Bicycle Design Evolution – Irrelevant Designs and Wacky, Batty, Improbable Outliers

by Sabinna on September 29, 2010

Mommus made a comment in relation to my most recent post. The post tossed up some ideas concerning connections between (scientific) knowledge and the real world (applications). I will use the comment as a way to try and take the issue further, or at least in a bit of a different direction. Although Alexander’s comment brings things into perspective, with some editorial assistance, let me make the case that adventurous design involves much more than “taking risks” (see below). It also builds, I suppose, on this early post musing about the invention of the bicycle.

The issue of the pliable bike connects into the bicycle industry as a whole, and really must be considered in that context. It is not about any one facet, technical, inspirational, professionalism or lack of or whatever. Anyway, it is the the market that is the absolute arbiter.

It all comes down to an understanding what the market is along with what roles designers and design should, and actually do, play in it. The market, in essence, speaks in many voices – tuning into its varied currents and joining in the conversations where we can is not only fun, it’s where we are most of the time.


Mommus writes:

I agree that taking a few risks is essential to progress. However many of the concept designs I see these days have clearly not been properly considered at all. In Einstein’s day, it would be equivalent to EVERY possible theory of gravitation or relativity being published alongside respected theories, irrespective of how much research had been conducted on each, irrespective of how ridiculous it was.
It’s so easy to make a decent-looking 3d render these days that ideas which really have no valid engineering or design behind them make it onto design websites alongside genuine well-reseached pieces. Some nice-looking renders I’ve seen are no more than 3d versions of kindergarten sketches

I think design webistes and blogs do an excellent job of keeping people abreast of developments in the industry, but I believe greater distinction should be urged between ideas which will obviously never make it to production and those which genuinely aspire to become reality. Though I think the blame for disproportionate publicity of unworkable, unrealistic designs should fall squarely on the shoulders of the ‘designers’ who create these fantasy-bikes without a sound understanding of the possibilities in the real world.

To quote Richard Feynmann…

“Keep an open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out”

Valid engineering or design. Two connected but also separate issues. The critical point of intersection between them is the market. Now let me try to explain that 🙂

Valid engineering could be taken to mean that if a prototype of a 3D rendering was produced, it would be functionable – ie. rideable. But there’s no necessity to be forced into an either/or position here. If a prototype could move along a trajectory, even barely, then we have moved from either/or into a continuum. The real world is defined by continuum, or to put it another way, statistics rules.

If a prototype does not work at all, or in the case of the pliable bike, its instability was such that it was simply unrideable, then we might just throw it out. Or we might find some redeeming features somewhere in it.

We may find that, in fact, a re-working of the geometry will produce a functioning prototype. I note that there have been several suggestions for the pliable bike along these lines. It could well be that modification enough to make it rideable takes the design right away from the designer’s original vision, turning it from a ‘pliable’ bike into something else completely. Or maybe not. That’s the beauty of unintended consequences.

There are shades of the pliable bike design in Omer Sagiv‘s entry in this year’s 14th International Bicycle Design Competition, the “AO”. Well, I think there are. It’s just me. But then, how many others may have noticed similar correspondences?

Still, although the differences could be seen to be as stark as any similarities, how might an interchange or exchange of geometrical elements, mediated by this particular instance of the market doing its thing — other designers seeing things that nobody else can — result in a derived design or designs that takes us who-knows-where? That we may have to face montrosity is no reason for fear. What we are faced with is the truth of general, necessary, and unstoppable processes.

Evolution’s scrapheap

It’s fine to evoke Richard Feynman to support a purely engineering take on this.  However, physics has little to say to ecology, despite Feynmann’s attraction to biology. Coupled with the alarming description of his generation by the respected thinker Paul Feyerabend as “uncivilized savages” (now that’s harsh!) regarding a lack of intellectual depth of thinking on their part, I wonder whether he really is the right person to help make the case. Since market forces are all about an ecosystem of interacting “selective pressures”, I am inclined to call on another Richard, Richard Dawkins.

RD has observed that in the highly improbable evolution of a bat, for example, half a bat wing had its place in the scheme of things. In one of the myriad early evolutionary bat-like prototypes, nearly everyone of which was relegated to oblivion by selective forces, a bit of wing appears to have conferred a slight adaptive advantage. However slight, an advantage is an advantage. It leads in a direction.

What is the crime and who is the victim of wacky designs, of bits of bat wing turning up all over the place? They are simply the statistical consequence of market evolutionary forces at work. Each instance, exclusive in it’s wackyness, is, by itself, irrelevant. In the broad march of these processes, the population of instances is worked upon by market forces.

Wackyness won’t be at the top of the bell curve distribution of possibilities — it will be in the tails, as an outlier. And, of course, we would do well to remember Nicolas Taleb’s case supporting the importance of the outlier in precipitating rapid and far-reaching changes.

The weird contradictory logic at work here is that no one ‘case’ or ‘event’ is important in itself even though the probability remains, if extremely low, that any particular event or instance will make all the difference. In the long run, the probability is 100% that somewhere, sometime, somehow, one case will make all the difference.

But, of course, all this is further complicated in the era of the ‘long tail’ where wacky battyness is more likely to find a home sooner than later.


I believe greater distinction should be urged between ideas which will obviously never make it to production and those which genuinely aspire to become reality.

That is good advice and something which offending blogs would do well to take into account. It can only sharpen the terms of the debate. However, there are a whole host of issues raised here.

Let me begin by loosely summarizing Google’s approach to production. 20% of employee time must be directed towards coming up with new ideas fostering a culture of creating applications that people might want to use. Give them away for free, get them out there, and if the ideas fly, then figure out a way to make money from the product.

The point is to create something and turn it over to the market and see what particular elements in the long tail rise to the occasion. A lot of apps are produced – most go nowhere. Some show promise and can be re-worked. The odd outlier goes ballistic.

An app that has some merits is some part of the way towards some degree of market success. Selective forces will decide if what may actually only be ‘half an app’ gets to climb mount improbable, or get some up the slope at any rate.


Something along the lines of this could be said to occur in the International Bicycle Design Competition held each year in conjunction with the Taipei International Cycle Show. I’ll reference the most recent 14th IBDC since the remarks of one of the jurors, Han Goes, is especially interesting in light of the discussion and the specific issue of the pliable bike.

400 entries from 1000 applications were whittled down to 21 finalists. Their entries were available for viewing on-site in the form of scale models. There are no specific guidelines that designers have to conform to that I am aware of.

However, having surveyed the field, Han came up with a formula that he felt summed up the reference points designers were relying upon: *small wheels; compactness *multi-purpose functionality *UD principles *folding mechanism *electronic power support. You might say it amounts to a tacit evaluation on the part of the participants as to where the market is at the moment and where it is heading.

His overall impression of the general direction of design, exemplified in this year’s entries was quite pessimistic. He singled out the “conformity and congruence of all design directions taken, or better still, the lack of variation” as being a key villain.

But this was not the main problem. Han goes further lamenting the apparent restraint –a consequence of applying the formula — that designers placed on themselves: they are holding back their “own creativity, authenticity and independence in favor of pure jury pleasing”. He finishes by urging the IBDC organization and jurors to work on developing “new and creative ways to keep the level of disruptive, independent and authentic innovation as high as possible…” [emph.added] for next and future IBDC events.

We can complicate this all even further by asking what or who is the jury actually? Is it the official IBDC jurors. Is the technologists, exclusively, or partly. Is it cyclists who buy the bikes.Is it the entrepreneurs who are at the center of branding/design processes? Is it the component sourcing agents who scour the trade show booths? Is it a variable combination of these and more?

Yes, this is the market, in all it’s push and pull glory, which is never on show for all to see. It’s only ever seen and experienced from the point of view of a participant in it. The problem is not being able to see the forest for the trees — isn’t it always? Some are better than others in dealing with that.

In a comment on my previous article, Nick Hein makes the point that the problem is not with bicycles or the bicycling industry – it is with bicyclists who accept a 100-year-old design. I wonder what would result if this was the gauntlet thrown down to designers in future IBDC events? Currently marginal design directions may well break through to make things really interesting, although I feel the forces aligned against that occurring are mighty.

What about production for sale to specific, actual, targeted sections of the consumer side of the market? How many of these entries in one of, if not the, world’s  most prestigious bicycle design competition, were created explicitly with the idea that they would make the complete journey into production? I suspect that a whole host of market related factors, key amongst which would be the ‘formula’ that we will never really know about, but could have great fun speculating about, were behind their individual histories.

Returning to the pliable bike, if it had have been an IBDC entry, the argument could be made that it very much fits the description of “disruptive, independent and authentic” unlike the other entries as charged by Han Goes.

Perhaps it was up for contention this year, but did not make the final cut. Might this have been due to it’s questionable geometry? Or might it been due to a poverty of vision on the part of jurors who were disproportionately affected by perceptions of where the market is headed?

Still, despite Han’s misgivings as to the forces impinging on the direction of design for this year, it still represents the overall market-effect. The forces are real and acting ceaselessly. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the (evolutionary) road to a product that gets market acceptance is piled high with the carcasses of prototypes, and pieces thereof.

Many –most? — never go anywhere. They are individual statistics, evolutionary outcasts — until perhaps being rediscovered anew in the future — along the road. They are the industrial equivalent of Richard Dawkins’ ‘half a bat wing’.

Here’s a short vide0 by a friend outside my booth at the 2007 Taipei International Cycle Show. The LEV stew was being cooked up at the time but had yet to really be served up in volume. It is one batty design that, as far as I know, did not capture anyone’s imagination — it did not go viral. It certainly turned heads and created buzz in this corner of the show, as it was very difficult to ride despite the vendor/developer scooting hither and thither scaring the wits out of people. Was it an evolutionary dead end? Maybe. Probably. But never necessarily.

Boredom or Terror – a bleak choice

Returning to general issues, any addition to the discussion — whether we ultimately come to view that as a ‘contribution’ or not — is welcome in my view. And here I am speaking as a businessperson, as an entrepreneur who is ever on the lookout for interesting points of view.

I see the pliable bike as such an interesting POV, but, nevertheless, not all that interesting. Technology is the least of its problems. That can be solved should there be a market derived rationale to do it. It was, however, always worthy of a chance for greater exposure to judgement of the market and the industry as a whole.

As an entrepreneur always ‘on the lookout’ I must also take note of the buzz that has been generated by the design. That’s all a part of the ecology of the market doing its thing. A commotion in one corner of the forest attracts attention, and we can be sure that the impartial, unemotional gaze of the market will act as it always does.

This also reminds me of something I came across somewhere about existence consisting of long stretches of boredom relieved by shorter stretches of terror. The terror in question right here is the cruel democracy of the marketplace. Adding in the idea of the continuum enables a toning-down of the red-in-tooth-and-claw terror element here to more sedate periods of controlled excitement and just interesting stuff.

Well tone it down a bit, but not too far. I have to say in relation to this that I have worked with some lousy designers. They are great with the technology. AutoCAD chirps and hums clinically precise tunes in their hands. Advanced Photoshop is a leisurely ride in the park.

But as designers, as creative beings whose brief is to come up with that EUREKA! factor that captures the market’s imagination, or these days, that segment of the ‘long tail’ that you have in your sights, too many of them are not up to the job!

Their job is to realize my vision, read my mind, if you like. Success here depends on many factors (there’s always more factors!), paramount is communication. But that intuitive ability to ‘get it’, to ‘tune in’ is hard to come by, unlike the trade skill of configuring geometry.

Bicycle design is not rocket science by a long shot. It is complex though, because it lives in the jungles and woodlands that make up its particular marketplace, and the people who can read the lay of the land are hard to find.

Leaving the Richards to one side for now, I’ll leave it up to a Friedrich, Friedrich Nietsche whose biography I am slowly, but steadily, making my way through to offer a simple insight: “Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?”  Ok, I didn’t really need Friedrich to say what most of us have thought from time to time. It’s just that here is someone whose vision went way beyond all others.

A rather nice cover design which interacts in interesting ways with the stature of the figure who is the subject of the book.

Bring on the wacky designs — the long tail is wagging happily with this one!!. At the very least, they are a lot of fun. At the very least they inject energy into the conversation in their own disruptive, independent and authentic ways. Give me excitement over boredom any day coz there’s more than enough of the latter to go around.

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