White bikes and video calls

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Sometimes ideas are ahead of their time.

So it was in the summer of 1965 when a Dutch anarchist group called Provo placed dozens of white bicycles on the streets of Amsterdam for people to freely use in a bid to counter “the asphalt terror of the motorised masses.”

Two years later one of the group’s members, Luud Schimmelpennink, was elected to the city’s council and formally proposed an official bike-sharing scheme.

The proposal was roundly rejected by officials, who could not foresee that a few decades later bike sharing schemes would be successfully rolled out in cities across the world, reducing congestion, cutting pollution and improving wellbeing for millions.

Video calls are now a feature of daily life for many of us, whether it’s FaceTiming with friends and family, or undertaking meetings with clients on Zoom and Teams.

It all feels a long way from the AT&T Picturephone, which was demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and then launched commercially in 1970, only to be withdrawn in failure a few years later.

The normalisation of video calls is the accumulation of years of incremental technical progress, from clunky corporate Polycom video conferencing systems to webcams and Skype, aided by ever more powerful computers and smartphones, improved cameras, and much faster internet speeds.

But the real breakthrough was arguably not technological, but psychological.

During the Covid lockdowns many people, after some initial awkwardness and fumbling with various settings, became comfortable with speaking on screens for the first time.

In a business context I now know I can book a Zoom or Teams call with almost anyone and the call will almost always be seamless. That was not true even in 2019.

It is interesting to consider which of today’s ideas, currently considered unusual, will soon be commonplace.

Because while Mark Zuckerberg remains convinced the future will be spent immersed in the metaverse, I think changes will mostly be incremental, with the occasional leap forwards when circumstance and technology are in perfect synchronicity.

“I was inspired by what happened in 17th-century Amsterdam,” Schimmelpennink has explained.

“In that era, Amsterdam doubled in size in a relatively short time, and it became blocked. So the council set up ‘carriage squares’, where people could leave their carriage in order to continue by foot. This was exactly what Provo wanted: to make people leave their cars behind in order to continue by white bike.”

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