Transport is transforming and Lebanon must keep up

A different kind of revolution

Photo by Greg Demarque

When compared to political revolutions, it has never been exactly clear what economic revolutions entail nor how long they take. But it is clear that these economic revolutions combine multiple change and adaptation processes, whether one talks of periods of fundamental economic transformation as “revolutions,” beginning with the first agricultural revolution in the fertile crescent or starts the tally with what is today labeled the first industrial revolution, originating in 18th century Britain and sweeping, virus-like, through Europe in the course of the next 100 years. Economic transformations thus might be called “revolutions” on account of their impact in changing human societies, but not because of their speed or intensity.

Economic transformations thus might be called “revolutions” on account of their impact in changing human societies, but not because of their speed or intensity.

It is also clear that while real changes were gradual, each economic revolution in the past 300 years has spread faster than the previous one. When discussing the first and second industrial revolutions, there is also the debate as to whether these industry transformations were accompanied by epochal developments in trade, transport, communication, and finance—or if transportation and communication revolutions constituted core components that shaped these economic transformations in ways that, without them, the industrial leaps, such as those that occurred in textile or steel manufacture, would have not been revolutions at all.

The intuitive expectation in the early 21st century would be that the currently unfolding digital economy revolution is inseparable from the digital communication revolution, and the digital mobility revolution, which is simultaneously unfolding in the two large realms of moving goods—through trade and transport—and of moving humans and connecting them in superior social and productivity settings.

Diversification and digitization

There are too many innovations taking place in the sphere of the digital mobility revolution to discuss the implications of each of them. To bundle these micro uprisings of tech entrepreneurs and myriad disruption-minded businesses, each of which can contribute to shaping mobility in the short and medium term, let us talk of four transition issues: technical, behavioral, economic, and regulatory mobility.

These four issues entail diversification and digitization of mobility through technical inventions, as well as behavioral implications and new patterns through shared mobility and the sharing economy on the level of individuals, families, and urban communities. They further entail enterprise-level shifts in trade and transport with productivity optimization and corollary creative-destruction impacts on regions, industries, and national economies. They finally comprise challenges to create enabling environments for mobility through prudent regulation and wise political decisions, so as to hopefully enable socially and environmentally responsible progress of digital mobility through economic activity in this crucial segment of the emerging digital society.

A very reasonable assumption, however, is that plenty of the current innovations and changes in mobility and digital life will run into technical dead ends and political roadblocks, encounter behavioral resistance, and be enmeshed with an economic mix of wins and busts. This assumption advises us to moderate our expectations about the digital mobility transition, its rapidity, and its reach. For example, the likelihood of a mobility revolution that creates a platform of “zeros”—zero emissions, zero accidents, and zero ownership—is about as great as the likelihood that a future iteration of the sharing economy will equip mankind with zero exploitation of its weaker participants, zero corruption of the stronger players, and zero conflicts between economic interests.

Even if you are as enthused about the digital mobility future, there is ample reason to expect—by all methods that people have acquired throughout history—only the tiniest of odds that digitization of our mobility would transpire into zero congestion, zero inefficiency, and zero crime in this vast human mobility realm. Thus in their sum, the chances for all afore-quoted ideological expectations of zero-ness to soon come to fruition through digital mobility are, well, zero.

It is nothing short of tragic how in the current status quo, Lebanese mobility is becoming an oxymoron.

On the other hand, an equally unwise approach—which one sadly encounters all too often in Lebanon—lies in harboring notions that the arrival of digital mobility can be mastered with wait-and-see indifference or fake economic complacency in pretending that the current business models work well enough and will never be destroyed. Indifference, careless ignorance, or even a focus on 20th century solutions for as yet undefined digital mobility challenges will not be our advantage, neither in the private nor in the public sector.

Before any other consideration on national mobility, it must be acknowledged that Lebanon is in urgent need of better—and better balanced—approaches to the challenge of transitioning into a digital mobility future than begging international partners to fund investments in hard infrastructures for transportation or even soft infrastructures of public transport. It also deserves to be pointed out—over and over, until construction of a better reality is at least attempted in concerted actions of public and private stakeholders—that it is nothing short of tragic how in the current status quo, Lebanese mobility is becoming an oxymoron.

It is an oxymoron to talk about mobility when the daily commutes of employees and entrepreneurs makes the economy lose incalculable amounts of productivity, and when the time wasted on state-related errands makes citizens lose entire workdays unnecessarily. It is also a contradiction-in-terms to discuss trade and digitization of logistics industries in Lebanon at times when stifled information flows at import gateways and disregard of transport logic continually translate into ballooning logistics costs, and when inefficient road networks in combination with unsafe delivery vehicles and substandard urban infrastructures erode the capacities for ethical and environmentally responsible, or “green,” earnings.

All this is tragic in the classical sense of how this society, by trying to address social and economic challenges through the means from the past of transport and communication, seems to steer itself into squandering an intangible historic asset that may be at least as valuable as the oft-cited assets of Lebanese entrepreneurial spirit and this society’s admirable human capital: a good mobility narrative with cultural and practical implications.

Lebanon has practically no historic identity narrative of the kind that has helped other countries to grow beyond their limits. What Lebanon seems to have much more than “natural borders” and nation-forming stories, however, is a deep history of trade entrepreneurship and maritime agility.

Moving forward

The above narrative could contribute to building a national shared identity that Lebanon lacks, along with a unifying national sense of purpose and social contract narrative with convincing mutual obligations.

The iteration of a new and convincing social contract narrative might well be of what the country is in greatest need. Lebanese society is in want of such a narrative, possibly more than it has need of savings in the financial system and perhaps even more than it needs well-organized institutions, political identification figures, and an effective fight against corruption.
This translates, on account of the search for a better narrative of what Lebanon can be, into an open-ended quest for all patriotically minded people, a quest that can be pursued at practically no economic investment cost and with no consultancy involvement: the construction of a credible narrative that weaves stories of the great historic achievements in trade and mobility by all the clans, tribes, and religious communities living in what today is known as the state of Lebanon, into a narrative of mutual obligations and common purpose for a—socially truly fair and inclusive—shared national identity.

On the practical level, Lebanon’s mobility and correlated trade problem includes not only wasteful processes in customs, under-powered aviation (in terms of infrastructure and operation), congested primary arteries, and dilapidated secondary roads in rural provinces. The problem also extends to politically-poisoned national planning overloaded with unimaginative, competing, and unrealized economic plans, to failures of achieving urban productivity improvements, and shortsighted and opportunistic decision-making on all levels from municipal to transnational infrastructure and trade.

The country needs to solve the fiefdom issues that still infest parochial institutions and obstruct national strategy development, an important example for the problem’s trade dimension being the—conceptually long-expired—temporary authority at the Port of Beirut. The government needs to focus not merely on investment calls and construction of public-private partnership models for road infrastructures but also dedicate more attention to assuaging risks of 20th century infrastructure projects. It needs to improve governance of all transportation, mobility, and communication related public institutions and state-affiliate entities, of which there are plenty, but none that stands out with first-class governance.

Executive thus calls on all stakeholders to depart from parochial thinking, abandon piecemeal approaches to long-standing mobility, trade, and transport problems, and invest in developing a much broader and more committed approach to the complex challenges of digital mobility in the context of Lebanon’s digital transition.

Lebanon today is a prisoner of its recent financial and economic past that stands on top of a 300-foot cliff; to escape from this past the country has no choice but to jump into a macroeconomic ocean of uncertainties that is moreover full of financial undercurrents, microeconomic rocks, and political risk reefs. The only sane thing is to jump, but do so with existential trust and the added confidence of having a perfect mobility program that covers all possible routes for swimming out of the danger.

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