A stair-climbing wheelchair beat many other stylish and sophisticated entries to take this year’s Beazley transport design of the year award. BBC Future talks to its creators.
The design of the wheelchair has altered little since 1783, when British national John Dawson created the Bath chair: a seat with two large wheels and one smaller one. Originally designed to take the sick to social activities at the Roman pools in the city of Bath, it rapidly gained popularity and by 1830, Dawson’s version of the chair was being used as a conventional means of transport for the disabled.
However, despite minor changes throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, such as adding hollow rubber push wheels and removing the smaller one, this simple contraption is still far from ideal for many users. That’s where a group of young and revolutionary Swiss inventors come in.
They were the not-so surprising winners of the transport category at the Beazley Designs of the Year 2017, and a peoples’ favourite of the awards thanks to their product Screwo – a stairclimbing mobility device designed and created by a group of 10 students in partnership with Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology and University of the Arts. The mobility invention beat a self-driving tram, a robotic personal shopping carrier and a zero noise, low-emission water taxi among others to take away the top award.
The chair allows disabled people to easily reaching a location that previously would have been inaccessible: a game-changing, retractable set of rubber tracks allows the chair to manoeuvre up and down stairs.
One of the student designers, Thomas Gemperle, travelled from Switzerland to the Design Museum in London to collect the Beazley award on behalf of Scewo. He told BBC Designed how the idea for the device emerged in 2014, when the group became aware of a championship for disabled people, supported by robotic systems, called Cybathlon. “We decided to develop a stairclimbing wheelchair with which we wanted to compete in the competition,” says Gemperle. Using a crowd-funding page on Patreon to raise money for what they call “the wheelchair of the future”, the students created a functional prototype during their studies, and are currently developing a new version which they plan to present to the Swiss market in mid-2019.
It is time to bring the word ‘design’ in the wheelchair market to a whole new level – Thomas Gemperle
“Stairs are climbed sitting backward and driven down in the forward position. The tracks adapt to the angle of the stair automatically and keep the user level at all times,” adds Gemperle.
Aside from this ground-breaking functionality that makes light work of stairways, the chair also has an extra pair of wheels at the rear which allows users to raise their sitting level. Two large wheels also allow the chair to overcome obstacles like curbs, tram tracks, grass, mud or stones easily.
Scewo’s simple lines belie some subtle ingenuities within. Not only does the chair’s agility and strength make it unique, the chair can be steered by shifting the weight of the upper body as well as by a traditional joystick.
There are extra safety features, too. “With our special drive-train we have a wide stand on the stairs which makes it impossible to tip over in any direction. The tilt mechanism is very simple and requires only one rotary joint,” explains Gemperle.
Gemperle hopes people will ‘look at Scewo-users with admiration instead of pity’
He appears optimistic about the freedom his design could bring for those who rely on wheelchairs. Completely scrapping the technology and design that has been around for decades, his team was frustrated with the limits current devices bring. “We believe the wheelchair industry has slept for too long and we can take advantage of this situation. We want to change the way people think of wheelchairs.”
Due to its unique functionality and design, he hopes people will “look at Scewo-users with admiration instead of pity. We believe the close collaboration between engineers and industrial designers is key to our success and makes our company special.”
Previous nominees for the Beazley awards include Apple’s iPhone, Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron and David Bowie’s Black Star album (designed by typographer and graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook). Scewo’s 2017 Beazley Designs of the Year recognition means it could follow in the footsteps of these iconic designs – and perhaps reshape the mobility market. And although it will be a little while until Scewo goes on sale, its global profile is certainly moving on up.
“Of course, the award gives us the possibility to connect with new people such as other designers or disabled people from all over the world,” says Gemperle. “But it is even more interesting because it gives us the conviction that we are doing ok with our work. It is time to bring the word ‘design’ in the wheelchair market to a whole new level, and the award was the beginning of this journey.”
- To see the other winners of the Beazley Designs of the Year 2017, head to their website.