Devin: What do you see as your superpower?
Jens: Oh, that’s a good question, but I think it would have to be imagination.
Jens Martin Skibsted is working to make mobility more sustainable. His work is pivotal for humanity, given transportation's outsized role in exacerbating the climate crisis.
Jens helped found the global design firm Manyone. Early in his career, he co-founded a bicycle company. “Back then, good bikes were sports bikes, and city bikes were bad bikes.” He helped create a market for good city bikes.
“One of the most exciting and biggest projects I’ve been on [at Manyone] is designing an electric car,” he says. “The idea was, how would you make this car if it was a bicycle?”
He notes that bicycles are so energy efficient that they even beat walking! So, he led a team working on designing a car with the advantages of a bike.
As he tells the story, it wasn’t easy:
We dealt with a lot of very heavy-hitting German engineers. Every time we were one people, they would be 23 in the room. It was like more or less a trench war because nothing was possible. We were told right from the get-go that none of these things were possible. So, the way it worked is we progressed; after each week, we got to push them just one centimeter. Also, this can be done. Yeah. Okay. In the end, we changed everything.
The design was remarkable, including a transparent front fascia allowing the driver to see a duck crossing the road and brake. Designed as a car for city driving, it has a range of 150 miles. With a top speed under 100 mph, it is just fast enough for an occasional trip on the highway to a nearby town.
“It’s the size of the smallest cars you will see driving around in American cities,” Jens says. “When you sit in such a car, you’re cramped. But in this car, since we were able to remove the whole of the engine in the front, you could, in theory, put luggage in front of your feet. I mean, there’s just no human that’s too big for that car.”
“You had this kind of almost Doctor Who impression that you’re going to this little thing, and then it’s just gigantic,” he adds.
The ultra-light four-passenger vehicle also featured unconventional doors. The front doors open in the poorly named “suicide” direction, with the rear doors opening conventionally to help people exiting the car move in opposite directions. The team replaced the rear-view mirror with a camera with an image projected near the instrument cluster to reduce eye movement while driving.
A key to his success, he says, is his imagination superpower.
How to Develop Imagination As a Superpower
While Jens sees the role of imagination throughout his work, he’s especially proud of launching the bicycle company Biomega in 1998:
I had lots of ideas, you know, making them, for instance, glow-in-the-dark, which is good for traffic and costs a little more, but it's not really a big, big investment. They're just tons of inventions I used: shift drives, which is instead of a chain, which makes sense if you want to go to the office in your suit, the last thing you want is one side of your pant being ripped off.
Founded almost 25 years ago, the company is still in business in Copenhagen.
Developing the ability to use your imagination can be challenging, so I asked Jens how he coaches people to be more like him in this regard.
“I will ask them never to be like me because I will ask them to be like themselves,” he says. “This is where you start.”
He offers advice for collaborating on projects. “When you get together, instead of saying, ‘This is what I want,’ you try and figure out what your vision is for the future, and also where your values lie.”
“The moment the two of us have the same direction and at least understand each other’s values or specific business values, then we can move super fast because you can come up with something, and you will know immediately if I’m aligned or not,” Jens says.
“We’ve got to look way further into the future than we used to for global warming, for instance,” he says. “Nobody’s going to fix it tomorrow, but still, we’re very much in a hurry.”
By agreeing on a shared vision and values upfront, you enable speed. He explains:
The process really is a little bit inversed, and it's also paradoxical that you would then all of a sudden start talking about your inner values, inner beliefs, your ethical standpoint when you're in a hurry. It seems like, “Oh, hey, no, we don't have time for this,” but this is actually when you’ve got to do it. If you want to go fast, you've really got to dig deep because once you've you're in there, then you can go ultra-fast.
Jens also reminds us that we are changemakers; we influence the future. We aren’t just along for the ride. He says imagination is vital for us:
When you talk about the future, then there are people who look at some specific technologies often developed in the Bay Area, and then think this is what's going to happen. We're going to whizz around with these drones. We're going to have driverless cars, we're going to have all of these things. This is almost a given.
We can't just follow whatever we're dictated. We've got to make sure, this is what we want. Is this a desirable future? And once you ask that question, you cannot solve it without imagining it. So in that sense, imagination is a very important power.
With that reminder that imagination is a critical tool for changemakers, remember you can strengthen yours by following Jens’ example and advice, enabling you to do more good.