Sustainable Personal Mobility and Mobility-on-Demand Systems

Published Jun-04-10

An open innovation competition for breakthrough ideas that tackle today’s major crises such as climate change and poverty. The 2009 winner was a ground-breaking urban mobility system that addresses several concerns from pollution and congestion to urban space and energy use.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States

The Story:

Sustainable Personal Mobility and Mobility-on-Demand Systems The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is an annual open innovation competition hosted by the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI). It encourages the creation of ideas to solve some of the planet’s most urgent problems.

Open Innovation and Big Money Prizes

The organizers encourage participants to think big. In offering a $100,000 first prize the BFI is not looking for a specific gadget or stand-alone innovation, but an integrated strategy that could include a new design, material or process to help deal with fundamental social and economic problems.

“We’re looking for comprehensive anticipatory design solutions that address multiple problems without creating new ones down the road - integrated strategies dealing with key social, economic, environmental, and cultural issues,” explained Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

The emphasis of this particular open innovation contest is on solutions that follow what the BFI calls the “trimtab principle”. Trimtabs are small surfaces on ships and aircraft that can produce a massive advantageous change from relatively minimal amounts of leverage, energy and resources.

The innovations must adopt a systems approach to design which was pioneered by Buckminster Fuller.

Evaluating Finalists

The 2009 competition attracted widespread interest and the large body of submissions were whittled down to 33 finalists. A jury spent two months assessing these proposals and the eventual winner was an interdisciplinary team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their Sustainable Personal Mobility and Mobility-on-Demand Systems (SPM/MoD).

Urban Mobility System

This innovative urban mobility system is a fleet of shared use lightweight, highly efficient electric vehicles stationed at automatic charging racks throughout a city. The team designed several new battery-electric vehicles – the CityCar, the RoboScooter, and the Green Wheel Electric bicycle – that have low carbon footprints and no tailpipe emissions and don't compromise on safety and comfort.

A user simply turns up to an automatic charging rack, swipe a credit card to pick up a vehicle and drive it to a drop-off point near their intended destination.

At the time of winning the team behind this environmentally friendly one-way rental system had completed the conceptual designs of the vehicles and of the mobility on-demand systems. Working prototypes of each of the vehicles had also been completed.

By presenting an alternative to gasoline-powered modes of transport the SPM/MoD strategy tackles a number of issues including local noise levels, pollution, congestion, petroleum dependence and carbon emissions.

The team invested the $100,000 prize money in technical development and business modeling to make their offering more attractive to venture capitalists.

Advantages of Open Innovation Competitions

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is a clear demonstration of the benefits of open innovation competitions that are now being adopted to solve a wide range of problems.

They bring together talented pools of individuals from different backgrounds to drive innovation forward in highly targeted ways. And in an increasingly networked and tech savvy world such competitions are not only helping the common good, but they have the power to change the face of business as we know it.

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