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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Mornings Become Electric

If you happen to find yourself in any major urban centre from about 4am onwards, there’s one unifying feature no matter where you are in the world: vans.

Although the size and shape may vary – from the delightful but filthy Paggio Apes in Italy to the vast Ford Econolines found across the USA – every day, across the world hundreds of thousands of commercial vehicles ply the streets of cities and towns making hundreds of short-hop voyages as they make their rounds.

While their necessity is undoubted, the negative impact of these often diesel-powered vehicles on the urban environment is likewise indisputable. It was therefore heartening to hear of the Movement Design Bureau’s new project investigating the potential for electrification of urban delivery fleets.

As Joe and Vinay explain in the introductory video, the limited range, short-hop nature of a typical delivery van’s usage cycle makes it an ideal candidate for electrification using currently available technology. No finicky lithium ions or expensive fast charging required.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the positive impacts of a wide scale electrification of urban delivery vehicles could be huge and MBD, over the next few months, will be looking into how such a program could be implemented and, importantly, whether White Van Man is ready to ditch the dino-fuel.

Head over to Re*Move to watch the video and keep up to date with how the project is developing.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons, butchered by Andrew Philip Artois Smith]

Update: Sue Cischke, meet Drew Smith. And Dan and Amy and Robb too!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7mj29xxH6o&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

Now with a 10 minute highlights reel of the original 40 minute interview

Last week I was offered the enormous privilege of taking part in a project being run by Joe Simpson and Mark Charmer of the Movement Design Bureau. They’ve been tasked with looking at the perception of Ford’s sustainability message, from top to bottom and inside out. Having watched the project develop over the last few months, I leapt at the chance to be involved.

I was asked to review Joe and Mark’s interview with Sue Cischke, Ford’s group Vice President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering and provide my observations based on what I heard. Given Sue’s long and illustrious history in the industry, it wasn’t a task I took lightly. My take on things now been published for the world (and Ford) to read and I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction.

It wasn’t all about me, however, and I commend you to read the fantastic contributions from Dan Stuges, of Intrago, and Amy Johannigman and Robb Hunter from the University of Cincinnati’s storied Department of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning.

One of the really exciting aspects of  this project is that 4 people have come together and drawn three different, but highly related (and, in my view, relevant) conclusions from Joe and Mark’s interview with Sue.

Although small in scale, the process amply demonstrates the power of the internet to enable collaboration and connection between geographically dispersed stake-holders, something that Clay Shirky talked about to great effect in his 2005 presentation at TED.

Head over to Re*Move to see the other critiques, plus a whole lot more on the Ford project.

Lost in Translation: The Running Joke

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As I’ve stated before, having to rely on Google Translate can provide some pretty humorous moments in my daily web trawl.

The latest piece of translatory tomfoolery comes courtesy of Der Spiegel and the butt of the joke is that that braying, wounded beast General Motors and their new partner in Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility, Segway.

The headline of the article is Der fahrende Witz which translates as The Running Joke.

It’s a harsh blow – one of a few on the tubes yesterday – to the new partnership which proposes a 2-seater Segway as an urban mobility solution (head over to Re*Move for more in-depth coverage of the product itself). Sadly, however, it neatly sums up GM’s PR probleme du jour: they can’t do anything right.

From the sidelining of Saab – the European brand with arguably the best claim to a progressive eco image -, rocking up to congress in the company jet, the soporific Volt launch schedule and even the cancelling of the EV-1 project (which is coming back to bite them in the bum as a reminder of how GM “hates” innovation and panders to the oil companies), there is such an air of desperate ignorance that when GM does get something right, it’s now seen as nothing more than a cynical attempt to polish the turd that is their corporate image. Travesties like the Terrain only add insult to injury.

Well P.U.M.A is one initiative we shouldn’t kick while GM is down. Even if it does smell (just a little) of a desperate “Here’s one we prepared earlier!” manoeuvre, GM needs to be roundly applauded for proposing such a decidedly non-car solution to urban transport. However, as my mate Joe points out, success will hinge on P.U.M.A’s implementation as a service, not a product.

So three cheers to GM for fighting on and leveraging innovation as a way out of this funk and let’s give them whatever encouragement they need to become a sustainable mobility provider.

Head over to Re*Move for the complete run-down and in-depth analysis.

[Cheers to BonBon for the tip] [Image: Segway]

(Over)supply, (Shrinking) demand and a way to deal with it

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Read a fantastic article yesterday penned by former CIA analyst Tom Whipple. In it he looks at the current state of the American auto industry and the very real impact of peak oil.

The most salient point is this:

In the next few years, oil prices are going up so high that ownership and use of the automobiles and trucks in their present form will be a totally uneconomic proposition. How many of the current flavor of cars and trucks is Detroit going to sell with gasoline at $10 a gallon or higher?

The U.S. already has some 250 million 2-axle motor vehicles (cars, light trucks, vans) running around and sitting in traffic jams (and only 200 million licensed drivers). With some tender care and adequate spare parts, this inventory easily could be useful for another 20 or 30 years considering how much less they are going to be driven once gas prices go up. Even the most optimistic do not see how there will be much oil around for powering private cars 25 years from now.

When one considers that we already have in operation more than enough cars and trucks with low mileage internal combustion engines to last us through the rest of the oil age, the only logical thing to do is to stop making more. That’s right — stop building and selling anything that consumes liquid fuels at anywhere near the rate consumed by our current fleet of vehicles.

Ties in nicely with the point I made two weeks ago in Sexy Old Mercs, Brand Building and Platform 21’s Repair Manifesto doesn’t it?

Tom goes on to discuss what Detroit should be doing to secure it’s medium and long-term future, acknowledging the phenomenal negative impact that the complete collapse of the American car industry would have on the economy, not to mention the America psyche.

Essentially he advocates an almost immediate halt in the production of vehicles getting less than 30mpg, much stricter (read 100 mpg) economy standards and the transition of the massive government fleets to natural gas. He also discusses the conversion of the existing passenger car fleet to at least partial electric power.

I must admit that this last point seems like a lot of ball ache for only a small improvement (this also happens to be my long-term view of production hybrids although I recognise their important transitional role). Surely a subsidised electric conversion programme would be a better bet? Especially if I could get my hands on one of these.

Happily, at no point does he discuss scrapping perfectly good cars that only need a little helping hand to keep them running in a more appropriate fashion.

Anyway, enough from me. It’s a great, well balanced article that’s well worth five minutes of your time.

[The Peak Oil Crisis: Seize the Moment found via The American Energy Crisis Image: Driek]

Quote of the Day

“This is a non-rational business. It’s not irrational. But it’s not necessary for anyone to get a new car—almost ever.”

Jerry Hirshberg, former president of Nissan Design International

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When Jerry Hirshberg uttered these words in an interview with Gary Vasilash of Automotive Design and Production back in 2002 he was fresh from taking part in a highly successful product renaissance at Nissan. He was at the height of his powers: making consumers fall in love with a product that they didn’t need.

Hirshberg was the guy that, when Nissan had sunk to a financial and creative low in the late 90’s, suggested reviving the Z. Clearly he knows how to pull at consumer heart strings to get a return on investment.

I don’t think we will ever eviscerate emotion from the car/human equation but what if the emotions we feel in relation to cars change? Imagine, for a minute, if automotive brands could no longer leverage power, size, opulence and selfishness as their emotional draw cards, but instead had to appeal with intelligence, authenticity, longevity and real value. Read the rest of this entry »

Sexy Old Mercs, Brand Building and Platform 21’s Repair Manifesto

The recent news that Mercedes – Benz is starting a German pilot programme to resell what are known in Germany as Youngtimers (cars too young to be considered bona fide classics, but too old to be uninteresting) was music to my ears. That they would be selling cars from the hey day of Mercedes engineering and build quality, the years 1970 to 1990, only turned up the volume.

I immediately started compiling an imaginary list of what I would buy if my pockets contained anything more than lint. On it you would have found the following:

  1. A ’79 500 SLC, a little known rally homologation special with a lightened body and a wonderfully rumbly V8 under the bonnet
  2. An ’88 190E 2.5-16 Cosworth, the less chavvy alternative to an E30 BMW M3
  3. Two W124 E-Classes, a 300CE-24 Sportline (the discreet alternative to AMG) and a 500E sedan, built by hand at Porsche’s Zuffenhausen plant
  4. A W116 450 SEL 6.9… Ok, you get the point, I have an unhealthy obsession with a certain era of Mercs.

Once I got my daydreaming out of the way I realised what a canny move this is. Read the rest of this entry »

Best in show: VW Polo

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Yes, you read that correctly. My personal star of the Geneva Show is a thoroughly vanilla B Segment competitor from Europe’s most conservative mainstream manufacturer. It may sound perverse but the Polo won my heart on a couple of fronts and it manages to comprehensively nail the zeitgeist in the process. Read the rest of this entry »

NGOs, SUVs and a useful student project

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I recently commented on the dearth of useful, innovative concepts at student transport design shows, in particular at the Pforzheim winter show I visited in February.

Today I read this blog posting (found via Twitter) from Stephanie over at From Kala. She’s a project manager for an NGO, working in a refugee camp in Zambia and her observations gave me a flash of inspiration for a socially oriented student project.

Stephanie outlined the problems that the use of SUVs present for both those working for NGOs and those being helped by them. In brief they are:

1. SUVs foster an “us and them” or “developer and developee” mentality by elevating and separating the NGO employees from those that they are meant to be protecting and assisting.

2. SUVs have a destructive effect on the minimal transport infrastructure that exists between the refugee camps and town centres. The problem is exacerbated in the rainy season when the combination of the SUVs ability to ride roughshod over already poor roads and the saturation of the roadbed leads to potholes that make it almost impossible for local vehicles, mostly bicycles and regular cars, to pass. Putting the parlous state of the roads and the gap this creates between the outsiders and the locals in perspective, Stephanie says:

“If I hitch a ride in one of these white monsters, it takes us about 25 minutes to drive to the camp. If I hire a taxi… , it takes more than an hour, nearly as long as it takes to bike.”

Clearly SUVs will have some benefits in these environments but the social and infrastructural impacts of their use makes me wonder if there isn’t a smarter solution than using an off-the-shelf SUV product.

To actively encourage transport design students to pursue a project that looks deeply at both social context and appropriate product fit is, in my experience, pretty unusual. In the product design realm, it’s a different story however. Case in point is Play Made Energy, initiated by Dan Sheridan.

A Coventry University MDes (product) student, Dan recently completed his major project with the assistance of Aventure, a charity and volunteer placement enterprise, to develop power-generating play equipment for a community in Uganda. He’s now secured funding from a consortium of investors and a local innovation investment initiative that will allow his company to start implementing the product on a broader scale within Ugandan schools, in partnership the the Build A School charity.

Obviously, designing an SUV replacement is a task of significantly greater complexity, and one that is unlikely to have such an immediate impact, but Dan’s example shows that well-considered work at the student level can have far-reaching effects, not least on the student themselves. Dan himself talks of the difficulties and rewards of having undertaken such a project but his success is testament to his growth as a designer who is increasingly aware of his social responsibilities.

A socially oriented project can only be helpful for the transport designers of the future by requiring them to deeply consider the consequences of their work. It would also help them understand real-world contexts as opposed to those that are created to support the Utopian vision of gran turismos, extreme off-road vehicles and track specials that continue, by and large, to fill the halls of student exhibitions.

So, those of you out there in design education, what do you think? Is this something you’d like to take on, or do you know of university transport design programs already dealing with broader social issues? If so, myself and the NGO community would love to hear from you.

[Image: John & Mel Kots]

Retour ahead: shifting the personal mobility paradigm

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Mark Charmer over at Re*Move has just published a great piece on the current state of the car industry and offers a suggestion as to where it might head in order to survive.

Most interesting was Mark’s observation about the generational change in attitudes towards owning cars:

New technologies change how and why we move, too… . Today, our lives are often half physical, half virtual. The Facebook generation has new ways to demonstrate its individuality without buying a Clio or a Focus or an MX-5. We interact differently and spend differently – and this is going to change more in future than it has already.

This change in modes of expression and the subsequent impact on mobility and spending patterns is something I’ve recently debated at length.

Some have suggested that we need to find ways to get current and future generations to fall in love with buying cars again. It’s argued that the creation of new automotive icons will once again make owning a car desirable, similar to the effect of the Model T, Beetle, 2CV and Golf in the 20th century. Although the positive impact of mass personal mobilisation can not be underestimated, it was the unchecked expansion of an ownership model that has contributed to our current environmental and financial predicament.

I’ve been arguing that we need to move to a more democratic model of distributed ownership or rental. Mark further consolidates and builds on this argument. In doing so, he calls for the design community at large to join in and effect fundamental change on the personal mobility paradigm. It’s an exciting proposition that still takes into account our love of personal mobility while minimising the negatives.

Head on over to Re*Move to check out the rest.

[Photo: Mark Charmer]

Golf VII to Downsize: Told you so!

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I was asked early last year what my opinion was on the future of the C Segment and what I believed then is what I still belive now: C Segment cars are too big, too space inefficient and, crucially, too heavy.

My conclusion was that any forward thinking manufacturer would take a similar approach to the one Mazda took when redesigning the 2: downsize and lighten up.

Following this assertion, I had a period of wondering if it would come true as each successive C Segment preview and launch continued the trend for bloat. Even Mazda, who has lead the recent focus on generational weight management let their game slip with the new 3.

Well it looks like VW is taking the lead with rumours pointing to a lighter, smaller MK VII Golf for 2012. The Golf has been one of the clearest indicators of C Segment bloat and to see a Mk 1 GTi parked next to a Mk V R32 is to understand why that later car needs 250ps and an Arabian oil field to be fun. It weighs 1612 Kg for pity’s sake! So talk of a smaller platform, lighter materials and a focus on small-capacity engines with amazing HCCI technology was music to my ears.

Having observed with wonder as VW’s engineers sent to market paragons of capability such as the Veyron and mental engines such as a V5, W12 and V10 TDi, it’s clear the intelligence is there. It’s seems it’s now being directed in a thoroughly useful, more sustainable direction.

[Source: Auto Express Image: Wiki Commons]

About DownSideUp Design

I'm Drew Smith and I'm an ethnographer and strategist. By day I shape culture and strategy at Westpac. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I help teams host an event called Rising Minds in London, New York, Toronto and Sydney.

DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. All views represented here are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of anyone else.

Get in touch at drewpasmith (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.