Looking Out #18

COVID-19: Automakers get useful - can they become anti-fragile, too? Tracking the virus via transit, going local and societal thinking, put down your phone and redefining luxury.

30th March, 2019 

A word on COVID-19

Since issue 17 of Looking Out appeared in your inbox, Covid-19 has overtaken pretty much everything in Europe, the US and beyond. In the UK we are in a state of almost complete lock-down, if somewhat belatedly.

Looking Out has always been our view on what’s happening - so to ignore the virus and its impact would be strange. Yet at the same time we’re not epidemiologists, and we’ve never lived through an event like this before. Accordingly, we don’t want to try to guess what will happen from the comfort of our armchairs. We also know some of you will want an escape from virus news.

In all honesty, we weren’t really sure how to approach this week’s edition. Given the situation we find ourselves in, rabbiting about the state of the auto industry didn’t quite strike the right tone. So we’ve compiled a set of shorter takes and links to things we found interesting, well researched and offer a perspective you might not have encountered.

Yes, many of them are related to COVID-19. But we’ve included some things which have just been keeping us sane in these unprecedented times. We hope you find them thought provoking, and don’t begrudge the interruption to normal service.

As the situation evolves we’d sincerely appreciate you getting in touch – to share your perspective and what you’re finding helps you cope. We’d also love your take on how we move forwards and make sense of these unprecedented events.

Taking pot shots at Musk during these times seems a bit churlish. So does Looking Out carry on regardless, change tack, back off, stop for a bit..? We’re open to your thoughts.

Meanwhile, we genuinely mean it when we say we wish you all well. Stay safe. Stay home. And yes, wash your bleeding hands. Again.

Looking Out is a newsletter about the auto industry, mobility, design, and the cultures that surround us. Brought to you by Joe Simpson and Drew Smith of The Automobility Group. If you like what you see, tell your friends!


Automakers become problem solvers

Why it’s interesting: as auto-makers shutter factories, their manufacturing, engineering and design expertise is being applied to a greater good.

European and American auto makers are idling car production and closing all non-essential operations. But the OEMs’ expertise in mass-production, logistics and the latent design and engineering talent they hold is being pressed into the service of a much greater good – the manufacture of respirators, desperately needed on hospital wards to help those more severely affected by COVID-19.

The UK government has ordered 10,000 respirators from Dyson. There are potentially another 8000 coming from a consortium which includes Airbus and McLaren. But some friends in the medical profession have expressed concern about the ability of non-medical manufacturing experts and how all this fits with the precision and certification required for these devices. I’d be genuinely interested if anyone can shed more light on that topic. For now, my favourite example is these sketches that have come out of Ford – the respirator design includes various components the manufacturer uses in its vehicle lines – notably the fan from the ventilated seat base of the F-150 pick-up truck.

Pair with: The FT reports that the Bosch have developed a self-test kit for COVID-19.

| JS

On fragility, robustness, resilience and antifragility

Why it’s interesting: there’s never been a more pressing moment to explore the implications of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s antifragility theory, for us as individuals, and for the organisations we work for.

We can all accept that something that is fragile breaks easily when subjected to stress. Think of a champagne flute.

Therefore, we can probably agree that something that is robust is less likely to break when subjected to that same stress, but will still break under repeated blows. We might think of laminated glass here.

Something that is resilient could be seen to recover, but may be weakened by both the initial stress and the recovery. Clear polycarbonate could stand in for us here.

So what, then, happens to something that is antifragile under those same conditions of stress that break and weaken the others? It gets stronger. Human immunity* is an example from a realm that’s currently closer to home for all of us.

Day-by-day, the opportunity to learn which companies sit in which category unfolds before us.

I’ve long marvelled at the optimisation of the automotive industry. A ruthless drive for efficiency has enabled it to impact the lives of billions.

But seen through the lens of antifragility, that same fine-tuned optimisation and efficiency, built on global supply chains and the dispersion of labour, starts to look like a weakness.

OEMs survived the last crisis, but not without massive government intervention. And while it was understandable that governments did intervene - people employed directly and indirectly by the industry number in the millions - we've never learned whether those same OEMs were resilient, robust or merely fragile.

So here’s a challenge for us: what if we could build a carmaker that was truly antifragile?

How would it work, what would it make, and who would it serve?

Over to you.

*I couldn’t think of an analogous transparent material here, so if anyone among us works in material science, please shout out.

| DS


The future of movement, post COVID-19

Why it’s interesting: We can already predict that COVID-19 is likely to have a large and long-lasting impact on the world of mobility and travel

I promised myself that I wouldn’t lurch into predictions around what happens next. However, given that I work with scenarios in my professional life, I couldn’t help but gravitate towards this white paper (pdf in German), published by Think Tank, ZukunftsInstitut. It presents four possible scenarios of how the world will emerge from COVID-19, ranging from optimistic to pessimistic, and connected to disconnected. The summary is available in English translation here.

So what impact does this all have on mobility?

It wouldn’t be a step too far to say that COVID-19 is likely to affect travel, possibly forever. Some Airlines will go out of existence. Car makers may fail. Some of the big names in transport we recognise like high-street chains may no longer be there when all this is over.

But the more interesting thing to ponder on, is how many people are right now questioning both why we travel, and where we travel. Right now, few are travelling at all. Many aren’t allowed to. But the world’s greatest home-working experiment is also under-way. It is likely to reshape opinions on which people need to be where, and when, in the future. What knock-on impact will that have on how we set up our homes? City office spaces? Route capacity? Even climate change. The potential impact / disruption list is long.

I suspect we’ll see a huge focus on hygiene, cleaning and how to design-in sanitisation to shared vehicles. It’s interesting to note the idea that metals like stainless steel may be huge vectors for the virus, because it can live on them for up to three days (note that on copper, it’s only four hours) But we’re seeing some shared providers play this very well – if they survive, there’ll likely be good will towards them. Others, not so much.

And yes, it does feel very ironic writing about mobility when you’re basically confined to your own home. We take our freedom to move, when we want, where we want – and generally how we want – for granted.

Perhaps this pause is a good time to consider that.

Image: The number of departures at International Airports over the past six weeks – Image by Lufthansa Innovation via Trevor Storey

| JS

This is what a lockdown looks like

Why it’s interesting: A fascinating look at mobility data perhaps hides a deeper, darker truth.

Citymapper, the all-in-one transport rout finder beloved by many, has had its mobility index thrust in to the spotlight.

By showing what percentage of a city’s population is taking journeys using the app, the impact of a lockdown can be thrown in to stark relief. It’s remarkable, for example, that only 3% of Milan is moving around by public transit, while 12% of Londoners - supposedly also under lockdown - were on the move on Wednesday. Just a couple of days ago, it was 35%.

Think for a second, however, about how this data is being captured.

You open the app on your phone, sharing your location with the Citymapper servers. You enter an endpoint for their journey, and take the proscribed route.

Citymapper knows who you are, where you’ve been, where you’ve gone, and how you got there. By cross referencing your data with that of others, it knows who you shared your train carriage with, or who you passed on the street and, it’s not too hard to imagine, at what distance.

People have been both horrified and awed by the ability of Chinese and South Korean authorities to use mass surveillance tools to “bend the curve” of their rates of infection. Many have said that such a thing wouldn’t be possible in the west, because the tools simply don’t exist, and the public wouldn’t stand for it.

On that second point, they may be right. But on the first, between Google Maps, Citymapper and all the other local transportation apps available, it’s a fair bet the authorities could get a grip on movement when and if they chose to.

Pair with this fascinating little video share by friend of Looking Out, Mark Pesce:

| DS


Reflections on a new world, change, sources of information

Why it’s interesting: many of us are living in very different circumstances to those of just a couple of months ago. Here are a few resources that might help.

The British Design Council published this short Medium piece, reflecting on what they’d seen and learned from the first week of a very different life in the UK, as it shut down in the wake of the outbreak. The concept of localism, and the discovery – by many – of local shops, who in the space of a few days have completely pivoted their business models in order to stay alive, but also help others get the provisions they need, is one of the more good news stories to have come out of this pandemic, and something I’ve seen born out around my home area.

Meanwhile, Buzz-feed has an interesting piece exploring how and where we get our information from at times of crisis, and who we trust. “I’m not an epidemoligist, but…” charts the rise of the Coronavirus social media ‘influencer’ and I found it interesting that it reference’s Tomas Peuyo’s piece – which I’ve read and shared, and used as one of my own key reference points during this period.

We’re in danger of over-referencing him here on Looking Out, but I’m finding Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View, my go-to place of information during this pandemic, not least because the pieces are framed smartly, and seriously but without panic and hysteria – and are peppered with references and qualified people to read, if you want to dig deeper into a specific point.

I referenced this piece on working from home in the last issue of Looking Out, and given many more of us are doing it, it probably bears repeating. And for those trying to work remotely on research (like me) Andrew Muir Wood shared this piece on remote research, which is an interesting read.

Personally, I’m finding that doing Joe Wicks’ PE lesson with my kids is really helping to kick-off my day, and making a timetable or plan (see image) every night before the start of the next day (myself and my wife are both working from home, and we have two kids – 5 and 3) is helping to keep me sane, and at least feel – if not be – in control. The kids ignore the timetable, but at least I have an idea of something to distract them away from the TV or iPad!

Image: The Simpson household ‘schedule’ for last Friday.

| JS

A manifesto for society-centred design

Why it’s interesting: as user-centred design is coopted and debased, Daniel Harvey writes a design manifesto for the we, not the me.

When I studied industrial design at the beginning of the naughties, user-centred or human-centred design didn’t rate a mention. Sure, we had to take an ergonomics module in third year, but the content and the lecturer were so deeply uncool that few of us paid any attention.

Having landed my first agency role in London in 2010, I soon found myself out on the road conducting something called ethnographic research, and taking part in co-creation sessions. It was a brave new world for a kid who’d not long graduated from car design school.

At the time, I cared little for the substance of what I was doing beyond the fact that I was having a huge amount of fun flying all over the world to speak to folk about their lives, observe how they lived them, and parlaying what I learned in to commercial advantage for my clients.

Stints in a UX and service design agencies served to reinforce the notion that putting the customer at the heart of clients’ businesses was definitely the way to go. Happy customer, so we said, equalled happy shareholders and a CEO who could breathe a little easier.

But all along, we were missing a trick. Customers don’t exist alone. They form a part of multiple communities, and societies, and in our laser focus on satisfying the customer, shareholder and CEO, we tended to leave out everybody else.

My thinking started to shift as I read about the triple bottom line: the idea that customer, company and community must all benefit from a product or service rendered. Satisfy the customer and the company but ignore the community, and you’re still in the red, so the theory goes.

And just this week, I came across this manifesto for society-centred design, part of the context for which states:

20th century approaches like design thinking, human-centered design, and jobs to be done too often look at people solely as individuals. Or, worse yet, only as customers. They don’t consider people in relation to their communities or to wider society. And society itself is ignored by design.

My heart fairly sung when I read the first principle:

If we put care first and at the center of our efforts, we can move away from delivering solely for individual and commercial interests. Care lets us deliver for public health and the planet through compassion and reciprocity.

Among a sea of advice about how best to take care of the short term, we can’t lose sight of the longer term and continue to play an active role in how that plays out. This manifesto provides some stimulus for how we might do that.

| DS


Time to put down your phone?

Why it’s interesting: a global pandemic, and more time spent at home make it easy to spend more time on your phone. An old video reminds us of the negative impact technology can have on relationships and life around us.

Millions of people are right now confined to their homes with those they love. Millions more are glued to their phones - day and night - anxiously hoovering up news related to the coronavirus.

As these two scenarios come together, there are clear recipes for stress and anxiety, which a phone screen can exacerbate. After weeks of diving deeper into rabbit holes to try and understand the virus, last week as shit got real in the UK, I made the conscious decision to put down my phone.

I’ve more or less stopped looking at twitter. I check updates from a few trusted sources, maybe twice a day. And you can argue that ignorance is bliss, but the reality is I feel a lot better.

As I’ve disengaged from the phone, I was reminded of Charlene deGuzman’s short film, I forgot my phone – a commentary on the social impact of the smartphone, and it’s sometimes corrosive impact on life and the human condition.

The video is 7 years old, but – without wanting to sound shrill for the millions who are ill, have lost their jobs, or wondering how to put food on the table – it’s a timely reminder that technology might not be the answer. And time alone with our family is something many of us should try to cherish – without a phone screen in between us.

| JS

Luxury is that which can be repaired

Why it’s interesting: a lovely meditation on the people that keep Hermes’ products looking their best reminds us of the beauty of longevity.

And we’re up on the 22nd floor, giving new life to things. When we receive an object for repair, it bears traces of life, of its past. And our artisans, when they repair it, heal its soul.

Sure, you might carp that this is a video about a brand that makes the most notoriously expensive handbags in the world.

But it wasn’t that long ago that we all employed craftspeople to care for our belongings, be it furniture, clothing or cars. Disposal wasn’t the default.

When everything is up in the air, it’s nice to be reminded that a slower more soulful world still exists and will endure if we intend it to.

Pair with: Garry Hustwit making his movies free to watch while we’re all on lockdown. Last week, it was Helvetica. This week, his ode to industrial design: Objectified. Keep an eye out for my favourite, Hustwit’s documentary on Dieter Rams.

| DS

Thanks to Mark PesceTrevor Storey and Michael Martinez for inspiring us this past fortnight.

That's it for this issue. We love feedback (positive and negative), and to answer any questions you have. So email Joe or Drew and we’ll get back to you.

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