With the smart lab, Daimler champions an in-house think tank for the development of digital services specifically tailored to the smart model range. For the smart lab team, there are no limits to exploration: We interview Chief Portfolio Officer Jakob Luickhardt on the team’s work in Germany – and beyond.

The first time we meet Jakob Luickhardt, he is addressing a crowd at a small outdoor stage. As a member of the Future Cities Pitch jury, a start-up contest hosted by the 2017 Tech Open Air (TOA), he and his fellow jurors evaluate novel ideas for urban living pitched by young innovators. After this, the crowd gets entertained by the sounds of a DJ who beams his electronic beats from the roof of an old bus all across the sprawling former East German radio premises, an area on the banks of the River Spree temporarily taken over by the tech festival. In between, Luickhardt takes some time to tell us about the progress of the smart lab, from initial idea to the latest beta testing, before he heads over to deliver his own talk on the novel and innovative smart “ready to” services.

Mr. Luickhardt, where automotive brands used to focus on large, traditional motor shows, they are now also frequently sighted at all key tech and internet festivals. So, are you equally at home at the Tech Open Air and, say, the upcoming Frankfurt Motorshow (IAA)?
Jakob Luickhardt:
I have to admit that I also really enjoy classic motor shows. I love beautiful cars. But here at TOA you are exposed to a completely different energy and dynamics. It’s fun to be part of it all.

Members of the Future Cities Pitch contest jury
On the Future Cities Pitch contest jury.
Jakob Luickhardt on the jury
Jury members in discussion

You’ve just returned from a stint on the Future Cities Pitch jury where new start-ups got to present their own ideas. One of the participants actually started his pitch with the statement that the car industry is still stuck in the past. How would you counter such a claim?
Jakob Luickhardt:
 Daimler and smart are deliberately future-oriented. We are well aware of the need to react faster to changing customer needs and the challenge we face with increasing connectivity and brand-new information flows. We are also working to make sure that the next 130 years of individual mobility are just as sustainable and innovative.

What does this strategy mean for smart?
Jakob Luickhardt:
Basically, we are designing the smart to become the ultimate urban assistant. And one thing is certain: It will be customized. At our smart lab, we are taking first steps into this direction. The current round of beta testing is now taking our ideas and existing services like smart “ready to drop,” smart “ready to share,” or smart “ready to park+” to the next phase and level. And each of these ideas needs to meet the customers’ approval and capture its region.

Jakob Luickhardt of the smart lab during his presentation at Tech Open Air
Jakob Luickhardt on the Tech Open Air Innovation Stage.

Only recently, you introduced the smart “ready to” services to Italy. What are your expectations?
Jakob Luickhardt:
Italy remains one of our strongest consumer markets – and Rome is the epitome of a smart city. Here, smart is part of the urban landscape with more than 100,000 models on the road in a single city. Yet even so, parking in Rome is almost impossible. A good friend from Italy likes to compare parking in Rome with finding water in the desert. Anyone who comes up with a working solution is king. That’s something we want to explore further. So, we deliberately started a smart lab in Italy – by Italians for Italians – to ensure that we do justice to the idiosyncrasies of a Mediterranean market. And we can still learn a thing or two from our Italian colleagues. For example, that sharing is not only about rationally dividing costs, but also about a bit more amore. It’s about shared urban community. Sharing remains at the center of it all.

Unlike Italy, China is a relatively new market for the brand. What kind of impressions did you bring back from your recent trip there?
Jakob Luickhardt:
Thanks to steadily growing sales figures, the Chinese market is getting increasingly important for smart. Our Chinese customers also provide plenty of important input since they are far more advanced in terms of digital connectivity. Wherever you are, you can pay with your smartphone or book digital services – that’s already part of everyday life in China. Determining just the right synergies to integrate car connectivity is going to be a very exciting challenge.

After his talk at TOA, Jakob Luickhardt discusses the topic with audience members
Jakob Luickhardt at Tech Open Air in Berlin …
Jakob Luickhardt in discussion with a TOA attendee
… and in exchange with audience members after his talk.

How do these insights impact the way you tailor the smart “ready to” services to local markets?
Jakob Luickhardt:
It is our aim to simplify life for urbanites around the world – that’s our overreaching vision. Naturally, each city or region has its own unique needs and characteristics. You simply can’t compare Berlin to Beijing. So, we believe that it takes a bundle of measures, an ecosystem of clever solutions centered around the car and mobility. In the end, each user needs to decide for themselves which feature might be advantageous in their particular urban environment. Do I have trouble getting deliveries or has my city (like Beijing) introduced traffic regulations that restrict road use to cars with even or odd number plates on specific days? Each user picks just the right features to meet their needs. It’s just like apps installed on a smartphone.

Your talk on the Tech Open Air Innovation Stage was called “Co-creating the mobility future now.” If you could make a wish: Who would you invite to join you in developing our shared future?
Jakob Luickhardt:
Our customers. We think the best way to ensure that our products meet just the right needs of our target audience is to involve the customer at an early stage. That’s our new reality: Consumers and users are emancipating themselves, expressing their interest in getting involved. And we’re not just talking about small tweaks: Our collaboration with beta testers has yielded some really strong features. We not only want to evolve from car manufacturer to mobility service provider, but more generally become an urban problem solver 2.0.

Jakob Luickhardt being interviewed
Jakob Luickhardt paves the way for the smart lab to enter international markets.
Jakob Luickhardt of the smart lab
Jakob Luickhardt, Chief Portfolio Officer of the smart lab

If you take this notion even further – will the smart “ready to” services ultimately become an open development platform?
Jakob Luickhardt:
It’s still the early days. The notion of connected cars is still relatively new. Our own in-house projects like smart “ready to drop” or smart “ready to share” benefited from our close cooperation with car2go – and more than eight years of in-use experience with the connectivity box, a digital transmitter behind the windshield of the smart. In the future, though, we plan to open up and give access to external developers, while continuing to whip up great ideas in our own test kitchen. Meanwhile, we are also in close exchange with partners, coming up with some very interesting ideas in the process.