The news that the Paris city bike scheme Velib is having problems with theft, even if over-stated, marks a throwback to the first “free bicycle” scheme, introduced in the 1960s by the Amsterdam Provos (nothing to do with the Irish Republicans of the same name) who donated 50 bikes to the city to start the scheme off. Their scheme caught the public imagination – even prompting a cult single – only for the bikes to be confiscated by the police because they constituted an invitation to theft. Embedded in their story is a story about the role of failure in social innovation – and another one, about a politics of consumption.

The original white bicycle scheme had its genesis in what is sometimes called the ‘psychedelic life’ – drug-infused,music-oriented, resistant to the formalities of the “political life”. I first came across it in Richard Neville’s influential book Playpower. Their ‘weak signal’ has now re-surfaced emphatically, with shared city bike schemes being introduced across Europe and North America (Velib is only the largest of many). They are mostly still at the early stages of development, but seem certain to grow as electronic access and permission technologies become more sophisticated, and local and national governments become more concerned about climate change, fossil fuel dependency, and local resilience.

Indeed, I first wrote a draft of this post last year, when I visited the Dutch Hoge Veluwe National Park near Arnhem (you pick up and drop off the bicycles, all painted white, from six locations around the park) where they benefit from controlled access in and out of the park, revenues (from entry fees) to manage and maintain the bike fleet, and a distinctive design which makes the bicycles noticed instantly outside of the park walls.

(cc) 2008 Peter Curry
(cc) 2008 Peter Curry

When I train people in futures work, I sometimes talk about entrepreneurship or social innovation as being a bet on how the trends will turn out. In fact it’s more complex than this, because success depends on five or six different elements being aligned. Even failures can get three or four elements right, but miss out on the fifth one; it’s not so much a single bet, as an accumulator. But culturally we still tend to think of failure as an absolute, rather than as a set of clues to the future.

But this is not just about innovation, or the forty year gap from the initial idea to the edge of the mainstream. The underlying politics, and political history, are important too. In the strands of the radical ’60s, the “political life” was rooted in the traditional labour movement politics, ranging from communist to social democratic: it was about the politics of production. The “psychedelic life”, in contrast, always more playful, was a reaction to the burgeoning consumerism of the ’50s and the ’60s. It was influenced by the Situationists, and tried to construct a politics of consumption. The two strands didn’t always speaks the same language: the activist and writer John Hoyland has described an exchange of letters between members of the editorial group  of the magazine Black Dwarf (labour wing) and John Lennon (more at the psychedelic end of the spectrum).

They [the letters] summed up a tension between two tendencies in the counterculture – the hippy strand that had come to the fore in the mid-60s and embraced self-expression, spirituality and “love”, and the leftwing radicalism that was sweeping the world in 1968 and was concerned with changing structures.

We know now, of course, that both failed; we got thirty years of acquisitive individualism instead. The proportion of the unionised workforce has fallen to around a quarter, at least in the UK, and consumption is eating into our “natural” (or environmental) capital. The introduction of shared bike schemes can sometimes seem to be only about transport. But the resurgence of the white bicycles is perhaps a harbinger of a new politics that seeks to challenge consumerism or consumption. If we really do have less than a hundred months to change our behaviour in the face of climate change, as some activists suggest, we need such a politics urgently.