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Re-imagining the Postal Service

design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. You may have heard that...

design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine.

You may have heard that the U.S. Postal Service is requesting from Congress that it be allowed to cut Saturday delivery in order to save costs. The USPS is on track to lose $7 billion this year and have a $238 billion deficit over the next 10. Clearly it needs to do something radically different, and continuing to increase postage a few pennies while at the same time it drops services is not going to cut it. Look how well that strategy has worked for newspapers.

The USPS has got itself into the position that the telecom companies are worried about getting into: They became a “bit-pipe.” That is, they have an expensive infrastructure that isn't seen as valuable by customers, who only care about the content that the infrastructure passes along. That's a fancy way of saying that the Postal Service is undervalued. Furthermore, much of what the USPS now delivers, such as unsolicited catalogs, sales brochures, and credit-card offers, would be classified as spam if it were email. They have become overly dependent for revenue on their least-liked customers (junk-mail companies), which is a dangerous position to be in if you want to command loyalty and profits.

Having said that, the USPS has a number of things going for it: It services a nationwide network of people, many of whom are walking and driving every single road, alley and freeway in the country, all day, almost every day; it owns nationwide network of physical assets: buildings, planes, trucks, trains, and mailboxes; it enjoys a one to one connection with every single household and person in the country, each of which gets visited almost every 24 hours by postal workers who are familiar with the neighborhoods and communities; it has a reputation as a caretaker of private information, and is a trusted transmission method of sensitive information. (In 1958, the Hope diamond—then valued at $1 million—was delivered to the Smithsonian museum via parcel post.)

On the other hand, the postal service also has a number of things working against it: It has a reputation for indifferent and sometimes poor customer service; it is perceived has having a stodgy culture that has not adapted to the times (or has been regulated out of doing so by Congress); it has a limited set of revenue streams.

So what could the Postal Service do to innovate itself out of its budget gap and re-imagine itself for the 21st century? I posed the question to my clever colleagues at frog design and received an overwhelming number of ideas, much more than I can include here. Here are a few starter provocations:

Service Innovation

Does everyone need mail more than once a week? Like many people today, most of my time-critical communications come by email. I really don’t need to pick up Pottery Barn catalogs and monthly bills every day. The post office ought to allow people to opt-in to getting mail delivered just once a week, and then use the savings to cut costs and invest in new services.

Most of what the USPS delivers is shelf-stable. Let’s turn that on its head: Why not get into the grocery delivery business and take that off the hands of grocery stores? How about being a diaper service? Frog designer Dave Chiu suggests the USPS be a check-in service for shut-in seniors, or be a service that specializes on local customized delivery for Craigslist or eBay purchases. Home prescription deliveries is something else the company could do.

Fleet Innovation

With its massive infrastructure reach and its fleet of 142,000 vehicles, it could be doing some really interesting things that few others can accomplish. The company vehicles could serve as sensors for contextual information about traffic and weather—not an income generator perhaps, but a great opportunity to build the brand.

Or why not put Google Street View cameras on top of mail trucks and charge Google for it? Frog designer Michael McDaniel says, “Imagine what we could do with continuously updated imagery of every street in America.” Dave Chiu suggests mounting cameras pointed at the ground on postal trucks which could record conditions of roads and catch potholes as they appeared.

Dean Kakridas and Eric Burns both suggest shifting the Postal fleet to alternative fuels or electricity. This will reduce costs, drive more adoption in the private sector, and help speed up more electric vehicle infrastructure like charging stations,. Plus, this would be a great example of the government leading by example. In fact, there is already a proposal to begin converting the fleet to electric vehicles, and tests are underway.

Facilities Innovation

With buildings located in every community in the country, the USPS could become a competitive “last mile” provider of electronic information. They could set up wide-range, high-speed wi-max transmitters on post offices and become an ubiquitous wireless broadband provider.

Dean suggests the USPS could learn from the partnerships places like Starbucks have created with the likes of Target, Walmart, or Costco. They could offer to place locations inside these one-stop shopping centers to make it more efficient for people to take care of their postal needs.

Civic pride

I was surprised at the patriotic feelings that the Postal Service inspired in my colleagues. Frog’s founder, Hartmut Esslinger, argues that the Postal Service serves an integrative function: “I think that the biggest challenge is the required balance between a big social responsibility (connecting people) and the cost, which shouldn’t be linked to profitability as the first goal. USPS is one of our society’s ingredients.”

With our society increasingly splintered, we should cherish any institutions that offer possibilities for creating cohesion. Stephanie Chen sees the Postal Service as a political institution akin to libraries—it democratizes communication for all people, while private services like FedEx only have to cater to the high end of the market.

The postal brand is pretty battered and old-hat these days, but perhaps it’s not too late to save it. Perhaps it could reconstitute itself by playing a larger role in the community, Dave Chiu suggests. Local postal workers could help with organizing neighborhoods, and provide a centralized means of community messaging. Perhaps local post offices could serve as conduits from neighborhoods to local, regional, and federal governments.

These ideas are surely just a start. What do you think the Postal Service should do to re-imagine itself?

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