Try to see into the future and you’ll receive a vision that is fraught with uncertainty. “It’s not possible to say exactly what will happen in the future, of course – either in general terms or focusing on specific aspects,” says Matthias Horx. “But you can shine a light on it.” Horx is considered to be the German-speaking world’s most influential futurist and trend researcher. At the turn of the millennium, following a career in journalism, he founded the Zukunftsinstitut, which advises numerous companies and bodies on the directions that the future is set to take. Today, he dedicates himself to his life’s work of transforming futurology from the format in which it emerged in the 1960s and 1970s into a specific discipline of consultancy, which can be used by companies, areas of society, and the political sphere alike. He adopts an evolutionary approach to the technologies of the future rather than believing them to exist at the end of a straight line, with the new simply replacing the old. His view is instead that human skills and needs will develop alongside what technology is able to provide. As a result, the future will emerge as these aspects combine and recombine with one another – with combinations breaking through and others being left by the wayside. Working with Germany’s ADAC motoring association, the Zukunftsinstitut has now shone its light – or should that be headlight? – on mobility. Its study into the evolution of mobility, “Die Evolution der Mobilität”, looks ahead to 2040 – and forecasts significant changes affecting this field. We are on the cusp of a new multi-mobile age, the study states. Matthias Horx sat down for an interview with The Quintessence to explain exactly what the study predicts and what role autonomous vehicles are set to play in this.
“If you really want a good insight into what the future is likely to hold, then you need to understand how social and technical processes interact with one another.”
The Quintessence: Your work at the Zukunftsinstitut examines all kinds of different areas. Do you find trends cropping up in more than one area at the same time?
Matthias Horx: Looking at fashion-based trends, socioeconomic trends, technological trends and megatrends, those are all long-term drivers of specific changes such as globalisation or urbanisation. Then there are metatrends – these have a long-term impact on the way we evolve as a whole. Once upon a time, the famous 1960s futurist Herman Kahn talked about a concept called a long-term multifold trend. This could be seen as an evolutionary principle in and of itself – a kind of theory of everything that revolves around the world becoming more and more complex. It’s also important to note that the term “complex” shouldn’t be confused with “complicated”!
What role do technological developments play in your predictions of the future?
M. H.: Technology is an important driver of change, but it’s not the only thing doing that. If you really want a good insight into what the future is likely to hold, then you need to understand how social and technical processes interact with one another. Not every innovation will make a breakthrough on the market. Right now, for example, we’re seeing a lot of hype around robots with increasingly human features. However, I predict that they’ll be a flop. Although we’re fascinated by the idea of creating artificial humans, at the same time it makes us uneasy – that’s a natural response. So ultimately, we’ll end up sending our metal and plastic friends back to the lab. I do think that industrial robots will make huge inroads in factories everywhere, however.
What does the future of mobility look like?
M. H.: In general, mobility is set to dematerialise and become more attuned to certain cultural aspects. Nowadays, it’s still perceived as somewhat functional – something to take us from A to B. In most cases, we travel simply because we need to cover a certain physical distance. That’s starting to change, however. Increasingly, we are gaining the possibility of crossing the miles using virtual technologies and being in places thanks to telepresence. At the same time, we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of nomad – people who are always on the move and have forged a lifestyle out of this. Mobility has become a lifestyle.
Generally speaking, where do autonomous vehicles come into this – including ships, planes and trains?
M. H.: All these areas are going to feel the effects of autonomous driving – it’s a question of when, not if. It could be that ships are actually even better suited to full automation than cars are, because road traffic is exceptionally complex to navigate. In the first 20 to 30 years, I believe we will have a role as pilots in our vehicles; it will be around 2040 or 2050 before we see full autonomy making a genuine breakthrough. The technology will need to develop rapidly at that point, though – a hybrid situation in which some vehicles are still being driven and some are autonomous is unlikely to work. However, I believe that most trains will already be running as automated systems by 2040: the technology involved in this is much easier to master.
In your study into the evolution of mobility, were there any results or findings that surprised you?
M. H.: It was surprising to see just how open people are to an alternative kind of mobility. When it comes to cars, people have extremely divergent opinions. On the one hand, you have the 40 per cent who are still dyed-in-the-wool car fans – for them, owning a car is inextricably linked with identity and they are still zealous advocates of the combustion engine. On the other hand, there are people who drive frequently but hate being stuck in all that traffic. Diesel cars and their impact on the environment are a factor for this group too. Particularly in cities, there are a lot of people who no longer own a car and are quite happy with that – in fact, they see it is something liberating and an essential part of their quality of life.
Did the study only consider road traffic?
M. H.: It was a significant part of the study, of course, although we did seek to gain an all-encompassing understanding of mobility processes. In today’s world, road traffic primarily refers to cars, but that view isn’t set to last. Cities are on the brink of becoming Copenhagenised – which means that cars will soon become bit players and streets will be the domain of pedestrians, cyclists and mobile traders instead.
You also talk about multimodal mobility in this context. What does that refer to?
M. H.: To put it simply, it means creating seamless networks of various modes of transport so that they can be used around the clock and combined with one another. What’s admittedly great about cars is that you can just throw your luggage in and then go from A to B. However, we can make that happen in the future by combining other modes of transport too – let’s say, electric scooters and delivery bicycles, or trains and drones. And it won’t involve too much expense or effort to do so.
Many analysts believe that the automotive industry will reach its zenith within the next 10 to 15 years. When 2040 comes around, what role do you think cars will be playing then?
M. H.: I would be careful about making any pronouncements on this subject. Technically, the automotive industry has already reached its zenith – it can’t progress any further as it currently stands. But it’s also set to change. It’s going to merge with the energy and computing industries, and when that happens, we’ll have to start calling it something different.
What impact will autonomous vehicles have on our lives?
M. H.: We do lots of things in the car that we used to do in the office or at home – we sleep there, we live there, we work there, and so on. However, that also raises difficult questions: for example, does driving count as time spent at work? The answer isn’t clear. For many people, the reason they love driving is that it has a certain relaxing quality to it – provided traffic is flowing smoothly, at least. You can sit and listen to music, or you can have a snooze if you’re a passenger. It doesn’t have to be a very intense activity, and that’s where many people believe the sense of relaxation and autonomy comes into it. Self-driving cars could eliminate that feeling, so many people are instinctively against them. Then there are the people who don’t like autonomous driving because it removes the aggressive aspects of the activity. It means no more tearing along the roads and controlling the wheel; no more flashing others on the motorway – so the question really becomes a case of where the outlet for all their pent-up rage is going to be.
But won’t autonomous vehicles afford us more freedom too?
M. H.: It’s true that they will free us from the need to spend whole years of our lives behind the wheel of a car. But you can already do that simply by taking the train. The fact remains that many people enjoy being slaves to their vehicles – in the same way that they seem to enjoy buying furniture from Ikea and then building it themselves. We’re actually quite happy to be dependent on technology and give our freedom a back seat. Why else would people put up with the bizarre experience of sitting in traffic jams?
Hand on heart, what developments have personally surprised you the most, because you simply didn’t see them coming?
M. H.: Trump.
One of your books is called “Guide to Future Optimism”. Why should we take an optimistic view of the future?
M. H.: Being an optimist is quite a silly thing in and of itself, because it usually means taking a naïve approach. The smartest people among our ancestors weren’t optimists – if they had been, they would have been dead before the point at which they were able to procreate. I see myself as a possibilist. I think in terms of possibilities, and I choose the best ones as visions of the future that we should strive towards.
Digital organisation and individual networks
“In the future, the challenges that mobility is set to face will be in individual, intelligent networking,” said President of the ADAC motoring association Dr August Markl upon the publication of the Zukunftinstitut’s study “Die Evolution der Mobilität” (“The Evolution of Mobility”). “Our models of mobility are becoming more multifaceted and complex. What we are on the brink of is not a disruptive mobility revolution, but rather evolution and change that will become increasingly deep-seated.”
The Zukunftsinstitut’s study exploring the future states that our need for security, good health, an unspoilt environment and a generally high quality of life is set to become even more important. Digitalisation will be one of the pillars of tomorrow’s mobility solutions. Futurists believe that these growing mobility requirements will also bring about changes in the way in which we use cars as we approach the year 2040. They expect to see a much stronger network developing for the different modes of transport that move individuals around. Digital platforms will make it possible to integrate public transport infrastructures and sharing services.
New lifestyles, brought about through changes such as the way in which we work or our increasing lifespans, are also set to have a long-term impact on individual patterns of mobility. By 2040, the researchers believe that personal mobility will be found in all kinds of different formats to suit different groups – ranging from IT-savvy “mobile innovators” to “silver movers”, the over-75s with their own distinct set of challenges.