Published 11/04, Copyright 2004,

The Four Factors of Mobility Trends
By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever wondered what factors influence mobility trends, how styles, features, and technologies evolve in mobility products?  What's more, have you ever wondered why trends in the mobility industry seem to occur slightly outside more mainstream, mass-market consumer models, such as those of automobiles or computers, with product evolution on a different pace?  

The answer is complex, as trends in the mobility industry are not merely affected by a circular-flow model of consumer demand and manufacturer supply, or driven by answering the two most basic economic questions: what to produce, and for whom to produce?  Rather, trends in the mobility industry are affected by political, economic, social, and technological factors that foster a unique model, far beyond simply making widgets for consumers buying widgets.

The mobility industry varies from markets of absolute consumer sovereignty in that political and economic factors are intertwined.  For instance, within the automobile industry, products are governed by regulatory bodies, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; yet, for the most part in the market place, consumer sovereignty dictates the success of an automobile product based on buying preference and out-of-pocket spending.  To the contrary, while mobility products are regulated by such bodies as the FDA, a large percentage of products are purchased via insurance funding, governmental and private, that may also prove as a direct or indirect regulatory bodies, dictating product requirements and funding allowables as purchase criteria (for example, Medicare codes dictate product characteristics that coincide with funding allowables).  As a result, this creates a model where consumers may wish - or, more importantly, need - a particular level of product, but if the political and economic factors don't permit funding, the product is removed as a choice.  From this perspective, a mobility product on a wide distribution scale must adhere to political and economic factors, such as with meeting insurer criteria, possibly excluding some product features consumers may desire, as well as dictating which level of mobility trends an individual consumer obtains based on funding (for example, many consumers may qualify for a widely-funded aluminum wheelchair versus a far lower number of consumers who may obtain a high-end titanium wheelchair).  In markets where a large percentage of mobility products are funded via insurance, as in the U.S., the importance of providing funding-appropriate products cannot be overlooked, with political and economic tides contributing to product trends.

The next influential factor, social, hits home directly at consumers:  What do consumers desire in mobility products?  Social factors affect mobility products in small ways, such as with dictated trends in colors, and also in more complex ways, such as tight turning radiuses or high speeds or curb-climbing suspension.  In this factor, providers and therapists are considered, too, whether it's increased ease of servicing or enhanced positioning possibilities.  Of all factors, social is undoubtedly the clearest connection between the consumer and the final product; yet, again, political and economic factors may function as a filter between what's desired and needed versus what's funded, produced, and obtained.  

With political, economic, and social factors in line, research and development teams pursue technology.  However, the previous three factors can't be dismissed in the process, as the development of technologies are influenced by political, economic and social factors - that is, if a product is to succeed, the technology must meet regulatory and funding requirements, as well as consumers' social demands.  In the mobility industry, these factors can influence technology trends more so than in other industries, namely based on the reality of economics.  For example, with a computer on virtually every office desk and in every home throughout North America and Europe, the computer industry has the volume and resources to constantly develop and sell the highest levels of technology - the purest circular-flow model of supply and demand is at work.  In contrast, however, the mobility industry's reigns on technology are more influenced by political and economic factors beyond consumer desire for advanced products.  In a simple example, consumers desire ever-lighter manual wheelchairs, and it could be argued that almost every ultra-lightweight wheelchair design could be made lighter by using more advanced materials over present common materials.  However, the political and economic factors influencing the mobility industry haven't shown a wide-spread dedication to funding high-end materials that create products costing two- to three-times more than those widely funded.  Furthermore, the mobility market doesn't have the opportunity to sell millions of cookie-cutter products, as individual consumer mobility needs differ so dramatically, and the overall volume is on a far smaller scale than most mainstream goods (one might say toward manufacturing that powerchairs aren't DVD players).  Put simply, in the mobility industry, just because a given technology is superior to others, doesn't mean that it's feasible for widespread applications, as dictated by political, economic, and social factors.  

Beyond these four factors, competition among manufacturers is the conduit that brings mobility trends to light.  After all, as with most industries, when one manufacturer finds success with a particular product, others soon follow, placing alike products in the market.  However, even with motives based on simply producing a strikingly similar product, the product still must stem from the four factors, as dismissing any one may hamper the product's success in a competitive marketplace.

Indeed, in an ideal world, politics and economics wouldn't play such substantial roles toward mobility, making consumer desire and technological innovation the sole driving factors in mobility trends. Yet, the world is one of pragmatics, where personal desires and technological possibilities are balanced with governing policy and economic realities.  In this way, trends in mobility products aren't of a single origin, they're not born in a vacuum or entirely dictated by consumers; rather, trends in mobility products are a synergy of factors, that, when balanced correctly, produce safe, obtainable, innovative products - one's not of restriction, but of liberation.

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