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Learning in the open

This post is part of the Green Web Fellowship. Fellows are exploring the intersection of digital rights and climate justice; and are reflecting honestly on what they learn. More about the fellowship and the fellows.

The Right to Repair in a Platform-Powered World

Locked wheel without a bike.

Back in June I participated in Eurobike, an annual trade show that hosts over 60,000 attendees and spans a dozen city block-sized buildings in downtown Frankfurt. The show offers a glimpse into every aspect of the bike industry, current and future.

I spent most of my time exploring the “future” side of mobility, and made two discoveries: First, European automotive companies are playing a huge role in mobility innovation, and the transition to small electric vehicles. Staff from a “Tier 1” automotive parts supplier told me the industry’s future rests in developing and building smaller forms of mobility, like e-bikes. The company’s CEO was there showing off a vehicle that might be described as the French Cybertruck, a tiny €9,990 truck designed around Europe’s lightweight electric vehicle regulations.

The second takeaway: new mobility technologies, like many other devices, have become inextricably linked with connectivity in ways that accelerate some of the most problematic aspects of the modern digital economy.

At least a half dozen large trade show booths at Eurobike were dedicated to companies that sold only bike connectivity solutions. Not just hardware but fully integrated digital platforms for connecting and extracting data from bikes and other vehicles. Talking with company reps I heard all too familiar descriptions of business models built on extractive data practices, where much of the value from connecting bikes accrues to the platform operator, often at the expense of the rider’s privacy. More significantly, many of these connectivity technologies transform bikes from things we own, operate, repair, and even remake, on our own terms, into services we subscribe to and use only with the permission of their creators.

Mobility as a Service

This shift creates new revenue opportunities for bike makers and technology firms, and has attracted unprecedented levels of investment. At the same time it also undermines much of the technological accessibility and autonomy that makes bikes and other emerging forms of electric mobility so attractive.

In the shadow of conference, one of the preeminent connected bike makers, the Dutch firm VanMoof, was careening toward collapse. After raising more than $180 million in private investment, and taking on similarly staggering levels of debt, in July the company filed for bankruptcy protection in the Netherlands and several other countries. The company’s manufacturing and repair partners around the world were saddled with tens of millions of dollars in unpaid invoices, and hundreds of thousands of customers were left wondering if their bikes, which depend connections to VanMoof’s servers for functions as simple as unlocking the wheels, were now useless.

Over a tumultuous several weeks of legal proceedings, layoffs, and growing customer frustration, VanMoof found a buyer that promised additional investment, and ongoing support for its bikes. However the company’s sudden implosion and the extraordinary technical dependencies this exposed, raise significant concerns about physical devices that rely on proprietary digital services and connectivity in order to operate. 

Longevity by design?

Despite the growing link between physical devices and proprietary digital platforms, we’ve yet to define what rights we have as owners of connected devices, or what device makers owe us in ensuring longevity and maintainability of the technologies they make.

In a recent essay prompted by VanMoof’s failure, journalist and technology analyst Stacey Higginbotham wrote that companies often only consider the implications of their design choices once things start to fall apart. “It’s the equivalent of rushing through your home as a fire burns, trying to grab people, pets, important papers, and heirlooms while the walls crumble.“ Instead, as she suggests, we need to plan for failure, and incorporate various strategies to ensure longevity of physical devices, as part of the initial design process.

Higginbotham explores several important ideas, including designing for graceful degradation of service, rather than outright failure or obsolescence should a device lose access to connectivity or other externally operated infrastructure. This is a smart design strategy, as it not only protects users against business failure, like with VanMoof, but also ensures devices remain useful in emergencies or natural disasters where power or internet connectivity may be compromised. 

However, longevity, as we’ve come to expect in technologies like bikes means more than graceful degradation. It requires affirming our right to fully own and remake technologies to suit our needs and desires, on our own terms. This is both a technology and design problem, and increasingly a question of business models.

The physical design challenges are perhaps the easiest to overcome: building devices with repairability in mind is a well understood goal. And increasingly consumer protection regulators are requiring that device makers provide customers with the know-how and parts needed to ensure physical longevity. This kind of regulatory accountability would have benefited VanMoof customers, given the company’s reliance on proprietary parts and service providers, all of which evaporated as the company failed.

Digital longevity is harder, but Internet itself offers guidance on how we might tackle this challenge. By relying on standardized protocols for connectivity, and on decentralized, well documented infrastructure for building the network itself, the Internet is a quintessential example of technological longevity by design. No one vendor or organizational body is responsible for the Internet’s operation. Instead it is a cooperative undertaking made up through collaboration across many independent networks, or “autonomous systems,” as they’re called in Internet architecture parlance.

Yet, despite this extraordinary, long-standing example of how to build robust digital infrastructure, this type of thinking his hard to find in modern connected devices. While the implementation hurdles are real, digital longevity problems with modern devices are the result of dramatic shift in business models, not an insurmountable technical challenge.

From a business standpoint connectivity transforms physical devices from products into relationships. Unfortunately for all of us that use these devices, the relationships between businesses and customers in our modern digital economy are asymmetric, and deeply unhealthy.

In the case of mobility, the type of longevity and autonomy we expect from a bike is fundamentally at odds with the business models and investment strategies that are fueling this industry. A quarter of a billion dollars was plowed into VanMoof on the premise that its technology was more like an iPhone than a bike.

As an investor the reason for excitement is obvious. But as consumers this should be a giant red flag. The extraordinary opportunities for innovation that connectivity offers notwithstanding, the iPhone and its kin represent the antithesis of digital longevity. They embody a post-Internet world where communication infrastructure is controlled by two companies with an extraordinary grip on the technologies they make and sell.

At least with regard to device longevity we haven’t yet encountered wide-spread consequences of this business model in consumer tech, as Apple and Google are going concerns (and then some!). But as more businesses attempt to reformulate layers of the physical world as iPhones, we’ll encounter more examples like VanMoof where our lives are disrupted as devices, and the companies that control them fall down.

We know how to overcome these challenges — we already have the tools technically, and we’ve dealt with platform monopolies before. But building the kind of devices we need and deserve requires a deeper examination of whether today’s technologies and business models are really working in service of society. Fortunately if we find something’s amiss, we always have the right to repair.

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