Trendspotting with Ford: How the Auto Industry Prepares for the Future

7/3/12Follow @XconomyDET

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and conversation that allows us to be spontaneous, but also leads to “time poverty.” “Time poverty isn’t new, but it’s something different in the modern world,” Connelly notes. “We have no reason to shut down. The boundary between work and play has never been weaker.” And we expect our cars to interact with us and provide us with a “delightful” experience, which is why they’ll soon read you your text messages while you drive—including emoticons.

Urbanization: The White Picket Fence American Dream Is Over

As a resident of Detroit, the American city whose future is arguably most in question, I found the urbanization portion of the Ford conference to be fascinating and informative. David Kirkpatrick, best-selling author, journalist, and CEO of Techonomy Media (which will hold its first Detroit event on Sept. 12), and Carol Coletta, the former president of CEOs for Cities and the current leader of ArtPlace, a national initiative to transform communities through place-making, sat down for a panel discussion on why innovative, highly functional cities will soon be in top demand.

“Cities enable connections and creativity, which enables innovation, which enables job growth,” Coletta said at the conference. “Cities underpin our economy. If our cities don’t work, our nation doesn’t work.”

Talent trumps every other factor in a city’s success, she added, and the percentage of college graduates in a city accounts for up to 58 percent of its success, according to some studies. But it’s not enough for cities to attract talent—they must also hold on to it. That’s where “being cool” counts, and where safe streets, abundance of park land, great schools (though not necessarily a great school system), and efficient public transit make or break a city. (Are you listening, Mayor Bing and Detroit City Council?)

The age 25-34 demographic has already shown it prefers to live in cities—they’re 102 percent more likely to live in cities than other Americans if they’re college graduates, according to Knight Foundation data—and ideally within a three-mile radius of a city’s downtown. Mostly what people are seeking, Coletta said, is vibrancy, and the swing toward urbanization has been dramatic.

“The image of the white picket fence has been hardwired into American politics, but it’s grossly out of step with the choices young people are making,” Coletta said. “We can no longer treat urban living as an alternative lifestyle. The people are ahead of [government] policy on this one.”

Ford is responding to this trend by partnering with companies like Zipcar, which rents cars by the hour in cities and college towns (it has a fleet of four cars in Detroit), and by partnering with the telecommunications industry to develop mobility technology that uses radars and cameras to improve vehicle flow and ease gridlock. “The future of transportation is integrated mobility—a blend of things like Zipcar, public transit, and private car ownership,” Coletta predicts.

Kirkpatrick thinks Ford’s future will rest on its continued willingness to think outside the box, whether that means integrating mobile technology into vehicles or funding more research in Silicon Valley. The purpose of businesses should be to improve their customers’ lives, he said, and then expect the value of their companies to flow from that.

Kirkpatrick said much of the updated thinking at Ford can be attributed to its CEO, Bill Ford, whom he compares to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, at least when it comes to a desire to give people the tools to be who they want to be. “He’s not just foisting cars down the throats of customers,” Kirkpatrick said.

Of course, that makes him a bit of a black sheep in Detroit. “Bill’s been an outlier for most of his career,” Kirkpatrick said. “I really believe that if his last name wasn’t Ford, he would have been kicked out here 25 years ago.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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