Mo-bike – the development dream?

I remember the day I noticed mo-bikes, the new shared bikes that have literally taken over several cities in China. They had this attractive bright orange design, and I would spot them parked in random places, rather than dedicated bike holds. I was so curious I took a photo to later ask my Chinese friends about them.
Fast-forward six months and these orange bikes are now everywhere. In addition, there are yellow and blue bikes – owned by two competing companies – respectively ofo and bluegogo – for what is now a saturated but energetic market, at least in Beijing. These days people complain that the sidewalks are too littered with the bikes. During Beijjng’s rush hour, the sea of orange, yellow and blue at traffic lights is quite mesmerising. There are now talks of mo-bike, ofo and others taking this new “China model” of bike sharing to many other parts of the world, including high income countries such as the Singapore and the UK, where traditional bike-sharing schemes have already been introduced. The important thing to note is the China model is an innovation on existing models.
But that’s not the only interesting aspect of the shared bikes. What is also interesting is what lessons this Chinese innovation can offer for development. 

In many ways what mo-bike have fulfilled is effectively the dream of many, many people working in development. Whether aiming to solve problems like malaria or the Zika virusaccess to energy, low agricultural productivity or clean water – we all desperately want our ideas and projects to be able to scale up like this.
But too often – and unfortunately – we see that they don’t. We pilot, and pilot again, then extend pilots and eventually just keep going because it is an established project. Or, in other cases the funding slowly dries up and we move on to the next big idea. It can be very frustrating, for practitioners and aid recipients alike.

Can we learn lessons from China’s bike-sharing model – to help us get out of this frustrating circle? Is it even possible to ever really scale up like this – from me seeing one strange orange bike 6 months ago to cities being covered by them?

In my view, I think there are two lessons, or two things that mo-bike did differently to most development practitioners – from World Bank staff to Bill and Melinda Gates, and myself included.

First, in development we are taught constantly to focus on what recipients need. That’s absolutely the right start. In the case of Beijing the city has incredibly congested roads and they have needed people to get out of their cars and cycle more. Like most development workers people easily identified the need, they even set up regular bike sharing similar to London’s “Boris bikes” and bike sharing in Mexico City. But like most development programmes identifying the need was not enough and Beijing’s shared bikes were only moderately succesful.

But mo-bike did not just focus their solution on people’s needs. They focused their solution on what people wanted as well.

People want to be able to find their travel solution anywhere they need it, as well as stop their journey anywhere it is most convenient. Mo-bike realised that people wanted to avoid the hassle of going to and dropping off at bike docks. Instead, the company could enable the bikes with GPS and employ someone else to move the bikes as needed. This added “wanted” flexibility has helped mo-bikes take off faster than other shared bike schemes.
Second, as development practitioners we are always in need of money, so we always try to minimise the costs of the solutions we plan to deliver. Mo-bike on the other hand, didn’t just focus on cost. They took design – aesthetics – seriously. The new bikes are not heavy, they are colourful, they don’t feature heavy advertising… they are visible, distinctive, and look good – with the result that young people in particular have snapped them up readily. In contrast, as development practitioners, aesthetics is often the last thing we prioritise, if at all. We usually trim everything down to the basics. The Mo-bike China example tells us this is to our peril. Looks and feel matter.

We might think we know what is best for people and what they need but unless that also chimes with what they want our solutions will be like shared bikes just rusting in their bike docks.

Development practitioners can and should start to put these two lessons – to focus on wants and aesthetics – into action.  Who knows, following the innovative China model may just lead to better and bigger results globally.

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