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Are E-Scooters Kick Starting An 'Abandonment Economy'





by Ashwin Rajan

Humans seem to like losing things when we know they can't be lost. Material carelessness - if it don't perceive it have serious consequences - seems to be in our nature. 

Think about kids and their toys. Kids behave with toys on a beach as if they owned the entire beach. But as they grow up, so does their sense of 'ownership'. Older minds think of things as 'possessions'. We begin to tag where we leave our stuff in a mental map of memories.

With the explosion in possessions comes an endless stream of mental tags. Our narrow cognitive bandwidth becomes overloaded. Soon we run into lack of capacity issues. By your 40s you are considering cutting your stuff in half so it is easier to manage. Later in life, tragically, memory loss of everyday details characterises much of dementia.

So it must relieving when a product comes along that begs you to lose it. Or at least not care about where you put it. That's huge in an age of cognitive overload. This 'loosability' element of the e-scooter makes it a different value proposition to other modes of micro-transport.

A great overlooked benefit of the e-scooter is this: you can abandon them without a thought pretty much anywhere. That puts them in a category of their own. When it comes to micro-mobility, there's products you own - and products you abandon. What if a generation grew up expecting this of all its devices?

I've been struck - more than once - by just how 'lost' these vehicles seem. It seems bizarre at first, especially if you live in a city otherwise obsessed with organization. But then it dawns on you. This isn't accidental. This is deliberate. After decades of obsessing over where you put your stuff, this must be feel good.

Pundits like Adam Grant have shown why the innovative Segway did not make it as a commercial success, despite big names betting on it. But there might be more to it. Here is what the Segway is great for: moving in groups at a leisurely pace. And the ability to stand around together still without getting off the vehicle. The use cases for this are obvious.

But upfront ownership cost of a Segway is added to by the ongoing cognitive cost of owning it. The total cost of ownership of the e-scooter in comparison is miniscule. This is why e-scooters have proliferated much faster than 'owned' products. (Interesting, Segway jumped into the smaller e-scooter business in a couple of ways recently: Link 1 and Link 2.)

A typical e-scooter probably retails for anything from a €100 up to €400. There's an ongoing attempt to get people to buy these things. But to abandon one after use goes in the opposite direction, behaviourally speaking.

Abandoning an expensive product disrupts a well entrenched behavioural pattern, and establishes a new one in it's place.

This new behavioural pattern has some key implications. Especially among users who didn't know life without a smartphone.

1. The smartphone expands its utility as the place where you can 'find stuff when you need it'.

2. A generation learns to actively negotiate the baggage that comes with ownership. They begin to experience the freedom that comes with not owning.

Renting, sharing and passing-on may become more than lip service to good behaviour. They may become felt needs.

3. Some people begin to think 'not owning' as a direct exercise in environmental responsibility. Anti-consumerism as an ethic becomes tangible. Nothing needs owning unless necessary - or for pleasure, pride or personal reasons. Younger people begin to expect to leave stuff around, for reuse by others. These attitudes shape new lifestyle and consumer choices. Interesting and important philosophical and political debates emerge.

4. E-scooter companies (and their partners and investors) begin to gather troves of data on the edges of the sharing economy. This data tells a lot about how cities really work, and strengthens the position of these companies in the emerging data-driven economy.

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