In micromobility, design for business. Style later.

Markus Wechselberger | Think Piece

There’s no room in the future of micromobility for styling. First, start-up companies and established brands must build viable business models.

Portrait of Markus Wechselberger
Markus Wechselberger

Here’s a vision: a future city is a car-free city. In this new normal, mobility culture is being remodelled and micromobility has emerged as a compelling way for people to get around. With such fundamental change happening, I can’t imagine a better time for transportation designers. They have the magic tools to play a key role in the future of micromobility.

Here’s the challenge: in micromobility, no one cares about the design.

Why? Because many micromobility companies are still struggling to prove their business case. There’s no room for design for the sake of styling. Design is about so much more than style. Done right, it’s central to the business.

As you are likely well aware, the previous way micromobility players got front-and-centre was to “blitzscale”. That meant loading up a jumbo jet with thousands of cheap and hastily-assembled e-scooters to be dumped onto city streets. From what we saw here at KISKA, it seemed that the strategy was sheer physical dominance and there was a steep price for being part of the show. E-scooters only lasted a few weeks, leading to financial black holes. Citizens bewildered by the abundance of e-scooters chucked them into rivers. City leaders were at a loss about how to proceed. Behind the scenes, we observed that it was business as usual as companies hunted for the next big investor to finance their next year in the market.

Despite all of this, the micromobility movement had begun. And expectations for its future continue to be high.


Great things emerged from bad design.

The silver lining is that in the midst of its growing pains, micromobility STILL managed to emerge as a desirable addition to the future mobility landscape. The bold start-ups and entrepreneurs that spearheaded this mobility shift deserve recognition here. Because of their courage to pave the way with the new technology, people recognised micromobility as a service with the potential to merge well into urban transportation.

Motivated by the pandemic, the big problems started getting solved too. Including e-scooter waste, bad riding experiences, and poor battery range. Clearly none of these challenges have to do with design for the sake of styling, because there is still too much to do to create a viable business model. The fact is, micromobility – like any industry – is a numbers game. Design only has value when it makes money and is part of your business model.

Solution: shift the role of design from styling to business success.

Broadly speaking, a designer has two roles: introduce a new technology, or differentiate it through brand once people are familiar. Which depends on how far along a company is in becoming trustable, profitable, and recognisable.

As such, the current role of a micromobility designer is not to make great looking e-scooters. Rather, their role is to design for business. Important, but often overlooked, designing for business ensures a technology generates sustained value for a company. From a business point of view, that’s a matter of life or death. This requires thinking about end-users of course, but also the many stakeholders involved. Like the city representatives who define the criteria in public tenders that allow micromobility into their cities, and have the power to repurpose space for e-scooters. Also, the manufacturers who need to ensure they can produce it. And, the CFO who needs to prepare for the risk to deploy it into market.

Right now, design in micromobility only works if business fundamentals are in place. Then you can, and should, differentiate with your brand. Of course, it always puts you in prime position if you start with a solid brand early on, but fixing the business takes priority now. So, let’s finish “baking the cake” before we decorate it. The future of our cities depends on it.


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