Since his departure in 2009 from BMW as chief of design, he has been working with creative design teams across the globe to investigate new concepts in what he calls Personal Emotional Mobility and how we can achieve meaning within our everyday mobility experiences – beyond 
what we know today.

Bangle thrives on provoking challenging discussions about Personal Emotional Mobility and the way we are going to use design to make the world a better place.

In June this year this enigmatic designer took a brief break from his very busy schedule to talk to Curve – a month prior to his keynote presentation at the State of Design Festival in Melbourne. Have issues of personal and urban mobility always been a passion of yours? (If so, what drives this passion?)

I would like to quote Klaus Capitza – head of the BMW ZT Design Department (and personally penned the 850) – who once said, “I am interested in anything that moves”. I would add to that “and anything that moves me or you emotionally as well!”
Sorry if that doesn’t narrow the field much, but when you have one of those ‘10 miles-wide, 2 inches-deep’ sort of minds then that is how your passion is aroused. Common curiosity and a need to find the ‘why’ behind the phenomenon are the sort of catalysts for investigation that are no doubt driving me in my search for answers.

But the fuel may well be the pure enjoyment of the creative act, which is why I usually carry a sketch book (I recommend stuffing it down the back of the pants – a good way to have it handy when the wife takes you shopping and abandons you in some corner of a store) ready to take notes and draw impressions from anything I encounter. My motto is: Take notes on life; there will be a test afterwards!

Where is your work into the future of urban mobility and personal mobility headed at the moment?

I am still working with students concerning the future of Personal Emotional Mobility, to take the name from the research project about the year 2050 that I headed for the Design Singapore Council recently and many of the spin-off effects.

This summer I will be teaching a short car-design workshop at the Scuola Politecnica di Design (SPD) in Milan on ‘non-constant surfacing’ – which begins with the question: Why do Modernist buildings look so bad when they are dirty but the Baroque ones still look good? – and will then proceed to challenge our notions of the hows and whys of a shiny metal car.

GINA, the BMW fabric concept car famous on YouTube, has became a cornerstone of my design philosophy and is still quite relevant to my work. I am looking for a partner institution somewhere in the world to make the first GINA laboratory to explore the GINAesque flexibility of mindset and processes, as well as the implications of letting materials ‘do the talking’ – all with the goal of empowering design and manufacturing with new ways to improve our lives.

There is already industry interest in funding such a place for innovation, but the combination of the right academic environment and partnerships has yet to come together.

On my own I am looking into a couple of related innovations. My interest in rapid prototyping becoming the reality of rapid manufacturing continues unabated. I was recently a judge at a student design competition for such technologies in Germany.

I see this as a means to allow indigenous design of all sorts to find a meaningful role in the lives of people separated by culture and distance. Design is the mediator between people and their world, and we cannot afford to disenfranchise anyone on this planet.

Modernism has unfortunately skewed our image of the look and feel of the stuff humankind makes into a ‘Eurocentric, Euclidean-geometry, others-need-not-apply’ sort of tunnel-vision. What we don’t know about we usually don’t care about, and what better way to know a culture than to give it a voice in the DNA of design?

Robotics is also a big theme to consider and I am sure it will impact on our daily lives with mounting frequency. I have also done some background research on the issue of the iconic taxi for New York, studying the link between the decision of municipalities to adopt one-way street systems (pretty much what NYC is) for better traffic control and a resultant improvement in the package layout of automobiles (by making the centre driving position the standard layout – it works best in a taxi, of course).

And then there is PiNk!, the really fascinating study of what the purpose (not the function or the use or the performance-capability) of things and contexts in our lives should be when technological capabilities accelerate beyond where they are today. I had a great time with students and the team of Dr Carlo Ratti at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the notion of PiNk!

I learnt (and keep on learning) from the experience I had with them. Along with GINA, PiNk! is the basis of a design philosophy I am putting into practice with my associates as well.

Rethinking urban mobility seems an enormous task. Where and how is the best way to start this process?

Start by asking yourself about the stakeholders involved in urban mobility and what their interests are. Then look at the reality behind the dogma in everything. For the Personal Emotional Mobility 2050 project we challenged ourselves with the question: Just what is a car anyway?

We broke it up into the most basic of components and decided to give them lives of their own. In a future world where ‘sharing’ will become the necessary foundation for every user-scenario, the disadvantages of leaving all the major components wedded together becomes readily apparent.

Think of the PC revolution; it came about when the everyman had the ability to separate the software (what the thing does) from the hardware (what it does it with). Why should cars be any different?

For years we have talked about separating the often short-lived ‘software’ of a car (what the thing does: “I am a pick-up” or “I am a cabrio”, etc) from the ‘hardware’ that it does it with: the drive-train and mechanics that are built to go 400 000 km, whether you would like to change the software in three months or not!

Our team took this idea a bit further and really broke the car down into part-shared, part-private elements. But there is much more to discover after we begin to free our minds from the comfort zones that are anchoring us to a vanishing past.

What are the biggest barriers to new concepts and ideas in urban or personal mobility becoming a reality?

About sixty years ago Walt Kelly, the creator of the cartoon strip POGO, said: “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

No one wants to bear the price tag of change and, to be honest, we have all profited from amazingly cheap transportation in the recent past.

This is not just linked to oil prices, but to the mindset we consumers have of what a car must do and how much we are willing to pay for it. All of us who are expecting to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions are the brakes on the train of innovation and progress.

Cars carry huge hidden costs in order to come up to our standards and expectations, things we don’t want to pay for but expect to have: like pedestrian safety, to name a recent example. Of course, no one will argue against having cars safer and safer and even safe enough to cover for us when we make a mistake, but does anyone expect to see that show up on the price tag?

That is a small example of adding safety and every year customers are willing to pay a bit extra for cars to be safer. But these hidden costs increase much faster and eventually the margin becomes very, very, thin – and suddenly when gas jumps in price the industry is under water.

Of course, I know there are inefficiencies and other macro issues at stake. Still, given our current buying habits it is hard to imagine finding another financial source that will intervene. Kelly’s quote is more apt now than ever, I am afraid. Citing another American, Mark Twain: “I am all for progress, it’s change I can’t stand!”

That is why I believe the way to open space in the business model for innovation is to either take something out of the car (separate the components) or drastically rethink it – like using ultra-low investment GINA processes, for example.

Design can be the big player if it’s allowed to be. For instance, since the painting process is the number-one energy eater in the assembly plant, maybe non-shiny cars could be made interesting and attractive enough to save us all something? That is part of the motivation for the Milano class in ‘non-constant surfacing’.

Hey, it only takes one workshop to start a revolution!  

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