Cycle Networks


8 August 2018

On 22 April 2016, 200 bikes appeared overnight on the streets of Xuhui district in downtown Shanghai. Painted a bright orange, these bicycles were the launch fleet for a new concept for personal mobility in urban settings launched by the Chinese start-up Mobike. Today, less than two years later, Mobike operates 8m bikes across 180 Chinese cities and a dozen international ones, with Singapore, Manchester and Milan among the earliest adopters.

Mobike was founded in January 2015 by Hu Weiwei, Wang Xiaofeng and Xia Yiping with the aim of facilitating short-span travel, while also fighting the environmental degradation caused by traffic pollution and congestion. The solution the partners reached is a ride-sharing service based around a fleet of dockless bikes. Until this point in time – barring a handful of historical examples, such as the White Bicycle Plan in Amsterdam, which was overseen by the Provo countercultural movement in 1965 – urban shared-bike schemes have relied upon special docks, as with Paris’s Vélib, Milan’s BikeMi system, Copenhagen’s Bycykler or London’s Santander Cycles. Mobike and its chief rival Ofo have done away with these.

Mobike’s bicycles can be left anywhere, drawing the system closer to Provo’s ambition that “the white bicycle is never locked.” However, the bikes are GPS-enabled with a QR-code lock for payment access, distancing the scheme from Provo’s desire for bike sharing to be the “first free communal transport”. The entire system is accessed and overseen by an app powered by the AI platform Magic Cube. The latest addition is a series of smart hubs – designated parking hotspots within cities that help to manage demand in busy areas and at peak times. Users are encouraged to return bikes to these areas by means of a credit system that determines a rider’s fares and future use of the bikes – obeying traffic laws and parking considerately raises one’s credit; damaging bikes or leaving them in inaccessible areas reduces it.

Valued at $3bn, Mobike is headquartered in Beijing, where more than 300 employees work to meet exponentially growing demands from cities worldwide. Many of the company’s bikes are manufactured in its plant in Wuxi, east China, while a strategic partnership with Foxconn has raised Mobike’s annual manufacturing capacity to 10m bicycles. The firm is projecting rapid growth. The scale and industrial capacity of China offered fertile grounds for its ascent, but the breadth of the user base that the brand has cultivated, with riders ranging from 12-years-old to over 60, is also testament to the quality of the product.

Over the course of its lifespan, Mobike has produced several iterations of bicycles, the designs of which have progressively mediated the challenges posed by the need for the bikes to be durable (they are currently made to last for four years), light and easy to use. The fourth model, presented in September 2017, weighs 15.5kg, making it the lightest of its kind on the market. Created by the renowned Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa, this third-generation Mobike features airless tyres, automated gear-shifting and internal chain transmission (preventing the chain from falling off or becoming caught in a rider’s clothing). It also employs automotive-grade chassis alignment. Magic Cube, meanwhile, tracks users’ data – duration of travel, departure location, arrival location and time elapsed – providing responsive monitoring and instant updating to Mobike’s bike-dispatching and operation scheduling, processing a total of 3 terabytes of data per day.

In January 2018, Mobike company launched the open-data platform in an effort to discuss and produce feedback around how data gleaned from its bikeshare system might inform urban planning. The company hopes that information regarding bike-traffic patterns will help shape public‑transport routes and potentially redefine the boundaries of neighbourhoods. Criticisms surrounding this scale of data harvesting are inevitable and, indeed, in December 2017, The Economist noted the risk that Mobike and Ofo might “in time add to their revenues by turning their bike networks into data generators[…] Digital companies already know a lot about online behaviour; bikes help them track off-line behaviour, too. Bike pick-up and drop-off data can show which shops and cafés are most popular – and whether online ads have had any effect on off-line behaviour.” Mobike asserts that it has no plans for direct commercial monetisation of the data it gathers, and that collaborations with other companies have so far been limited to the co-branding of bicycles for marketing events with partners such as Disney, but fears are likely to persist, particularly while services of this ilk remain in their infancy.

Meanwhile, Mobike is adamant that it aspires to be more than a service provider, describing itself instead as an agent of urban change whose mission is to transform the way people live in their cities and treat the environment. At the UN Environment Assembly in December 2017, the company was presented with a Champions of the Earth Award for its contribution to reducing carbon emissions. A month later, during a gelid winter morning in Mobike’s Beijing office, I met with Hu Weiwei, co-founder and president of Mobike, and Naoto Fukasawa. On the table for discussion were their collaboration on the next generation of Mobike, as well as their thoughts on the future of urban mobility and the challenges posed by confronting cultural norms.

Beatrice Leanza In the two years since its official launch in Shanghai, Mobike has grown into a real sensation in China and is now increasingly international too. It’s been labelled a bike sharing company, a tech start-up and a new model for urban transportation, but how do you define Mobike?

Hu Weiwei Twenty years ago, China was a bike kingdom; in just two decades it has seen its cities become completely dominated by cars. Everyone dreamt of having one but because this change took place over such a short amount of time, it generated a reaction. How can we live better in these new environs? On social media we share the best of our life experiences: how we exercise, eat good food, live in and travel to great places. But how about asking how we really improve – by simplifying – our lives? How can we prompt change for the better? This is the question we asked ourselves from the beginning at Mobike. So I see Mobike as a way of living.

Naoto Fukasawa I agree that Mobike is not simply a service provider. It tries to address a deeper concern. A new mode of transportation is a new form of experience and this experience is not individual but intrinsically based on sharing; on its being a collective performance. It is a medium that enables an expanded outreach, not just in China. That is its real strength.

Beatrice From the start, you invested heavily in promoting Mobike as a company defined by technology and design. Why start a collaboration with a designer like Naoto-san at this point in time?

Weiwei The bike is a 200-year-old product, so we haven’t invented anything in that sense. But we did want to bring improvements to this object so it could better serve daily life and meet new needs. One day I was in a bookstore and bought a book of Naoto’s works that explained his philosophy of “unconscious design”, which is based on the idea of intuition and the possibility of redesigning things to become more desirable and useful in a renewed form of simplicity. I recognised a common goal in that.

Naoto Incidentally, when they asked me to collaborate, I had been reflecting on this aspect of design being mainly about personalisation. When you are designing, for whatever company, you are still designing products catering to an individual’s use and consumption, so when this opportunity of developing a product based on multiple usership came up, that was an idea I was interested in exploring. At the time of their invitation, I was passing through Beijing for other reasons. I was struck by this sea of bikes everywhere and realised it was really a new social phenomenon, and a premonition of something that could really massively impact and change people’s lives.

Beatrice So what was the brief?

Naoto Oh, it was a very brief sentence: “I want you to design a bike for us!’’

Beatrice But Mobike harvests data from 200 cities, so designs are responsive to the information generated by the user base and localised factors. In Sydney, you have a bike with racks for surfboards, for instance. Have you designed this new bike with a specific target demographic in mind?

Naoto Many traditional products, like bikes, carry enduring cultural traits. In every country in the world, people treasure this type of iconic object, which is imbued with archetypal characteristics of a “classic”. These objects enter a country’s specific cultural tradition and it seems that at the moment, particularly in prosperous contexts, there is a tendency or return to “culture” – to the past embedded in these specific iconic items. Nowadays there are plenty of models for sport bikes around, but Mobikes, regardless of their aspect, are different. They are about a new sharing concept and a new form of mobility. Since the very first sketches I sent to Hu, the bike was never in its trademark orange – a colour that I later found out she did not really like either. It was about restoring something iconic about the bike itself as an object and rethinking it, rather than creating a fashionable item. So in this sense we did indeed have a common understanding of what we were aiming at with the new design.

Weiwei We talked about that orange colour a lot internally from the very beginning. The inspiration came from Japan. We noticed the orange of security fences on high buildings in Tokyo, for example, as well as its use in shrines around the country. We needed a colour that would be immediately recognisable and visible from afar, but at the same time, it couldn’t be uncomfortable on the eye, so nothing too bright.

Beatrice Mobike’s ecosystem features three core elements: the smart bike (a product), Magic Cube (an AI platform) and the smart-parking system (an urban strategy).

Weiwei We started from the idea of an app that could connect places across the world through a product, in a world that nowadays is defined by cities, not countries. So we started from the premise that a bike is an object that everyone has a similar conception of or a common feeling about: it is a symbol of ease, freedom and flexibility. We looked at things from this perspective and a city is already a very large environment to tackle! Naoto If we look at the world from the point of view of the city and bring people a new experience, the point is to create more intimate relations. For example, a university campus is an urban community that Mobike can better connect to the rest of the city. Globalisation today has different points of origin and compositions, so if we want to affect things on a wide expanse, we need to address issues from a systemic point of view.

Beatrice So what did you mean when you said Mobike is a lifestyle brand? Mini calls itself a lifestyle brand too, and is diversifying its core automotive business into fashion, bikes and housing.

Weiwei We are not like Mini in terms of what tools we offer as a company. Our product is self-sufficient; you don’t need a support system to use it. Nothing needs to be added to it, so it is essentially a different form of usership. We have a core concept driving our actions: “commoning” is the future. It is about changing your mindset, about choosing something different and better. Many people take a car to cover 2km, while others use a bike. Mobike offers a different experience, a different way of living in the city. It is a choice, and that is why it’s lifestyle. But if you ask me where we are going now, well, that’s something we are still figuring out. We are a very young company, just three years old, although science and technology are at the heart of what we do.

Beatrice In this sense, how did the collaboration with cities’ governments start? Just last year there were very heated reactions here in China to the number of bikes taking over cities.

Weiwei One should not create more problems while trying to solve one, that’s for sure. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to do this business. Our original vision, sharing bikes, was in line with the government’s; we were helping solve a problem to do with a lack of options. They had spent a lot of money creating bike-sharing stations, which proved ineffective compared to what our system offered. After the introduction of Mobikes, bike-sharing immediately doubled in percentage as the preferred mode of urban transport. We did not need cities’ administrations in the beginning to launch our product, but later discovered common ground. Now we operate directly with cities to plan how many bikes to bring in and where – especially in foreign cities, where we work to get integrated within their own planning strategies. The images of bikes amassed on Chinese streets that have widely circulated online don’t really portray an accurate picture. Consider this: today’s cities are built for cars, with little or no space for bikes. There are plenty of bike lanes where people normally park cars, yet nobody really decries that. In the wake of the bike-sharing phenomenon, the government started paying attention to the problem and taking active measures to tackle it, such as increasing bike lanes and creating bike highways, which are currently under way. We keep addressing issues as they present themselves together with the government, because our company’s resources alone are not enough.

Naoto I think this is natural in any process of creation and particularly for a new phenomenon like this. Addressing problems through testing and feedback is part of the very process of design. Within the new sharing economy, many challenges have arisen. Take Uber, for example.

Beatrice Mobike is a private company, offering a public service. Is Mobike an iPhone of mobility, around which another kind of distributed economy will arise?

Weiwei We are testing new collaborations, with companies such as Shouqi for electric cars, but this is not the core of our business. We are still focusing on the bikes. And while we are not a social enterprise, we do have a social mission and offer a service that has value to what the government envisions too. The reason we succeed is because we have this common vision of making city life better.

Naoto Before making our collaboration public, Hu spoke of responsibility. But she also spoke of social fairness. In today’s business context, you have to think beyond competitive advantage to be truly competitive. You have to think of what you are bringing to society, how you are impacting the larger population for the better. There is an expression in Japanese that I believe does not exist in English: “chuangfa”, literally “creation makes creation’’ or “if you don’t create something nothing can be created”. It refers to the kind of invention that improves and updates another, generating new ideas in different and multiple directions.

Beatrice That seems a good metaphor for the workings of innovation today; that is, it is less of a chainreaction than a rhizome-like process, a networked system of knowledge in action. In the context of increasingly data-driven societies where the Internet of Things is pervasive, how is the role of designers like you being affected?

Naoto Technologies nowadays are making big data ever more public and open, but data is just data unless it is given meaning and purpose. My own work is out there in the form of data. You can probably even use data analysis to find the best fitting designer for your business. There is yet another important aspect of design, which is the nuancing of stylistic and empathetic elements that generate different kinds of impact on people’s feelings. This is something big data and technology cannot capture or process and is still the purview of designers.

Beatrice What about today’s innovation ecosystem in the Chinese context, which is mostly fuelled by big internet companies like Alibaba and Tencent? The government is enforcing new directives with its mass-entrepreneurships programme – which is funding the creation of incubators, accelerators and maker spaces – but is this really helping innovation to thrive?

Weiwei There are two sides to everything; it is a matter of knowing which side to work on. I’ll give you a practical example. In China, thanks to big companies like those you mention, mobile payment is very popular. From kids to elderly people, everyone knows how to use smart technologies. The reason why Mobike could come out here in China is largely due to the fact that we didn’t have to educate users about the mechanics of scanning a QR-enabled lock to pay for our service.

Beatrice But there is innovation not just in terms of the scalability of business models and systems’ accessibility, but also in terms of human quality. You collaborate with institutions, including universities such as Tsinghua, on research into white papers on mobility and its urban impact. Do you think China’s education system is preparing young creators to become innovators?

Weiwei In our company we have a lot of young Chinese people who came back from study and work abroad, in the US, Japan or elsewhere. People’s experiences and backgrounds have become more global, and they come back with the desire to create something for themselves. It is about a change in people’s expectations, self-understanding and ambition.