Emerging technologies create opportunities for companies that can leverage them in both creative and practical ways. From automated vehicles to advances in materials science in infrastructure, organizations have to think of better ways to use those technologies to stay relevant in the business world — in today's smart cities. They must align technology, public policy and market forces to achieve the greatest societal benefits. All this takes some out-of-the-box thinking.

An exercise among strategic thinkers made its debut at the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) January Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. As a member of the organization’s Strategic Management Committee, we introduced a war games workshop. Response was enthusiastic, and groups showed great energy from start to finish. On the day of the competition, teams leaned in to share their big ideas.

War games originated with the military, but the construct has been used in the business world for years. It’s a fast-paced simulation to generate energy and innovative thinking to create transformation-focused solutions. This particular workshop built upon the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Foresight 750 Series, to competitively solve emerging transportation challenges. Teams were formed to represent a transportation topic such as safety or sustainability or agency such as a state department of transportation or a metropolitan planning organization. Each team was asked to select a challenge facing the industry and brainstorm a solution to present at the workshop.

Setting Up the Simulation

Using our committee’s deep background in policy and planning, we partnered with an organization specialized in gathering business intelligence and experienced in creating war game simulations. Working with four other TRB committees, we recruited volunteers and set up eight teams of eight to 10 volunteers each to begin preparing. Each team had at least one member from the public sector, private sector and academia. The team members represented a diverse range of age and experience but were generally grouped by similar interests, including safety, sustainability, freight and more.

Teams then worked in a highly interactive environment to hone their 5-minute pitches before the judges panel, made up of thought leaders from across the industry. Some teams strategized for weeks leading up to the event, and — because the rules did not prohibit it — two teams even made contact before the workshop to seek out possible alliances.

The challenge was to pair technology with policy for societal good. Teams would be scored on factors including energy outcomes (like reduced emissions), equity (such as improved jobs access), land use (like limiting sprawl) and safety. Bonus points were awarded for feasibility, consideration of urban and rural aspects, and overall effectiveness of the pitch.

Changing the Game

As teams sat down together at the workshop to finalize their pitches, the judges threw a curve ball at them, issuing a fictitious press release declaring the federal government would step away entirely from transportation regulations, funding and revenue collection. That game-changing moment created another wave of energy throughout each team, forcing them to reshape their ideas with less than an hour before the deadline.

The war game concept is nothing new, but it’s a different way of problem solving for our industry. At first teams struggled to understand what problem they were supposed to solve, but the nature of the challenge is that there are plenty of problems facing the industry and a lot of technologies at their disposal. Once teams agreed on what challenge to tackle, they responded with great energy and focus on the competition — seeking to max out their points based on the criteria. When the rules changed, teams focused even harder to ensure they had the most innovative and feasible solution for their problem.

So, who won?

The UPS/Freight team won the challenge with a pitch to bring right-sized containers to city streets for e-commerce delivery. The idea featured an app for customers to select bicycle or pedestrian couriers for the last leg of delivery from the centrally located locker.

The crowd chose the Sustainability Team’s pitch as its favorite. The concept called for replacing most individual vehicle ownership and transit agencies with transportation subscription services, including road maintenance fees, into the subscription price.

What’s Next?

Interested in what war games can do for your organization?

The exercise helps organizations understand the interactions among market stakeholders, clarifying its own strategic options. The range of approaches drives innovation, builds energy, rewards creativity and practicality. It’s a co-learning opportunity that expands your thinking rather than narrowing it. It may not change any single decision you make, but it helps focus and filter future decision making.


Scenario planning is helping companies prepare for the ever-changing future by thinking about future scenarios, considering signposts and tapping into the tools of Foresight.

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Julie Lorenz leads the strategic consulting and public engagement services for the Transportation Group at Burns & McDonnell. She has more than 20 years of experience in communications, public affairs and policy development in the transportation industry.