Big Think Interview With Geoff Wardle
Question: Why are you optimistic about the future of design and sustainable mobility?
Geoff Wardle: There’s so much to be done. If you assume, as I do, that the entire spectrum of transportation, road transportation, rail, and air, shipping is unsustainable, then we’ve got a huge amount of work to do to make it sustainable. And design has to play an extremely important role in that. So that’s why I’m very optimistic that if designers want it, there’s more work than they will know what to do with to help solve this problem.
Question: What are the main challenges that designers must face right now?
Geoff Wardle: Probably the most important one is for designers to be listened to as contributors to solving bigger problems than just designing products or services. And the challenges involved with that means that designers need to understand a lot more about the larger context of the world that they’re designing in.
Question: Where is the bottleneck in transportation advances coming from?
Geoff Wardle: I think there are a variety of bottlenecks. And of course, one has to consider that pretty well all of our transportation systems now, whether it’s the automobile, whether it’s trains, shipping, the truck industry, aviation; they’re all very mature industries; some of them with well over 100 years of continuity. So there are huge vested interests in the way we do things now. So it’s very, very difficult to get people to change a habit that they’re used to and they’ve got business models and manufacturing systems all set up. That’s one bottleneck.
And of course, in the political spectrum there are a lot of interests, lots of special interests that are lobbying for special interests not to change the landscape too quickly. So I don’t think the bottlenecks are actually in technology; we know there is quite a lot of interesting technology rapidly being developed. It’s more a question of getting the captains of industry, our political leaders, and even ourselves as consumers, to embrace change.
Question: How should designers go about stewarding this change?
Geoff Wardle: Well, designers do have a huge opportunity to steward these change through the processes and to do that, as I said earlier, the designers need to see their role as being much larger than just concentrating on products and services to design. They really need to look at the complete system of transportation and they need to understand the context in which these transportation systems are going to be operating. They have to use systems thinking as part of their process. And they also have to learn; well not learn perhaps, but they have to be prepared, I should say, to step outside their comfort zones of the familiar design community and actually roll their sleeves up and start being heard by people beyond their normal audience.
Designers tend to work within their own community. So, they’re proposing ideas to familiar customers, or within their design studios. Now they need to get out there and actually start talking to some of the leaders of industry. They need to get to understand a lot more about what the public really wants. And they need to understand how the political system works so that they can make useful contributions to the conversations that go on.
I happen to think that the automobile with large qualifications can play a large part in our future transportation, but designers need to understand that the car is no longer serving the needs of a large section of the population. It’s serving needs in terms of status and desirability as an object. But the truth is, in many parts of the world, particularly here in Southern California, it’s not actually a very effective means of mobility any longer because we have so much gridlock. Designers need to address that. They need to think about, in their own industry if they work in the car industry, what can we do? How do we change our thinking to make the automobile a much more valuable contribution, or contributor, to our whole system? But also, there are such huge opportunities for designers in the transportation arena in the automobile industry and beyond, to work on other forms of transportation as well.
I’ve said many times that the car gets all the passion in the design world. So much of the design work that goes into automobile design is done by people who are really passionate about cars. Then when you look at people who design – or I shouldn’t say the people who design, but when you look at how buses, or transit, or trains how they’re designed; where’s the passion there? And I think there is a clear correlation between encouraging people to embrace different kinds of transportation when they can feel that there’s some excitement in using that transportation. So, designers have a lot of opportunity to export their passion from what they do in, typically in the car industry to other forms of transportation, right across the spectrum.
Question: How do we make modes of public transportation such as buses more desirable?
Geoff Wardle: Well I think the starting point is to not just consider the bus itself. It would be pretty easy to design a bus that had comfortable leather seats and fine audio and a little bit more space. The difficulty is designing that into a system or a service to make it affordable. But we also have to look beyond the bus itself to the complete experience of using the bus. So designers need to get involved in thinking about the complete journey. What does it mean to somebody to leave their home in the morning to catch a bus to go to work for instance? How do they get to the bus stop? What’s the experience of waiting for the bus? What’s the experience on the bus? And then when they get off the bus, how do they make the rest of the journey?
So all of these things need to be seamlessly integrated and it’s a question of giving people the feeling that they have the same level of control over their journey by using the bus as they would if they instead, went to the garage, stepped into their car, took their car right to the outside of their workplace. So, that’s where designers need to focus their attention on say designing buses. Consider the whole experience, not just the bus, and looking at street furniture, bus shelters, the connectivity that we have with all of our technology available now so that customers know how long it will be before they have to wait for the bus. Maybe they don’t have to go and wait at a particular spot for the bus in the future. Maybe the bus will know to make a small diversion and come and collect them from where it’s convenient. So, it’s the total experience.
Question: Can we build on the transportation advancements we’ve made in the last century, or do we need to start from scratch?
Geoff Wardle: Of course it would be fabulous if we could start from scratch. And indeed, there are a few places in the world where I think that they are managing to at least consider doing that. We’re very well aware of major projects to build cities in the Middle East, like Masdar and in China there are supposedly a number of big cities that are going to be built from scratch. Then with sensible planning and inspired design, it’s possible to incorporate a transportation system that’s seamless for the citizens of those cities. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us live in well-established cities and urban environments. And so, unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of saying to residents of Los Angeles or Atlanta or Phoenix, sorry, you’ve got to go live somewhere else for 10 years while we completely reconstruct the city. It doesn’t work like that. So in many ways, we do have to do both. Wherever possible, we need to introduce revolutionary new idea into new cities and new environments. But where we have entrenched environments, we have to build upon what we’ve got. But I am fairly optimistic that given the right inspiration and the right opportunities that can be done to good effect.
Question: How do we rid ourselves of the “car or nothing” mindset?
Geoff Wardle: If you’re going to ask people to use an alternative to the car, or maybe the car is only part of their journey and they use other means of transportation as well, it has to be as seamless as possible. So people need to know that if they use their car for the first mile of the journey to the railroad station, or the transit station that they can just drive straight there, find somewhere to park, and then they can step pretty much straight onto the next transportation system. They need to know in advance whether there are likely to be any hiccups in the service. Passengers need to know that they are in control of the journey. The physical environment has to be safe. The physical environment has to be comfortable, and these are quite large tasks.
But multi-model transport works a lot in established cities already. If you go to the east coast, New York or some of the European or Asian cities; London, Paris, Tokyo, people do have a lot of options in multi-model transit. In those cities, there are a lot of people who choose not to own a vehicle because they know they have an array of buses or subways, other forms of transit, which they can hop, on and off and it all connects well. It surprises a lot of people to know how much public transit there is, for instance, in Los Angeles. And I have to say that there are huge efforts going on in Los Angeles to make it work better. There’s a way to go yet. But the issues in the past have been that each part of the system, whether it’s the surface buses, or the light rail system, they operate as autonomous systems and they don’t speak to each other. So, we’ve got the multi-model transit, but what we haven’t got is the seamlessness of being able to go from one to the other and knowing very easily how to get from point A to B in the city even if you’re not particularly familiar with the city.
Question: What do you see as the future for hybrids and electric plug-ins?
Geoff Wardle: Well, I think there’s an inevitability that we’re going to see a lot more hybrid vehicles of various categories and plug-in electrics. There are people who have significant doubts about them and then there are other people who think they are the holy grail of automobiles at the moment. The plug-in electric vehicle, plug-in hybrid, makes total sense when the source energy that creates the electricity to charge them up is clean and totally renewable and when the batteries which store the electricity for the duration of the journey, also have life cycle analysis that are totally ecologically clean. And we’re a ways away from that right now.
The vehicle companies that are investing a lot of money into R&D in hybrids and plug-in hybrids are doing the right thing because they are discovering a lot of aspects of these technologies that will be a great help later on. I run a hybrid myself and have done for a long time. I figured I’d better put my money where my mouth was and see what it means. If I were to do a complete life cycle analysis of the hybrid vehicle, it’s a little touch and go as to whether it’s better than a regular car. But I feel that in some ways that as a consumer, I’m contributing to the knowledge curve of building these. There are a number of advantages, of course, of battery electric vehicles or hybrids. The point of the vehicle itself has much lower emissions, they’re much quieter, which actually is causing a little bit of a debate now because they are too quiet. But in the long run, I think there is a great future. But as I said, it’s really dependent on the future of our source energy generation and the ability to develop batteries, which are clean and completely recyclable. My gut feeling is I have some optimism that we will see a lot more of these.
And the other thing that we have to remember is that whilst the car industry has done a fantastic job, admittedly under some protest in the beginning, to clean internal combustion engines up, the fact is that we are arguably at or beyond peak oil and quite soon the cost of oil-based products is going to start going up and up and up; at least going through a state of volatility as well. And so we really do have to figure out how to eek out the oil that we’ve got left much more efficiently than we have up to now. We’ve kind of been spoiled because a liter or a gallon of gasoline or diesel oil contains so much energy compared to it’s equivalent weight of a battery that its hands down the winner in terms of energy efficiency. The problem is, we’ve squandered it and we have used it in applications where we’ve assumed that we have finite supplies of it. That isn’t the case any longer.
So I think we’re going to see forms of hybrids which inevitably going to use internal combustion engines for a while, but in ways that greatly reduce the amount of gas consumption of those engines while they are in use.
Question: What modes of transportation have we been ignoring that we should focus on collectively?
Geoff Wardle: Well, I would say all of them really because there is not one answer that fits all. As I say, we have some cities that function quite nicely with alternative transportation systems now. If you visit a lot of those cities you’ll find that those systems are quite old. They’ve been so successful that they are pretty tired because of the economic and political climate that we live in, in say Europe and particularly in the United States, there hasn’t been so much political or economic will to invest public money in keeping those systems up to scratch. So we’ve been ignoring those in some ways.
I think we’ve been definitely ignoring in the U.S.A. the role that trains can play in the total landscape. Trains are not necessarily the most energy efficient way of getting people around under certain conditions compared to other forms of ground transportation, but on the other hand, they have the opportunity to being quite convenient, safe, and clean where I think they do have an opportunity is against air traffic particularly for cities that are only 200 or 300 miles apart using a high speed train between two cities becomes quite compelling compared to using aircraft.
Buses, I would say, offer significant opportunities, particularly in somewhere like Southern California which the predominant infrastructure are roads and highways, where it is very difficult to retrofit light rail or subways for a variety of reasons. We need to make much better bus systems. Unfortunately, compared to Europe or Asia or perhaps even on the East Coast where people are more comfortable using buses, in Southern California people would rather do penal servitude in Venezuela than actually ride on a bus. And yet, there are huge, huge advantages from a systems point of view of introducing bus fleet. And one must take their hat off to MTA in Los Angeles; they’ve been doing a fantastic job of building better bus systems and bus routes for us all to use. We need to keep on doing that.
We need to make it easier for people to make those journeys which really, they shouldn’t be using an automobile, not particularly convenient to use a bus, and certainly doesn’t make sense to use a subway. We need to consider those. And lots of people have been working with the question of the first and last mile of journey; so, helping people use bicycles, or electric bicycles, or Segways, or other very personal systems to help make those journeys. And of course we shouldn’t forget that actually the best way of getting around from a health – an ecological point of view is to walk. And we need to get better as we redevelop cities and as we build new cities to make it much more compelling for people to walk.
Of course, you can look at some cities that have done this very well, if you look at cities like Montreal, or Toronto in Canada where, of course, they have very severe winters, it’s still possible to walk around downtown, underground. It’s important. We need to make sure that people feel not only able to, but quite interested in the idea of walking. And again, I’m sure our listeners are familiar with certain cities or town in their life where it’s fun to walk places, or it’s fun to cycle somewhere. And then there are other places where it either feels threatening, or it feels dangerous, or there’s no facility to be able to walk.
Question: What are the major challenges in the realm of goods transportation?
Geoff Wardle: Well, probably the biggest challenge is, as the global economy proceeds, the cost of energy is going to, as I said earlier, is inevitably arise and it will start to make, in some ways, less and less economic sense to ship goods that are being made in one continent halfway around the world to the other. It’s already part of the daily conversations about the wisdom of drinking water that has been bottled in Fiji when you live in California or Paris, or somewhere like that. But it could also apply to a lot of other things.
So, I think with transportation, we may see a reduction in a few decades of a lot of long-distance transportation of goods as we get better and better at producing goods and food much closer to where we live. So, I think the cost of energy is going to be one of the challenges. And we see it already. Most people who complain that the cost of food in the supermarkets is going up think it’s all a conspiracy against them. It’s probably because the costs of actually transporting the goods let alone the raw materials, which have to be transported as well, are increasing quite dramatically.
Question: What will the car of the future look like?
Geoff Wardle: If you look at the history of the automobile, there’ve never really been any radical changes. I don’t see any radical changes, or step changes in the near future, at least. I think perhaps we will see some bigger changes than in the past.
I believe that if we are going to continue to use automobiles in any big way, we have to be much more selective as end users in making sure we use the right vehicle for the right job; the right tool for the right job, the right car for the right journey. And you mentioned a little earlier how 85 percent to 87 percent of people still use the car for their commuting rather than other means of transportation so the reality is that most of those car journeys are done alone. So, why do we haul around ourselves in a vehicle that is 20 or 30 times our own weight because it’s got three, four, five, six, or seven sometimes empty seats around us? Those vehicles are fine when they are used to carry a lot of people. So I think one of the changes that I believe we need to see is a much greater opportunity for people to use, whether it’s buying or sharing vehicles specifically for commuting. They will be safe, they will be much more energy efficient, use up less space, and then you can make a better case for using cars.
So I think the architecture of vehicles, we’ll start to see much smaller vehicles. I think that one of the big issues of vehicle design too is the crash avoidance technology that we’re beginning to see being introduced.
Personally, my own opinion is that if the automobile is to remain a major player in personal mobility, then I think autonomous vehicles are going to be a real advantage. Some people think that this is crazy and this is not possible. I, and quite a few other people, think that this is not crazy and there are some really good reasons why we should go that way. We’re kind of on the way now. How will this affect the ways cars look? As I’ve said, we’re going to see cars that – I hope to see more cars on the road that are much smaller. We’ve seen some examples at recent auto shows, Volkswagen, and some of the Japanese companies have shown much smaller vehicles. There is still a lot of reticence amongst car users that they are not as safe as driving around in a big car. That needn’t be the case. Small cars can be engineered to be extremely safe. They still have to pass all the same crash regulations that a big car does. So a lot of it is about perceptions.
At the same time, if cars can be engineered to drive themselves reliably without crashing into each other, then you can make the cars a lot lighter still because you don’t have to engineer them to be light tanks.
Question: How far away are we from cars that can essentially drive themselves?
Geoff Wardle: I think, given the right circumstances, we could see vehicles that are able to drive by themselves within a decade. But that’s under ideal circumstances. The main barrier that people flag up with autonomous driving is; Yes, but how do you mix cars that can drive themselves with older cars that can’t drive themselves? And so actually introducing these autonomous cars into the Legacy fleet is a challenge, but I think it is quite possible.
Honestly, I think it’s probably 20 or 30 years away before we see a car landscape where all cars are driving themselves. But I often think; what would it be like if we transported ourselves 100 years into the future, or imagine our great-great-grandchildren, and they say, “Granddad. Is it true that in 2010 people were allowed to drive their own cars around?” “Yep. That’s absolutely true.” And they say, “Well, that’s crazy. Didn’t people crash into each other and make mistakes?” “Yes, they did, and 40,000 people a year died every year on American roads because they crashed into each other. And goodness knows how many people got injured.” “Wow. So, how was that allowed to last for so long?” I think if you look at that perspective, you can see that it becomes an inevitability. But I would say 20 or 30 years before it become ubiquitous.
But I think we see the beginnings of it now. There are a lot of vehicles now which have adaptive speed control on their cruise control; adaptive cruise control. If the car gets too close to the one in front, the brakes automatically come on. Most people who drive very powerful sports cars have subliminal systems built into the car, which applies the brakes a little bit discreetly, or stops the wheels spinning if the driver is too enthusiastic or too aggressive. We have devices that warn you if you try to change lanes when there’s somebody still in your blind spot, and we also have now in some cars being introduced that if the car feels that you have not seen a pedestrian step out in front of you, or it’s getting too close to a stationary object, it will slam on the brakes before the driver even reacts.
So you can imagine these kids of technologies becoming more and more ubiquitous in the cars so that the car kind of in the end surreptitiously takes over from the driver, then you can see the driver beginning to take less and less interest in the driving. And that to me is the way we introduce them into the Legacy fleet.
Question: Where did the idea for Futurama 2.0 come from?
Geoff Wardle: I withdrew from the automobile industry and was lucky enough to get involved in full-time design education, transportation design, which gave me room to think about the bigger picture of transportation. Then later on, I met with Dave. We were both working at Arts Center, we got involved with setting up a series of sustainable mobility summits at Arts Center, and the three of us decided that we needed to bring a lot of people together to talk about these issues of sustainable mobility. And in that process, which was a lot of fun and extremely interesting, we got to meet some extraordinary people both in transportation and experts in sustainability and within the government as well.
As a result of that, Dave and I were invited to go and testify before Congress in December 2008, at a House Select Committee on Energy and Dependence and Global Warming. The conversation was about whether or not to bail Detroit out, which was a hot topic at the time. And our testimony essentially was that, before you could decide what to do with the car industry, you really needed to have a long-term vision of what the whole transportation landscape was going to be in the U.S. to decide whether the car industry had any major relevant part to play in that. That’s the testimony we delivered, but it was very clear to us that actually the conversations going on around at the time were about whether cars should do 35 mpg instead of 27.5 mpg. So, we were a little bit dismayed at that, but we decided we needed to do something about this and we decided we needed to add some more far-reaching conversation into this whole topic.
We decided essentially to take our testimony and develop a white paper and as we did that, we realized that it was actually a huge task and rather than just talk about it we decided we’d take the bull by the horns and set up ongoing transportation to work on what we called the Futurama 2.0 Project.
Question: Who are the players that need to collaborate right now?
Geoff Wardle: Well, we’ve identified a large number of players who need to take part in that because the future of transportation, if we’re going to implement truly innovative, sustainable means of transportation for both people and goods, that are compelling and viable, which means people will really want to use them, that industry and business is convinced they can make good profit out of this, that it fits in with government’s long-term objectives, we have to bring all the stakeholders in the future of transportation to the table. So it’s not just people who design cars and buses and trains, it’s not just civil engineers who design the infrastructure and build the infrastructure. We have to understand what the urban planners are thinking, how a transportation integrates into the urban landscape. We need to know the economics of all of this is going to work. We need to know a lot about the psychology about how the people think at various levels. We need to have people represent all the different areas of transportation and distribution of goods and people. So, it’s pretty much everybody. And again, from a design perspective, this is if you like, a giant version of what we are used to doing in our day-to-day work.
Question: Should the public and private sectors work together on these challenges?
Geoff Wardle: Well I think, first of all, it’s essential that they do work together. That’s an imperative. Big picture is that government needs to be able to set the right policy and make policy clear that helps people who are planning for the future of transportation to know what the rules of the game are. At the same time, industry needs to know – business and industry and the providers of the transportation systems and services, need to understand that there is a viable economy built around this. So there has to be a dialogue. And that’s one thing that we want to do, we want to try to facilitate that dialogue.
Question: How can we go about building an open forum for ideas that prevents scientists from concealing research?
Geoff Wardle: Well, if we’re going to build a viable, compelling vision which the United States can get behind and support, it had better be a right vision. So as we go through this process, we will have to make sure that there is plenty of validation and research and modeling of these ideas and solutions to make sure that everybody has confidence that it’s the right thing to do.
We realized as we thought about how this was going to unfold that we would be able to collect a lot of data, examine a lot of different models which would require a large team of people who have become, if you like, experts on the mathematics and the viability of all of this. And a number of people who have given us advice and support on this journey so far have pointed out that compared to the building industry, there isn’t really any leads certification equivalent for transportation as there is in the building industry. So this is something that we are really interested in exploring to see whether that will go hand-in-hand with building the Futurama 2.0 vision.
Question: What will a typical city’s mobility look like in 2050?
Geoff Wardle: It’ll depend on which cities we’re talking about. I think that we will see variations between different parts of the world and different parts of the United States. My prognosis is that the biggest game changer in the future of cities by 2050 will be the technology at the moment, which is rapidly erupting in connectivity.
It often occurs to me that a lot of the travel that we do in our current environment is not travel that we really want to do, it’s because we work somewhere distant from where we live. And I would like to think that in the cities in 2050; generally each area in a large city will become more community based. So there will be a lot more options for people not to have to move around in the first place. So rather than commute 20 or 30 miles across a big city, we’ll have the opportunity to go a lot of work, maybe not all of it, but a lot of our work quite close to where we live. That we need to get away from the idea that we live in large dormitory areas and then we have all of our work and industry and office space in another area. There are plenty of good examples of how you can mix the zones up and still make a very livable and enjoyable environment for people to live in. So, rather than a commute being a couple of hours out of every day, maybe a commute means just a couple of minutes.
Question: What about in 2100?
Geoff Wardle: That’s more difficult to say. I think if the human race is still around in 100 years, it means that we we’ve been hung very much over the edge of the cliff and we will have got good at a lot of things. I think even maybe by 2050, I mentioned a little before; we will probably be moving goods a lot less and food. We will need to grow a lot of the food and the goods that we consume; we need to produce that much more locally to where we live rather than divorcing it from the cities. We need to become more integrated, and the same with work. I think that we’ll be far more community based and I think, in 100 years, there are a lot of things that will in some ways require us to go backwards a little. Maybe we’ll be living in smaller, but at the same time, much more desirable living spaces. It’s so difficult to predict what technologies we’ll have available in 90 years time. It’s difficult enough in 50 years time, so it’s really difficult to say.
So if we’ve got cities in 2100, it makes me very optimistic that we will still be around, but if we’re still around it means that we’ve figured out how to do a lot of things much better than we’re doing now.
Question: How will we control for the high level of design quality that you say is necessary in the future?
Geoff Wardle: Well, I think a lot of it comes down to making sure that we really are designing to solve problems that need solving. Over the span of my career, the word “design” has gone from being a word that most people don’t really understand, to a word that most people think they understand, but sometimes it’s misrepresented. Design and styling are sometimes interchanged a little. And I think with design, it’s very much an onus of the design community to make sure that we are in the general conversation about what needs to be done in the bigger picture. That we need to be working honestly with ourselves and with other people about what it is that we are designing for, how we go about it, and at the same time, we need to think on a much bigger scale. I talk about it a lot, but the world is getting more and more complex as the days go by, as the years go by. As designers, we have to become systems thinkers all of the time. That’s extremely important. And so everything we do has to be an honest statement of what really needs to be done.
Question: What are some examples of excellent design advancements in the transportation realm?
Geoff Wardle: In the field of transportation design I don’t see any step changes coming along at the moment. Everybody is working very hard to make useful incremental changes. So, we have vehicle manufacturers and train manufacturers and aircraft manufacturers who are trying to make vehicles lighter and more energy efficient. We have people working on figuring out new ways of manufacturing that require, or result I should say, in less toxic waste stream into the environment, looking at renewable materials which can be used time and time again through recycling. We see a lot of effort to use less oil or gasoline in our internal combustion engines.
Games changers. Project Better Place; Shai Agassi’s Project Better Place is kind of interesting. Somebody really putting their head on the block with an idea for helping the emergence of battery electric vehicles which is building up quite a lot of momentum now and support from one or two vehicle companies. That could be a game changer.
I think the real game changers will come from technologies that are being developed for other kinds of outcomes in industries that will create unprecedented and unintended consequences which could help the transportation landscape. I’ll mention again, the game changes that we see in mobile communication, that’s very exciting and a lot of that can really displace some of the need to move ourselves around a lot of the time. So, I think the main game change for transportation is going to come unexpectedly from areas that we’re not thinking about.
Meanwhile, I think the biggest game changer has to be the way we all think about the way we move ourselves and goods around and we’ve got to get different – people need to understand actually, the unsustainability of what we are doing at the moment. We’re so used to our environment around us. We’re so used to the way we do things. We’re so used to our living patterns that it’s very difficult for us to question the absurdity of it all, which is why I like to go out 100 or 200 years into the future sometimes and kind of look back through those retro binoculars and think, my god how did we get away with doing that? And I think that that’s our real challenge as designers. We have to think on a systems basis, but we have to help all the different constituents to see that there can be not only a better, sustainable way of doing things, particularly in transportation, but will actually be much more fun and desirable than how we do it already.
Recorded on February 4, 2010
A Conversation With the Director, Advanced Mobility Research, Art Center College of Design.
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