are constantly saying, “Let’s try to get at what the real issue is here.”  And I’ve been fascinated in the transportation sector as the car industry has recognized that they’re basically into mobility, that you don’t really buy a car; you’re buying a car as a means to an end to get some place.  Right?

Cohen: Right.  Yeah.

Fisher: I mean, some people love the car as an object, and that’s fine, but most people find it just this necessity to get some place.  Right? So when the car industry started to realize that making cars is only one part of what they were doing and that they were really providing mobility, the whole world has opened up to them now.

And so as we move from a car-centric industry to a mobility service provision where they’re not trying to sell us cars but provide us mobility, they’re realizing they have many more things they can do.  They can provide us all sorts of modes of transportation, all sorts of other services. And that is kind of the example of where design thinking helps organizations, be it private sector, public sector, reframe the problem and what the real value is.  I mean, Kodak went out of business because they thought they were in the filmmaking business rather than in the image capture business.

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: If they recognized what business they were really in, they would still be in business because they invented digital photography, but then they sat on it.  And so this is actually life or death for private sector companies. If you don’t understand what your real business is, you’re going to be in trouble. Now, you know, government doesn’t have bankruptcy as a potential, but it can certainly by not reframing these problems end up not serving their populations well, end up wasting a lot of money.  And so I think that this is the kind of work we’re doing.

We did this—I did it with a graduate student; we mapped the day in a life of many people experiencing homelessness, and then we actually showed the public sector how difficult it was for them to get services.  And so what Hennepin County did was then put all of those services in the convention center, and a few times a year you can get all of your services met. You can get a dental appointment, a medical appointment, get new eye glasses, get all the things you need in one place, rather than having people constantly moving around the city.  Now, we did that, again, for people experiencing homelessness, but I think that’s an interesting model for everybody.

Cohen: Yeah.

Fisher: Like, why are we all constantly having to move all around the city to get our needs met?  Are there better ways to package services? So it’s an exciting time, I think, as we move into this on-demand, sharing economy to sort of rethink the how we do things and how we organize ourselves and what problems we’re actually trying to solve.

Cohen: One of the things I think is interesting about the scooter phenomenon is that it is a better-aligned solution to a problem that a lot of people have, which is, “I need to go; most of my trips are less than three miles.”

Fisher: Right.

Cohen: Right?  So it’s instead of having this bigger box that has climate impacts and congestion impacts, it provides a more purpose-built, smaller footprint, electric, and so forth.  So to me that feels like this is like kind of design thinking kind of like—but it’s not how—I mean, some people are thinking about that in that way as it relates to, like, the scooter phenomenon and so forth; but I think that’s just interesting to see that impact of design into the transportation network now.

Fisher: Right.  Exactly.  And it’s disruptive.  You know?

Cohen: Yeah.

Fisher: And, I mean, there are issues, you know, in terms of safety with scooters.

Cohen: Of course.

Fisher: I think we’re concerned about that.  I mean, I have been seeing some new inflatable helmets and other kinds of things that are coming onto the market because I think we should be wearing helmets.

Cohen: Foldable helmets too.

Fisher: Foldable helmets.  I mean, I do think we need to solve the helmet problem, but I agree; I think the scooter phenomenon and sort of the rise of multi modes of movement generally is really healthy because this idea of a single solution, an automobile for everything, is crazy.  And not only are there environmental impacts, but, you know, it’s an expensive thing that people have to own that sits around unused like 90-plus percent of the time.

Cohen: Yeah.

Fisher: So here is, you know, this very expensive object you own that is underutilized.  And to me what’s brilliant about what Uber and Lyft have done is they realize in all of that excess capacity is the opportunity for you to make money.  And so some of the work we’ve been doing in my center has been looking at mapping all of the underutilized assets that people already have available to them and thinking about how they can leverage them so that we’re always both producers and consumers kind of at the same time, that we can make revenue off of our assets rather than have them sit unused and parked or unused and sitting in a closet or unused and sitting in our garage all of the time.

So I think that one of the things we’re seeing in the kind of app phenomenon of the on-demand economy is more fully leveraging the resources we already have.  And I see that as a 21st century economy squeezing out the excess capacity that we inherited from the 20th century economy.  And that is sort of the opportunity that we have, and we’re starting to see that in the transportation sector as well.

Cohen: Yeah.  I mean, that’s really interesting to see, like—and this is where maybe it’ll transition to more regulation and statutory implications come in, which is what is that going to look like?  Right? So to maybe take your example to a logical conclusion, if I own my own autonomous vehicle and then contribute it to the network for it to be shared, but we all have our own, like, we’re not really that much better off.  Right?

Fisher: Right.

Cohen: If we have shared fleets that none of us own per se, and we don’t have quote-unquote “equity in” but we can access whenever we need—I rode a Nice Ride bike over here, which is the bikeshare system here in the Twin Cities.  You know, I didn’t bring my bike with me on the trip, but I was able to ride three miles from Downtown to get here. So I’m curious to see what that balance is between—because I think if public officials don’t actually create some structure around that I think we’ll kind of devolve, if you will, into kind of the simplest or maybe our brain’s easiest thing to comprehend, which is that I should just own that.

Fisher: Right.  Yeah, well, I totally agree.  And this gets at that point you made earlier about that we tend to fall in love with technology.  I mean, the autonomous vehicle technology is interesting to me, but far more interesting to me are the business models, the sharing models because I agree.  If we just focus on the technology and just have as many autonomous vehicles as we have drivered vehicle, we haven’t gone very far. Right?

Cohen: No.

Fisher: But if the idea is, you know, “Why are we owning vehicles when they sit around 90% of the time unused?” it’s insane.  And I think what’ll also drive this is the fact that autonomous vehicles are expensive. I mean, they’re $300,000, and so there’s going to be very few people are going to own them.  And so I think we’re going to move really rapidly into a fleet-service, mobility-service model.

And whether it’s a subscription-based model as some of the car companies are thinking about or whether it’s an advertiser-based model like Waymo is thinking about where the ride itself might be free, that’s where it gets very hard for the old model to compete.  I mean, you know, are you going to buy a $300,000 AV, or can you get the same ride for free? I mean, it doesn’t take very long to realize which is the better option here.

Cohen: Sure.

Fisher: And so I think we’re going to see a pretty rapid change in the whole business model and the way in which we think about our transportation.  That then leads to the work we’re doing in our center, because once you’re not owning a vehicle and you’re not parking the vehicle, the land use implication are enormous.

Cohen: Sure.

Fisher: So about 30% of the land in cities is used for parking cars.

Cohen: It’s insane.

Fisher: It’s insane.  And so if you’re no longer parking cars, you have all of a sudden a lot of land available to you to build affordable housing, green infrastructure, parks and playgrounds, you name it, all the other things that we would like to have.  And so that’s also going to be a huge transformation. Another impact of shared autonomous vehicles is on our storm sewer system.

Cohen: Hmm.

Fisher: Because one of the things that the research has shown is that these vehicles are so precise that they tend to follow the same track and are tending to rut asphalt roads because of constant wear.

Cohen: Oh, interesting.

Fisher: You know, when we drive we drive all over the road surface.  AVs go in the same path over and over and over again. And so we see that though as an opportunity, just as when we moved from horses to cars we had to redesign our streets because the street design for the horse did not work for the car.  And so we moved from basically dirt paths to paved surfaces with curb-and-gutter, storm sewer systems. Right?

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: And we see now the opportunity to basically imagine streets of the future where we only need reinforced concrete grade beams where the vehicles go and then the rest of the surface can be pervious.  It can be grass; it can be gravel, which then suggests that the storm water can be held in the roadbed itself. It doesn’t need to have a storm sewer system, and that former parking lots can be retention ponds and overflow ponds for big storm events.

And so instead of having these very expensive storm sewer systems that are depositing a lot of polluted water into our waterways, we can hold water in the ground itself, recharge the aquifer, clean the water on site, and not have that pollution effect.  So there’s a whole hydrological implication to the shared autonomous vehicle phenomenon where, again, here are two systems we tend not to think of as being related, water and cars, but they’re very related in terms of their impacts.

Cohen: Wow.  I hadn’t considered that.  That is fascinating. So maybe let’s wrap up with this, which is you’re obviously at a very interesting place because you’re not the elected official; you’re not the city staff.

Fisher: Right.

Cohen: But you’re working with them.

Fisher: Right.

Cohen: Right?  And you’re a partner with some of their projects and so forth.  What is necessary from the public sector side, from the leadership side, elected officials, appointed officials, city staff, so forth, community staff, or even community engagement?  What is necessary in order to get us to this world, this verdant, equitable, and accessible world that we all want to live in?

Fisher: Well, we’re in a transition.  I think we’re in a moment where a lot of people are holding on to the 20th century, and we do not want to let it go.  I mean, you see that in our national politics; they all want to go back to burning coal and whatever, you know, “Make America great again.”  You know, somehow, like, it was great back then. And, you know, there’s a lot of fear about what’s out ahead of us.

And I think what political leadership has to do is get people over their fear and help them recognize that in many ways this future that we are headed toward regardless—I mean, and the reason why we’re headed there is that this is where the economy is taking us.  I haven’t seen a time where our economy is going and where our politics going is at greater odds with each other.

Cohen: Hmm.

Fisher: Our politics seems to want to go backwards; our economy is moving very quickly forward, and, I mean, you know, the shared autonomous vehicles phenomenon is completely private sector driven.

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: I mean, the car companies are going there whether the government wants them to or not.  Right?

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: And usually the economy wins.  I mean, two things; nature wins, and the economy wins.  And so it doesn’t matter what the politicians say. I mean, the economy and nature are going to drive this.  Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Fisher: And so we’ve got to do things related to climate change, because if not, the climate is going to continue to punish us, and it’s just going to get more and more expensive to the point where we’ll have to say, “Okay, you win.”  So and the longer we put off dealing with climate impacts, the more expensive and the more painful it’s going to become. Right?

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: And it’s the same with our economy.  Our economy is moving to a shared, on-demand system because it’s simply more efficient.  There’s less waste in the sharing economy. Right? There’s many fewer underused resources and assets.

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: And so the inevitability of those two things make our politics look really out of touch.  And I’m actually—I think that’s true in some ways of both parties. I mean, I think both of our political parties in the United States are somewhat out of touch with what’s actually happening.  And so we need new kind of leadership that helps people understand the opportunities of climate change, of a green economy, and of a shared economy, rather than this idea of ranting about we’ll never have socialism.  That’s not even—socialism itself is a 20th century idea.

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: Let’s just get past the 20th century.  You know?

Cohen: Right.

Fisher: We’re almost two decades into the new one.  And so, I mean, that’s why I’m really excited about the fact that we’re starting to see younger people go into politics; you’re starting to see millennials.  The two mayors of Minneapolis and Saint Paul are both millennials.

Cohen: Wow.

Fisher: And I tell you; it has totally changed the conversation in these cities.  Younger people simply think differently than people who are still wedded to the last century.  And so but we’re in this awkward transition where the new century is well on its way. It’s going to be a very different century than the last one.  We have a lot of people who are afraid of change and want to go back, but that never works. And so I’m waiting for younger people to take leadership roles to see all of the potential that exists in the new economy and in doing things differently.

Now, it may mean that, “Hey, you know, we may not own cars in a few years,” and I would say that’s a good thing.  They’re expensive; they’re dirty; they’re dangerous. You know, they’re a pain in the neck. You know? Why would we want to own a car if there is a much cheaper, safer, cleaner option to us?

Cohen: Yeah.  Definitely.  This has been a fascinating conversation.  I think we’ve touched on some areas that we haven’t really touched on with some of my other guests, so I really am glad that we got a chance to do that.  Where can folks learn more about some of the work that you’re doing if they’re interested in learning more?

Fisher: Well, they can Google me.  I’ve written some books on this.  I wrote a book a couple of years ago called Design Our Way to a Better World where I talk about design thinking related to a lot of these systems, including transportation.  They can look at our website, which is—Google the Minnesota Design Center, and we have a lot of our projects and a lot of our reports up there.  We try to be as accessible as possible.

Cohen: Awesome.  Thanks so much for your time, Tom.  I appreciate it.

Fisher: Yeah.  Thank you, Josh.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.


*On March 1, 2022, global technology company Modaxo acquired TransLoc from Ford Motor Company. TransLoc is no longer affiliated with Ford or any Ford properties.