The past future

The lectures for the master course “Create the Future” have been quite enlightening: it mixes engineering with societal and political factors in order to develop products that display a great long term viability and resilience. There are a lot of structural approaches to forecasting, for example technology roadmaps or Delphi studies. With a bit of googling one can come across some quite scintillating trend maps.

History is riddled with examples of great ideas that were not suitable for their time, or were met with substantial resistance before being embraced and wholly incorporated. Adoption of technology is something we tend to take for granted, especially in a time when technological advancement seems to progress at an exponential rate, however in a lot of cases it is and was really not as straightforward as we think.

The car is a perfect example thereof: in the beginning gas-powered cars were considered noisy, uncomfortable, and difficult to drive. They were also considered dangerous: in the UK the Locomotion Act of 1865 stipulated that speed was limited to 3 km/h in towns and 6 km/h in the country, and someone would have to walk 55 metres in front of the car waving a red flag – an idea so foreign to us it’s almost ridiculous. At the time however, people deemed it a necessity.

As unlikely as it may sound to us now, electric cars were the preferred option at the time. An unlikeliness that has its roots in the way we view cars now and what requirements we think it needs to fulfil. But how often do we stop to think about how inefficient it is to (mainly) transport a 75 kg human with a 1500 kg product? Or if we ever really use our cars to travel vast distances? They are consumerist needs we have grown accustomed to and accepted as the norm, but are not true requirements.

Same goes for the new clean energy options for cars as presented to us by the big corporations. Hydrogen is put forward as the ideal candidate for storing energy for our electric cars, rather than batteries. One needs to realise the reasoning behind this, from the perspective of the corporations: the car industry has a lot of branches reaching into various aspects of our everyday life. Think of gas stations to fill up your tank, garages for car repair, spare parts production, refinement installations, etc. If one moves to an option that does not use as many moving parts and allows the user to recharge their vehicle at home, the majority of branches will be redundant. Simple reasoning however tells us that the efficiency of using batteries is substantially higher than that of using hydrogen, keeping into account return losses on transforming and transporting energy.

Anywho, I’m rambling. The goal of “Create the Future” is to envision (electric) mobility for the year 2030 with aid of the aforementioned tools. It is great fun to delve into the past, extrapolate this for the future, and think outside the box to create promising future product concepts.


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