Where Einstein Meets Edison

‘Kung-fu’-ting on the Copenhagen Metro

‘Kung-fu’-ting on the Copenhagen Metro

Apr 13, 2011


People are not rational creatures when it comes to commuting.  Despite a 200% automobile tax ($60,000 for a $20,000 car), sky-high gas prices of about $6 per gallon, and the highest parking rates in the world, 38% of Copenhageners commute to work by car, among the highest of their European peers with Berliners at 12%.  The Copenhagen Metro, rated the best in the world with driverless, 24-hour service, serves a significant and growing share of commuters — but like most transit approaches worldwide, appeals to the rational mind of consumers – to ride the Metro when it is convenient or cheaper than the alternative.  

David Brooks, in a recent TED talk and a fascinating book called “The Social Animal,” describes the power of sentiment and emotion in decision-making.  Contrary to what we’ve been taught about emotion and reason living in separate and often conflicting spheres, research in the cognitive sciences about how our minds work, reveals how that what we feel, our intuitive gut, is not separate from reason and is often a highly sophisticated and appropriate way to make decisions.  “Reason is often weak, our sentiments are strong, and our sentiments are trustworthy,” Brooks explains.    

It explains why automobile companies spend billions of dollars on advertising each year to appeal to a consumer’s sense of freedom and individuality.  For transit operators who may have a handful of staff and a very limited budget to promote transit, herein lies the big challenge.  However, as studies are beginning to reveal, herein also lies a massive opportunity.  

A recent study by Latitude Research investigating what happens when individuals in San Francisco and Boston go car-free for a week uncovered how mobile devices may be able to not only bridge some of the experiences and feelings associated with car ownership but also provide new exciting ones like environmental awareness, health and community.  “There’s a significant opportunity to transform transit into positive experiences that are about more than just getting from Point A to Point B: experiences of spontaneous discovery, community involvement and belongingness,” the report concluded.

As a student in MIT’s Sensable Cities workshop partnering with the city of Copenhagen, I am currently researching solutions that lie in the nexus of transit, mobile devices, and the idea that daily commuting doesn’t have to be a painful experience.  

The working concept is called ‘Kung-fu’-ting, or kicking the crap out of commuting.  The idea is that you don’t always have to go straight to work or straight home after work. Instead, you can ‘kungfute,’ or more confidently insert coffee, community and spontaneity into your commute.  The product itself is a personalized, real-time transit- and local-business integrated, low-risk discovery engine.  

Picture this simple scenario.   It’s 8:15 am and your first appointment is at 9:00 am.  A straight shot Metro ride is usually 20-25 min, getting you there perhaps too early.  Your not sure how long coffee is going to take, and you kind of want to try something different.  You’re not very familiar with the neighborhoods in between your home and your office — so you decide to make some coffee at home quickly and wait till the last moment before you have to go to work.  Not the worst thing in the world but definitely not something you’re looking forward to, especially with work at the other end.    

Now imagine if there was a ‘I’m feeling lucky!’ button that you could push that morning, which could recommend an exciting new adventure in the extra 20 minutes that you had at your disposal.  Perhaps that great cup of coffee before your awful meeting, a less than random encounter with someone from your past, a Valentine’s kissing flash mob, or maybe just a serendipitous opportunity to be part of something in your city that is greater than the schedule of our busy lives.  

That’s the simple idea behind ‘kung-fu’-ting and with any luck, just the first of many exciting innovations in this new space.