Everyone in business wants to know what's going to happen in the future, and for some time now Ford has been investing in futurism, an evolving academic and professional discipline.
The need for this was particularly evident after the Business Insider Transportation team in New York spent a few days at the New York Auto Show, asking everyone to predict was will happen in 2016 — and beyond. The car business these days is all about change: automakers becoming "mobility providers," electric cars potentially displacing gas-powered vehicles, even autos driving themselves. Heck, even Apple may get in on the action.
For nearly a decade, Sheryl Connelly has been Ford's manager of global consumer trends and futuring. "In this role, she tracks global consumer trends to aid in the discussion of long-term planning and strategy across the entire company, including design, product development, and corporate strategy," the auto giant says.
We've spoken with Connelly several times, most recently in late 2015 when she was in New York City to talk about Ford's 2016 trend report.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Matthew DeBord: Give us a quick rundown of what it's like to be the house futurist at America's first car company.
Sheryl Connelly: It's a good gig, for sure. One of the first times I spoke at a conference, I had that "fraud" phenomenon, where I thought everybody would see right through me. But someone who reviewed the presentation said that it was great, "especially coming from a dinosaur like Ford."
That epitomizes my experience. People are surprised that a 100-plus-year-old company employs a futurist and has dedicated the time and the resources just for someone to explore. We can't always assume what worked in the past will continue to work in the future.
DeBord: So understanding the future is the most valuable commodity any car company can have?
Connelly: I would go up one and say for any company, because I don't look at cars or trucks. My job is specifically designed not to talk about cars or trucks. We have no shortage of automotive expertise inside the company.
My job is to slow down the conversation and ask, "Are you sure young people will always see the car as a status symbol? Are you sure the emerging middle class in China and India want to be just like the Western counterparts?"
DeBord: So you're also the house counter-factualist?
Connelly: I call myself the "polite contrarian." People ask me, "How do you think like a futurist?" Well, the next time you're in a meeting and somebody says, "That'll never happen, not in my lifetime, never under that management," that's the perfect place to start. Our topline for futurists is to help an organization learn to expect the unexpected.
DeBord: Based on your research, what's your big takeaway for 2016?
Connelly: We think 2016 is going to be about how people lift themselves up, so we've highlighted trends that speak to inspiration, ingenuity, and identity.
Our first trend is embracing heroes. There's this idea of mistrust in business, government, and media. It's not new. But we think embracing heroes is a move where people want to celebrate the good work of their neighbors, people in their community, and regular citizens. These are not huge feats of courage or death-defying acts.
They're small things, but they are powerful, and people love to share those stories. I don't think this trend would be nearly as relevant without social media. We recognize that consumers as a whole are much more likely to share good news than bad news.
We also look at lifestyle in general. People don't want more stuff — they want better things. Things that are more durable, of higher quality, with greater versatility. For Ford, as a carmaker, that means utility vehicles. There's lots of talk about millennials not being traditional fans of cars. That may or may not be certainly true.
We've seen a shift in buying patterns as many of them get older and start families. We're really excited about their interest in utility vehicles. I think that has to do with this idea that "I'm going to buy this car and I'm going to hold onto it for a long time, not two to four years like my mom and dad did, but for a decade, maybe longer. So this vehicle has to have the ability to grow with me."
Time is also important. Rich or poor, old or young, we all only have 24 hours in a day, and what we do in that time is becoming increasingly precious to us. Digital devices were sold on the premise that they would save us time, but that was the greatest modern scam ever, because they really blur the boundaries between work and home life. We're calling out deliberate efforts to take back time.
DeBord: Remember when you could get in a car and drive someplace and nobody could get in touch with you?
Connelly: That's a perfect tee-up for our next trend, which is "mindfulness goes mainstream." If you were to talk to our designers, the DNA for our interiors right now is "the car is a sanctuary" — a hub that protects you from the noise, the pressures, the distraction around you.
We also talk about time poverty. Devices can deliver some really great things through artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced algorithms that are not only there to meet your needs but to anticipate your needs.
DeBord: Self-driving cars were very futuristic a couple of years ago, but suddenly it feels as if the future is arriving at a rapid pace.
Connelly: As a child, I was always hearing about the flying car. I'm still waiting for my flying car. A cynic might have said that the autonomous driving vehicle is a lovely idea that captures the imagination of the public, but it will never see the light of day. But now it seems like we've hit an acceleration point.
My personal opinion on this is that this has a lot to do with the aging population, another trend that we call out. The aging population is, without a doubt, a macro trend. Scientists have declared that the first person who will live to be 150 years old has already been born. This will bring with it some interesting consequences with it, not the least of which is, "How long does she want to work?" If she wants to work to 65 and lives to be 150, that's going to be an interesting math equation.
DeBord: And for Ford the question will be "How long does she want to drive?"
Connelly: If I'm 83 and give up my car keys, and I think I'll live to be 85, I can deal with that. But if I think I'll live to be 105, or 125, my willingness to give up the keys might be much lower. Therein lies the business case for autonomous driving vehicles. Autonomous-vehicle development is going to be driven by demand from the baby boomers, who love their cars, who created the car culture. To give up so much of their identity, so much of their freedom and independence, is a proposition they're not willing to accept.
But I don't think it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Autonomous vehicles make sense in the right context. And they won't be universally appealing. I live in Detroit, where traffic is not horrible. But Beijing has an average daily commute of five hours a day, and earlier this year experienced a traffic jam that lasted 12 days. They had this idea of a 50-lane highway. They're looking for better solutions.
China and India are the countries most eager for this type of technology. The people who live there say that they can imagine themselves in an autonomous vehicle.
DeBord: A lot of people are really interested in companies like Uber. They're cheerleading for the disruption of the traditional automakers. But I don't think they're fully aware of what's going on inside the major carmakers on this front.
Connelly: Anyone who has heard Bill Ford's TED Talk has heard him say that having spent a good portion of his life thinking how to sell as many cars as possible, he reached a point where he asked, "What happens if that continues?" It won't serve anyone if you're stuck in global gridlock.
And fundamentally, he believes that mobility is a critical component to the advancement of freedom and innovation, which is a powerful concept. That dovetails beautifully with Ford CEO Mark Fields' idea that our company can make lives better. So we're exploring car-sharing, and we're looking at ride-sharing.
DeBord: As Ford evolves to be a mobility provider, a discussion is emerging about data. Whose data is it? Is it Ford's data? Is it the customer's data? Is it the customer's data after they own the car outright? Does the bank own some of it? Where are you guys at on that?
Connelly: Ford as a company has a responsibility to be good stewards of that data. It is an issue that's coming to the forefront. Last year, as a trend, we called it the "give-and-take of privacy." I don't think customers mind sharing their data, if it's done openly, transparently, and the benefits are clear and direct.
What's in it for me if I give you that data? I think most consumers are not aware of the value of their personal data. But at some point, hopefully it's sooner rather than later, they will become aware.
DeBord: There are some obvious angles on all this data. For example, Ford could know if your car is sitting idle 95% of the time. So maybe you don't need a car — Ford could advise you to buy a mobility service instead.
Connelly: To a certain extent, I think those things have been in place. When I started with the company in 1996, my first job was to answer questions on the 1-800 line: Where's my local dealer? How do I tow a boat? What's the maximum weight I can carry?
But we also know that when customers had issues, we would take that data and we would record it, and it would be rolled up to look at patterns in terms of engineering. The challenge is the management of data and how we optimize that information, but in a way never undermines the integrity of our relationship or the duty we have toward our customers.