Katie Walker, formerly of Hennepin County, was recently named director of MnDOT’s new Office of Research & Innovation (formerly the Research Services & Library section), a role in which Walker will lean on her experience leading organizational change at Hennepin County.
During her 20-year tenure with Hennepin County, Walker held a variety of roles, including Southwest Light Rail Transit (LRT) Project Manager, Southwest LRT Community Works Program Director, and Public Works Policy and Planning Manager. Most recently, Walker headed strategic initiatives for the county’s Center of Innovation and Excellence, whose mission is to “create a culture where research, innovation and analysis bridges today with tomorrow to improve the quality of life for residents.”
“Fostering a culture of innovation at MnDOT will involve supporting creative thinking, new ideas and customer-focused solutions. We want to find ways to celebrate and share how staff are innovating on a daily basis – small changes that culminate to have an astounding impact. This not only supports our core values, but it equips us to better respond to a changing transportation environment,” said Walker, whose early career included stints as a planner for MnDOT, Dakota County and the Metropolitan Council.
Elevating Innovation throughout MnDOT
The Office of Research & Innovation – which formerly consisted of the MnDOT Library and research administration functions under the Office of Transportation System Management – was elevated to an office this year to better reflect the breadth of research occurring across the agency and play a stronger role in spurring innovation, both within and outside the state research program.
“There has been an emphasis on innovation at a federal level, both at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Reflecting this at the state level provides us the channel to better showcase the innovative work being done here at MnDOT,” said Jean Wallace, Assistant Division Director of Modal Planning & Program Management, who spearheaded a research strategic plan culminating in the organizational change.
The Office of Research & Innovation will remain a resource for MnDOT staff, as well as city and county engineers, kick-starting research and shepherding projects to completion. At any given time, program staff administer approximately 190 research projects, ranging from local initiatives to pooled fund projects with other states. Research program staff will also continue to work hand-in-hand with the MnDOT Library to provide fast, relevant, and cost-effective answers to the state’s transportation questions.
Strategic Plan Recommendations
Other strategies recommended by the agency’s five-year Research Program Strategic Plan are also being implemented to improve how MnDOT conducts research and research implementation activities.
One recent outcome: Expanding the membership and responsibilities of the state research program’s steering committee, previously known as the Transportation Research and Innovation Group (TRIG). Historically charged with allocating state and federal transportation research funds, the steering committee will also now track and report on outcomes of research conducted across the agency, not just the projects it funds.
Another change: MnDOT staff will be able to apply for research implementation funds any time throughout the year—instead of through an annual solicitation—to advance a new technology or practice in their work area, projects that are usually based on the findings of past research. This change aims to increase successful adoption of research findings within the department.