The Daimler research group “Research for Society and Technology” has been around for 30 years – and Marianne Reeb has been on board for the past two decades. In our interview, the smart urban pioneers jury member discusses trends, innovation, and the power of crowds.
Prof. Reeb – how does future research work?
Marianne Reeb: When it comes down to it, you can only make educated guesses, i. e. develop scenarios together with experts of what might happen in 10, 15, or 20 years. Since there are so many influencing factors, it always makes sense to devise an optimistic and a pessimistic scenario. And then, naturally, indicate which one you would prefer.
What was the very first topic you tackled as part of your work with the “Research for Society and Technology” research group at Daimler AG?
Marianne Reeb: Carsharing was on our agenda very early on. It never really caught on, though, because in the 1980s you still had to reserve your car by phone and at least three days in advance. Back then, we mostly focused on researching technological outcomes. Things like: What are the implications of new products? How does society receive innovations?
Did you notice any changes over the years? Are people today braver and bolder than 15 years ago, for example?
Marianne Reeb: Whether an innovation is accepted depends a lot on how much it requires us changing our habits. And on the associated incentives. I’m in great favor, for example, of using electric vehicles for carsharing. That’s a low risk application – people can try the new technology first. And when they notice that they won’t get stranded, they are more likely to consider a purchase.
Are innovations accepted more quickly nowadays?
Marianne Reeb: A trend becomes relevant when it is adopted by larger parts of society. Today, social media have made it much easier and quicker to spread information. And people travel a lot more between metropolises, while it’s also become common for young people to study or work abroad, returning with new experiences. In both social and technological terms, innovation cycles have gotten shorter – even though it still takes longer to develop a new drive technology than new smartphone gadgets.
“Smart home technology will change our lives!“
And what are you researching at the moment?
Marianne Reeb: We’re throwing a strong spotlight on the city of the future, especially in terms of smart cities. Looking at Asia is especially exciting: China, for example, will build new cities for 400 million people within the next decade. And they have learned a lot from their experiences in Shanghai and Beijing in terms of traffic and infrastructure; they include mobility in their planning. Smart homes are also a key topic of interest.
Marianne Reeb: Beyond technological innovation, they have huge potential for social innovation. For making everyday life easier. When I talk about this, I don’t just mean preheating my car to the desired temperature – that’s just playing around. Instead, smart home technology could, for example, help elderly people remain at home longer.
Security is an important issue, especially in densely populated urban areas. Here, a data leak could literally unlock your home and privacy. How do you counter those fears?
Marianne Reeb: It’s an important and legitimate issue, especially in Germany. People in China and the USA tend to be less concerned. Once again, it’s about the right incentives: It’s my impression that people are willing to share their data if they can see a real, personal advantage in doing so. As a renowned and respected manufacturer, Daimler carries a lot of responsibility: People occasionally criticize the brand for how long it takes us to develop innovations. Yet safety is one of our essential brand values and getting it right simply takes time.
“All cities want improved quality of life“
You have surveyed many cities. Are they still similar in some respects or do these urban centers develop in very different directions?
Marianne Reeb: You certainly need to differentiate between individual cities. US Americans, for example, mostly don’t live in their actual cities, but in the associated suburbs, while in Beijing and Shanghai there’s still a lot going on in the city centers. What unites all of these cities, however, is that they work on improving urban living and the overall quality of life. That’s the same in China, Europe, or America. Naturally, these cities are starting from very different levels and premises.
Christian Vollmann, the patron of smart urban pioneers, recently launched a new project, nebenan.de, that emphasizes people’s own initiative, engagement, and the wisdom of crowds over waiting for authorities to effect change. Do you share his assessment?
Marianne Reeb: It’s not about either/or, but about both. When it comes down to it, the wisdom of crowds alone will not manage huge infrastructural projects. But it can provide support. On the other hand, politics alone – without the residents of the city – is not enough to solve the big issues, either. That’s mostly down to economic and financial reasons, but also due to the general complexity of our lives.
As a jury member of smart urban pioneers you have reviewed and evaluated all of the projects. What’s your overall impression?
Marianne Reeb: The projects are really exciting, but also very different. A lot of apps, but that’s probably a sign of our times – so I was really pleased by anything hardware-related (laughs). Something I really appreciated was the overall sense of pragmatism. People want to change something and they consider how it might work in practice. We see a hands-on generation that doesn’t wait for someone to tell them what to do. What they care more about is that what they are doing makes sense and has meaning. That was my biggest eye-opener.