Boyd Cohen is a researcher and entrepreneur in smart, sustainable & entrepreneurial cities. He’s authored three smart cities and entrepreneurship books & is CEO of IoMob. 

I have been working in the smart cities arena for a dozen years now. One of my first startups was called Visible Strategies, based in Vancouver, Canada which was formed in 2006 before anyone called the space smart cities. Visible Strategies developed a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution for cities wishing to transparently track and report their sustainability performance to their citizens. We even had a cool project with Al Gore’s Live Earth project to track the sustainability performance of the global event to raise awareness for climate change.

With my growing frustration at the lack of progress on climate action at the UN level, I continued to explore how cities could help transform our global ecological footprint which eventually led me to the emergence of smart cities. After exploring several smart cities strategies, academic research on smart cities and meeting with key decision makers, I realized there was an incomplete, and diverse view of smart cities around the globe compelling me to create a graphical view of what a smart city is. That led me to create the “Smart Cities Wheel”, which to my surprise became widely used by local and regional governments as a tool for visioning and benchmarking smart cities initiatives.

I always knew that sooner or later I would develop another startup in one element of the Wheel, or my later iteration, the Happy Cities Hexagon, which leverages design thinking to re-examine the smart cities arena from a human-centered perspective. Interestingly, in both models mobility plays a big role. So perhaps it is no surprise that I am now focused on building a blockchain protocol with the team at IoMob aimed at decentralizing urban mobility in the hopes of improving efficiency of urban mobility systems while also democratizing access to the technology and the mobility users to give shared mobility startups and other innovators a level playing field to compete.

We at IoMob have been observing the evolution of the mobility as a service (MaaS) space for some time, and believe it can be a powerful solution to the urban mobility challenges. Yet, just as when I started researching smart cities many years ago, the MaaS space currently seems fraught with competing definitions and interpretations of what is or isn’t MaaS. And our advisor, the world-renowned expert in shared mobility, Susan Shaheen, argues that even the term MaaS is misplaced and we need a broader framing of Transportation as a Service (TaaS) to incorporate other services such as goods delivery not just people moblity.

With all this in mind, we set out to research different models of MaaS around the world and what researchers as well as cities and mobility companies proposed regarding the framing of the MaaS space**. We came to realize that there is a range in points of view regarding the scope and breadth of MaaS as well as approaches to payment and that perhaps it is better to express MaaS as almost a continuum from a narrow single provider model to a much broader (spoiler alert), decentralized, blockchain-enabled Internet of Mobility (IoM).

Below I introduce, for the very first time, the 4 Steps from MaaS to IoM. Please note a word of caution: As I have learned throughout my career, nothing is black and white and the steps I highlight here, including the general characteristics of MaaS services in each step may vary with each implementation. This model is meant to illustrate a continuum of potential levels of integration of transit services found in MaaS models around the globe and where we see the market headed with open protocols enabled by blockchain technology.

Step 1: Single Provider Model

Among the earliest MaaS visions was the concept from automobile manufacturers who began to realize that the world was changing and that, particularly the younger generation, was making a powerful shift in consumption patterns, away from single ownership and towards shared access. This trend in the sharing economy, has of course impacted virtually every segment of the economy, perhaps none more than mobility. The explosion in shared mobility solutions (car sharing, ride sharing, bikesharing, carpooling, parking sharing, EV charging station sharing, boat sharing….) has been unprecedented in recent years. In Barcelona alone, there are more than 50 such shared mobility providers.

A single provider model of MaaS, the first step, is when a single mobility provider offers some kind of subscription service to a mobility solution. Toyota, for example recently announced the creation of Toyota Mobility Services which, among other things, aims to develop some types of MaaS models for corporate and personal applications.

Step 2: Single Provider, Multimodal MaaS

While the single provider single modality model may be the most similar to a SaaS model in the sense that it is a relationship between a single provider usually with just one software solution replacing the normal purchase and download model of software, Step 1 is a far cry from what most MaaS advocates are speaking about when they refer to its potential to transform mobility.

Step 2 gets closer to MaaS heaven by incorporating multiple modalities in a single package of sorts. The most common form of Step 2 implementation occurs with public transit authorities who are increasingly introducing smart cards for integrated payments across multiple modalities of public transit service. This of course has been a staple of many smart cities initiatives where cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, London and others have made a single transit card capable of functioning across a range of public transit services such as buses, suburban trains, metro lines and others. I recently returned to Madrid to pick up my Estonian e-residence card and discovered that since my last visit, Madrid too has introduced such a service. In the case of Madrid, their Transport Pass permits users to access, the Metro, urban bus network, commuter trains (RENFE), light rail and inter-urban bus lines.

It is common with Step 2 implementations that users can have the potential to do single journey, pay as you go, with one integrated fare for the whole journey, and in many cases, users are allowed to get some form of monthly MaaS fare that allows unlimited use of all modalities for a fixed fee.

Step 3: Multi-provider, multimodal MaaS

I believe most people when they think of MaaS these days, they consider a Step 3 version of MaaS. A multi-provider, multimodal MaaS allows for the integration of public and private transit operators across a range of modality types including usually embracing shared mobility solutions. Perhaps the most well known Step 3 MaaS is the Whim app offered by Maas Global which was initially a public service and has been spun out as a private one. The Whim app allows users to access public transit, taxi services and carsharing with two monthly pricing plans.

Meanwhile UbiGo in Gothenburg, Sweden offers an even wider variety of modalities including bikesharing in its Step 3 Maas Model. In collaboration with a German software partner, UbiGo aims to now take their Step 3 model to Stockholm.

I am sure many readers at this stage are thinking, what could be better than a Step 3, multi-provider, multimodal MaaS offering pay as you go and monthly services across a range of public and private transit options including a growing array of shared mobility services? See below for the answer.

Step 4: The decentralized Internet of Mobility (IoM)

IoMob believes smart cities will embrace more decentralized blockchain protocols across a range of services in an attempt to further increase efficiency and quality of citizen and visitor services while also democratizing access to the technology and the network for new innovative services (especially shared mobility innovations but autonomous vehicles and others as well). Of course we have already witnessed how the Internet of Things (IoT) has gained significant traction in smart cities, and well known early blockchain projects like IOTA explore how to help decentralize IoT implementation in cities.

The Internet of Mobility is not a term we can claim to have invented. In fact, the first use of IoM language we have found was associated with a research center at Southeast University in Nanjing, China which appears to have opened its doors in 2005 and recently partnered with the University of Wisconin to expand its reach. Leveraging an open blockchain protocol, a city could have multiple MaaS-type aggregators competing for users, all leveraging the same base protocol, meaning that each of them would potentially have access to the same mobility user base and base technology for validating the identification of providers and users, user reputation and payment functions. The more successful MaaS aggregators would be ones that offer the best value to mobility users. This would also open up more opportunities for new innovative mobility solutions to be added to competing MaaS hubs, democratizing market access to innovative startups.

Our hub model, however also allows for further decentralization. Essentially any mobility service, once validated, would be accessible to any hub, even one that does not have a singular unified payment service. Not all mobility users want to be restricted to access only the mobility services that have partnered with a particular MaaS. Perhaps a user lives in an area with real problems with first mile/last mile and none of the provides in the MaaS network solve that problem for them, meanwhile a new P2P carhsaring service that is not a member of the MaaS, is accessible to open hubs and would solve the first mile/last mile network. You can see how powerful this can be to allow mobility startups to gain access to users who would benefit from their service, without having to wait until they have a big enough private network effect to draw the interest from a MaaS operator.

Leveraging a tokenized open protocol, Step 4 IoM solutions like those IoMob aims to enable, can also benefit from cryptoeconomic incentives designed to animate the ecosystem of mobility providers and users to embrace their aggregator hubs, some of which would embrace MaaS models, others may be aggregating mobiltiy with different service and payment models. Naturally, some payment services on the protocol could permit payments to be made in fiat currency, alternative cryptocurrencies as well as, for example in our case, the IoMob token. Smart contracts in the base protocol layer would enable payments between providers on the hub.

Finally, given the common, base, open protocol, MaaS type operators in any city operating on the same protocol could easily facilitate arrangements between cities whereby a MaaS subscriber in one city could be allowed free or discounted access to a MaaS in other cities where they travel, carrying with them their identity and payment preferences.

Step 3 MaaS models are fantastic innovations that help cities improve quality of life for citizens while improving the efficiency of public and private mobility services. However, we believe the disruptive, and decentralized nature of the blockchain, allows for another significant leap in transformative potential of aggregated mobility services in cities.

Let us know what your thoughts and please sign up to our newsletter if you wish to engage with us more on the potential of our open protocol for your city or organization.

**Note: This post and the model was developed in assistance by the IoMob, CTO, Josep Sanjuas. Numerous resources were used in the development of the model and this post, including reviews of dozens of public and private transit operators and aggregators and several articles including:

Diewald, S., Möller, A., Roalter, L., & Kranz, M. (2012). MobiliNet: A social network for optimized mobility. In International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications: Workshop: The Social Car 17/10/2012–17/10/2012.

Goodall, Warwick, et al. “The rise of mobility as a service-Reshaping how urbanites get around.” Deloitte Review 20 (2017): 112–129.

LI, R. M., LU, H. P., & SHI, Q. X. (2005). Research of development and trend of integrated transportation information platform [J]. Journal of Highway and Transportation Research and Development, 4, 025.

Li, Y., & Voege, T. (2017). Mobility as a Service (MaaS): challenges of implementation and policy required. Journal of transportation technologies, 7(02), 95.