More on folding bikes

A friend of mine asked me recently about any tips I might have on folding (and/or electric) bikes. I emailed a response that I thought presented a useful round-up of my learnings, and thought it worth sharing here (slightly modified as well.

The 4 main folding bike systems/manufacturers I recall that produced bikes with wheels the right spec for Cityrail are:

The specs for Cityrail are:

Folding bikes are permitted on trains free of charge at any time, provided the bike is folded and carried in a bag before boarding. The bike (in its bag) must not exceed these dimensions: 82cm length x 69cm height x 39cm width with a maximum wheel rim diameter of 51cm. Free travel does not apply to CityRail bus services, including trackwork or NightRide buses.

There are a couple of other systems I’ve seen, the notable ones are:

Tern are a spin-off from Dahon. They have the same folding mechanism and are run by one half of the family that owned Dahon. The split tainted the Dahon brand fairly significantly in my opinion, as it seems that the folks behind Tern were a bit more entrepreneurial and innovative, leaving Dahon primarily as a manufacturer (rather than design-led) [Update 1-Feb-2012: See comments for response from Dahon]. I put my money on Tern—I have a Link P24h with electric conversion from Sydney Electric Bikes. (I’ve written about my experience before). If I were to do it over, I’d probably get the Link P9 (http://www.ternbicycles.com/au/bikes/link-p9), as the in-hub gear on the P24h has proven to be a bit of a pain in terms of maintenance, and in practice I never use it.

The Brompton is a neat folding mechanism that is very compact, but I think it would probably be too small for folks of my height (6″+). I’m personally not a fan of the Birdie’s design. The larger Montague’s are awesome, but fall foul of Cityrail’s guidelines.

If I were buying today, I’d be seriously considering the Conscious Commuter electric, as the weight reduction and inbuilt battery are significantly better than what I’ve got. Though they still seem to pretty much be in “Kickstarter” mode, and are an unknown quantity in relation to quality/durability etc.

Just don’t call him an environmentalist

I was recently in Queensland visiting family and caught up with my Dad and step-mum for a few days. My Dad’s a straight-talking feller. He’ll tell you in no short terms that he doesn’t agree with those environmentalists and greenies. He doesn’t really like them much…

While we were there he reminded me how the three large water tanks they have on site provide all the water they need, year round pretty much. He complained that he was still having to pay council for “the pipes that run past my front door”, as he’s now off the grid for water supply.

Whenever we go fishing he’s very careful to make sure our catch meets the size limits set by government. If something is even close to undersize, it goes back in. He laments the big fishers’ impact on his local fishing grounds, and gets antsy when he spots local fisherman flaunting the rules. He’s friendly with the local patrols, while quietly cursing the Government for introducing Marine Protected Areas.

He’ll often suggest we go for a drive in his Toyota 4WD (on it’s third engine rebuild) around the local area (the Redlands Shire) and talk us through the changes he’s seen as this once rural farming area, with rich, volcanic red soil, is converted into suburban estates, townhouses and apartments. He’ll tell you about the farmers of the area, past and present, and how this productive, now peri-urban, land is being lost to developers. (He’ll also quip that they can’t afford to run the car as much as they used too…)

We’ll walk around his property and he’ll show us with (justifiable) pride the vegetable plot, the fruit trees, the mangoes coming into season, the massive avocado trees, the pineapples, the strawberries. Each season he notes he doesn’t have enough friends with which to share the abundant produce that comes off the land. (Thinking about this I’m lamenting not taking more photos when we were there…)

He shares an anecdote about how a friend got the water in the local creek, which runs through the bushland to the back of his property, tested for pollution and sent the results to his local member. He’ll mention how the recently released government report failed to mention his creek in it’s “report card” and how he and his friend took it to the local media resulting in pressure being applied and the figures being followed up by the local member.

While we’re sitting watching (his 80″ LCD behemoth1 of a) TV he’ll explain how they turn everything off of standby using a remote switch device, and explain with pride how efficient the consultant found their kettle. He explains how they’ve saved a lot on their energy bill (which is about 1/3rd what is being touted in the mainstream press as an “average” bill).

He demonstrated the in-home energy monitor that helps them to work out where their energy usage has gone. He’ll lament how the compact fluoros he installed don’t dim, and how the Government’s impending ban on new electric hot water heaters has forced him to go out and buy one now for when this one reaches its end of life. And don’t get him started on that carbon tax.

My life partner Angela ascribes many of my aspirations and environmental awareness to my Dad’s influence. I have to agree (and something that I’m proud to say). My Dad has more “environmentally friendly” features to his property than I could even dream of achieving. And, as is probably apparent, he’s full of contradictions (as we all are).

Just don’t call him an environmentalist. Or a greenie. He just wouldn’t stand for it…

  1. I actually don’t know what size it is, but it’s bloody huge…

Career directions…

Over the Christmas break I’ve been thinking a lot about my career direction. This past year (2011) has been on the rough side, with some significant cashflow challenges which have kept me up at night and impacted my personal relationships. While things are looking more positive coming into the new year, I have been seriously questioning whether the direction of the business is taking is the right one — is the outcome worth having another year like last year?

I remember reading (or hearing at one of the many social innovation events) last year that if you’re interested in pursuing social innovation you should seek out a societal problem that you would like to see fixed and start to innovate around it. I wondered what social need my business — a professional services company that ostensibly is focusing on the corporate sector — was really addressing?

I soon came to the conclusion that the social need is that the corporate sector is the cause (directly or indirectly) of many of the environmental, and in some cases social, issues we face as a community. And that, by and large, the business community is not moving quickly enough to address these challenges — especially when we consider carbon emissions and environmental over-consumption.

I see a lot of great ideas in the social innovation community (and more widely) that are starved for funds and support. Where tens of thousands of dollars are all that’s needed to get something off the ground and test a new, innovative concept. Conversely, in my professional experience I have also seen significant sums of money wasted on ill-thought-through campaigns, products and services. What if some of that poorly invested money (which is small fry in the context of the kinds of projects I’ve witnessed go awry) was instead directed towards these projects that create social good?

So, there are two parts to the challenge — one is how can we innovate to bring a meaningful number of the business community to a new perspective? The second is how we can effectively direct capital to projects (and the people behind them) to create social good? And, more powerfully, how could we do both at once?

One approach is to consult to business to assist them in the transition to what I’ve previously called the “Economy of Meaning”. Leveraging the interest and commercial promise of things like social media to start a dialogue about creating more meaningful innovation. Framing a message around innovation, or reduction of risk etc. that is resonant with the broader social goals. I can’t help but think, though, that this is trying to sell something to a group that are, by-and-large, not really all that interested. That the drive for profit and financial reward is the wrong lever to be pulling to get meaningful and lasting change.

This is also a challenge for me as it requires me to explicitly outline and communicate what is an intuitive sense for the most part, that the concepts, models, methods and approaches that I have in mind, based on my professional and personal experience, are the way of the future. Unfortunately, there are very few hard-nosed case studies that demonstrate this at present.

Another approach, then, which I’ve started down the path of in the past, is to create an exemplar business that embodies these principles and practices — to become the case study. This requires a very different way of looking at the problem space, and instead identify business opportunities that are more public-facing (rather than business-to-business). Such opportunities also require a significant degree of capital, especially during the early stages of development where cashflow is unlikely to cover the investment of time and $$ to get a concept off the ground. And it requires a tonne of energy (which I must admit, I don’t really have right now…)

Even just finding the time to build the business case and prototype some ideas without adequate capital to cover the cashflow hit is a challenge. And to do this would require a strong commitment to the concept to get over what Seth Godin calls the dip. I’m yet to come across an idea that I feel so strongly about that I can unequivocally commit to it. And the few ideas I have in mind would require some time to develop initial prototypes, concepts and business plans to get to that point (or at least determine that they’re not viable/something that I’m willing to commit to).

I’m not sure that a professional services company is the right vehicle for achieving these goals. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not (at least not in the traditional model). But in the short-term it seems the most appropriate option, until I can find that concept that really resonates, that I believe in strongly enough to grow.

Hopefully in clarifying the purpose and aims (as outlined above) I can start to think more creatively about what form that business might take and begin to work towards that bigger vision…

Mazda’s approach to sustainability

Reading “Mazda SkyActiv is a novel approach to fuel efficiency; will it work?” over at Autoblog Green got me thinking. The article outlines how Mazda is eschewing hybrid and EV technologies (in the short term) to instead focus on light-weighting and efficiency.

It’s an interesting approach. I’ve written before about the “hyper car” concept outlined in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. Whereas the Lotus vehicle I was responding to in that post was just a concept, it’s interesting to see a mainstream brand like Mazda (which seems to be a bit more prominent in the Australian market than the US based on the Autoblog Green article) taking this approach to market. (It’s interesting to note that Audi have also announced a carbon-fibre project using an Australian partner.)

Autoblog Green ask if it will work — indeed, will it sell more cars. I think it’s actually a reasonably smart approach. The jury is still out on EVs and hybrids and the specific technologies that might “win” the race (including hydrogen fuel cells). With EVs taking a little while to gain traction in the market, there is a strong argument to holding off significant R&D expenditure in this area until the market is more mature.

(That said, I still think that electric vehicles will end up being the technology of choice, regardless of power source. And it is definitely important that some manufacturers lead the way, as Tesla and Nissan, among others, are doing.)

Regardless of which technology gets up, the measures that Mazda is exploring will all be relevant. And in the short term, with consumer uncertainty (and the high relative up-front cost of hybrid and EV vehicles), focusing efforts in this area can only provide benefits to the Mazda brand. That is to say, for those customers that aren’t ready to make the switch to EV/hybrid, the fuel efficiency benefits would likely be of appeal (and therefore to have an impact on sales). But it won’t be long before Mazda will need to start investing more heavily in alternative fuel/power train technologies. I’m sure, however, that they are keeping a close eye on developments and will be ready once a dominant approach appears. Definitely one worth watching…

Reflections on Flavour Crusader at Social Innovation Sydney

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I’ve just gotten back after running a very short workshop session to test the Flavour Crusader application at today’s Social Innovation Sydney meetup and I wanted to take a short moment to “braindump” (more than reflect) about the session while it’s still fresh in my mind. (See my previous post for more background on the project.)

First up, thanks to everyone who participated in the workshop — we really appreciate the feedack. And I’d like to especially thank the volunteers that helped Sharon and I facilitate the session — Angela, Miream, Penny and Tony especially. And also thanks to Michelle and Kate for creating the space in which the session could occur.

While we (obviously) haven’t had a chance to really dig into the more detailed reflections, even the top-level feedback that came out of the session has been really helpful.

About the prototype

For those that weren’t able to attend, if you have an iPhone, feel free to preview the web application. Please bear in mind that this is a very early prototype outlining only some of the core features that have been discussed/considered. In the vein of the “lean startup” the aim is to deliver a “minimum shipping product” to get early feedback and verify/validate design directions before progressing further. It is not fully accessible (we are rapid prototyping using HTML/CSS and JavaScript, but have not tested widely) and today we identified some issues running on Android devices, so your mileage may vary. Adding the app to your home screen on the iPhone and launching from there will give you the best experience.

There is a feedback mechanism inside the application, so please feel free to send us your thoughts and suggestions if you do use the application.

As mentioned previously, the session today aimed to evaluate how well the application, in it’s current form, supported people in the following scenarios:

  • You are on your way home from work and thinking about cooking a dinner with fresh, local produce
  • You are planning a dinner party on the weekend and you want to base it on fresh, local produce
  • You are in a store choosing your fruit and veggies for the week and you want to find out if something is in season

This approach is broadly aligned with the “Can do” phase of Les Robinson’s Enabling Change model. (We’re also giving some consideration to some early social features for the application, especially to create the sense of “Satisfaction” to support sustained adoption. And of course days like today are in part about building “Buzz”, “Invitation” and “Trial”.)

Workshop scenarios

To do this we set up three different “stations” in the room to provide a mock context for each of the scenarios outlined above:

  1. A “bus” where participants were encouraged to consider “on your way home”
  2. A “kitchen table” with recipe books and shopping lists to plan the weekend dinner party
  3. A “store” with a combination of local and imported produce

(I’m hoping that Tony’s photos will provide a visual illustration of the session — I’ll post some links here once they’re online.)

Each participant was given a sheet with areas to reflect on the process they undertook around each scenario, and participants that didn’t have an iDevice (or Android phone) were provided with one, or buddied up with someone who did. The aim was to get participants put themselves into these particular contexts and use the application to support them.

Today was a sort of prototype for the workshop format itself. I’ll be running it again in a few weeks’ time with my uni cohort (and potentially at other foodie events in the future), incorporating a lot of the learnings from today as well. The first lesson about the session format was “more time”: we elected to run a 30 min session, which is clearly not enough given the level of engagement participants gave us today. Next time we will allow for more time at each station.

Another was that with a (somewhat unexpected) large turn-out — we had over 20 participants in the room — we needed a way to allow for group discussion within each station. And thirdly, we found that when participants focused on the “reflection questions” we provided, they were less active thinking about the context of use — e.g. actually using the application. All great learnings to apply in future.

(If anyone who attended wanted to provide further feedback I’d love to hear from you in the comments to this post…)

Early reflections/next steps

One thing that seems reasonably clear, even from early “debriefing” of the session, is that Flavour Crusader’s tight focus on efficacy — that is, providing assistance in how to prepare and fresh produce, including deeper integration between produce items and recipes — is definitely the right path. The challenge with so many great ideas will be to keep that tight focus, and not try to implement everything!

That said, I’m really looking forward to digging in further to participant’s reflections — I’m certain that there’s some great nuggets in that feedback as well. Given the great level of participation, that may take us a little longer than anticipated! But I can’t think of a better problem to have 😉

FlavourCrusader at Social Innovation Camp

A little while back I put a call out for folks that were social media savvy and interested in food to do some interviews for a uni assignment.  The interviews went really well (thanks to everyone involved!) and I’ve been remiss in not reporting back on progress since then.

For my uni assessment I produced two reports and a set of design personas to support the development of the FlavourCrusader project:

  1. Local food production and cosmopolitan localism (PDF 99 KB)
    This paper examines some of the drivers behind the emerging trend towards local and organic produce and the related growth of farmers markets: sustainability, health and safety, quality and taste, and food as experience. It then explores local food production as a form of social innovation, considering its potential for expansion using social technologies.
  2. Report on design research with urban local food customers (PDF 157 KB)
    Reports on the findings of interviews with 5 social media savvy food lovers who purchase locally-produced food.
  3. Personas (PDF 1.7 MB)
    Design personas reflecting the user research and learnings from the initial report looking at local trends etc.

Since that work was completed, myself and the team at Zumio have been working with Sharon Lee, the project lead for FlavourCrusader, on a prototype of the core functionality of the application. The core focus of the prototype is a seasonal food guide and recipes, as these were the core elements identified through the interviews as being useful in a mobile application.

Next Saturday (26 Feb 2011) we’ll be running a session at the Social Innovation Sydney (SI Syd) event in Paddington to get feedback on this prototype. Sharon has done a guest post over at the SI Syd blog about the FlavourCrusader session.

As Sharon’s post points out it’s still very early days — we’re really just trying to provide the bare bones functionality to start getting feedback about what the issues/barriers are and where we should go with it next. Specifically, we’re trying to provide support for the following scenarios:

  • You are on your way home from work and thinking about dinner. How would you use the application to help you choose your dinner?
  • You are planning a dinner on the weekend, how would you use the application to help you plan?
  • You are in a store choosing your fruit and veg for the week and you want to find out if something is in season. How would you use the application to determine this?

There may have other situations where it might be useful, of course — we’d be interested to hear of those if you have any ideas.

Using it “in real life” is obviously the best way to test — so we’re really looking to understand how people go about these things and how, if at all, the app might help. So the session will involve a bit of fun role-playing as well as more straightforward testing.

Our hope is the session will give us an understanding of:

  • How well does the app support this process currently?
  • What frustrations or barriers are there?
  • What needs to be added for people to be able to achieve these goals with it?

In any case, if you’re able to make it down to SI Syd next Saturday — we’re hoping the session will occur just before lunch — I’d love to see you there and get your thoughts.

Hydrogen car future?

I was interested to read Dan Gray’s take on the Top Gear team’s enthusiastic reception of the hydrogen fuel-cell Honda Clarity — suggesting that such a response in such a mainstream channel was a “profound” moment.

My interpretation of Dan’s key point is that the Honda is “just like the car of today” and therefore would be more accepted by the average punter due to reduced barriers (at least perceived barriers) of filling up and the speed of refuelling.

I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will create a significant impact in the mainstream market (at least in the short- to medium-term — e.g. 5–10 years), and would like to throw a few points forward as to why I think electric vehicles, using battery technology, is more likely to become the new standard for cars in that period.

  • While most manufacturers have been working on hydrogen powered vehicles for some time, most have seemingly reduced their investment due to a number of critical issues (some of which I’ll expand on below).  On the flipside, most major manufacturers (Nissan, VW, Audi, GM to name just a few) have announced electric drive-train vehicles, or at least plug-in hybrids (in the case of Toyota and GM), as their preferred platform for alternative vehicle systems.  In the case of GM and Nissan, plans are to have production-ready vehicles as early as next year.  Honda is, I think, the only maker continuing to actively promote hydrogen fuel-cells as their platform of choice.
  • The infrastructure for electric vehicles already exists to a degree that is suitable for most people’s driving patterns (< 50 miles per day) — and it’s sitting in every person’s garage.  Additional infrastructure for in-transit recharging is required, but not as critical, for these common trips.  That’s what allows Tesla and Nissan to launch electric vehicles within a 12 month time-frame, not 5 or 10 years.  Hydrogen vehicles will need significant investment in hydrogen fuel distribution before the first vehicle can roll off the line.  This is what really annoyed me about Top Gear’s coverage — it completely ignored the fact that hydrogen vehicles can’t operate in the same way as petrol-fueled vehicles until this infrastructure is in place, and it will be sporadic at best in the early stages of deployment, in which case it has exactly the same issues as they claimed for electric vehicles.
  • Hydrogen fuel generation is an energy-intensive process, and my understanding is that it is far less efficient than battery technology in terms of energy conversion (i.e. while hydrogen has more energy per unit of storage, creating the fuel is less efficient than charging a battery).  For example, see the “Efficiency” section of this article for a summary — approx 22% efficiency for fuel cells vs. 85% for batteries.  Another paper (PDF 66 KB) from the European Fuel Cell Forum estimates the ratio as 22% vs. 66% respectively.  While I’ve read of some promising advances in using biological and chemical processes to generate hydrogen, these are still very experimental and are some years off production-ready.
  • Battery-powered vehicles can take advantage of long-running trends in battery technology improvement that is shared across the consumer electronics, electrical-industrial production and other industries.  Portable hydrogen fuel-cells are (mostly) automotive industry specific, which has a big potential to impact economies of scale and innovation moving forward.
  • Innovative concepts such as A Better Place are trialling alternative models to reduce the “recharge” time to an average of a a minute (technically this is not recharging — they switch over batteries that have been charged over a longer period).  While A Better Place relies on significant infrastructure investment, the experience will be closely equivalent to “refuelling”, overcoming the cognitive barriers that the Top Gear team claim hydrogen overcomes.  In other words, there’s more than one way to respond to the barriers to extending travel distance for battery-based vehicles.

Most importantly, though — electric vehicles and related technologies are available today and are viable given current infrastructure for a significant proportion of every-day use.  They are also a lot less expensive than hydrogen-based vehicles to produce, bringing them into range of conventional vehicles on a total cost of ownership basis, and even more so with government clean-vehicle subsidies (where available).  Economies of scale and technology improvements are likely to close the existing gap pretty rapidly.

As an aside, I think there are other significant issues with comparing the Tesla Roadster with the Clarity, especially in the context of a program like Top Gear.  For a start, the Tesla is a sports car, built on a Lotus rolling chassis modelled on the Elise, and the Top Gear team did give it a thrashing — I doubt expectations of performance would be so high for the Clarity.

As a counter-point to the finding that the battery lacked staying power, a Tesla Roadster here in Australia completed 500+ km (300 miles) on a single charge.  Additionally, the Tesla is the first vehicle from a new manufacturer that is deliberately provocative (thus the sports car styling and positioning that makes it much more expensive than comparable vehicles), and pioneered a new approach to battery technology that future electric vehicles are leveraging to achieve rapidly increasing ranges.

I think that a comparison between the Clarity the up-coming Tesla S will be a much fairer comparison, and the S will be taking advantage of newer battery technology and much learning by Tesla from the experience of developing, producing and rolling out the Roadster, so is likely to perform better on many levels.

One last gripe with the Top Gear comparison — Jeremy took great pleasure in dissing the Tesla for its likely reliance on coal-powered electricity, which of course also produces greenhouse gas emissions.  This is demonstrably misleading.  Based on the US energy mix an electric vehicle, even if powered by coal-generated electricity, an electric vehicle still achieves approx. 30% less emissions.  Buyers can choose GreenPower (offset) or have renewable capacity installed — in fact I believe that Tesla offer solar and renewable energy options as part of the purchase of the vehicle in the US — and given both the price premium and the nature of the market for such a vehicle, one would expect most owners would opt for a zero-emissions option.

Project on local markets and social technologies

As part of the core subject of my uni course each semester each student undertakes a self-directed project.  The projects can be of varying shapes and sizes, ranging from more theoretical (such as my report on design thinking and sustainability) to the more practical.

This semester I’m undertaking something in between — part research, part practical — centred around this semester’s “theme” of sustainable food production.

Sharon Lee’s “FlavourCrusader” concept (then called “What’s for dinner”) was selected as one of the projects to be explored at the Australian Social Innovation eXchange (ASIX) Social Innovation Camp held in March 2010.

The long-term vision for the project is to:

  • connect urban food-lovers (“foodies”) with the origins of their food
  • increase consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables (with improved health outcomes)
  • strengthen local economies threatened by supermarket chains

It hopes to achieve this by using social technologies, such as mobile phone applications and Twitter to either promote in-season, fresh, locally-grown, and sometimes organic produce.

In the short-term — and as a first step — the project is seeking to develop a local in-season food guide with a mobile application form-factor.

Such a system has the potential to make purchasing in-season, local produce more convenient, with multiple flow-on benefits:

  • Provide additional marketing/selling opportunities for local producers
  • Reduce food miles
  • Create direct connections between the urban community and local growers, with social, economic and sustainability education benefits

The emphasis of the service, from the end-user perspective, is convenience and good, quality food, rather than the sustainability outcomes.  In this sense it differs from some existing products/services that are out there.

In keeping with my philosophy of human-centred design, I believe the service’s success is dependent on an understanding of motivations, barriers, needs and context of use for producers, local markets and customers.

My project this semester is designed to provide some additional insight into each of these participant groups, including exploration of:

  • What are the key drivers for existing customers (e.g. those that attend farmers markets) taking advantage of farmers markets
  • What are the barriers to existing customers buying local produce (e.g. of those motivated participants, what stops them from buying more regularly)
  • What level of interest exists in such a service among the existing customer base
  • What is the current level of use of social and mobile technologies with customers, producers and markets (e.g. @PrahranMarket on Twitter)
  • Similarly, what drivers/barriers/interest exist for such a service for potential customers — e.g. those that are interested, but for whatever reasons aren’t as active as they would like
  • What are the needs of producers (including local markets)
  • What level of interest/capacity is there to utilise such a service
  • How, if at all, would such a service link with other digital platforms such as FoodConnect

I’m posting all this as I could use some assistance.  Firstly, if you have any resources/pointers/contacts etc. that you think would be useful for the project, I’d love to hear about them.

Secondly, I’m looking for participants for some interviews related to purchasing locally produced food — either people that shop at farmers markets etc. and buy locally, or those that would like to, but for whatever reason aren’t able to do it as regularly as they’d like.  I’m also interested in folks that are using social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) that fit this profile.

The interviews would be about an hour long (at most) and could be done via phone or in person, at a time that suits the participant.  I’m happy to pay for a meal if the interview happens around lunch or dinner 😉

If you are someone, or know someone, that might be interested, please leave a comment or email me on gyoung AT pobox DOT com.