This week, creatives, artists, experts, and digital nomads flock to Austin, Texas, to attend the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Nearby, at the house of smart, where the brand presents its all-new smart electric drive, experts discuss major trends and future developments. Alexander Mankowsky, resident futurologist at Daimler, hosts a panel on “Change of course.“

Mr. Mankowsky, this year’s key topics in Austin promise to be artificial intelligence, virtual realities, and urban innovations. Is this the future everyday environment of an innovative electric car?
Alexander Mankowsky:
The basic premise and foundation of smart is to let people navigate a metropolis in a clever, stress-free way. That’s an idea the brand’s house of smart translates to the festival in Austin: It shows how you can get away from the hustle and bustle of a huge event for a while. In tech, everything is accelerating, leading to more efficiency, but also more stress. With the house of smart, we want to show people that there’s an alternative, a more human one. Both on site, around the South by Southwest festival, and in terms of urban living and future mobility.

Alexander Mankowsky delivering a presentation at the re:publica in Berlin
Alexander Mankowsky is a frequent speaker – here at re:publica in Berlin.
Photo: Daimler AG

smart is the first brand to electrify its entire model range. Which effect will the new smart electric drive have on the general propagation of this technology?
Alexander Mankowsky: To me, the attractive design of the smart electric drive models is a cornerstone of their success – naturally, paired with affordable e-mobility. We shouldn’t forget that beautiful design, i. e. friendly colors and a generally pleasant product design, has always been an important aspect for smart. Design makes technology – in this case, e-mobility – accessible and that’s a very good path to take.

Carsharing, e-mobility, and features like the new smart services: Three of the most important mobility innovations are smart exclusives. What makes these novel use scenarios such a good fit for the brand?
Alexander Mankowsky:
 smart has always had a bit of an experimental streak. Take smart “ready to share,” for example; it’s an incredibly beautiful product. It’s about true sharing – it allows you to share your car with friends, making it the perfect example of a very attractive, people-centric use of technology. It is also a great fit for smart as an innovative brand that appeals to equally open and adventurous people.

futurologist Alexander Mankowsky talking about machine and artificial intelligence
The futurologist is an expert on Artificial Intelligence.
Photo: Daimler AG

“The new smart electric drive helps people de-stress“

At the same time, driving is still a relatively “analog” activity – a person steers the car while a physical engine does the work. Considering the increasing rate of digitalization, is this a case of two worlds colliding?
Alexander Mankowsky:
Digital technology has become less and less thrilling. smart, instead, focusses more on making the user’s everyday life a stress-free experience. The new smart electric drive helps people de-stress, and does so in a pleasant and aesthetic way. “Digital is cool” only still applies to the 60+ crowd, if at all. Anyone younger treats “digital” more like running water or power from a wall outlet. In fact, there is a burgeoning counter movement: Analog technologies like vinyl records and tape recorders are staging a comeback – I, too, have gone back to making actual mixtapes. On a grander scale, we are noticing the avant-garde pulling away from cloud storage solutions since online storage is getting too vulnerable. Concepts like the so-called blockchain technology might provide options for data encryption – but a sense of insecurity invariably remains.

Mankowsky speaking in front of an audience
Mankowksy is frequently sharing his vision.
Photo: Daimler AG

Your expertise lies in active future research. How would you explain this to the average customer who orders a car in the smart center or online?
Alexander Mankowsky: Traditional future research often means writing reports on the world of tomorrow – that’s pretty boring. When I talk about “active future research,” this entails contributing something of my own to the future. The strength of Daimler and smart lies in actively designing and shaping things – that’s a decisive aspect. And it’s great that customers also show an interest. Whenever I hold a talk on research topics, all seats are taken – which also leads to good discussions.

You joined Daimler in 1989, starting out at the company’s Berlin research institute. So, which of your future visions from three decades ago have stood the test of time?
Alexander Mankowsky: 30 years ago, I started with artificial intelligence – back then, I ended up at Daimler after training as a knowledge engineer. I had previously worked on expert systems used in practice, but I didn’t really call it future research. During the development of the Mercedes-Benz F 015 in 2007, I started to provide impulses for a research vehicle. What followed was the idea to build a mobile robot – a notion considered very exotic back then and one I had to promote in many talks. When we tackled the issue of “life in the car,” we focused on how to address the senses, resulting in our scent package, initially available in 2013 for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and currently also being tested in smart models. Sometimes, digital innovations also take detours: Take wearables, for example – i. e. tech integrated into apparel or jewelry – this area can be considered a flop. Generally speaking, the evolution of mobility tends to be very slow, so you have to think in decades, not years.

a yellow smart electric drive on a highway with a skyline in the background
The new smart electric drive is soon hitting the US.
Photo: Daimler AG

“AI is changing our world“

Artificial intelligence promises to be a key topic at both the SXSW conference and the house of smart. How will this technology affect and enter into our everyday lives?
Alexander Mankowsky:
I have to admit that I don’t really like the term “artificial intelligence” – it suggests that these devices are conscious thinking and learning entities – which is not the case. Machine learning is not a question of imitation, but training. When a human brain works, it undergoes physical changes. Think of it like playing with Lego bricks – while you can use them to construct pretty much anything, they still remain Legos. So, the human element cannot be replaced since the machine needs to get input from somewhere and isn’t capable of interpretation. At the same time, AI changes our world – it’s already happening, for example when you use Google search and receive personalized advertising.

Speaking as a scientist, do you actually enjoy science fiction?
Alexander Mankowsky: Of course I do! Take “Black Mirror“ – I think it’s one of the best TV series produced in a long time. It examines future scenarios from different perspectives – and not all of them seem very far-fetched. “Black Mirror“ focuses on spooky and sinister scenarios that can be disquieting and force us to think. Our “Change of course” addresses some of these disturbing visions.

A final question: How can we prepare for the future?
Alexander Mankowsky: Pay attention to yourself. You can feel and learn a lot from yourself, from your own behavior. That’s how you notice larger trends and developments.