Connecting the Dots

When reviewing keynote speaker candidates for the three School Transportation News conferences, I look for a certain “j’ ne sais quoi.” The term literally means, “I don’t know what,” but more commonly, it refers to a positive quality that is difficult to express.

I know these candidates “have it” when I see it, often via a TED talk clip on YouTube or video of presentations on their websites. They don’t have to have previous experience with school buses, although it amazes me how many times we have contracted with a speaker based on their professional lives and successes, only to learn of a profound effect a school bus driver had on them as children. When that happens, it’s really icing on the cake.

What’s most important, is that the speaker is an innovative, out-of-box thinker who can help us meet the core objective of both the magazine and our conferences: Connecting the dots.

STN co-founder Bill Paul once told me that if our articles or workshops teach our readers and attendees one thing they didn’t previously know, then our job is well done. For this month or this conference, at least.

Always leave them wanting more. But provide enough tasty morsels today to ensure they are more than satisfied with takeaways they can implement, or at least use to question the status quo back home.

When I contacted Jim Harris last year while researching options for the STN EXPO Reno, I knew right away he was someone worth working with.

There are few more noble causes in our society than driving, caring for and molding students, as they commute between home and school. Jim instantly was on board with our mission of being the host for industry conversations. He recognized with his detailed knowledge of technology disruption and innovation, that our audience had ears ripe to receive his message.

Jim provides more information on what he discussed in Reno in July, starting on page 30 of this month’s issue. But his 2,000-word essay, no matter how eye-opening, doesn’t do justice to his in-person talks. That’s true for both attendees of the third annual Transportation Directors Summit, where he facilitated conversations on forming strategic alliances in times of change, or the following day in the opening keynote presentation, when he discussed how technology disruption has and is positioned to impact student transportation.

One of the most telling results of Jim’s presence in Reno was a comment that an attendee made toward the end of his July 28 keynote. Jim focused much of that interactive session on electric and autonomous vehicles. He discussed the role these are not only playing to redefine how our society functions, but also the promise they hold for this industry. That is, if we collectively welcome innovation with open arms, rather than fight the inevitable with tooth and nail.

The gentleman stood up and told everyone that he is one of many student transporters who has wholeheartedly opposed the emergence of electric school buses. The arguments usually go that EVs are too expensive and too unproven—at least in terms of their operational existence when compared to diesel. But he admitted that Harris opened his eyes that morning to the unrealized potential value that electric power holds for school bus operations.

Indeed, Harris came armed with historical data and comparisons, as well as results from the latest research that flies in the face of arguments on why electric will never work. Certainly, he is an evangelist, but rather than for specific EV manufacturers, Jim advocates staying ahead of the technology curve. He doesn’t want school buses to be the next General Motors, Mercedes-Benz or BlackBerry. Those companies failed to read the tea leaves properly and sat on their laurels, while unforeseen, or more aptly ignored, innovations blew right by and revolutionized our world.

The message espoused by Jim Harris and the reality embraced by many of the people, school districts and companies in this month’s issue, is to stand up and out in front of innovation. Understand what technology will mean to your operations. Use a discerning eye to test new solutions, so you can adopt what works and send the rest back to the drawing board to be improved on.

Technology can be viewed as complicating our lives. Instead, view technology as potential solutions that can support the goal of providing safer and more efficient service for the betterment of over a quarter-million student riders, their parents and our society as a whole.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the September Issue of School Transportation News.