Note from James: This is Michael Downes’ second submission to Bicycle Design (wow, he is on a roll). If you are new to the blog and don’t know who Michael is, read the profile about him that I wrote last February. Since that time, Michael has left his position at Giant Bicycles to work as a freelance designer in Portland, OR. If you need the services of an experienced designer with a background in the bike industry, I encourage you to contact Michael here. Now on to his post.
I found this interesting article (via Bike Biz) in the International Herald Tribune business section about the unprecedented growth of electric bikes particularly in China. It got me reminiscing about my visits there when I was working for Giant Bicycle Inc. I attended several meetings where some quite incredible figures were presented about the growth potential in this market. I even had one memorable visit to an electric bicycle and scooter specific store in downtown Shanghai. Memorable, in part, because it involved a white knuckle ride into town in an overcrowded Chinese micro-bus, driven at speed and in the complete absence of any formal ’rules of the road’ (Chinese driving habits have to be experienced to be believed!). The store was enormous, spread across three floors and sold every conceivable type and brand of electrically assisted two-wheeled conveyance. Everything from the cheapest, scariest Vietnamese roadsters that seemed entirely assembled from gas pipe and washing machine parts to the sleekest, sparkly Gundam/Manga inspired scooters with, and I do not exaggerate, cranks two feet apart and three inches in length at best. Apparently to qualify as electric bicycles the scooters had to have cranks and pedals but they were not required to be functional. And of course this plethora of products were decked out in the most migraine-inducing colors. Every possible combination of glitter, holographic Mylar, chromed plastic and blinking LED’s was used to its fullest. When it comes to color the Chinese are nothing if not bold. Alongside all this visual and formal hoopla the products offered by Giant seemed…well boring, designed as they were to appeal to, or at least not offend, European and American sensibilities. To be sure, at the time, it seemed to me that I had entered the industrial designers equivalent of the ninth circle of hell but on reflection I see now, in microcosm, an expression of Chinese confidence. I have no doubt we have entered the Chinese Century. Consider these factoids I gleaned the other day: 30% of people with the highest IQ’s are Chinese, China has more honor students than America has people and China will soon become the largest English speaking nation in the world. What I saw that afternoon as I wandered in a daze through the store was a brashness, confidence and willingness to take risks that has largely evaporated in the west. Sure there was a lot of junk and poor craftsmanship but there was also a lot of inspired pragmatism and balls. When I think back to those interminable meetings where the PD team dissected the pros and cons of two very similar shades of blue for next season’s model or argued endlessly about the inclusion or not of some minor doodad I realize that in our sophistication and maturity we have become timid. We are more fearful of failure than emboldened by opportunity. Self doubt is not a Chinese characteristic.
So what has all this to do with bicycles? In the next decade the smartest, lightest, most energy efficient and environmentally benign electric bicycles (and scooters, car & trucks) will emerge not out of MIT or Silicon Valley but China. I guarantee it.