In late spring of 2010, I took my family on a holiday adventure across Europe. We rented a minibus and drove between the Languedoc wine region of France and Budapest, Hungary. Along the way I had the chance to experience the highway toll systems of different countries and note the stark differences. And here is the funny thing: The further we drove East, the more efficient and user-friendly they became. In France, which has a long-established highway system, there is a large network of tollbooths for collecting payment from motorists. Their seemingly random intervals and fees create frequent stops, queues and maddening delays. At the same time, such toll stations are expensive to build and to operate, and not so pretty to look at. Some stations had 15 booths in each direction.
Moving eastward, Italy was next. There, things worked more smoothly. We received a ticket at a toll booth upon entering the country, and we didn’t have to make another stop until we were near the border on the other side. At that point we presented the ticket and paid a fee based on the total distance travelled. Then came Slovenia, a small, mountainous country that was formerly part of Yugoslavia and whose highways have been freshly built. Here, the highway fee collection system sidesteps the use of tollbooths altogether. Instead, drivers purchase a sticker at gas stations, corresponding to the length of time they intend to use the country’s highways (from one week to one year), and stick them on the windshield of their car. They are then free to drive on any of the country’s highways. The only bother is attaching and removing the stickers.
Last on the journey was Hungary, which has an even more liberating approach. As with Slovenia, Hungary’s highway infrastructure was built over the last twenty years, after it emerged from decades of communism. It was therefore able to leapfrog the traditional payment system of Western Europe in favor of a solution that makes good use of new technologies. Here is how: Motorists can buy a pass valid for all highways in the country simply by sending a text message on their cell phone to a designated number, indicating their car’s license plate number and desired duration – with the charge added automatically to their monthly phone bill. They can do this anytime and anywhere, prior to using the highways. In effect, the whole payment process is removed from the driving experience itself.
For businesses, my highway tale is a tangible example of achieving higher consumer value at a lower cost. Compared to France, the system in Hungary significantly increases consumer value – making highway travel much more efficient and comfortable by removing frequent stops, as well as safer – because the flow of traffic is not artificially interrupted. At the same time, it also greatly lowers costs – as a payment-handling software application and a few mobile control stations replace the considerable infrastructure investment and operating expense of toll booths. Lastly, the system opens up new demand – new motorists are likely to use the roads because of the simplicity of payment, shorter travel times, and better predictability of travel duration (removing the uncertainty of delays caused by toll stations).
But there is an additional lesson. The story shows how smart application of emerging technologies can be harnessed to drive lifestyles, in this case resulting in a much more comfortable, efficient, and safe driving experience. Such meaningful use of technology can also enable companies to quickly bypass more established competitors who are heavily invested in providing traditional offerings of lesser consumer value. The very same way that a recently democratized country like Hungary can jump ahead of a leading industrialized nation like France, in the operation of its highway infrastructure.
Gabor George Burt is an internationally recognized expert on innovation, creativity and strategy. His spheres of expertise help organizations to overstep perceived limitations and to carve out successful growth strategies. Gabor’s book ‘Slingshot’ presents a framework for connecting systematic creativity with smart strategy www.slingshotliving.com