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Innovathon 2021

Transforming Travel

What will the transport of tomorrow look like? How will digitalization change the way we get around? In a new module run by the UZH Innovation Hub and the Digital Society Initiative, students from the University of Zurich examined the interdisciplinary challenges of digitalization and mobility. Over the course of a 48-hour “Innovathon”, they came up with creative ideas to solve real-world problems.
Nathalie Huber; English translation by Caitlin Stephens
How is digitalization changing mobility behavior? Participants in the Innovathon came up with creative ideas. (The video provides an insight into the recently held course).

Drone taxis, self-driving cars or trains, sharing models – the transportation of the future is digital. Which technologies and business models play a role in this and how are they changing the way we use transport? 

30 Master’s and PhD students at the University of Zurich recently got together to examine such questions. They took part in the first “Innovathon” (coined from innovation and marathon), a new module put together by the UZH Innovation Hub and the Mobility Community of the Digital Society Initiative (DSI). In addition to a theoretical introduction, the new course format includes a 48-hour event during which students work together intensively on new ideas.

“The course offers a practical introduction to the digitalization of mobility. The students learn about new methods and then work as a team to develop innovative solutions for a real problem using these new methods,” explains Anja Schulze, UZH professor of innovation management and head of the DSI Mobility Community. 

Interdisciplinary background

During the two-day theory block, DSI members introduced the students to the topic with short presentations on digitalization and mobility. The range of themes covered was broad, because developing digital mobility solutions requires an interdisciplinary approach.

For example, participants learned how mobility behavior can be analyzed or how to use mobile networks to predict the movements of individuals. The speakers also explained how blockchain technology can be leveraged to increase trust in the used car market, or how the various digital platforms for sharing goods and services work (the digital sharing economy). One guest speaker from Stockholm talked about the climate risks of digital mobility options – many participants were surprised to hear that small e-scooters are not always more climate-friendly than cars. After further input from the fields of medicine, law, economics and informatics, the theoretical part concluded with an interactive overview of how interdisciplinary teams can work together to come up with innovative ideas.

Beaming winners: The "Innowave" team with Jonas Hartmann (2nd from left), Marcia Arbenz and Andrea Meier as well as Marcus Fromm, Managing Director of Accenture.

Six challenges

The students were able to put their newly acquired theoretical knowledge into practice right away at the Innovathon event. Over the course of 48 hours, the students worked together in teams to develop ideas to solve a real-world mobility problem using digital tools. The challenges to be solved were presented by six companies concerned with the future of mobility: The rail company SBB was looking for innovative ideas to improve safety on trains; Siemens Mobility was interested in better ways of combining different forms of transport; the car-sharing organization Mobility wanted to provide a better service for car-dependent commuters; the research and technology organization CSEM sought digital functionality for clothing that improves the microclimate between the skin and the material; the car importer AMAG hoped to increase trust and speed for buying and selling cars online; and consulting firm Accenture wanted to design a digital companion that would bring together shareable workspaces with shareable means of transport.

Inspiration and support

The 10 teams each chose a challenge and, using specific process steps, worked through the problems and difficulties involved, setting priorities for things that urgently needed to be changed or implemented. With support and inspiration from the mobility professionals and start-up representatives present, the groups fleshed out their ideas. They then produced a simple, tangible prototype, which was tested during the Innovathon. All the findings were incorporated into a final concept.

The moment of truth for the groups’ innovative ideas was a three-minute pitch in front of a jury – including representatives of the companies which had posed the challenges, the DSI Mobility Community and the Innovation Hub. The ideas were evaluated in terms of creativity, interdisciplinarity, impact, feasibility and presentation. 

High potential for implementation

The Innowave team emerged as the overall winner. The members of the winning team, Marcia Arbenz, Andrea Meier and Jonas Hartmann, had come up with a solution for the challenge posed by consulting firm Accenture. They proposed a machine-learning-based app called MeetWe. The aim of the app is to connect work colleagues or business partners who work remotely and want to find a suitable place for a meeting. The app selects the optimal location, shortest route and the most suitable means of transport for all participants in order to reduce overall travel time and CO2 emissions. “Our idea was basically to reduce travel by using the resources available in the vicinity and sharing them with work colleagues,” team member Marcia explained during the award ceremony.

The jury’s choice was unanimous: They saw great real-world potential for MeetWe. The trio of innovators won a half-day visit to a company of their choice.


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