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Article Article January 9th, 2024
Cities • Delivery • Innovation • Technology

Move with intention: A Systems Innovation approach to zero emissions transit in King County, Washington

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.@CPI_foundation is partnering with @KingCountyMetro to bring a systems innovation approach to their zero-emissions goals. Explore key insights as they tackle this while centering equity, safety, and sustainability.

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.@KingCountyMetro's net-zero transition "is an adaptive, organizational challenge that requires breaking down silos, learning on the go, reimagining relationships, and navigating an uncertain and ever-changing landscape."

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"The goal is to help @KingCountyMetro achieve zero-emissions while becoming a better learning organization – navigating complexity, working experimentally, and building strong relationships." @ann_k_bruton from @CPI_foundation

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Partnering for Learning

We put our vision for government into practice through learning partner projects that align with our values and help reimagine government so that it works for everyone.

Partner with us

This is the first blog in a multi-part series on the Centre for Public Impact’s (CPI) partnership with King County Metro (Washington State’s public transit agency serving Seattle and King County) as they bring a systems innovation approach to their zero-emissions goals. The second part of this series was published in March 2024. To follow along as we learn in the open together, subscribe for updates.

What moves you?

What moves you? How do you get from point A to point B? When you go to work, school, the grocery store, or that appointment you’ve been putting off, how do you get there? Whether walking, scootering, rolling, driving, riding a bus, or taking another mode of transportation, the ability to move efficiently and safely is fundamental to connecting us to our needs and our communities.

Our daily commute is something many of us rarely think about – until something goes wrong. We walk to a nearby bus stop, the bus shows up, we get on it, tap our fare card, and arrive on schedule at our desired destination. Underneath that deceptively simple experience is a complex system of public servants, community organizations, and other key actors who make movement happen. From operators trained in helping wheelchair users board, to service planners making route decisions, to procurement specialists purchasing equipment, to researchers studying the environmental and social impacts, there is an interconnected network of activities beneath every ride.

One local government that deeply understands the complexity of public transit is King County, Washington. In 2021, King County Metro provided more than 50 million rides across 39 jurisdictions and communities in the Seattle metro area. They have roughly 5,000 employees dedicated to getting people where they need to go — safely, equitably, and sustainably. Metro’s employees know their work is much more than getting people from point A to point B. It’s about how they accomplish it: with the people they serve, in collaboration with community partners, and while upholding Metro’s values.

Move with intention

As the dire consequences of global climate change continue to become clearer and more urgent, transit has proven to be a critical part of reducing emissions. While public transportation produces about half of one percent of King County’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the overall transportation sector in the county is responsible for 43 percent. Metro is committed not only to helping more people travel sustainably but also to further reducing transit’s already small carbon footprint. Metro is a national leader in zero-emissions. As they develop new approaches and identify gaps in technology, they are sharing lessons learned with other transit agencies to drive standards.

For Metro, a key lever for reducing GHG emissions is drastically reducing the emissions of its transit fleet. Doing this in a thoughtful way helps to ensure that they are delivering reliable service that will contribute to ridership gains. The agency is on track to being the first large transit agency in North America with a 100% zero-emissions fleet. As the electrification process has accelerated over the past several years, Metro has asked itself and its community: “How can we achieve our zero-emissions goals in a way that honors our values of equity, safety, and sustainability? How do we move with intention?

The Challenge

This transition is a technical challenge that involves activities such as procuring new equipment, understanding a different supply chain, and training employees. But the transition is more than that: it is an adaptive, organizational challenge that requires breaking down silos across teams, learning on the go, reimagining community relationships, and navigating an uncertain and ever-changing landscape.

King County and Metro leadership recognize that if they want to achieve ambitious 21st century goals, they cannot continue to operate in 20th century ways.

For example, this transition will significantly increase Metro’s need for electricians. Human resources, unions, and regional trade schools will need to collaborate to understand the workforce of the future to train, recruit, hire, and engage the right people for emerging and changing roles. Furthermore, these collaborators will need to work to ensure underrepresented communities can fill these jobs by developing equitable talent pipelines, hiring processes, and skill-building opportunities.

The transition presents a significant opportunity for Metro to take a holistic view of its system by addressing connected components (such as structures, relationships, and culture) that are not working well while building upon what is working well. It is critical that Metro centers equity and justice in this transition, prioritizing those most impacted by climate change and creating opportunities for historically marginalized communities to reap the benefits of the transition. Metro has partnered with CPI to bring this vision to life through a “Systems Innovation” approach.

Our Approach: Systems Innovation

Systems Innovation is a holistic approach to shifting the underlying dynamics, mental models, and conditions of a complex problem to enable adaptiveness and transformative change within an organization’s structure, behavior, and functional capabilities. This approach will enable Metro to innovate in a way that is aligned with its core values of equity, safety, and sustainability.

The ultimate goal of this journey is to help Metro achieve its zero-emissions vision while becoming a better learning organization – one that is capable of navigating complexity, working experimentally, and building strong relationships.

To accomplish this, CPI is supporting King County Metro in a long-term effort to Connect, Innovate, and Learn.

During the Connect Phase, CPI is serving as a learning partner to deliver four modules:

Join us on this journey

If you are curious about this work, we invite you to join us on this journey. We’ll be publishing periodic updates alongside our partners at King County Metro.

Sign up to receive updates on this work and our progress. We look forward to sharing what we learn and hearing from you as we progress.

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Written by:

Ann Bruton
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