Courtesy of ARTBA
Hillman (left) and Zoli urged young transportation professionals to ponder innovation in problem-solving at an interactive workshop last fall.

When Ted Zoli and 2010 Award of Excellence winner John Hillman discussed the format for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association's initial TransOvation educational workshop last September, they agreed on the need to do something different.

"We didn't want people to simply sit and listen," says Hillman. Instead, the 2010 and 2012 AOE winners came up with a group problem-solving exercise: They tasked teams to identify infrastructure improvements that would help revitalize the city of Detroit.

Drawing on economic and social data as well as speakers with expertise on Detroit issues, the teams had less than 24 hours to outline feasible plans, identify funding and demonstrate immediate and long-term value.

Zoli encouraged the groups to open their minds to all possibilities. "We need to at least be experimenting," he said. "If it doesn't work, at least it will be a lesson learned that might help shape something that does."

Hillman says, "Formulating how we'd do this was a challenge for Ted and me, but it goes back to the idea of opening our minds to new ways of doing things." He adds, "I have had the good fortune of working with incredibly talented people in my career, but Ted is an anomaly. He is the total package."

ARTBA chose the two engineers because of their abilities to emphasize both innovation and practicality. "These are two people who relate well with others and have achieved success in their fields through innovation," says Paul Yarossi, ARTBA chairman and HNTB president. "They also possess the right style to connect with young people."

Three strategies emerged for revitalizing Detroit: creating new urban development nodes, enhancing existing transportation and designing new transit corridors with onboard Wi-Fi. Still, making an innovation work in the real world is a challenge. "There's a huge push toward design standardization, but that can put you in a rut," says participant Julia Capuchino, design engineer with C.C. Myers Inc. "If everybody is doing the same thing, where's the effort to find new ideas?"

Zoli summed up the challenge and the opportunity in his closing remarks at the workshop, noting most barriers to change are self-imposed. "Let's stop talking about it and make something happen," he said.