Parking Lot Innovation
By Sharon Walsh
People often ask me ‘What is innovation?’ A few weeks ago I experienced a parking lot — yes, a parking lot — that helps define innovation. This parking lot (or to be more precise, a parking system) removed so many of the common annoyances that we just take for granted, and may not even notice anymore. Faced with this new parking experience, I was given a clear reminder of how our everyday lives can be enhanced through innovation and creative thinking.
Imagine for a moment that you are in a crowded city looking for parking. You would probably first look for street parking (and good luck with that), eventually settling for a parking lot or deck. First, you have to figure out where to go. Maybe you ask yourself: Where is there a lot? Which is the closest? Will it be full? You select one, and enter…then drive around aimlessly looking for an empty space. Once you find one, what else will you experience? A place that is dirty, smelly, unsafe — in short, a necessary and necessarily unpleasant experience. My assumption was that this is just how it is. It is just a hassle that I thought was part of life with a car in a big city.
The parking system in Belgium made me stop and think about the assumptions we have about simple things, and about the role of innovation.
Imagine, now, driving through Ghent, Belgium, looking for parking. First of all, there were signs throughout that informed us how many spaces were available in close by parking lots. When we pulled into a parking lot, we were even more impressed. Signs pointed us to the aisles, indicating how many available parking spaces in each direction and on each floor. We started to ask ourselves, “how did they do that?” We looked further, and noticed small green or red lights above each space indicating if the spot was free or taken. Each of these lights clearly talk to a centralized computer that counts the available spots. And boy, that made it easy for us to see where to go to park! We could see those green lights from aisles away.
Finding parking, solved. What else? I later learned that the lots contain cameras so that the lot is incredibly safe — any accident or theft is recorded so that the perpetrator’s license plate image can easily be seen. The system has also reduced traffic jams throughout the city by 30% due to increased traffic flow and reduced unnecessary driving.
To top it all off, on the way out, we used one of the cleanest public toilets we’ve ever seen. Have you ever even seen a restroom in a parking deck? I couldn’t help but think that they really got this right. Before or after a long drive, it’s just what you need! The crowd in the bathroom proved the point. And it probably won’t surprise you that the entire lot was the cleanest and freshest smelling parking lot I’ve ever been to.
What impressed me most about this is that they looked at parking in a whole new way. Rather than just accepting the parking lot assumptions that lots are hard to find, that spaces are hard to find, that lots are unsafe, smelly, and dirty, in Belgium they have identified each of the annoyances we tolerate — that we take as givens — and came up with solutions that really work.
That’s what innovation is. Identify assumptions (including the ones we take for granted), challenge them, and resolve them.
What innovation have you recently experienced that makes life better? What are some assumptions you might question? What things might you see differently? And then how might you do it differently to change them for the better? In a nutshell, that’s how creativity and innovation work together.