Interview: Karla Jakeman on being an agent of change

26th May 2022

Karla Jakeman tells Huw Morris how her interest in the past informs her determination to shape a sustainable future for transport and mobility

Karla Jakeman’s fascination with the past has led to the uncovering of some notable relatives. A keen amateur genealogist, she has discovered, amid the miners, agricultural labourers and watchmakers, that she is related to the Queen – albeit as 27th cousin, five times removed – and the family of George Dance, architect for London’s Mansion House. Learning more about the past makes her think about the future – what will her descendants think about her?

Jakeman is the innovation lead for connected transport and mobility at Innovate UK, the government’s arms-length innovation agency. Its aim is to encourage growth through productivity, or, as Jakeman says, “how we can drive forward technology and innovation to meet the UK’s social and environmental challenges”. Her organisation creates £8 in return for every £1 it invests through a combination of connecting and funding.

Innovate UK holds funding competitions directly and also manages those held by other organisations, such as National Highways and the Department for Transport. On the connecting side, “the best projects are collaborative, and we help pull consortia together, linking small businesses with large companies, academia, the Catapults [a network of technology and innovation centres] and charities to get that rounded project,” she says.

On the move

A significant part of Jakeman’s job involves searching for technologies that can leverage smarter, more sustainable mobility for people and goods; she describes her role as “modal-agnostic”. She is not interested in cars, HGVs, bikes or planes themselves, but “the systems between them and their connectivity”. It’s a panoramic brief, and one that is both frustrating and rewarding.

“I look after everything from active travel to rural transport, highways, freight, the geospatial aspects of transport and the data digital aspects,” she says. “There’s a lot of crossover with transport hubs, smart ticketing accessibility and fair transport.

“There is so much we want to do but there’s a limit to what we can do, and how many people we have to do it – so we have to prioritise, which can be frustrating. But we get to see some amazing technology and innovation.”

One such innovation came out of a conversation between officials who were pulling together data for the government’s five o’clock pandemic.

“A huge challenge for local authorities is that they’ve got mountains of data but don’t know how they should use it”

It led to a funding competition run for the Geospatial Commission, looking for projects using transport location data to promote active travel, enable mobility, manage supply chains and increase capacity. “The projects that got through to the final phase created up to 20 jobs – which doesn’t sound a lot, but those would have been lost if we hadn’t run the competition.”

The Liverpool-Humber Optimisation of Freight Transport project is another example. It brings together major cargo owner Unilever with the Mersey and Humber port operators, which sit at either end of the M62 corridor. Part of the project involves working with rail industry experts on a Hull University Logistics Institute study; the study aims to develop an end-to-end journey model to divert freight from long-distance North-South routes to the Humber and Mersey ports, massively reducing the number of freight miles on UK roads. The project looks at how cargo owners can pool freight, including on ferry services to mainland Europe and container services on the M62 corridor.

A third example is the Grid project, which uses technology and smart solutions to connect communities with transport, parking, goods and services through kerb space. It allows freight and commercial operators to book loading and unloading slots, rather than circling around and creating congestion. Even local market traders benefit, using Grid technology to transport boxes of fruit and vegetables to customers who order their produce via an app.

Goosebump moments

Jakeman describes the moments when projects start to succeed as “goosebump moments”. They also contribute to her sense of optimism – an attitude reinforced by the lessons she learned about behavioural change during the pandemic. “Things have changed massively,” she says. “If you’d gone back before the pandemic and said, ‘we’ve got to get everybody on their bikes’, you’d have thought, ‘people don’t like change that much’.

“But look how quickly people changed when they needed to. People will start getting used to new forms of transport, cycle lanes, using their cars less and planning more. Look how much things have changed since people could use mobile phones for planning their travel.”

“For people in a rural community, it might be too far to cycle into a town or city, but can they cycle a bit of the way and then get the bus?

Jakeman is a leading advocate of ‘combo travel’. This is a concept she developed with Glenn Lyons, future mobility professor at the University of the West of England, and Scott Cain, chief executive of Active Things. “It’s a combination of active and passive transport – or, instead, of being just active or passive, why can’t you be both? It struck me when everyone got on their bikes during COVID-19. We thought, we need to sustain this – what about the people who can’t commute all the way to work on their bikes but might be able to go a little bit of the way and put the bike on a bus for the rest of the journey?

“It’s about enabling active travel for everybody, regardless of their physical shape, age, mental health, economic situation or geographical situation. For people in a rural community, it might be too far to cycle into a town or city, but can they cycle a bit of the way and then get the bus?”

Changing patterns

Certain challenges remain daunting, not least the silo mentality that prevents different professionals and experts from talking to one another. Jakeman cites the example of transport planners who need to talk to data specialists so they can use information for simulations, “to understand which routes need the most support, at what time of day and who needs that support” – all crucial for the movement of people and goods.

“A huge challenge for local authorities is that they’ve got mountains of data but don’t know how they should use it,” she continues. “They need to understand the value of what they’ve got. We are still at the mercy of a legacy transport system left by the Victorians, and it’s not easy to convert some of those systems into something that is environmentally friendly and sustainable.”

What does Jakeman think her descendants will make of her? “I hope they will see me as someone who contributed to the paradigm shift in transport from a polluting and dirty industry, and how I contributed to changing thought patterns as well as behaviour patterns in terms of how we travel and think about transport.”

Karla Jakeman: background

Karla Jakeman was at a Sheffield University open day, learning about its degree in business and French, when an administrator called out for candidates applying for Japanese studies to come forward. “I gatecrashed and tagged along,” she says. “I was so fascinated by the Japanese library that I went home and changed my application.”

Her degree left her with a deep appreciation of Japan’s history, politics and business landscape, as well as its formidable language. After university, she spent 15 years working as a design engineer for Honda’s UK and European subsidiaries. Part of her job involved sending ‘trouble reports’ in Japanese back to HQ for the company’s boffins to ponder.

“Many people think making a car is: you do a sketch, get the parts together and it comes off the end of a sausage machine line. But designing a car takes years and years and it’s meticulous, particularly in responding to customer feedback and trying to understand what customers didn’t like about the cars so we could improve them.

“I became an expert in squeaks and rattles, which drives my husband mad. If there is a squeak in the car, I’ve got to work out what it is, and I’ve never got out of that habit.”

She also tries to keep up her Japanese. “I can have a conversation and read and write. I have an app on my phone to read news articles, to keep my hand in, but I’m nowhere near that level anymore because I’m not using it. But if I go to an event and see Japanese people on the attendance list, I make a beeline for them to have a chat.”

Image credit | Shutterstock | Jessica Marsh and Akin Falope


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