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A storm of bike-sharing services seems to rage through European cities and has gained attention in both media and public debate. A good excuse for the TU Delft team part of Designscapes to sit down with colleague Deborah Nas, Professor of Strategic Design for Technology-based Innovation and Founding Partner of Sunidee, a strategic innovation agency, and learn from her professional experience with bike-sharing services, and more generally, to discuss the role of design in innovation in urban contexts. 

Pile of bikes from the bike sharing service company OBIke. Photo: TUD

How did you become the new Dutch bike-sharing professor? 

“I came across these bike-sharing services when I joined FlightCase, the IDE students’ intercontinental study trip, to China as a professor. When I came back, bike-sharing seemed to be upcoming in Dutch cities as well. Having the so-called “bike-sharing graveyards” in mind, I thought I should do something to avoid that these service implementations would also get out of hand and define our cityscape in an unpleasant way. However, once raising my voice led to another conversation and another, and eventually I ended up giving master classes on bike-sharing services to governments, start-ups, and many others.”

What can cities do to better anticipate the bike-sharing services introduction?  

“Interestingly, each city deals with bike-sharing services differently. The government of Amsterdam published their draft policy at the end of December. It is very well considered from a Government perspective, but it is top-down, no attention paid to the user and the consequences of their policy. If they would have used Design Thinking, and thus have taken the user into account, it would have been a more well-thought policy”. “Rotterdam said, we will make a policy, but until then we will allow bike-sharing services as long as the companies ‘behave’ and communicate well to the government. Therefore, companies take a different attitude because they know that if they don’t ‘behave’, they will not get a permit once the policy is in place.” During this urban experimentation, Rotterdam citizens have been actively communicating the problems that the bike-sharing services are creating in the city, like the excess of bikes from the sharing services and the lack of bike parking space they have caused. Deborah Nas explains that these issues are part of the transitional period that the bike-sharing services need to go through in their early implementation in the cities. “Before the whole system will work, there will be a transitional period, and people don’t like that. The idea is that in the end there will be less bicycles, however to get to that situation, they have to put a lot of extra bikes in the city, until people start to use the service regularly. Once this happens, bike ownership will naturally be reduced to one bike per person”.

Other cities are currently thinking in long term scenarios of implementing bike-sharing services in their cities. “We are currently working with the biggest cities in Brabant to define a roadmap for bike-sharing. So, how should they deal with bike-sharing to make sure that they guide things in the right direction. The roadmap visualises the objectives for the governments to work with bike-sharing, the different types of bike-sharing solutions that are available, and within those different types, overtime, what type of pilots will they do to experiment and learn and evolve into a successful bike-sharing system.” Design thinking tools, such as roadmapping, are helping these cities approach the implementation of bike-sharing services from a user, or citizen, perspective, as well as from a government one. “Thinking from a user perspective doesn’t come natural to the governments. Design thinking agencies, for example, can help them with that by training them in designerly ways of including the user or as facilitators to help them use tools such as the roadmap.”

What would you say are the reasons why bike-sharing services are encountering challenges in their implementation in cities?

Regarding the challenges that the bike-sharing companies are facing, Nas stresses that it is a matter of logistics and company structure. “Bike-sharing companies function as start-ups, they have money from investors to buy big amounts of bikes and roll-out internationally. Their focus is on scaling up, so they count number of users and number of bikes, but they still do not measure well what are active bikes and which ones are disappearing through the back door of the system”. These “disappeared” bikes are those broken or taken away from the streets and are currently being placed in what has received the name of “bike-sharing graveyards”. These bikes are not being collected or fixed by the companies who own them. “They just rollout new bikes, and that is a major flaw in their business model; it is a huge waste of capital and resources and it is of course not sustainable”. Nas explains that this happens because the logistics needed around these services, in this case, more people repairing bikes, are still not properly set up. “In China, nobody was biking anymore, everybody was using the car, and what the bike-sharing services enabled in China was for people to go back to using bikes, and that worked very well. But because nobody was biking there was no bicycle repairs anymore, so all the bicycle maintenance and repair system, the logistics around it, was not well set up.” However, as highlighted by Nas, we are still in the beginning of a transitional period towards successful implementation of bike-sharing services around the globe. It could be that in the long term, the need of bike-sharing services for local systems such as bike repair and maintenance, might enhance “urban import replacement”, as coined by Jane Jacobs, in the different cities where they are introduced.

What are the benefits of injecting and diffusing design in product-push innovations? 

While Nas is seeing how certain Design Thinking tools are being used in the public sector, she also reflects on how a more user-centered approach would have helped bike-sharing services handle better the challenges of innovating in the urban context. “If you look at the “Lean start-up” method, the main difference with Design Thinking is that in the latter you put the user at the core. What the Lean start-up method proposes is, basically, you have an idea, then start building, launch, measure data, improve, learn; all data driven, but the real understanding of the user or consumer insights is lacking. Also the multi-stakeholder approach is lacking. Only the user that is generating data, is taken into account, no others involved. They say Lean start-up is a user-centered method, but it is not, it is a product-centered method.”

What are the next steps for the successful introduction of bike-sharing services in our cities?

In the city of Delft, the next steps towards implementing successfully a bike-sharing service are being taken. “We recently started a pilot in Delft with Mobike, one of the big bike-sharing companies from China. They will launch their new bike, with bigger wheels to better suit the European cyclist. Over the next few years I expect to see a lot of new bike designs, specifically designed to accommodate the needs of sharing services and more ergonomic for the European market.”

As an interesting case example of innovation in the urban context, at Designscapes we are curious to see how these bike-sharing services take shape as part of the Dutch cities, and the role strategic design professionals, such as Nas, can have in enabling these innovations through design. For sure, Design Thinking capabilities in public sector and start-ups embracing a human-centered mindset are important assets to guarantee economic growth.