A Good Time to Move on

Originally published on Medium.

A Good Time to Move on

WHERE does a car designer go if he wants to make a difference?

I’ve been grappling with this question for a large part of my career.

Car design is such a specialist job that, unlike in other creative fields, practitioners can only meaningfully work for big corporations (or the consultancies serving them). The car itself is such a complex product that barriers to entry are considered impossible to jump, and therefore only big companies have been part of the space until the recent appearance of Tesla and the like.

These new companies however, although with the laudable goal of moving us away from fossil fuels, are still very much solving a first world problem, all following the same template of chasing the very affluent consumer through premium products. Which is ok with me, except it doesn’t really turn them into social enterprises.

The way I see it, while other creatives can find a way to utilize their talent for social good (whether in a social enterprise or the non-for-profit sector), my options as a transportation designer are very limited indeed, if not practically non-existent.

A few years ago I came across a problem where I thought I could make a difference: water, and the lack of daily reliable access for millions of people around the world.

While this issue has always been looked at as an infrastructure problem (i.e. ditches and pipes, meaning hundreds of millions of dollars spread over decades), I believe there is a different angle from which to look at it. From the perspective of the affected (mostly women and children), it is all about moving 20–25 kilos from A to B; from that point of view, it is indeed, a transportation problem.

Considering the challenge too great to be tackled, I put the idea on the back burner for several years, moving onto other things, and quite frankly, expecting the problem to disappear as so many key development metrics seemed to improve year after year. But when I looked at the issue early last year, I realized that lack of water access still affects a whopping 660 million people worldwide. Time, however, has allowed several technologies (solar, cashless payments) and certain cultural aspects (social enterprise) to mature to the point where I think we can help solve this issue in an affordable manner (and it better be, as we are dealing with the bottom of the economic pyramid), bringing not only water but other basic necessities such as energy and transportation along the way. What sounded like a fanciful idea in 2007 now feels like it might just work today, so I finally decided it was time for me to take a step forward.

There was the small problem of my full-time job. As an advanced design manager, the nimble satellite studio I was leading for Ford in London could have been an ideal place to develop the idea. However, although big companies certainly have the resources and the talent to put a dent in these issues, they don’t necessarily have the focus to accomplish such a non-core endeavour. For better or for worse, it is just not their business. So I decided early on that the effort dedicated to internally promote the idea would be better used to actually work on it. But moving beyond desktop research into proper field research and prototyping would have been not only impractical, but also unethical and unfair to the team. One hundred percent commitment meant it was time to leave Ford, and so I did, and after a few weeks on gardening leave, today is my official first day as founder (or unemployed, depending on your point of view…)

I start humbly, knowing that there is a lot for me to observe, test, and learn. The road I am joining is littered with well meaning innovators and do-gooders from the West who never accomplished much, and sometimes did more harm than good. I’m prepared to encounter reality, discover that my assumptions are wrong, and admit the direction needs to change. But then, I also have faith in the 30 years I’ve been designing and problem solving, and in many of the smart and talented people I have met along the way, some of whom happen to believe that maybe, just maybe, I’m onto something here. Although there is a long way to go, it is good to know I am not starting from zero either.

Now that the personal issues are solved, and this public commitment made, it’s time to put my head down and get on with the job. For (semi) regular updates, or if you think you can help, feel free to get in touch or join the mailing list. Thank you!