It’s great to see so many women passionate about working in the field of mobility. Our latest interview for the Women in MaaS series is with Sophia von Berg, co-founder of Germany’s Women in Mobility. A rising star in the sector, we’re excited to talk about the group’s work and her PhD research at Clausthal University of Technology and Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences.
Sophia von Berg, co-founder of Women in Mobility & PhD Candidate
Why did you set up Women in Mobility?
During my first PhD years, I went to so many future mobility events. Everybody was stressing the need for a variety of transportation options yet there was no variety – no gender diversity – in the audience or on stage. I found a few women who were passionate about sustainable mobility and with whom I had my most inspiring talks. I just wanted to create an online platform where these women could meet and continue to discuss these topics. That’s when I created Women in Mobility together with my co-founders Coco Heger-Mehnert and Anke Erpenbeck, back in 2015.
We set up a social media networking group on Facebook and the German business networking platform XING; more platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram followed. There are nearly 1,500 women who meet online every day in one of our digital groups. It allows them to swap ideas on mobility projects, they share information on jobs, and make appointments to meet at events or just to have a coffee and talk offline. We now have four Women in Mobility hubs too in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Munich. Each of them hosts regional meetups and events on a regular basis. This hub structure is a very important development in our history.
What are your aspirations for Women in Mobility?
Our objective with Women in Mobility is to bring women who are working in the mobility sector together, to give them the visibility they deserve, raise awareness of their ideas on sustainable mobility and empower them. We do this in many different ways such as hosting Women in Mobility events and workshops, sharing jobs on our platforms, negotiating discounts for event tickets and putting event organisers in touch with female speakers. We get a lot of enquiries about that. Maybe in the future, we’ll have a mentor program too. In November we’ll host our first Women in Mobility summit in Frankfurt: organised by women and, of course, female speakers only!
In what ways are sustainable mobility and diversity connected?
We at Women in Mobility believe that diversity and sustainable mobility go hand-in-hand. Diverse teams are more innovative, they call attention to various perspectives, preferences and needs. That’s more important than anything in order to create user-centric MaaS offerings. Diverse creative and decision-making teams are more resilient and in the end also more profitable.
Gender is an important aspect of diversity and there are a lot of studies to back this up. I think you can transfer these findings and results to any sector, including MaaS. Women are dynamic lateral thinkers who deal very well with real-world complexity. They also can be very sensitive to other people’s needs. I think in this sector they’re able to use these competencies. They can produce very realistic, customer-centric concepts. That’s what is needed.
Let’s turn our attention to your PhD research. What aspect of mobility does it focus on and why?
I mainly focus on business model theory. In a nutshell, the business model describes a firm’s logic of value creation. Who are my customers? What benefits do they perceive in my offering? How should my offering be designed? What partners and resources do I need? How should value be distributed between partners? How do I make money out of it? And so on.
In many cases, business models are static concepts; once set, they’re meant to operate over a long period of time. Yet it doesn’t take into account the fact that environments are continuously changing. The mobility sector is a case in point. Industry boundaries are constantly blurring and merging with each other. New competitors enter the market almost every day and, of course, every enterprise wants to be the one and only mobility provider.
There are a lot of legal changes too. The low emission zones in London for example, technology evolutions from general digitalisation to e-mobility. Then we have the user and his or her changing needs, demands and preferences over time. They are another very important external factor that impact business models.
The user is one of the reasons for the fast-moving environment. That’s why I chose to focus on them as my main external factor that impacts the business model. I’m working on a process model that enables managers to design and change business models by means of real-time customer data. MaaS concepts are an example to showcase my model’s mechanisms.
I understand your PhD is yet to be published. Are you able to talk about the model you created?
The relational process between the customer and the provider along with big data analytics are invaluable for business model design. Taking a dynamic, customer-centric perspective helps the enterprise to adapt to these changing environments and stay competitive in the long run.
I was able to develop a data-driven process model that integrates the customer – as the co-creator of services – and enables the provider to adapt their offering and business model with the changing needs and preferences of its customers.
Big data analytics is a huge topic and whilst I didn’t write any code, I did draft the mechanisms: What happens when the customer uses a MaaS service? What can we do with the data? What should we do to adapt our business model? What types of change can happen? Is it a business model evolution or should the manager go with more disruptive innovations? My model provides the mechanisms, workflows and requirements they should use.
What are some of the benefits of this?
Through customer data analytics, the provider is not only able to personalise but also push services to a customer’s use process in real time. In the past, a customer went to the shelf, chose something and bought it. Now it can be much more dynamic thanks to digitalisation. It means a provider can assist right at the point-of-use through the user interface.
This opens up so many possibilities such as dynamic complaint management, notification of delays and capacity management – all in real time. Thanks to digital MaaS apps, or any other user interface, the provider is able to go directly to the customer. For instance, if you have a big delay or malfunction the customer can receive a refund, or partial refund, for his or her ticket automatically. No more complicated forms to get your money back.
With digitalisation and big data analytics, not only can you individualise the offering you can go into the use process of the customer. You can support your customer in real time. It’s very demand driven. I use these mechanisms of digitalisation, of big data to help managers adapt their business model. It essentially links marketing to the strategic management of the business.
Organisations often talk about being customer-focused but to what degree is that the case?
The customer is the best co-creator of your services that you could wish for – I think many firms miss that. If you can digitalise your product and create a user interface for interaction, for example, build a digital platform or app that invites the customer to participate in a continuous design process, your business model has a chance to stay competitive over time. Beta tests are very useful, big companies shouldn’t be afraid of doing it. They don’t even know their customer in many cases and lack the knowledge on how to build a relational process with them.
MaaS is very forward thinking regarding this aspect. In my thesis, I’m speaking about it as the point-of-use, not the point-of-sale any more. It’s the moment a customer uses a solution, uses MaaS for example, that moment in time where value is created. Customers are part of this; they give you so much valuable information like usage data, profile data.
Of course, you have a lot of unstructured data sets of uncertain quality, you may have a closed data mentality and a battle for user data. These are the challenges you’re confronted with when you want to digitalise your offering and integrate the customer.
Why are businesses so fearful of accepting their customer as a co-creator?
Many companies are afraid because it’s a completely new field and they don’t have the infrastructure or knowledge to implement and support these solutions. They need companies like SkedGo to help them. I don’t want to generalise but it’s true in many cases.
Customer co-creation evolved from the B2B sector. Industrial companies started to integrate their customers (such as other industrial firms) into their systems and production processes to make customised tools for them. I transferred the customer co-creation approach to the B2C sector. There are only a few studies on how to do customer co-creation in B2C, when you have a true end user. These companies have to either educate themselves in this field or get support from other companies who excel at this.
In what ways is academia helping to further the cause of MaaS?
I think there are two main approaches in academia that can help tremendously to further the cause of MaaS. On the one hand, and it’s very essential, is to accompany major MaaS projects with proper academic research. Every project manager, every authority has to ask themselves what are the measurable impacts of their MaaS project regarding modal share or choice of transport mode, air pollution, use of space, customer satisfaction and so on.
Public transportation is one of the most efficient modes and should always be the backbone of every MaaS solution, to improve and complement it. Scientific research and field studies in particular guarantee objective evidence whether a MaaS project supports the idea of sustainable mobility or not. If not, authorities must make the necessary adjustments.
Secondly, fundamental research such as engineering, computer science, economics, sociology – and add to that every other relevant academic field – are vital to back up a MaaS offering. As a result, you have these overall concepts, these process models like my method. Also, in computer science you have tools, software applications, algorithms or maybe university spin-offs, technological inventions, patents and so on. I believe these fundamental findings from academia can also help to further the cause of MaaS.
About Sophia von Berg
Sophia’s passion for the transport industry took hold after carrying out an apprenticeship at 3M, where she experienced her first real touchpoint in the automotive sector. With an academic background in economics and a Masters from the University of Cologne, Sophia has also gained the opportunity to work with a variety of companies in the mobility space, including a consulting company, active in the public transportation sector.
A co-founder of Women in Mobility, Sophia currently juggles the coordination of the group alongside her PhD research at Clausthal University of Technology and Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences. Her academic work focuses on business model theory with the customer as co-creator, merging marketing and business strategy.