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Building a better e-scooter company

Austin-based Argodesign’s new approach to a new problem

Illustration of light pole with fold-up scooters attached next to a man getting on a scooter Courtesy of Argodesign

There are few things in this world that can be stated with certainty, but this is one of them: There’s no shortage of opinions about dockless e-scooters—especially in U.S. cities where they’ve already on streets (and sidewalks, and lawns, and rights-of-way, and so on). In particular, two of the biggest complaints surrounding the rentable rides concern safety and storage—where riders park them when they’re done with their trips.

Recently, locally based Argodesign (which now has studios in New York City and Amsterdam, as well as the original one in Austin) posted what it called a “provocation” on Medium. It’s a call for dockless-scooter companies to “deploy design differently” as well as a sort-of proposal for a new scooter design and brand called Step.

“Step” is a Dutch word for “scooter,” according to the Medium story (and Google Translate), and it doubles in this case as not one but two metaphorical references: One to “small, controllable, and safe movement,” and the other for the common idea of tackling big journeys (or short rides, in this case) via a series of small steps.

The goal of Step’s proposal, according to Argo’s chief creative technologist, Jared Ficklin, is dual as well: to improve safety and to create more civilized use of the vehicles in public space by approaching both issues through design.

Speaking via telephone from Argo’s Austin office, Ficklin said that having a front seat to what some called the “scooter apocalypse” at SXSW 2019 prompted the provocation. From where he and his colleagues sat, they saw people on all sides get angry and alienated from both the vehicles and the system because little thought was put into the personal and community experience in their design.

Step scooter design
Courtesy of Argodesign

“What frustrated us is that there’s application of design here in service of business and marketing and removing friction from the experience, but it doesn’t take the steps to think about what that design does for humanity in general,” he said. “So we are seeing increasingly dark interactions out there.”

Argo’s Amsterdam team set about creating a design vision that would fuse “safety and citizenship,” according to the Medium article—one that that builds in “respect for shared spaces” as well as demonstrating what is presumably a better “sensibility for how to use, store, and treat scooters.”

Step e-scooters are therefore designed to be stored in smaller, higher spaces than scooters currently have (intended) access to: They can be attached to poles or folded into a standalone footprint that’s smaller than that of current scooters. The latter is made possible partially by a longer, more stable wheel base, according to the article; Ficklin said the wheel base on current scooters was made shorter so that it could fit on sidewalks.

Step scooter design
Courtesy of Argodesign

The scooters would also have 360-degree cameras that allow computer vision intelligence, require the use of helmets, and enforce safe speeds among pedestrians (and in general, one supposes). The system would also allow public data access to all, providing individuals, governments, and companies more information for making the vehicles and the cities they’re in safer—as well as crash data for all parties unfortunate enough to be involved in one.

“Computer vision would allow [the scooter and rider] to see if pedestrians are around,” said Ficklin, as well as a “much tighter form of geofencing that could put the scooter closer to walking speed” when necessary. In addition to being made safer, e-scooters could also be “less annoying” to the community in other ways, he said—by getting rid of their “garish colors” in favor of Step’s more subdued mustard tone (for instance) and trading the constantly blinking lights on them for lights that are just as safe but less irritating and blink only when the vehicle is being operated.

The designs, meant to provoke discussion, are just the start of a conversation, of course, and Step scooters don’t have—even theoretically—a way to make all of those things happen, of course. Ficklin called the Medium post “more of an editorial” than a specific proposal, but the company is already thinking of ways to address unanswered questions—such as how to make helmets available to be rented with the scooters (which would be able to tell if they were being used in some digitally based way).

Step scooter design
Courtesy of Argodesign

Ficklin pointed out that the technology to do all those things is currently available, but so far the companies that make and operate e-scooters haven’t used it. When we talk about making the vehicles safer, he said, “we’re really taking about a company—what would a company look like if it had community principles and safe design” in mind?

Company culture could, of course, account for a major part of the reason those things weren’t kept in mind from the beginning of citywide scooter deployment. Now, Ficklin said, they are going to have to change quickly—whether they want to change their thinking or not.

“If they don’t want to do design at that level, regulation is going to make them do it,” he said. “If they can act as fast in making this change as they did with their deployment model, they might be able to avoid regulatory backlash. Otherwise, they may have just shown us a new way—but it might just end up being a blip, historically speaking.”