The Stand.

Stories from UOW

To understand the impact of technology’s ‘next big thing’ – from 3D printers to electric cars – follow the people who break the rules.

Linda Thompson’s mobility scooter has two worn out wheels and a bent axle. Uneven surfaces, steep gutters, potholes – hit enough of those and the damage will soon show.

The wheels are no bigger than a breakfast bowl and cost about $300 a set and Linda says she’ll go through a set of tyres every six months or so. It’s the price she pays for the freedom the scooter affords.

“My back has gone,” she says. “We used to walk everywhere but it got to the stage where I didn’t want to go anywhere. I need a life. I get on my scooter and off I go. It’s just like having a car.” Linda has had a scooter for about three years and despite the rough paths and occasional run-in with a rogue pothole or a pedestrian staring at their phone, she’s embraced it.

Her scooter, Nelly, named after the American rapper, has a few personalised touches and hacks: a cup holder for coffee, crocheted handlebar grips, two tubes that serve as fishing rod holders and a survival pack that consists of a raincoat, a small toolkit and a shower cap to cover the control panel when it rains.

Linda Thompson’s mobility scooter is a ticket to freedom. Photo: Paul Jones

“I have friends telling me I should act my age when they see me riding along with my headphones on listening to my music. I like rap music.” Even if she doesn’t realise it, Linda is a maverick. The sort of person whose pioneering use of a technology reveals more about its eventual impact on society than any glitzy product launch.

Mavericks on the edge

Dr Thomas Birtchnell, a social scientist with the University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Social Sciences, says mavericks are small groups of technology users who are early adopters and tend to take risks.

Somewhat like beta software testers, they will poke and prod to find the limits of use and in many ways, lay the groundwork for how people end up using the product or service.

Mobility scooters, yes, those mostly older and less physically able people we don’t think twice about as we fly past in our cars, could in fact be laying the groundwork for the great hope of sustainable transport, the electric car.

Technology does not determine human actions; humans determine the application of technology.

Dr Thomas Birtchnell

“The mobility scooter could be seen as the precursor to the electric car,” Dr Birtchnell says. “There are no regulations regarding the use of mobility scooters – such as driving them on footpaths, roads and interacting with pedestrians.

“Most infrastructure is very inconvenient – up and down gutters and other obstacles – how can we better think about how they get around, what they need?

“These people need to be nurtured and understood because if we can’t manage their use, how are we going to manage when the electric car reaches ubiquity and we have a much more complicated system?”

Chickens, eggs and public policy

Top-down approaches to infrastructure can create a chicken-and-egg scenario: justifying the cost of building infrastructure requires a critical mass of users, yet users won’t take up the new mode without the infrastructure in place to ensure their safety and reliability.

Mavericks, the early adopters, could be used by policy makers to determine how new technologies and ideas could be best used.

“Heavy-handed approach to policy is dangerous,” Dr Birtchnell says. “A broad, mandated move in energy policy could kill electric vehicles. To avoid the unintended consequences of heavy handedness we need a better understanding of demand, and why people make the choices they do.”

Thomas Birtchnell

Dr Thomas Birtchnell’s research shows technology doesn’t follow a linear pathway. Photo: Paul Jones

Take the electric car. It sounds like a great idea, but the first question in any conversation will be: what happens when you run out of charge? The onus is placed largely on the individual to figure it out, and for many, the necessity of car travel quashes their inclination to try electric power.

Yet, mobility scooter users like Linda grapple with the logistics of recharging daily. She was told her model has a 55-kilometre range. It’s a vital measure she doesn’t mess with. It gets her everywhere she needs to go and some shopping centres are now offering recharge stations or loan scooters for use in the centre.

Dr Birtchnell, along with UOW colleagues Dr Theresa Harada and Professor Gordon Waitt, tested the idea in a research project that had them bumping and rolling through Wollongong on mobility scooters.

Mobility minefield

Just how many Australians rely on mobility scooters is hard to pin down. A 2012 study funded by insurer NRMA in partnership with consumer groups and government agencies cites a figure of 13 users per 1,000 adults (over the age of 18), or about 231,000 people.

Dr Harada says that despite the numbers, regulations and policies governing mobility scooter use vary from state to state.

In New South Wales, the Traffic Act classes scooter users as pedestrians. They’re not required to have registration or a licence. Whereas across the border in Queensland, scooters need to be registered, either in the name of the user or by the organisation supplying it for use.

I need a life. I get on my scooter and off I go. It’s just like having a car.

Linda Thompson

“Electric vehicles tend to be smaller, slower and lighter than vehicles we have now,” Dr Harada says. “The scooter is something in between what we have now and the utopian transport dream that most people tend to think of, yet it’s not provided for at all in a policy sense.”

Already there are parallels: with the single-passenger taxi drones under development in Dubai and Google’s Waymo prototype self-driving vehicle, autonomous tends to be synonymous with smaller.

Smaller and potentially shorter trips open the door for what researchers call the tighter integration of transport modes in a low-carbon future. Where the car is not king of road, but where it is one of many forms of transport accommodated.

Google's self-driving car

A prototype car that is part of Google’s autonomous vehicle project, Waymo. Photo: Google

The next ‘big thing’

Dr Birtchnell says the problem with technology is that despite the grand pronouncements made by entrepreneurs and those who have a vested interest in the mass uptake of a technology, no one really has a clue how it will turn out.

“Technology does not determine human actions; humans determine the application of technology,” Dr Birtchnell wrote in the book A New Industrial Future? 3D Printing and the Reconfiguring of Production, Distribution, and Consumption, co-authored with the late John Urry.

“Social and cultural forces are just as important in the development of technology as economic or technical ones.” Technology doesn’t follow a linear pathway. Innovations are most often a combination of different things used in a new way, but those combinations are unknown and unpredictable.

“In the ’90s no one thought touchscreens would go anywhere,” Dr Birtchnell says. “The thought at the time was, ‘who would want to look at a screen that had grubby fingerprints all over it’. Then before we know it, they’re everywhere.”

The scooter is something in between what we have now and the utopian transport dream yet it’s not provided for at all in a policy sense.

Dr Theresa Harada

More profound examples are readily available. The 1950s ushered in automation of production lines, leading to predictions of large-scale displacement of auto manufacturing jobs in the USA and UK.

“What really happened was the emergence of a large and cheap labour force in China and other parts of Asia. Those industries did change but it was nothing to do with automation in the end.”

Fast-forward to the 1980s and the advent of video conferencing led many to think long commutes and travel for work would be ancient history. Quite the opposite happened. Technology, and particularly the internet, enabled people to create wider networks with more people. At the same time, some cities disinvested in road and transport infrastructure.

“Instead of having more mobility we are spending more time commuting and travelling than ever,” Dr Birtchnell says.

Henry Ford attempted to apply industrialisation to society through his vision for an ideal city. Fordlandia, in Brazil, was started in 1928. The project was sold in 1945. Photos:  the collections of Henry Ford.

Who’s really driving?

A critical part of adopting technology is understanding inherent risks and the unintended consequences.

“Technologists and vested interests push the agenda for technology adoption,” Dr Birtchnell says. “Car manufacturers influence policy makers to sell more cars. Henry Ford was more than a man who drove mass production.

“He was a social pioneer. His strategy was to think about what it would take to make everyone buy a car. Not simply to mass produce and hope people adopted this new technology.”

The rest of course is history. The way we get around for work and for pleasure is virtually inseparable from a discussion about the car. People drive, not just to get from A to B, Dr Birtchnell says, they drive because they see the car as part of themselves.

These ingrained modes, supported by the associated infrastructure and tied up with people’s ego and sense of self, creates a dominant and rigid system designed for speed and efficiency, where the car is prioritised and other modes of transport take a back seat.

Witness the ongoing war over cyclists’ share of the road – and associated spending – in Sydney.

Linda Thompson wIth researcher Dr Theresa Harada. Photo: Paul Jones

 Blazing new trails

People using mobility scooters to find a sense of their freedom have to figure out how to navigate the inflexible systems that don’t do them any favours. Tough going when scooter top speed is 10 kilometres per hour.

“The scooters aren’t that fast,” Linda says. “When I’m crossing a wider road I have to do it in two goes. The centre median strip is just wide enough for me to stop in it. So, I race over to the middle, wait for a gap in traffic and then cross the second half.”

If it’s not the traffic, it’s the uneven, irregular and sometimes neglected paths, or the train stations that don’t have lifts, or the fear of leaving the scooter unattended outside a shopping centre.

Mavericks need to be supported and offered protective space to experiment. We can learn from them how a certain technology might unfold.

Dr Thomas Birtchnell

Yet, these mavericks could be blazing trails that leave clues to solving much larger developments and solutions to a more sustainable transport system. Their hacks and workarounds, from the shower cap to cover the control panel to knowing which footpaths and road crossings are best avoided, provide insights into how a world with electric cars and multiple modes of transport might work.

“Let’s take a ground-up approach where we let the mavericks experiment and figure it out before we go putting all our eggs in one basket,” Dr Birtchnell says. “They need to be supported and offered protective space to experiment and we can learn from them how a certain technology might unfold.”

Back in Warilla, Linda Thompson is keenly waiting for the technician to come by and fit her new tyres so she can flip the switch and roll down the road on Nelly.

Asked the best thing about owning a scooter, Linda has a single-word answer and a huge smile: “freedom”.

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