Promise. The Future is Feminine.
What will be demanded of the car of the future? How will we travel in 20 or 30 years time? Where is society headed, and what does this mean for our quality of life? These are questions that occupy Sabine Engelhardt on a daily basis. She is a futurologist in the Society & Technology Research Group at Daimler AG. Here, innovations in society and engineering are brought together into future concepts, and even brought to life in the form of prototype vehicles. Engelhardt might not be able to see into the future, but at Mercedes she is helping to shape it.
The Rhineland-born futurologist got her job more by accident than design. “It caught me completely by surprise,” says Sabine Engelhardt, who initially trained to be a university librarian in Stuttgart – and then “wanted to do something different”. Something more exciting, but it should still have something to do with books. “My mother was a bookseller, so books have always been part of my life.”
Engelhardt studied information sciences, journalism and philosophy at the Free University of Berlin and worked as a researcher. When she was writing her master’s thesis on artificial intelligence, her professor recommended she turn to Alexander Mankowsky, the trend and future researcher for Daimler AG. It proved to be a life-changing tip. “I went to him actually only wanting to speak about my work, and came out again with a job offer.”
Getting to the heart of the ‘global cities’
For 16 years now, Engelhardt has held a position that doesn’t match any conventional job description. She is an information expert and philosopher who researches the future of the automotive industry. Together with Mankowsky, she tours the ‘global cities’ where innovation and creativity emerge. With a ‘female’ and a ‘male’ view, so to speak, the pair immerse themselves in the different ways of life and go in search of the zeitgeist.
It’s about cultural movements and about societal shifts, about values and desires. They visit exhibitions and trade fairs, museums, fashion shows and shopping centres. “We observe what kind of people are buying what kind of things, what they attach importance to, what moves them and how they live,” explains Sabine Engelhardt. The two colleagues complement each other perfectly. Whereas Alexander Mankowsky has more of an eye for the bigger picture, she concentrates on the detail. “I’m obsessed with details, something you would usually expect from a woman.”
Femininity per se plays a key role in her research. But it’s not about ‘the’ woman as such, because there is no global archetype for what that might be. The focus is much more on femininity in the sense of quality of life, sensuality, beauty and luxury. “The Mercedes brand was characterised by a unique mix of elegance, beauty and engineering excellence right from the start, which is why we are keeping a close eye on femininity and its influence on society and culture.”
Engelhardt believes that precisely this influence will grow in future. “An exciting time is upon us, because European history shows that a culture has always been more prosperous, cultivated and productive if it has also been allowed to be feminine,” says the nature lover and keen early riser. When not on the move somewhere in the world, she gets up at five o’clock in the morning and starts the day by going riding with her three ponies.
The age of womanhood is upon us
Whether in fashion, architecture or cars – for a number of years now, Engelhardt and her colleague have been observing more and more areas of life that offer a new definition of what quality of life means. “People no longer want to constantly keep up with new trends, owning the latest and most glittering product today and throwing it away tomorrow.” Instead, the hunt for the authentic, the one-off piece – preferably signed by hand – is intensifying. Seals of quality such as ‘Made in Germany’ or ‘Made in the USA’ are becoming increasingly important.
“The anonymity of globalisation unsettles people,” says the trend tracker. “They mistrust the goods that surround them and go in search of a lost stability, of enduring values and security.” People want to know where a product comes from, who supplied it, and under what conditions it was made. This trend is particularly apparent in the fashion industry: “Items of clothing by many a designer can be traced back online to the cotton field, or wool from the UK is shown together with a photo of the sheep.” Change is also afoot in the perfume industry. Perfumers, who previously faded into the background in favour of the brand name, are increasingly becoming known by name.
In combination with many other observations, this trend is a clear indication for both future researchers that the first phase of globalisation, which began in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, is coming to an end. Sabine Engelhardt: “It was a male-dominated phase, characterised by anonymity, conquest and enrichment.”
A new era is beginning as a counter-movement. “And it will be much more feminine,” says Engelhardt. And why? Because the focus will increasingly turn to quality of life expressed in restrained beauty and a reversion to traditional values such as family orientation and trust. “The demand is for products which are eco-friendly but which are also of timeless beauty and of a high quality.” European culture with its appreciation of pleasure, elegance and style will once again be seen as a desirable lifestyle model.
According to Engelhardt, this societal change is a good omen for Mercedes-Benz. “Our vehicles correspond exactly to what people are now looking for.” On the one hand, because Mercedes-Benz is regarded worldwide as a symbol of style and elegance and safety. And on the other, because Daimler – thanks in a big way to trend research – has wasted no time in developing a sustainability strategy featuring various drive concepts.
For the new era, this provides an ideal platform for “developing vehicles which match the idea of quality of life expressed in restrained beauty.” The challenge, says the researcher, is to redefine European luxury as a lifestyle factor in a world which is turning ‘green’ – ‘green luxury’ so to speak. For Mercedes-Benz, this means even more eco-friendliness, even better workmanship, higher levels of safety and greater timeless elegance. The new M-Class, for example, is up to 25 per cent more economical than its predecessor. And inside, just as in the new B-Class, there is a new level of luxury to look forward to. “In the next couple of years,” reveals Engelhardt, “in terms of quality and workmanship, we will experience an entirely new definition of luxury in the interior of the new A-Class and the new S-Class.”
Sabine Engelhardt now can’t imagine doing any other job. “This is where I want to be,” she says with great passion. She is a woman with principles, who doesn’t hide or disguise herself. “Business suits are not my world,” she laughs. But Mercedes-Benz, that is her world – even outside of work. Her first driving experience was in a ‘tail fin’ from the 1970s. “That had a big influence on me.” She sees a Mercedes-Benz as the perfect combination of the masculine elements of ‘performance and innovation’ with the feminine traits of ‘beauty and elegance’. Nowadays, she drives her dream car, a 1999 G-Class. A vehicle that is rarely seen today. It’s why she is something of a local celebrity in the Stuttgart region – the ‘woman with the G-Class’.
The fragrance of future research
Since 1995, Sabine Engelhardt has worked as a future researcher in the Society & Technology Research Group of Daimler AG, investigating societal trends and changes. Her field is ‘culture and the car’, the study of how mobility and the zeitgeist interact. Using scientific methods, she analyses shifts in the zeitgeist and long-term societal trends. The findings of her research are incorporated into strategies and products for all brands – Mercedes-Benz, Maybach, smart and AMG.
In this way, for example, Daimler was quick to identify the global shift from ‘eco-friendliness by abstinence’ to ‘greening’ in the sense of ‘green luxury’, and to develop a comprehensive sustainability strategy that offers an optimal solution to people’s varying lifestyles and mobility requirements. The strategy boasts an intelligent mix of vehicles featuring a range of drive concepts – from electric cars for urban driving (smart fortwo electric drive and family-friendly A-Class E-CELL) and fuel-cell vehicles for longer ranges (B-Class F-CELL) to the world’s most economical luxury saloon (S 250 CDI BlueEFFICIENCY) and an electric super sports car (SLS AMG E-CELL), which will be in showrooms in 2013.
Sabine Engelhardt has also drawn on her trend analyses to develop her own product – an atomiser for Maybach unlike any other in the world. At the press of a button, scent is released from the spherical bottle. Engelhardt created two accompanying fragrances with the help of Ursula Wandel, an internationally sought-after perfumer based in Paris. “But obviously, you can also fill it with your own fragrance,” says the researcher. Within months of coming onto the market in April 2010, her spherical atomiser had become one of the top-selling accessories for these high-end saloons.