Vannevar Bush is an almost complete unknown even among innovation experts, and yet he was responsible for laying the foundation for the American technological dominance that still exists. It began under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. In 1940, the MIT professor was an advisor to President Roosevelt and realized that, in the face of the Nazi regime’s campaign of conquest in Europe, a radically different approach to this threat was necessary. Bush wanted to ensure that the United States would be the initiator, not the victim, of technological innovation. To that end, he cultivated a culture and established a system within U.S. agencies that allowed for rapid and radical breakthroughs.
For example, the first radars had already been installed in the fighter planes, only the crews hardly used them. Bush demanded that pilots sit down with radar technicians and explain why they were not using radar technology. The reasons had nothing to do with the technology itself, but with the complexities of operating it. During a combat mission, crews did not have time to operate the many switches and dials. In other words, the user interface – the UI design – was just grotty. The radar engineers then developed the radar viewer, a circular display with a line that rotated in a circle and then showed other aircraft. This change proved to be one of the innovations that decided the war.
These activities subsequently gave rise to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which in 1958 would become the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Military research projects also, for the most part, have clear goals: Fly higher, go faster, dive deeper, be quieter, hit more accurately, make more invisible, or just ‘make it easier to operate.’ From these, better metrics can usually be defined to be surpassed and against which research performance can be measured.
What can make the difference between life and death in military operations is the difference between bestseller and bankruptcy in the private sector. If Nokia followed the design paradigm of cheap phones packed with many manufacturer-determined functions that was prevalent in the telecommunications industry at the time, Apple turned it on its head. Expensive smartphones with initially a single button, which was to be omitted entirely in later versions, the functions of which could be customized by customers themselves through software.
Uber founder Travis Kalanick was obsessed with this design paradigm. It should be possible to order a ride with as few steps as possible. He refused to include a function that Uber customers had repeatedly demanded – the ability to transfer tips to drivers – because this one more step increased ‘friction in the system’.
Such a design principle proves much more important for applications that were originally intended for disadvantaged groups of people and then proved to be beneficial for many others as well. For example, building codes that allow handicapped people access to buildings, or ramps for wheelchairs on sidewalks, are not only an advantage for people with walking disabilities, but also for many other people. Parents with a stroller, elderly with a cane, people with a broken foot, travelers with wheeled suitcases, or delivery services that transport goods on wheeled carts all benefit from these ramps. While originally criticized by some as a useless expenditure of money for a small target group, this design turned out to be beneficial for a much larger segment of the population.
Unfortunately, the ‘frictionless design paradigm’ is rather rare for public authorities (but also private companies). While the legislator has a clearly defined group of citizens in mind when it comes to building law and handicapped-accessible facilities, this frame of thought stops again for others. The interaction with an authority is felt only in few cases as pleasant. In most cases, they are characterized by slowness, the filling out of many forms with repeated entries of similar information, often still on paper instead of an app or on the Internet.
Not only should authorities observe the ‘frictionless design paradigm’ in themselves, but also where they set guidelines. A current example is the specification of how to pay at charging stations for electric cars. So far, there has been a proliferation there, as different operators require charging cards that are either sent as a physical, credit-card-sized card, or are available digitally on a smartphone, with a credit card or bank account linked behind them. Other operators also offer a credit card reader that can be used to pay without a charging card. Another complicating factor for customers was that billing was not standardized and it was not clear to motorists whether they were being billed per hour or per kW. The Weights and Measures Office has now specified the latter.
When it comes to payment options, however, an opportunity has now been missed by the authorities that would have enabled a smoother design and thus greater acceptance of electric cars. On May 12, 2021, the German government passed an amendment to the charging station ordinance that included a paragraph on cashless payment. Charging stations are to
require authentication for cashless payment transactions … and offer a contactless payment transaction by means of at least one common debit and credit card system.
What sounds promising at first glance misses a great opportunity here. Why do we still have to fiddle around with debit or credit cards, or charging cards, whether digital or physical, when we can do without them? Tesla’s Supercharger network is the best example of this. You drive to the Supercharger or plug it into your car, and the charging station automatically recognizes the individual vehicle and can charge automatically through the owner’s account. To do this, you don’t have to first take out a card, use it to activate the charging station, remove the plug, and only then start charging. In some cases, these steps are so complex that complex instructions have been placed on some manufacturers’ charging stations, causing more confusion than clarification. And as many electric car owners know from their own painful experience, problems with activating charging stations are much more common than one would wish and should accept.
The federal government and the responsible authority could have applied a different framework of thinking here, similar to the building law, which could have been conducive to their own goal of switching to electric cars and achieving the climate targets. The thinking, “How can I make life easier for disabled people?” is “How can I make it easier for electric car drivers to charge?” and not “How can I make it easier for electric car drivers to pay?“
Given the discussions now surrounding construction and operating permits for prominent projects such as the Tesla factory in Berlin-Grünheide, changing one’s thinking frame and shifting to a frictionless design paradigm is becoming acutely important. Much like Vannevar Bush and DARPA, government agencies are now competing more than ever before. Promoting electromobility and thus achieving climate goals is not only good for our own economy and population, it also helps us fight climate change.