On Thursday we interviewed Ford's Sue Cischke about the company's sustainability strategy and put the interview online. Now we're gathering comment from key thinkers we know. First up was Dan Sturges, next comes Drew Smith, currently based in Germany working as a freelance design strategist for an automotive design strategy consultancy. He also runs the downsideupdesign blog. Over to Drew...
By way of introduction, during a live interview last night at the Fortune Brainstorm: GREEN conference, Bill Ford went on record saying “One thing I’ll tell you for sure: our ability to forecast has been just horrible.” He added that despite bringing in external advisors to help forecast three-to-five year market developments, the company “might as well have just tossed darts” given their lack of success in defining the future of the Ford. Apart from demonstrating a, frankly, shockingly short term view on Ford’s future, one other thing occurred to me: Ford is talking to the wrong people.
Against this background, I was, in some measure, pleasantly surprised by what Sue presented in the interview. It showed that the company is at least cognisant of some of the longer-term (i.e more than five year) mobility issues that the company will increasingly be party to.
Sadly, however, there was little to quell my fear that there’s not much in the way of a strategic approach to defining a sustainable role for Ford as part of an sustainable mobility future.
Furthermore, evidence abounded that old-school business thinking continues to reign supreme in Dearborn. From choosing to partner with an oil company, BP, in devising future vehicle strategy because “...they know... the fuel side of the business, we know... the vehicle side of the business” to continuing to interface with the old guard of the business development networks, there’s a sense that Ford is sticking, largely, to it’s comfort zone.
Yet Sue goes on to say that it’s going to “...take a different mindset” for America to make the transition to smaller, more efficient cars and, in the longer term, to alternative modes of mobility. She never communicated, however, how a change in mindset, either Ford’s or America’s, might come about.
Sowing the seeds of change
The cultural climate, to my mind, has never been better for sowing the seeds of substantial change in the way societies relate to mobility. It’s clear, based on Bill’s comments and this interview, that if Ford wants to participate in, and profit from this moment, they need to start talking to a different group of advisors. Now.
From an American perspective, issues surrounding energy independence, environmental degradation and the collapse of the credit markets (with the resultant modification of consumer values), provide the right environment for a visionary car company to take the lead in presenting an alternative, more sustainable transport future. Importantly, the American political leadership is in a responsive, supportive frame of mind too.
Creating a vision, taking it public
Imagine the possibilities if Ford sat down with the real thought leaders in sustainability (I include in this group anthropologists, designers, design strategists and urban planners among others) and developed a wide-ranging, flexible series of options for sustainable mobility in urban and suburban areas. Then, through a document/movie/multimedia extravaganza (Scott Monty could define the form), picture Ford taking this vision to the public.
On the one hand, the event would act as the touch point for opening up grass-roots community discussion about how we would like our lives to be lived in relation to cars and the urban environment.
More importantly the discussions would provide feedback and an opportunity for in-depth study of how the culture surrounding mobility is changing at the end-user level on a local scale.
It’s not as if the idea of going public with a broad vision of the future is unprecedented in the car industry. The GM Motoramas that ran from ’49 to ’61 sold an entire nation of eager consumers the idea of expressing themselves through how they moved from place to place. Ford could do the same to usher in a new age of sustainable mobility and, as a bonus, get themselves truly back in touch with the consumer, a vital relationship that the Big Three have squandered over the last 30 years.
For Ford to attain global relevance as a mobility provider, and for their products to dovetail elegantly with local transport infrastructures, the company needs to provide solutions that are at least regionally and, ideally, locally appropriate, assembled close to their final destination. This is a concept that Gordon Murray is already working towards with his T25 small car.
Ford: Think beyond the product, think entire ecosystem
Needless to say, this shift towards system thinking is risky for Ford because, as Sue said “..systems aren’t our core business, cars are”. But systems, beyond computer and OS, weren’t Apple’s core business either. Yet from the introduction of the iPod in 2001, via the opening of the iTunes Music Store in 2003 to becoming the world’s most popular online music and movie store, Apple transitioned from simply selling a product to providing the entire, highly profitable ecosystem.
At one point during the interview, Sue talks about the shift in environmental discourse from a binary, “black and white” approach to a more nuanced, “middle ground” view. I can’t help thinking that Ford would do well to undergo a similar shift in their thinking so that they stop seeing themselves simply as a producer of cars and more as an active component in a sustainable mobility future.
Drew lives in Frankfurt, Germany but originally hails from Australia. He holds a degree in Industrial Design from The University of Technology in Sydney, and a Masters Degree in Automotive Design from Coventry University - one of the world's premier automotive design colleges. He was recently named as one of Design Droplets top 10 industrial designers to follow on twitter. You can check out his profile here.