I’m a sucker for industrial revolution era artwork. Billowing smokestacks as a sign of the progress of mankind churning out cars and widgets and massive machinery. One hundred years ago, ignoring what we now know about pollution and working conditions, a sea of smokestacks creating jobs and goods might indeed have been a magnificent sight. They are still common artistic subjects, often seen in developing countries. Such things genuinely revolutionized life around the globe in mostly positive ways – few of which were as singularly transformative as the private motor car.
In late June, I had a chance to visit Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters for Ford’s annual Trends conference during which Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally, revealed the restored painting above as part of a metaphor about the company’s transformative role in the 20th century. As far as art about Detroit industry goes, nothing compares to Diego Rivera’s DIA murals, however, this little advertisement (full version here) serves as a reminder of just how visionary the company was in the last century, and how forward-thinking, with a few hiccups here and there, the company hopes to continue being.
The purpose of last week’s conference was to discuss global megatrends affecting brands, consumers, and institutions. Influential thinkers from Steve Wozniak to Seth Godin were in attendance, as were plenty of folks from Ford who sought to learn and offer perspectives through the lens of their company. Refreshingly, nothing was off-limits in terms of conversation.
Ford identified 13 trends to think about for 2013 (see PDF download here) and chose 5 of them to talk about in in-depth panels during the conference:
On a panel which managed to explain fairly advanced concepts in corporate social responsibility to a newbie crowd, presentations by Ben & Jerry’s, Warby Parker, Ethisphere and Ford made the case that only trustworthy companies have a long-term future. Leon Kaye covered the details here.
2) Beyond Green
Refreshingly avoiding the novelty of “going green,” this panel assumed sustainability to be more than a trend. Rather, it is a hard-coded reality of life in the 21st century that may pose many corporate challenges but also presents rewards to the savvy. Andrea Newell walked us through one aspect of the panel which focused specifically on packaging and the ways the World Wildlife Fund is working to minimize packaging’s environmental impact.
There is great demand and good reason to have one’s driving experience more connected to information like traffic reports, news, the ability to communicate with peers and more. But there’s a potential downside of hyper-connectivity: Anxiety, confusion and a potentially ironic decrease in productivity and quality of life. On this panel, covered by Phil Covington here, folks from MIT, Google and Ford riffed on the topic and concluded that a combination of both high tech and non-technical solutions could provide real solace.
4) Advanced technology
It goes without saying that cars are becoming extraordinarily advanced – to the point where they’ll likely be driving themselves in the near future. Steve Wozniak, sitting on the panel, even went so far as to suggest owning a car might not make any sense when you could just summon one to your home and hop on like you would a bus.
5) Design as Story
One of my favorite panels of the day – moderated by Seth Godin – talked about trends in design and a challenge to the adage that “form” necessarily follows “function.” Seth argued, in fact, that “form follows stories,” referring to the constant need, whether rational or not, for designers to understand longstanding cultural traditions and that challenging them is difficult and takes time. J Mays of Ford elaborated that this is precisely why car companies create somewhat implausible looking “concept cars” – they’re literally trying to get people used to the ideas so that in several years they can be rolled out and not be rejected. For me, it is another explanation as to why change can be so incredibly slow whether in design or in weightier matters. Andrea Newell covered it in more depth.
Thinking back on the painting above, brimming with the optimism of a young company literally changing the world, it’s refreshing to see questions being asked that might help bring that spirit back. The kind of questions that can help guide a global brand towards relevance in the 21st century. With a fast changing world and upstarts like Tesla hot on their heels, even an enormous company like Ford needs to learn to evolve quickly. The good news is that they seem very aware of this fact.
Note: Travel to Ford Trends 2013 was provided by Ford.