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RCA designs mobility for life

First publishedin ITS International
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RCA - Utopia PIC CREDIT Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.jpg

The Royal College of Art is a design powerhouse, and researcher Artur Mausbach is turning his attention to what future mobility will look – and feel – like. Adam Hill finds out more

The name Royal College of Art (RCA) does not immediately bring to mind images of industrial design. But past alumni of this prestigious London institution include vacuum cleaner king James Dyson as well as that former enfant terrible of the artistic world, Tracey Emin: the RCA has always had a foot in both camps.

And now it has turned its attention to exactly what the future of mobility will look like.

“It’s the oldest art and design school,” explains Artur Mausbach, senior research fellow at the RCA’s Intelligent Mobility Design Centre (IMDC) in Battersea, south London, a widget’s throw from the River Thames. “There is a very different approach here,” he continues. “There is such a strong presence of inspiration, of art and the innovation of art in design, that you don’t see in many schools, that gives creativity a completely different dimension.”

The RCA is “famous for designing the most beautiful cars in the world”, smiles Mausbach. “But it is also important to show the more functional side of design. As a design centre we are multi-disciplinary, human-centred. We don’t call ourselves a ‘research’ centre – we do research but it’s a design-led approach.”

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will change the way we think about cars and driving, and this is something that intrigues the IMDC, which emphasises its interest in people, products, vehicles, architecture, infrastructure and the environment. “Everything we look at, we are touching all of these layers,” he goes on. “It’s not as isolated as car design was. We are much more mixed than just a body of vehicle designers.”

Inspiring vision

Art, as far as the IMDC is concerned, is an overlooked part of a hard-edged world that has much to offer: STEM – science, technology, engineering, maths – can become ‘STEAM’ if you add ‘art’ into the mix, Mausbach says. This is the ‘softer’ side of ITS, one that realises something important: people need to be inspired.

London’s GATEway project, a series of trials in the Greenwich area looking at how AVs could fit into people’s everyday lives, is a good case in point. “RCA’s part was understanding how people feel about those vehicles, how people would embrace them,” he points out. In mobility terms, this puts organisations like the IMDC into unusual – perhaps unique – territory. There are myriad tests of AVs going on round the world, from California to China – but most of these are focused, understandably, on safety. IMDC is not – it is focused on how people respond to new mobility paradigms. This is very important: for new ideas such as Mobility as a Service (MaaS) to gain wide acceptance, for example, people will need to understand how it works for them. There is a better chance of that happening if they have been part of the design process – the design of services, and the design of the vehicles themselves.

Automotive manufacturers understand this. In fact, it was a donation from Hyundai-Kia which made it possible to create a standalone identity for the IMDC, whose remit is ‘user-focused development’. Research students have been part of the IMDC for the last decade or so and the team includes PhDs in vehicle design (formerly called ‘automotive design’).

Above all, the IMDC enjoys co-creation, Mausbach says. “One thing we value is having projects with partners. We’d like to share – we don’t want to act as a consultancy but to collaborate in the development of knowledge. Design is evolving, with different trends, different specialities. We work with people, using workshops and shadowing, for example. We are focused on understanding their needs.”

Digital ‘utopia’

To this end, IMDC created a ‘utopian universe’, a digital version of London that imagined the city of the future and its relationship to AVs, as part of an exhibition in association with London’s Transport Museum. “One of the most important powers that the RCA can give is the ‘visionary thing’,” smiles Mausbach. “There’s nothing that can provoke people more to understand than seeing: ‘Ah, so this is what the future will look like’. We’re showing all these things to people to make them think.”

On the highly topical subject of smart cities, he says there is a need to make things more socially inclusive and to learn how the environment is being impacted. “Not all solutions have the equality they could have, for ages or for demographics,” he says. “How will people adapt? Learn to share things? A lot of things relate to car culture.” That culture is changing, of course. Mausbach recalls how, when he was 11 years old, growing up in Brazil, “the first thing I wanted was my driver’s licence”. But many 20-year olds today cannot drive “and they don’t care!” It is a trend that car manufacturers are perhaps not catching up with. “Vehicle design doesn’t exist,” he laughs. “It’s ‘intelligent mobility’. That’s quite shocking for students too.” This shift in approach has created a shift in those who want to get involved. “It’s changed the type of students,” he says thoughtfully. “They are not just skilled but intellectual as well. There’s been a bit of a change of profile.”

There are a lot of ‘design leaders’ among the RCA’s alumni, and the college expects that to continue. “They will be expected to lead a new world of mobility so must be ready for that. You’re still going to make everything beautiful and pleasant!”

If you consider how much the private driving experience has evolved in the last 30 years – in terms of comfort, safety, reliability, convenience and so on – it is easy to make the case that other transport modes are lagging behind. “I’m not sure services have evolved at the same level,” he muses. “Airlines are probably the most well developed.” But flying shows up the extremes in the travellers’ experience: great if you are in first class, but “travelling coach is worse each day”.

There is a lot to address, he says. For the record, Mausbach commutes along the River Thames from his home in the Putney area of London to the IMDC. He eschews London’s often-crowded Underground system. “The Tube is a 20th century way of moving people,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “It’s not for living. One of the key factors in a solution is: how is it going to be better? It can’t just be convenient, it has to be comfortable. When we think about the future of mobility, what’s the experience people have on the journey? Is it positive? Tube, buses, cars, bikes – do we have anything that is not more than 100 years old? It’s about time we did. These are exhausted, in a way.”

Design for life

The Royal College of Art’s Intelligent Mobility Design Centre currently has five main areas of research:

• Designing experiences and behaviours for driverless rides
• Inclusive design approaches for smart city mobility
• Mobility solutions for fast-growing cities and emerging economies
• Alternative vehicle types and typologies
• Car culture paradigm shifts

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