Unpacking the bus stop as a system

Donella Meadows was an important systems thinker of the 20th century. She was one of the authors of the 1979 report The Limits to Growth – which stated the world couldn’t continue the way it was – with the rates of population growth and economic and environment consumption it had. 40 years later, that’s something that can’t be more evident.

That’s how as researchers we think about these urban problems – not just building or doing more, but utilising existing systems in more intelligent ways and changing systems in ways that are sustainable and effective. Meadows postulated that systems could be changed through a series of leverage points – places at which to intervene in a system and improve it for the better. On a sliding scale of 11 intervention points, they represent increasing impacts in terms of change within the system.

Within this framework, we examined the Sydney bus stop. One of the initial determinations we made was that the rules of such stops were defined by the various contracts in place between stakeholders, which had existed for almost 20 years in the City of Sydney. The contracts included information like what sort of advertising could be included on stops, the constraints of such advertising, and the cost limitations. These rules existed between Councils, and the advertisers themselves, with some involvement of Transport for NSW.

With a historically embedded situation like this, how does one go about changing the rules to enable prioritisation of customer information? What we considered was that you’d have to pitch specifically at those rules you wanted to change, and show by case studies how it possible to change those rules, as well as valuable for the stakeholders involved.

We also considered whether designers on the Encircle team had the ability to add, change or evolve the system structure – for example, reordering information or advertising that appeared on a Sydney bus stop. We found that advertisers generally controlled what appeared. Thus, if we wanted to alter some part of the system structure, we would have to work with advertisers and show them that they could get more value by doing something else – targeting them on their terms.

Or, a potentially more fiery way to implement change was to provide a burning platform for advertisers – by presenting a completely viable alternative bus stop design outside of their system to drive them towards change.

As part of this, we did some projects about exploring different business models the bus stop could have. We estimated Sydney city bus stops bring in about $100 a day from advertising. Could students work out a way to earn more than a hundred dollars and challenge or add value to the existing system? Such a goal changes things completely.

Student projects came up with a range of ideas, including selling WiFi, tourist information systems, subsidising bus stops with dynamic advertising by local businesses – where it could say, for example, offer $1 discounts on a coffee shop just around the corner. Other alternative models included advertising for events in real time – for example, if it were 7pm, they could push messages to bus stops saying an event is in the local area at that time with discounted entry. This a much more dynamic way of engaging with the public. It also allows council to be more involved in local businesses.

Below is the Tim Tompson’s presentation from RSD3 –  In Proceedings of RSD3, Third Symposium of Relating Systems Thinking to Design. Oslo, Norway: Oslo School of Architecture and Design, October 15-17, 2014.