Unexpected perspectives provide a new outlook on mobility

Today our mobility system is mainly dominated by the car. A large part of urban space is reserved for roads and parking. If a particular spot becomes too crowded, we widen the roads. We try to make cities as convenient as possible for motorists. Technology plays an increasingly important role in this. “Efficiency is always the starting point here. We want to get from a to b as quickly as possible,” says Rob Adams, curator of the Embassy of Urban Mobility. “But in many improvements, we forget about people. Mobility is not just about getting people from a to b. It’s also about bringing people together, about social aspects and having fun.”

Type Update
Published on 10 November 2022
Part of Embassy of Mobility
Unexpected perspectives provide a new outlook on mobility
Part of Embassy of Mobility

To really implement changes in our mobility, different perspectives are needed. These new perspectives surfaced during the Embassy of Urban Mobility’s conference held during Dutch Design Week 2022. “That’s why we are organising a conference on mobility without mobility experts,” says Adams. “Experts often look at data and events from the past. But that is of no use if you want to shape the future. Then you need new perspectives.” Which is why three experts from other fields shared their perspectives on the future of mobility. They focus on nature, happiness and how we can break through systems to really bring about change. The conference was opened by Monique Esselbrugge, Alderman Mobility at Municipality of Eindhoven.

Saskia van den Muisenberg - credits: about.today

Nature as an advanced lab

Take nature; people can still learn a lot from nature. After all, the Earth has been around for billions of years. Humanity has only been on the planet for a fraction of that time. “Nature is the most advanced lab” is how Saskia van den Muijsenberg begins her keynote on biomimicry. “When it comes to innovations, we often look at the events during and after the industrial revolution. But that is only a short time ago if you look at the whole existence of the Earth. Nature also had billions of years to develop itself before mankind came along. We can learn a lot from that.”

Products such as cars, bicycles and aeroplanes are already based on elements from nature. Think, for example, of a car with the aerodynamics of a fish or a bicycle frame with the structure and sturdiness of a bird’s nest. “Nature is incredibly smart,” continues Van den Muijsenberg. Human engineers and designers have spent centuries wracking their brains over an efficient road network, which still hasn’t quite worked out. Single-celled organisms, a kind of slime, can navigate their way through a maze optimally, even without possessing a brain. The slime tries out all possible routes, makes a kind of map and from there puts together the most optimal route. Van den Muijsenberg: “We humans can learn a lot from such organisms.”

Nature is smarter than computers

Or what do you think of the sensor system of birds that fly together in large groups? “The birds never bump into each other in the air. A car manufacturer once did research into this phenomenon and how it could possibly help the car industry further. Only our computers were not yet sufficiently developed at that time to replicate the activity of the birds,” she outlines as one of the many examples. “Can we make our systems, infrastructure and buildings in the same way that nature does? Just as sophisticated and generous?”

We need a movement

Thinking more along the lines of nature could lead to big changes. But how will we actually implement those changes in the rigid systems we are currently dealing with? “For big changes, you need a movement, a different mindset. The entire chain of organisations and companies must contribute to that change; if one link fails, it won’t work,” said Sune Knudsen, COO of the Danish Design Centre, in his speech at the conference. 

What makes it even more difficult: when it comes to the future, no one has the right answer. “We have to try, test and see what works. Mistakes will be made along the way. We should not be afraid of that, but rather learn and build on them” Knudsen continues. The way in which we change must change, he sums it up aptly.

Combining solutions

“Problems such as climate change cannot be solved in one go. We can, however, single out small elements and then figure out solutions for them,” he says. To eventually arrive at an overall solution, we need to change the way we innovate. “Nowadays, companies often work like this: several solutions to a problem are devised. They will then choose the best solution, and that will be worked out in greater detail. The other solutions disappear into the bin. I don’t think this method produces the desired results (any longer). We need to allow different ideas to coexist and link them together. So not a single solution, but several solutions combined.”

‘Mobility itself isn't the problem, it's how we handle it.’

Knudsen’s new way of innovating also fits in well with the ideas of Ruut Veenhoven, professor at the World Database of Happiness at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. “Mobility itself isn’t the problem, it’s how we handle it,” he says. Veenhoven has investigated the relationship between happiness and mobility. “What is happiness?”, he starts his keynote with that question. According to the professor, it is mainly about good quality of life, or rather that you are happy with your own life over a longer period of time. “Mobility is part of this,” he says. This is both about the journey itself and the bigger picture regarding the accessibility of certain locations and the presence of stations. A study in the World Database of Happiness shows that people are happier if they live further away from a train station. But on the other hand, people also want to get to their destination quickly. Veenhoven: “So it’s about finding a balance. The outcome may be different for everyone.”

Asking questions

Curator Rob Adams concludes, “These times need questions rather than answers.” He wants to explore together what the mobility of the future could look like if we break free of the established paths and standards. “The different perspectives offer a solution. To ask questions and to look for solutions together.” 

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