Bart van Lieshout

Interlink – a commuters network

May 2011

Harvest professional comments, sharpen your views and improve your skills while you travel.

Every morning and evening a large group of the working population takes a seat in one of the many commuter trains and minds his or her own business for the duration of the trip. We have mobile devices to start on our emails, there are comprehensive reviews to be read and of course there is a generous offer of free newspapers to accompany the early morning coffee.

We all attempt to travel in our own bubble and mind our own business, if necessary helped by personal devices like ipods, pads and notebooks to occlude the other commuters in the compartment. I’m not a commuter myself anymore, but whenever I end up in one of these environments I always wonder what interesting professionals must be in the compartment with me. Or in the next compartment. Or in the train that just passed us. While everyone is cocooning, there must be many potentially intriguing discussions that never take place because we all do mind our own business so obsessively. How many professional views on a problem or ideas could not be sharpened by a conversation with someone who brings a completely new perspective on the matter? Imagine the policy maker from the ministry discussing the latest views on education improvement with a teacher commuting to work. Or with some students. Or even better, with a project manager from a software firm who has absolutely no affinity with education but has a rather clear understanding on how to implement changes in an organization that is not his own.


Clearly pollination could benefit all participants in broadening the view on a subject, but it could be rather annoying for those trying to mind their own business, reading the free newspaper and sipping the coffee from the kiosk. So it would help to facilitate this the possibility to have a genuine conversation without disturbing those who wish to live exclusively in their bubble.

And of course there is the problem of starting the discussion. Especially in an early morning commuter train the phrase “Hi there, I am a policymaker for the ministry of education. Does anyone have any ideas or views I could take into account?” would not lead to any constructive discussion I’m afraid. And such a bold invitation on criticism might require a rather unique policy maker as well!
It might be possible to grease the process by introducing a rather more personal motivation to start the conversation. For example, if you are planning an addition to your house, you might be interested to talk to an architect or builder to help you determine how to go about it. Or if you have a difficult situation with an employee, you might be motivated to discuss the options with someone in a similar position, but with another company. Well, there are countless personal motivations to start a conversation, if you would be sure you were sitting next to the right person…


And that is something fixable. Usually you don’t know who the person in front of you or next to you is. Peaking on the laptop screen might give you some sort of clue, but unless a revealing phone call helps you out, it might be weeks before you can pinpoint a strangers branch, company and position. Anonymity is great if you want it, but can be a real deal breaker for any conversation. I don’t think nameplates are a very elegant solution, so I was rather thinking of something that will help you to stay anonymous if you like, but enables you to join in conversations with other commuting professionals on more profound subjects than the weather.
The solution could be the Interlink club. Anyone traveling by train can become a member. As a member you can fill out a request on the Interlink website, or on one of the several apps that are available for different smartphone races.

As a member you can let the Interlink system know in which train you will be traveling, whether or not you are available for a conversation and in case you have a specific request of your own, with what kind of professional you would like to speak. Obviously the system can text you just before entering the train whether or not you will have a rendezvous with someone. If you indicated the need to speak to a builder regarding this new extension on your house the system can link you to a professional resembling your needs who will also be traveling on this train. In return, any day of the week you can be asked if you would speak to someone in need of a talk with a professional in your own line of work.

So by expressing your needs, interests and availability, the Interlink club will link you to someone to kick-start an interesting conversation, help you to find counseling for pending problems or put you next to a discussion on a topic you indicated to be interested in.

The commuters network

Now the only puzzle to solve is to get the linked persons on adjacent seats in the same compartment. To fix this, Interlink arranged the renumbering of the seats in the train compartment, as is still the custom in international trains. With a fixed number of reserved seats in all commuter trains, those who are linked for a conversation will have reserved seats waiting for them. Superfluous to note that this assurance of a reserved seat greatly boosted club-membership in the early days. Since the Interlink seats are grouped together the conversations hardly trouble those who travel in their personal cocoon with ipod, notebook or free newspaper.

Whether or not you want to stay anonymous or exchange business cards after the conversation set up via Interlink is entirely up to you.

Den Haag Crossroads train station

The Dutch Residence has an awkward positioning of train stations. A new station in the right place can solve all public transport irritations in one single gesture.

April 2011

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