Cardboard Bicycles and the Future of Stuff

Okay now you've got to love this:
Cardboard bicycle can change the world, says Israeli inventor 
A bicycle made almost entirely of cardboard has the potential to change transportation habits from the world's most congested cities to the poorest reaches of Africa, its Israeli inventor says. 
Izhar Gafni, 50, is an expert in designing automated mass-production lines. He is an amateur cycling enthusiast who for years toyed with an idea of making a bicycle from cardboard. 
He told Reuters during a recent demonstration that after much trial and error, his latest prototype has now proven itself and mass production will begin in a few months.
                                                                            REUTERS/Baz Ratner 

These bikes will sell for $20 each. Apparently the hardest part was getting the cardboard to fold just right.

And before anybody says anything, yes,  it is waterproof. Gafni left one soaking in water for months just to prove the point. I wonder what the riding experience will be like. Will the cardboard be flexible enough to respond appropriately to bumps?

In any case, this story is cool for a number of reasons. Let's look at a few:

1. New combinations = new possibilities

I mean think about this for a moment. It's not like Gafni has invented either cardboard or the bicycle. They've both been around for a long time. And it's safe to assume that the waterproofing and folding techniques he developed had some strong antecedents, although no doubt applied to very different tasks.

What Gafni has done is to combine some existing stuff in a completely novel way, making a few incremental improvements, to produce something surprisingly new and potentially game-changing. This is exciting when you stop to think about how much stuff is already out there. We are a little bit of imaginative thinking and a few incremental improvements away from millions of new inventions, some smaller and less consequential than the cardboard bicycle, but many much bigger.

The possibilities are vast. We can expect to see many more "cardboard bicycles" in the years to come.

2. Bicycles for everybody!

Okay, well not quite everybody, not quite yet. But this is a step in that direction, which speaks to a much bigger change. Over the next few decades, the global economy is going to undergo a fundamental shift. The economy as we have always known it is driven by supply and demand, of course, and the thing that makes supply and demand work is scarcity...of course.

Person A needs a bicycle. Person B makes bicycles. The relative scarcity of bicycles is what creates the flow  from Person B's supply to Person A's demand.

So what happens when bicycles become as abundant as cardboard boxes (or plastic bags?)

Well, obviously, everybody gets a bicycle. But beyond that, nobody knows for sure. Post-scarcity economics is a tricky proposition. It's like trying to play ping pong in a weightless environment. The one assumption that you've always had, the one that was so basic nobody ever even had to mention it, is gone.   In any case, the question above is more accurate if it reads "all material goods" rather than "bicycles." leading us to item 3:

3. Everything for everybody!

On last week's FastForward Radio, I predicted that it's a coin toss as to whether, within five years, we would all (that is, the three of us on the show at the time) have a 3-D printer in our homes. Co-host Stephen Gordon countered that he will probably have one by the end of the year and that it's a near certainty that 3-D printers will be common household items half a decade from now.

The big driver of the end of scarcity will be the application of information technology to the material world. What happens when we can reproduce physical items as easily (or even anywhere nearly as easily) as we can currently reproduce digital items?  Short answer: everything becomes either free or ridiculously cheap.

You might think that a $20 bicycle is already ridiculously cheap, but when every household or village has a machine that can produce just about anything, $20 is going to sound downright pricey for a bicycle, or a car, or anything else. Admittedly current 3-D printers have  a ways to go before they can be described as "machines that can produce anything," but there's no doubt that that is the direction they are heading in.

Combine the possibilities that arise from new combinations of existing stuff (as outlined above) with an explosion in our capability to design and manufacture material goods, and you have far more than a world that has moved beyond scarcity  -- as difficult as even that scenario is to imagine. You have a world in which everyone is fabulously wealthy, enjoying amazing goods that we can't even imagine today.


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