An Anthropological Analogy

In the remote mountain ranges of Wyoming, an anthropologist was faced with a problem: how to sift through hundreds of pounds of rocks and dirt to extract minute pieces of fossil and still remain productive during limited time on borrowed land? Talking with the land-owner about the location of a hose and sink, the land-owner matter-of-factly recommended he simply suspend the rocks in burlap bags in the stream running behind his house, and let the current sift the material. It worked like a charm. Truckloads of rock were reduced to a few boxes, and dig time was regained.

The relationship between an anthropologist and the land-owner is one of necessary collaboration, not only in ideation but in implementation. I find a lot of inspiration from this anecdote, as modern design thinking encourages this same interaction when designers set out to define and solve a problem with clients, stakeholders, or teammates.

A recent empirical study by transportation planners in Amsterdam showed that traffic lights at particular intersection were largely unnecessary for the growing cyclist population (at that time making up 70% of traffic trips in the city-center). Traffic movement was stagnate, cyclists hated the intersection, and most all commuters regarded the intersection with passive tolerance. They made the decision to shut off the lights, and afterwards bike riders, car drivers, and pedestrians all had to rely on their verbal and non-verbal cues to navigate the intersection. No long lines of cars, no huddled masses of bike riders; just constant and (mostly) peaceful movement. It’s a solution that was right in front of them.

This infrastructure change happened because of a critical mass of bike riders, but could the reverse be possible? Could a small shift in expected road design cause a reciprocal shift in commuter behavior? Some recent informal interviews with people that fall into the “interested but concerned” category of bike rider reveal specific barriers stand in the way of their commuting choices, including safety on the road (protected lanes, well-lit streets, or speed of surrounding traffic) and amenities at work (showers, lockers, indoor bike storage).

Marshall McLuhan writes that media’s impact on society is by way of acceleration and disruption1. Speed becomes a chief factor to McLuhan in his diagnosis of a certain medium’s impact, each new medium becoming “faster” and less apt to fit the world of its predecessors. He even devotes a chapter to the bicycle’s impact on speeding up human mobility, and its contributions to manned flight. This identification of the bicycle as a fast technological invention is echoed by Paul Smethurst, in which he also states the modern bicycle is now “associated with the cult of the slow.”This is intriguing to me as a possible explanation for the somewhat slow re-adoption of, or hesitance in, broader shares of bicycle activity and progressive infrastructure. Perhaps it is seen as a retrenchment of progress? An anti-American regression? Is it bad to slow down? Are autonomous cars just sexier? What’s the big hurry?

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Paul Smethurst, The Bicycle–Towards a Global History

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