Future Gazing

Futurology is often being mistaken for fortune-telling. There’s something about this line of work that makes people expect to see smoke and mirrors and more than a hint of drama.


Futurology is often being mistaken for fortune-telling. There’s something about this line of work that makes people expect to see smoke and mirrors and more than a hint of drama.


Later, the high priests of ancient Rome were no slouches either, as they studied the flight of birds and furrowed their brows while poring over the entrails of animals. And for a while modern-day soothsayers too had high hopes that mainframe computers might be able to spit out the secrets of the future.

The futurologists at Daimler, however, make no such claims. Here in the large open-plan office on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, the atmosphere is more one of restrained seriousness. There’s not a crystal ball in sight as the approximately 40 researchers go about their business of plotting out conceivable long-term trends related to the automotive market. Instead of tinkering with rocket engines or cars with wings, a group of casually dressed young researchers gathers before a flipchart bearing the words “Future Urban Mobility.” Frank Ruff and Thomas Waschke, who jointly head Daimler’s Society and Technology Research Group in Berlin, are both pretty sober, levelheaded characters. The word “forecast,” for example, doesn’t crop up as often as one might expect.

RESPECT FOR THE FUTURE

For the futurologist, the chief tools of the trade are scenarios. The attractive thing about a scenario is that it is a modest, unassuming version of a prediction. The aim is not to arrive at a cast-iron forecast, but rather to sketch out a variety of possible futures. The next step is to distinguish between the more or less probable and the more or less desirable ones. “Unfortunately, the desirable scenarios are not always the most probable,” says Waschke. “But we can’t paint the world to suit our preferences.”

Steeped in history, the home of the Daimler research team teaches us to have more than a little respect for the vagaries of the future. After all, Potsdamer Platz was once Germany’s busiest traffic junction and, in 1925, the site of the country’s first traffic lights. Only a few years previously, Emperor Wilhelm II had confidently predicted: “My money’s on the horse – the automobile is just a passing fad.” Twenty-five years after the introduction of the traffic light, Potsdamer Platz was little more than a wasteland, ravaged by World War II and then abandoned as a no man’s land between the East and the West. Then of course everything changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – an event that hadn’t been predicted by contemporary analysts.

Daimler’s futurology activities have been based in Berlin for over 30 years now. In 1994, in response to globalization, an offshoot was opened in Palo Alto, California. Back in 1979, however, there were a number of good reasons for deciding to locate the Transport, Environment, Future research group in Germany’s divided city. Not only did Berlin have a rich and diverse scientific community and an international atmosphere – but the city itself was also essentially a huge social experiment. At the same time, the decision had a clear political dimension. In opting for Berlin, Daimler-Benz (as the company was then called) was making a clear commitment to the city itself. This, in turn, teaches that the future is something that can be actively shaped – by each of us, every day – rather than just passively endured. Perhaps this is why one of the research department’s maxims reads as follows: “Although we can’t know the future, we can prepare ourselves for it. But to do this, we need to understand that it is we ourselves who shape our future.”

BROADENING HORIZONS

In retrospect, the decision to set up a satellite group to analyze “non-technical developments related to the automotive sector” was an inspired one, made by the engineers who have traditionally formed the company’s backbone. “Other automakers weren’t anything like as advanced as we were, back then,” says Ruff, a psychologist and sociologist. He describes the team’s area of activity as providing “strategic foresight at the company’s system boundaries.” An interdisciplinary team of psychologists, economists, communications experts, business experts, physicists, and philosophers helps with this task. “Looking at the future requires input from a whole range of academic horizons and cultural backgrounds,” says Ruff. “By adopting such an approach, it’s possible to gain insight into how technical, economic, and social developments combine to bring about change. That’s why it’s important to not only maintain contact with various outside experts and researchers in other fields, but also to consider different views and mindsets in other spheres of social life.”

To take a very simple example, more and more people now live on their own. And obviously those people want something different from the traditional family car. While an understanding of the different lifestyles that people might lead now and in the future is not necessarily within the classic “system boundaries” of an automobile manufacturer, strategic foresight can provide valuable information when it comes to decision-making.

A recent and highly concrete example of strategic foresight and successful cooperation between the Daimler futurologists and vehicle developers is provided by the latest range of vans and their equipment lines. The day when a couple of young entrepreneurs had the idea of setting up an online auction house for secondhand goods was a momentous day for commercial vehicle manufacturers. “The growing success of Internet companies such as eBay and Amazon made us think about how this new business sector might influence the design of our vans,” Waschke recalls. The result was a comprehensive questionnaire for the development unit to mull over: How large would the parcels be? How could the shelving in the vehicle be optimally designed to accommodate individual deliveries? What could be done to make getting in and out of the vehicle easier? How should the cockpit be designed so that drivers can plan and navigate their rounds from the comfort of the driving seat?

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TextDirk MAXEINER

IllustrationsHelena DIETRICH

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Published
2. May 2010

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