In the media

The positive effect of the Seat Finder


31 March 2021

This article was first published in NRC

Great things can happen when you brainstorm with a few colleagues and a consultant. But it only becomes really interesting when you subsequently involve the entire company. That is precisely the secret behind the current innovation culture of the Dutch Railways.

"At first we thought that" overloaded trains "was the major problem for the Dutch Railways," recalls Herman Jan Carmiggelt. At PA Consulting, he focuses as a partner on digital innovation & transformation, and the Dutch Railways asked him to lead a brainstorming session in 2018. “But we soon noticed that the trains were not too full at all, but that the distribution of passengers between the trainsets was skewed. That was the real problem.

Positive energy
“For us that was an aha moment,” he continues. “During that initial exploration, our attention was also immediately focused on the weight sensors in the track, which are connected to a mobile network. We soon realized that this application of the internet of things could also play an important role in solving the problem of unequal passenger distribution. Because if you know how heavy a train set is, you can make a good estimate of the passenger distribution. That insight immediately generated a lot of positive energy. ”

Think along
You often see that a promising idea is further developed in a small innovation club. Many companies and organizations even choose to set up a separate start-up for this, which is disconnected from the rest of the organization. "We didn't want that!" responds Geert van der Hoek, director of data, innovation & analytics at NS. "We soon decided to involve the rest of the organization in thinking about new ways to improve our services."

Using expertise
“And yes, that also creates a hassle,” he says candidly. “If you let everyone contribute ideas and participate in the discussion, the preliminary process will take a little longer. Sometimes that is quite frustrating. But it is nice to be able to use all the expertise that is available in this company at an early stage. Ultimately, this only makes an idea stronger. Moreover, in this way we ensure that innovation really belongs to everyone. ”

Positive reactions
In 2019, the Dutch Railways launched the Seat Finder, an app that uses colors to indicate in which train set there is still enough space. Very user-friendly and effective. This not only resulted in favorable reactions from train travelers and a lot of positive publicity, but also a great sense of pride within the Dutch Railways.

The Innovation Factory
That tasted like more. So that same year, the Dutch Railways set up its own Innovation factory. This is a digital environment where employees can share their innovative ideas and then develop them further with the necessary help of experts. Many new solutions have already been developed here. The crowded indicator, for example. This tool has existed for some time, but is mainly used during the current corona pandemic to check when it becomes too busy to keep enough distance from each other.

Continuous improvement
The Dutch Railways also wants to use technology that makes it possible to better predict crowds in the short term. For example with the help of Lidar, a radar system that uses laser light. Or with the help of other data sources, such as information about the CO₂ content in a train. Incidentally, this is already being measured to monitor the climate in a train set.

The next digital
“Technologically more is possible. We are also already thinking about a future version of the Seat Finder, ”says Carmiggelt. “That is no longer an app, but a data-controlled lighting system at stations. Train passengers can then immediately see from the color of a train set whether there is still enough space there. So without a screen. We call that the next digital. ”

At the heart of the company
As soon as it is possible to work together in an office environment again, the Innovation factory will also be given a physical space. That space is almost ready and is located at the head office in Utrecht, right next to the canteen. “So at the heart of the company,” Carmiggelt emphasizes. "I also find that very telling." 

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