Bicycle Innovation, Bicycle Design, the Laws of Physics and Imagination

by Sabinna on September 22, 2010

My starting point for this post is James T.’s recent post on Saul Maret’s “pliable” bike, a concept extension of the folding bike design. The idea is that it can be folded into multiple positions, and still be wheeled around when collapsed. This is basically just an idea, although one which is very well developed.

I was surprised by many of the comments, which dismissed it as an impossibility, many in quite a hostile way. This is not to say that they were not right–the arguments for the implausibility of the design stands at the moment are strong. What was interesting in the discussion that the post generated is that it revealed sharply contrasted positions amongst the discussants about the way that thoughts connect with the real world.

What added extra significance for me was the appearance of Timothy Willimason’s article in the New York Times at around the at the same time. In it he looks at the interplay between imagination and reality, the main idea being that imagination is centrally important in both relating to, and manipulating, reality, if I could summarize it like this. The article is well worth a close read.

For example, in dealing with a complex situation — and I think coming up with new and different designs for human-propelled transportation machines qualifies — the imagining of alternate possibilities works with what we already know to lead us to what we don’t know. It’s not that there is imagination or fantasy on one side and cold, hard reality on the other.

This whole scenario seems similar to the central and ongoing debate about research directions in Universities. Should research be narrowly focused on particular areas that serve explicit needs, or should researchers be able to wander freely in any direction that their imaginations and desires take them?

Personally I’m all for freely wandering since many unanticipated important scientific discoveries or insights have resulted from this. (This article goes quite deeply into the issues and processes involved in the movement between ideas and the different contexts that help them thrive or die).

Additionally, Albert Einstein, if I remember rightly, is supposed to have said that if unless at first the idea seems completely absurd and impossible, then just forget about it. Our understanding of gravity has been transformed since it is now widely accepted that this “force” is actually curved time-space, quite a wild and crazy idea at the time.

Perhaps this all may just reflect the reality of bicycle history in that the bicycle has basically remained unchanged since the advent of the safety in the mid 1880s–the basic design is hard to improve upon because it is near perfection.

It’s tempting to make a wobbly connection between bikes and sharks. Sharks have not only survived the dinosaurs but have basically remained unchanged; they have reached the extremes of possibility for their ecological niche.

Stretching this comparison, with the advent of enduring (bitumen) roads, a person riding a modern bicycle is one of the most efficient systems in the universe. Significant modification of the design is going to take quite a bit of imagination and expanding the realms of the possible to produce radical change.

I think Treehugger’s comments about the pliable bike summed up in “you have break a few eggs to make an omelette”, shows the spirit of openess to the potential of the imagination that needs to be nurtured and encouraged, however. Without this, there will be no progress.

I will be interested to see what impact the development of very sophisticated 3D printers might have in the future. I don’t think it is too far into the realms of fantasy to predict that, within a decade, any well-developed concept such as the pliable bike could be fabricated into a prototype within a day of the production of it’s final CAD draft. This may allow more rapid evaluations as to the degree of practical plausability of a such a design and others that would seem to be lacking in plausability at the time. I hope to put together a post in the near future exploring and speculating (of course!) on this general subject.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim N. September 23, 2010 at 5:07 AM

He said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

But Einstein was a man with training, so his ideas had a firm basis in theory and experiment. I think, to some extent, the objection stems from a feeling of being offended that someone would proffer a design without doing any research or experimentation.

If you think about it from the perspective of something that you know well, and some outsider suggesting an absurd idea, you may understand the acrimony these designs generate.

Loving the Bike September 23, 2010 at 8:39 PM

Go for it….you really do amaze me with all your knowledge and incredible insight in the world and design of bikes.

Darryl

mommus September 24, 2010 at 6:06 PM

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”

sabinnaden September 25, 2010 at 3:44 PM

Thanks Darryl, finding the time to put that post together is going to be the trickiest part of the exercise. Taipei Show is still 6 months away…but it might as well be next month…busy, busy 🙂

sabinnaden September 26, 2010 at 10:18 AM

Thanks for your comment. There are a few issues here that I’ll take up in a separate post. I think a lot hinges on what the different parties involved in the total industrial endeavor that is the bicycle industry understand by “properly considered”.

Alexander September 26, 2010 at 5:11 PM

Encouragement…encouragement…so much genius is wasted by lack of encouragement.
One has to have hundred’s of ideas to have one good one…or..
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution”….or…
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”….or…
“Innovation is not the product of logical thought, even though the final product is tied to a logical structure”….all by A.Einstein
…and…
“I just invent, then wait until man comes around to needing what I’ve invented”…or…
“I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuity. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life-preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life-preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem.” …or…
“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly”…all by Richard Buckminster Fuller.

Nick Hein September 27, 2010 at 10:44 PM

After reading your article I feel compelled to comment, bicycles were originally conceived as a replacement for the horse. As such I agree that they have reached practical limits of optimization, but I think the more important question is whether they provide better transportation. Automobiles did not stop development when they became a replacement for the horse and buggy, why should bike development stop where it is? Why shouldn’t bicycle (and tricycle) development be continued and encouraged until it has reached the peak of practicality for transportation – providing the ability to move its rider efficiently and sustainability between any places under any conditions? This is a rhetorical question actually, there are individuals (myself included) who have already done so. The problem is not with bicycles or the bicycling industry – it is with bicyclists who accept a 100-year-old design. If every cyclist learned what unlimited bicycle designs can do (streamlined recumbents now hold every speed record for human power in every distance and class) they wouldn’t settle for the stagnant state of factory and (UCI-regulated) competition bikes. I would encourage you and your readers to talk to their LBS owners and anyone they know in the bike industry and demand a bike that will meet their transportation needs like cars do, but with just the rider for power. This will not only mean more selection for those of us who already go places under our own power (I’ve been car-free since 2001) but will bring more people into bicycling, the ones who don’t want to get wet.
Nick Hein, Morgantown, WV

sabinnaden September 28, 2010 at 5:28 AM

Great comments.”The problem is not with bicycles or the bicycling industry – it is with bicyclists who accept a 100-year-old design.” That would be an interesting basis for a new approach to design in next years IBDC.

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