Design oriented faculties of the TU Delft today partly gain new knowledge by advanced product development, next to regular research. The “Research by Design” approach enables the answering of research questions that otherwise would be difficult to deal with: in addition to disciplinary problem solution and simulation models, the integration of multiple elements in an advanced, real product design indicates if and under what circumstances user benefits can be realized.
The role of the industrial designer consists here in fostering the transition of the potentialities of new principles and technologies to superior product functionalities.
In the SoftMob program of the Delft Design Institute and the section Design for Sustainability of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, this approach is being applied on problems and opportunities in the transport area. Particularly, the question has been raised (1) if and how new inter-modal, soft mobility product concepts can contribute to more sustainable transport systems of the future; and (2) how these concepts could be embedded in economically sound service systems.
The paper describes the background of the SoftMob program as well as the lessons learnt from quite a number of previous studies and designs. From market research it was found that an emerging need exists from commuters for a small portable device, like the folding bike, but with more comfort and auto-propulsion. Therefore, the Link concept has been developed, a foldable small scooter ready for electrical assistance and/or an advanced battery system or a small hydrogen fuel cell.
In order to be able to build the Link, extensive studies had to be undertaken in the areas of novel materials, fuel cells, new battery development, energy management etc. Furthermore, a network of companies, design practitioners and experts has been established. Only via the design of a prototype the research question could be answered if and how these new technologies and principles could be integrated in a product with superior characteristics. Although further testing is needed and niche experiments should give more definite answers, Link is considered to be a feasible and attractive new concept.
Implementation is foreseen in Friesland, where the conditions for introduction of Link in a future, sustainable transport system are favourable. Besides, the project fostered the knowledge building on new materials, emerging energy technologies and comfort. By systematically applying a variety of industrial design methods and tools, additional valuable new insights on development methodology could be gained.
The positive experiences with the SoftMob program and the Link concept in particular have confirmed the Delft Design Institute and the Design for Sustainability program' management decision to continue their parallel research and design quest aimed at deepening and integrating design knowledge and creating solutions for societal –sustainable mobility– problems at the same time.