Intelligent Transportation Systems: A niche transportation course from a business school

Prof. Sundaravalli Narayanaswami

I am a transportation enthusiast. In my PhD thesis at IIT Bombay, I had proposed three models (MILP, heuristics and AI-based intelligent agents) for rescheduling disrupted railway traffic. I also had the models tested on a small section of the Indian Railways (IR). Later, I was recruited as a faculty member and transportation specialist in the Public Systems Group at IIMA. One of the first elective courses I taught the PGP students was Rail Transportation Planning and Management (RTPM). RTPM was designed and jointly taught in collaboration with Professor Raghuram and was well received. Since then, RTPM's content has been updated. RTPM is entirely focused on IR: How IR, as a large public service organisation, manages its operations; challenges in planning and managing the core and noncore activities; finances, social challenges, policy decisions and PPPs unique to state infrastructure projects. RTPM is multidisciplinary and draws significantly from some of the first-year core courses. While teaching RTPM, I felt the need to communicate the advanced developments in the transport sector. However, it did not have any additional space or scope. Also, I felt there was enough content to develop a full-fledged course on advancements in the transport sector and that too purely from a management perspective. That was the genesis of my elective course, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which I teach in term V of the academic year.

To design the course, I did a lot of background research. I browsed several course outlines from all the top universities teaching transportation and specifically ITS. Most of these courses were from engineering schools; therefore, the coverage was on aspects related to civil construction, vehicular technology, computational studies and information and communication technology. One outline covered systemic aspects at a very macro level. This background research gave me enough clarity on what I would like to teach and not to teach as ITS at IIMA, and I crossed my first hurdle.

Being professionally relevant to my audience is an essential aspect of my portfolio of activities. The course ITS was primarily intended as an elective course for the PGP-2 students, who are young, aspirational and very competitive. Their most sought-after career path is consultancy. In the consultancy space, infrastructure-related projects, urban space planning and modern transportation are gaining tremendous attention in India and worldwide and understandably so, as the investments are very high and managerial challenges are unique with significant prospects based on technological innovations. As an example, traffic congestion is a global issue. Both developed and developing countries suffer traffic congestion in similar measures. What are the ways by which congestion can be resolved will spin off numerous answers. However, to understand the context and propose effective and pragmatic solutions, one needs to have a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving. Some background of traffic infrastructure design and development, the potential of technology elements, comparison between civil transport and ITS traffic infrastructures, financial impact, cost-benefit analysis, pricing, policy implications, PPP structuring, measuring the efficacy of transport solutions are all pertinent. We cover all these topics in our ITS course.

The learning objectives of ITS can be broadly listed as follows: Which solution is appropriate in a given context? Can technological advancements simplify how we deal with a crisis? How to deal with the multiple stakeholders involved in a task? How to propose/sell a model to the state agencies? How do you develop a business proposition for implementing an innovative technology? What financial implications should be considered? What are the social impact considerations? What is the government's role in the policy planning of these developments?

The course is designed based on case pedagogy, and all the above topics are covered using recently written cases from India and abroad. Another interesting aspect of ITS is the field visit component. We have 15 sessions of classroom discussions and a field visit, considered equivalent to a workload of five classroom sessions. In earlier offerings, I have taken the students to BRTS Ahmedabad (control room operations), Ahmedabad International Airport (ATC and OCC), Mumbai International Airport, Mumbai Port Trust and JNPT, depending on administrative feasibility. Once, I managed to take a smaller group of students to Dubai Metro OCC. The learning value from the field visits is immense; students could observe the relevance of classroom discussions and greatly appreciate the criticality of operations.

Last but not least is the course evaluation. I emphasise that a course evaluation should be considered as another learning component and no more, no less! In the earlier offerings, I have assigned a combination of a course project, whitepaper writing, module reflections, assignments based on field visits and, of course, class participation. Some would be teamwork, and others were to be completed as individual tasks. Evaluations are primarily open-ended, wherein the students are given enough liberty to choose topics of their interest under the broader umbrella of ITS. The ideal class size for me is 30, although I have once accommodated 50 students in my class. I am also very particular about returning the graded work quickly. So far, I have managed to complete my assessments and return course grading rapidly. Touchwood!

Delivering ITS is a very gratifying experience for me, every year. It is a pleasure, privilege and honour to discuss my passion with a group of smart, hyperenthusiastic bright minds of the country. The feedback is usually very positive; students would remark that they had fun doing the course and talk at length about their most favourite case. Inspired by the classroom experience, I have extended the course to executive education programmes. During the last year, the course was offered in online mode due to the pandemic. We had a focused group of international participants from the core transportation domain. Most professionals working in ITS lack formal education in the field, and they acquire tricks of the trade as on-the-job training. The usefulness of the course was reassuring for me, as the participants found the course incredibly insightful. Delivering the course to a practitioner audience also helps me consolidate my insights into the field and keeps me abreast of the most recent developments and global challenges. As a final remark, I would like to iterate that the course is undoubtedly niche and unique in higher education. IIMA is the only management school offering the ITS course from a business perspective using case pedagogy in their flagship programme.

About The Author

Prof. Sundaravalli Narayanaswami

Prof. Sundaravalli Narayanaswami

PhD (Industrial Engineering & Operations Research), MTech (Computer Science), BE (Electronics and Communication)