1 Introduction

“Bikes can change not only people and cities, but also the world. It is not only a symbol of peace, but also a weapon with which to fight climate Change. (Hu Weiwei, founder and president of Mobike on the reception of the UN Champion of the Earth award, UN Conference on Environment, Nairobi, December 2017).

In December 2017 the Chinese biking company Mobike was awarded a prestigious global environmental prize, the UN champion of the Earth Award for Entrepreneurial Vision. The prize ceremony was broadcast all over the globe and made a polished impression of a successful company, which over less than two years had pioneered shared and smart cycling provision not only in China, but also around the world.

Mobike, together with a couple of similar Chinese start-ups, have had a visible impact in Chinese cities for a few years, where shared biking has become a smart form of transport. Shared biking has changed urban China from a vanishing Kingdom of old bikes into a potential new Kingdom of smart bikes [1].

Mobike is an interesting case in terms of the links between gender and innovation, as well as in the contexts of sustainable transport. Mobike was invented by Hu Weiwei, a young female graduate with a background in motor journalism. This contrasts with the general gender profile in innovation, where men dominate as technical inventors, entrepreneurs and investors. Besides Mobike and shared biking seem to have disrupted the former gender distinctions in biking culture in China because of its equal appeal to men and women. Last but not least, the new bike schemes have contributed to curbing CO2 emissions and to changing modes of urban transport [2].

This paper fills a gap in studies of smart mobilities in urban China. More generally too there are glaring gaps in both China and the West when it comes to studies of the gender aspects of smart mobilities. For example, analysis from the West shows that regular users of shared cars comprise a rather exclusive group of mainly middle-class men and a minority of professional women without household obligations. Women who have family responsibilities or a more complicated transit pattern find themselves being referred to the cheaper commuter-travel alternatives to a greater degree than men. They have not been able to source more convenient but also more expensive forms of travel [3, 4].

At present shared or smart biking also figures as an under-researched field, especially in China, where by 2018 only a few reports had become available, mostly written by various university teams and commissioned by the dominant bike-sharing companies themselves, such as Mobike and Ofo [6, 7]. In addition, a number of more independent studies have focused on the contribution of shared biking to sustainable new value co-creation and ethical processes, showing how users become involved in the handling of free-floating bike fleets [8,9,10,11]. Most of these studies are based on quantitative data and address limited issues related to how to do business better and implement responsible governance. None of these studies explicitly concern gendered differences or preferences. Qualitative analysis of the cultural and social aspects of biking are by and large absent in both Chinese transport research generally and the field of smart biking in particular. In my view this is a vital field to research, not least bearing in mind the tremendous progress and revolutionary leaps made in China in respect of urban development and transport modes and practices in recent decades. It is well known that urbanization, city growth and new infrastructure have had dramatic effects on the qualities of everyday life, as well as social relations. What has been noted less is that these developments have produced new social (in)equalities in transport and mobility in respect of gender and class [12].

In the following I will examine the introduction of smart and shared biking in contemporary urban China. First I will situate the creation of Mobike in the current conceptual landscapes of disrupted and gendered innovation. Next I will explore the gendered implications of Mobike design and technology and ask how the scheme has contributed to a new biking regime in China. What are the broader lessons to be learned in terms of sustainable urban transport?

2 Mobike as Disruptive-Gendered Innovation

From a conceptual point of view, Mobike is aligned with the notions of disruptive and gendered innovation. The idea of disruptive innovation was coined by the American scholar Clayton Christensen, who in 1997 described it as providing “cheaper, easier to use alternatives to existing products or services often produced by nontraditional players that target previously ignored systems and/or are used in novel contexts and combinations” [13]. In this context the notion of disruptive innovation suggests a broad location of innovation processes in contrast to the weakness of the dominant ideas of innovation, which are separated from their social contexts.

Christensen’s idea of disruptive innovation challenged the prevailing definition of innovation as exclusively linked to technology and market outcomes. It also underlined that, if innovation was to go hand in hand with the low-carbon society and environmentally friendly practices, it could not be brought about by isolated high-tech solutions. There was an imperative in this logic for innovation to include broader mobilizations to involve people and politics. Besides it was urged that profound changes in both everyday life and socio-economic systems were needed [14, 15]. From this perspective, disruptive innovation was understood as the invention of alternatives to high-tech solutions, such as refrigerators or alternative air-conditioning systems which use simple materials such as water or sand and were developed outside high-tech centers.

Mobike to some extent meets the criteria of disruptive innovation. On the one hand one can argue that Mobike provided a simple solution, having been invented by an outsider to hi-tech circles. The design process, on the other hand, differed from the more genuine examples of disruptive innovation. Mobike not only connected cutting-edge smart-phone technologies to low-level transport and bike technologies, it was also a creation embedded in the new innovation and work culture developed in the current era of globalization and the platform economy [16].

In addition, the creation of Mobike is aligned with the notion of gendered innovations which have specified and qualified a range of issues related to gender, power and (in)equality that tend to be glossed over by the notion of disruptive innovation.

Gendered innovations is a flexible term that implies both theoretical understandings and methodological and empirical or material practices. For instance, the US/European-based project Gendered innovations has brought the issues of the user perspective and user-driven innovation to the fore in addressing the unhappy consequences of gender-blind research [17]. The lack of a gender perspective and the more profound gender dimensions in technology development and design are regarded as a reason for the failure of many start-ups and indicate why they are not “changing the world” as predicted [18]. Bray, an anthropologist specializing in China writing along similar lines, argues that successful innovations must depart from the daily practices in the homes from the kitchen-table perspective and include the masses [20]. The kitchen-table perspective is also a gendered perspective, indicating the importance of including women’s everyday perspectives. In general, and seen from these various perspectives, the fact that too many useless things are produced is also due to the lack of deeper understandings of the processes in which technology becomes useful and practical [16].

The notion of gendered innovations is a corrective to the main bulk of current research and innovation practices, as it argues that gendered innovations require a proactive account. Traditional forms of gender bias or gender blindness in research and innovation are seen as socially harmful and expensive, as well as leading to missed market opportunities [17: 8]. According to Shiebinger et al. gender should not be handled as an add-on after the failings of the product or the process have been revealed. In this respect, gendered innovations are presented as a “sophisticated method” that not only includes a focus on gender balance in research and innovation teams but more importantly comprises a focus on gender as an analytical category in innovation processes. This means that gendered implications, and not only those for women, should be reflected from beginning to end, from the conception of ideas via design processes to methods, and should be applied to the inclusion of gendered end-users. Gendered Innovations today form a dynamic online resource that continues to provide strong case studies showing how gender-inclusive research can harness creative power and how this leads to useful and better innovation in areas such as design, planning and production [20].

In the following I will merge and displace the notions of disruptive and gendered innovation into the hyphenated term “disruptive-gendered innovation”. Disruptive-gendered innovation includes an assemblage of both digital and non-digital technologies in alignment with a notion of gendered producers and users. Moreover, disruptive-gendered innovations should meet every-day needs and create significant changes in terms of sustainability and gender equality.

The establishment of Mobike is a suitable empirical example of how disruptive-gendered innovations have come about. The data consist in a combination of Hu Weiwei’s socio-biographic data and practices together with written reports, promotional materials, research articles, media materials and consultations with Mobike staff and experts and my own fieldwork in Beijing and Shanghai.

Motivated by the mundane experience of complicated channels of access to rental bikes in both China and Sweden, Hu Weiwei started to explore the potential of transforming smart-car mobility technologies for use in the field of shared biking. In so doing she transferred the knowledge she had obtained as a graduate in communication and from her career in car journalism and car-sharing possibilities into a new field of urban transport. This in turn led her to set up an interdisciplinary team of engineers and IT specialists in a start-up project aimed at developing a new shared bike system. In pursuing this goal, Hu Weiwei literally penetrated the complex structures of designers and factories, who tended to regard her ideas as crazy and unrealistic, and some of her team-workers even left the project. And often, as she later recalled, she was met with resistance and stereotypes: “Can a young female journalist lead her company to achieve her target? She won’t be successful!” [21]. In the actual process, she managed not only to take the lead in the creation of a new design and, with her team, learn to overcome technical challenges, but was also able to obtain venture capital, which requires networking and capital and normally presents another obstacle for women entrepreneurs and innovators [16: 60].

As for intellectual property rights, the practice of the Mobike founder also resembles that of other significant women entrepreneurs in adopting a relaxed attitude towards patenting, one that echoes the current trend towards open innovation. At the time of my interview with her in 2017, she claimed to be upholding the intellectual property rights to the pioneering Mobike business model, yet the Mobike strategy has not been to sue for breach of patent but rather to keep at the cutting edge when it comes to innovation. In her own words, “The most effective solution is to be a pioneer all the time” [21].

From this perspective, Mobike finally provides a clear and so far rare example of disruptive-gendered innovation enabled by the transition from industrial to digital modes of production. From this perspective, Mobike becomes an achievement that signals the move from male-dominated industrial technologies to digital technologies “based on brain rather than brawn, and on networks rather than on a technical-professional hierarchy”. It is a window of opportunity that has been predicted time and again by feminist science and technology scholars [22, 23]. It is also a shift that signposts new assemblages of women and technologies or machines that challenge existing hierarchies. In the case of Mobike, it is this new alignment that provides a promising turn towards more environmentally and user-friendly modes of urban transport and other devices.

3 Mobike Design: De-gendering and Democratizing?

Seen in historical perspective, smart bike sharing has evident advantages over earlier modes of renting bikes in China, which were often provided with government support. Mobike technologies were pioneers and first movers in the upcoming and thriving field of smarting and greening mobility where “smart” indicates more specifically the incorporation of the latest technology, internet and telecommunication devices into mobility services, while greening includes the effects on non-motorized and sustainable forms of transport and the enhancement of the low-carbon society [2].

Bearing in mind the non-engineering and non-technical background of the founder and later president of Mobike, Hu Weiwei, the launch of Mobike as a utility low-carbon business model was path-breaking in smart technological innovation. This made Mobike the first mover in the combination of bike technology with app-based GPS devices, which, for example, differed from the main competitor OFO’s bikes, which at that time required a specific manual code to unlock the bike [11]. Mobike’s technology introduced the ability to request track and pay for trips using mobile devices, thus initiating a change to the biking landscape and users’ transport habits.

As for the appearance of the smart bike, the original “classic” Mobike bicycle had a rather simple and robust shape, with all its vital parts put in boxes and with wheels that could be easily dismantled for simple repair. As for design developments, Hu Weiwei went to various factories to find the most suitable materials. In the process she realized that the available “of the shelf bikes” in existing factories did not meet the requirements. Mobike therefore established its own team of industrial designers who assisted in designing the hardware of the signature Mobike. The first Mobike models had a robust yet certain elegance in design and visibility, which tapped into the search for smart solutions and new lifestyles in the emerging Chinese middle classes. Not least the colors of the Mobikes in silver and orange quickly became iconic and were until recently used for all the various Mobike models. Also the unisex design of the Mobike contrasted with the second and third generations of docking station shared bikes, which often came in feminine coded forms and colors, including small plastic baskets at the front. This was another way in with the Mobike models introduced a different approach and design: while the basic color was silver, the orange Mobike logo represents both elegance and warmth in Chinese aesthetics. What is more, Mobike offered a model of bike which seemed to have no clear gender distinction or appeal and which in principle provided accessibility for all. As such Mobike bike models can be said on the one hand to have de-gendered the existing

Chinese biking designs with the introduction of a “one model fits all” design. This is also a contrast with earlier commercial landscapes, in which bike models and designs were highly gendered, being promoted, for example, in stereotypical and hierarchical displays in both bike shops and marketing. In the fashion-setting shops in Beijing and Shanghai, fancy sports bikes in black and grey shades intuitively associated with men and masculinity were displayed in the front of the store, while so-called women’s bikes, which were cheaper and of lower quality and decked out in pale pink and blue colors, were stored in the rear of the shops. As for the new and less gendered Mobike models, it is significant that Mobike unintentionally entered a contested field of how best to meet various needs and ideas related to gender. Mobike initially received complaints from women customers over the lack of affordances in shape, access and bag transport. Mobike responded to such complaints by changing the original form and equipping its bikes with a robust bike basket for handbags, a model that has been copied by several of the other shared bike brands on the market.Footnote 1

Mobike also seems to challenge the social and hierarchical order of cyclists that was widespread in pre-Mobike times, when cyclists were located in a hierarchical pyramid, with sports and mountain bikers at the top, fashion bikers in the middle, and mundane bikers who used their bikes as a daily means of transport at the bottom [1]. Here again shared biking denotes a both de-gendering and an anti-hierarchical move into the biking landscape, where Mobikes and other models have become popular among a broad range of the emerging middle classes, notably among their lower levels.Footnote 2 Yet new innovations might be underway: Mobike is the most expensive shared bike provider, which conforms to their relatively higher quality and its price sensitivity to women users with lower salaries.

Mobike bikes were from the very beginning intended to boost the quality and durability of average Chinese bikes. The prototype bike was made of aluminum and was predicted to have a durability of over four years in all weather conditions. This claim emphasized the idea of circular economy and sustainability in the durability of the bikes’ life-cycle. The improved and more elegant models have also made Mobike bikes more attractive in the landscape of shared bikes, and in general they are regarded as being better in quality compared to other brands, not least OFO’s bikes, Mobike’s the main competitor.

In their brief existence, the Mobike models have been subject to ongoing improvements and refinements both technologically and in design. The latest model, Mobike Next Generation launched in 2017, included both aesthetic and technological refinements [24]. It was presented as “industry-leading” and based on experimental scientific data that produced a better bike: “Thanks to the development of a lower resistance tire, a light frame and the new automatic gearing the most recent model offers Mobike’s smoothest and most comfortable ride to date.” All in all Mobike feeds into the role of the bike as a lifestyle icon, a phenomena which was a fact throughout most of the twentieth century in China. As part of the next generation of innovation, Mobike hired the world famous Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, who has introduced the design for an even smarter concept bike and has emphasized how, throughout history, bikes have functioned as much as an expression of style as a smart means of transport [24].

Two reports issued in spring 2017 provided the first positive evidence of the contribution of shared bikes to the successful revitalization of biking in China, reports that used big data analysis to reveal user profiles and the context of biking. Among other things these reports measured the cycling environment against six dimensions which ranked cities according to use, parking, sustainability, health, service and social cultivation. The reports also demonstrated that shared bikes have mobilized both men and women, as well as different generations. In the cities that were reported in the survey, women accounted for between 40% and 50% of users, with Kunming and Tianjin at the top and Xian at the bottom. The age distribution also proved quite striking, with most users being between 18 and 45 years old, yet with a large proportion made up of the group between 30 and 45 years. Beijing was declared for the most biking-friendly environment and had the highest rate of biking. Shanghai was ranked first in terms of commuter biking. In addition it was reported that men over the age of 60 took the longest rides, primarily as leisure rides in holiday resorts such as Hainan Island in southern China.Footnote 3 As for the class and social perspectives, Shenzhen provided a good example: here it turned out that Mobike bikes were mostly used at night by public cleaners, as they were the only mode of transport available to them [21].

4 Closing Remarks

Innovation has become the new enthusiasm and mania in both developed and developing countries all over the world in recent decades, introducing a pressing need to locate and situate innovative practices. Mobike here qualifies as an experiment in disruptive-gendered innovations which might be capable of redressing major challenges and potentials in contemporary China. Low-carbon innovations in China, such as the introduction of Mobike and shared biking in general, are an issue of global significance in this regard, not least because of its potential for curbing the growing carbon footprints of China’s economy and population. In addition this is an example of the potential created by China’s spectacular social and economic growth and its support for the creation and implementation of low-carbon innovations.

Mobike has been promoted as a home-grown innovation and as a manifest sign of China’s ability to be a first mover in the global race to innovate. It is a challenge to the hegemonic ideas of China and other developing countries figuring just as followers of Western technologies and developments.

The establishment of Mobike was an intervention which initially challenged the male monopoly in technological innovation and which seems to have enhanced gender equality in the field of everyday biking. At the same time, shared biking in the shape of Mobike also reproduces existing inequalities between developed urban and rural areas, where bike sharing is not provided or is inadequate and where the ownership of smart phones and the required subscriptions and capacities are distributed unequally, in some cases lacking entirely [25]. Even though the new systems seem promising, the long-term effects are yet to be seen in terms of, for example, the introduction of improved infrastructure and safety measures, pricing politics and easy online access. In addition there is the benefit of more family-and women-friendly all round designs and the possibility of transporting family members, whether children, elderly relatives or the disabled.

Shared biking represents a potential revitalization of biking abilities and also meets the demand for simple, convenient and smart modes of transport among Chinese citizens today. Seen from the outside, this bold innovation might have the potential to take Chinese cities in new directions in combining smart technologies with more sustainable forms of transport. Like many other innovations, Mobike and shared biking have introduced ambiguities and elicited both enthusiasm and anger. Mobike and other smart biking companies have contributed to bringing bikes back to urban citizens and revived the feeling of biking as freedom and autonomy. Yet shared biking has also produced problems related to the oversupply of low-quality bikes and urban disorder.Footnote 4 Another concern is the (mis-)use of personal data for commercial purposes by the major investors in shared bikes. Notwithstanding all the problems and challenges, however, I argue that Mobike and shared biking in China have provided a potential new avenue alongside the male-dominated, car-centric developments in Chinese transport and mobility in recent years. Even though it is too early to come to a final conclusion or learn lessons, for a brief moment Mobike created a shortlived, but strong alliance of users, including women and low-income residents, with market and government interests which qualifies it as a disruptive-gendered innovation. However, the case also demonstrates the fragility of such disruptive alliances, showing that a stronger grip on both smart innovation and governance is required to keep the bikes and their various gender implications on track.