Open source designs lead to engagement and opportunity in Asian markets.
From China and Taiwan in the North to Indonesia in the South, scooters are essential in most growing Asian markets. They provide affordable mobility for urban dwellers and are available in a range of brands, price points, and designs.
Loose regulations and widespread access to small factories and local garages make scooters a perfect hotbed for experimenting with customized solutions. We set out to explore this customization and meet the urban travelers who tailor and adapt scooters; what we uncovered was an ecosystem that offers incredible value for both scooter and automobile manufacturers alike.
Through a series of guerrilla design research interviews in Shanghai and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we explored how scooters play a critical role in many families’ livelihoods by enabling small business owners to move things and people while offering services or selling goods. The workers we met were both imaginative and resourceful when thinking of new business ideas and opportunities — largely enabled by scooters. They leverage customized scooters to transport, store, and showcase their goods and equipment.
Mr. Yang is a freelance deliveryman. Every day he rides his scooter to the delivery center to claim tasks and load goods before starting his journey to the different neighborhoods within his service zone. Mr. Yang loads as much as the scooter can hold to maximize the number of deliveries he can complete. He makes good use of custom add-ons such as hooks and a flip-out platform.
Looking at the fully-packed scooters and carts closely, we saw how challenging it is to securely balance and mount the load and get through the clogged roads in the middle of traffic. For this scenario we found that a dedicated, local solution had emerged. We dubbed it ‘The Rhino” — a sturdy, somewhat elongated scooter tailored to workers who move and deliver a large amount of goods every day.
The Service Provider
Mr. Zhang runs a small business as a decorator and is open for various maintenance tasks in private apartments and business offices. He carries his entire workshop (drills, buckets, pipes, etc.), so he can offer his services anywhere in the city. He set up his scooter with ropes, rubber tires, and wooden platforms to fasten his tools and store personal items such as bowls, chopsticks, and other items he might need during the day.
Asian microworkers offer services that require them to be mobile and ready to go whenever their customers need them. When they are available for work, they prefer to be at a visible spot in the city center so the next customer can hire them. Their two-wheelers must carry many objects over a distance but often stand idle for hours, giving them plenty of time to recharge. Service providers like Mr. Zhang have turned scooters into mobile office solutions that accommodate tools, equipment, and materials to support temp jobs and services.
Mr. Liu is a street merchant selling fruit throughout the city. He built his mobile storefront atop an old three-wheeler, which he converted into an electric bike using components bought at a scooter market. Each day he scours high-traffic parts of the city for buyers; we met him in front of an elementary school in the late afternoon. His cart is everything in one: self-advertisement, point-of-sale, and kitchen counter for preparation and packaging.
Street markets are a staple in Asian cities. Merchants make use of scooters to commute to busy crossings, to carry massive amounts of goods, and to serve customers. Grocers and juice makers have a lot of produce to transport across the city, and because they move and switch spots many times during the day, they need to unpack everything quickly. Street cooks need many ingredients and pieces of equipment; they even need tables and seating for their customers. Scooters are regularly modified into street food carts to meet these needs.
Today’s manufacturers typically accelerate their innovation and production cycles aiming to maximize differentiation and newness in ultra-competitive markets. But our research demonstrated that it is simplicity and engineering accessibility that is most likely to inspire and enable the local solutions we have seen.
It may seem naive and idealistic to advocate for openness and backward-compatibility, but it can be good business: one of the most successful scooter models was invented with customization in mind. As early as 1958, Honda rolled out the Super Cub model, designed to be simple and understandable enough so that engineers in emerging markets (at the time this meant postwar Europe) could repair and customize it without specific expertise, advanced tools, and spare parts. This contributed to the Super Cub becoming the most produced motor vehicle in history (sales surpassed 60 million units in 2008), and customized versions can still be seen across Asia today.
With its more recent Zoomer model (aka Ruckus), Honda created another example showing how a simple, iconic, yet understandable design can inspire customization. This approach can maximize the return on investment by prolonging a model’s shelf life, creating deeper engagement with owners and generating support through local dealers and garages. Our research shows that this support is important because businesses in Asia see much greater endorsement when they create products and services that — in addition to customer needs — respond to the goals of the adjacent businesses.
Craftspeople, workers, and tinkerers throughout Asia have developed an ecosystem that is attuned to meeting specialized scooter needs. Manufacturers would be wise to learn from them and support a “hackable” ecosystem rather than designing products that are purposefully inaccessible.
Tinkering as engagement
Building scooters as open platforms would require a massive shift in the status quo. Today manufacturers continue to follow an exclusive approach. Their designs require specific tools that intentionally create barriers for engineers without special equipment and training. Moreover, some automakers are lobbying for American regulations that would classify certain types of car customization as copyright infringement.
We set out to explore this customization and meet the urban travelers who tailor and adapt scooters; what we uncovered was an ecosystem that offers incredible value for both scooter and automobile manufacturers alike.
While this closed approach may help protect intellectual property and secure after-sales revenue in the short-run, it could negatively impact the loyalty and promotion that more accessible designs get from influential local garages. Forward-looking brands seem to embrace this new paradigm better than their traditional counterparts: Tesla’s Elon Musk announced that all Tesla-held patents would be open to use by competitors.
We hope other manufacturers follow Tesla’s lead and develop vehicles as platforms that can be modified, adapted, and built upon. By embracing this bottom-up customization, the transportation industry can turn its products into supported open platforms and engage with its own customers by assisting the evolution of completely new types of customizations, businesses, and jobs. Today’s hacks would become tomorrow’s products, turning what is now an informal activity into sustainable and long-term relationships between industry, people, and businesses.
As Vice President, Creative, Rainer leads a multi-disciplinary team of creatives in the Asia Pacific region from frog's studio in Shanghai, where he has been based since 2009. He partners with frog’s local and global clients to help them embrace change and transform their businesses to drive growth.
Azure is a former senior interaction designer based in frog's Shanghai studio.
Simone is an Interaction designer in Shanghai where he designs digital, tangible and behavioral interfaces.
Henry is a visual design intern in frog’s Shanghai studio. Supported by his technology background, he executes design from a cross disciplinary point of view and systematic thinking.
Julia is an intern in frog's Shanghai studio.