By Gillian Tett, March 13th, 2015
This year, Ford, announced it was opening a research and innovation centre in Silicon Valley. But it’s not just computer geeks that the great American carmaker is hiring these days. It has recently taken on a plethora of social scientists as well, in its research labs in Michigan and around the world.
These psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists are trying to understand how we interact with our cars in a cultural sense. It is a striking development and one worth pondering in a personal sense if, like me, you spend much of your life rushing about in a car.
In the early days of the company, Ford executives did not seem to be overly concerned about “culture”. The founder, Henry Ford, was cavalier about his customers, famously declaring: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” But while the company has become far better at offering a customised service since Ford’s day, its cars generally seemed to have been designed by clever engineers who tended to assume that everyone liked the same things that they did: mostly flashy gadgets.
These days, Ford executives have realised that it is not good enough to create cars simply according to what seems cool to its (mostly male) engineers in Michigan. They need to take a much wider and more imaginative view of consumer tastes.
That is partly because of globalisation — and, in particular, the fact that Ford (like all carmakers) is more reliant on the Chinese market for sales. Unsurprisingly, Chinese consumers often have radically different ideas of what makes a great car, especially if they are female.
A second reason why Ford is becoming more interested in culture is that the nature of cars is being transformed in a surprising way. Back when Henry Ford started making his Model T, the task of building cars was a job for technical engineers. Today, it also involves computer experts since cars now contain a dizzying amount of software.
That has prompted tech companies to jump in. Last month, I listened to some engineers at Viv Labs, a Silicon Valley start-up created by the founders of Apple’s intelligent personal assistant Siri. They explained how we would soon be using cars embedded with artificial intelligence. Companies such as Google are creating self-driving cars and even Apple is rumoured to be creating a car of its own — a move that would probably create even more waves than last week’s launch of the Apple Watch.
As competition from the tech sector heats up, this is not only putting traditional car markets under pressure but also fostering creative thinking about the future of travel. Executives at Ford are now trying to look at the whole business of carmaking in a wider sense — both by hiring social scientists and by working with consultancies such as ReD, a group that specialises in social science research.
“We are looking at the bigger cultural context of cars,” explains Christian Madsbjerg, co-founder of ReD, who says that while Ford used to design cars “inside-out” (based on what engineers wanted), it is now trying to create them “outside-in” (based on what consumers want to experience). Or as Parrish Hanna, Ford’s global director of human machine interface, argues, what Ford is trying to do is promote “innovation” while using social scientists as consultants.
Though it remains to be seen what type of car will emerge from Ford’s new centre, I applaud the project for two reasons. The first is somewhat partisan: I trained as an anthropologist and have always lamented the fact that the discipline tends to be woefully under-appreciated and under-resourced. If companies such as Ford are now hiring social scientists, it might give anthropology a badly needed boost. Indeed, groups such as ReD say anthropologists are now cropping up in an increasing range of companies, such as Samsung, Adidas, Carlsberg, Lego and so on.
The second, more important reason this trend is interesting is that it could point to a bigger shift in business attitudes. Back in Henry Ford’s day, the power relationship between corporate executives and consumers was imbalanced; these days consumers can band together to express their preferences — and change their tastes at lightning speed.
So when you next get into a car, it is worth taking a look around and thinking about what you might tell an anthropologist if they were sitting in the passenger seat. Could you imagine a radically different way of driving? Does the way we imagine “cars” meet what you really need? And if it does not, how might we — or those brainiacs in Silicon Valley — redesign the experience? I daresay the answer would make Henry Ford spin in his grave.
This article originally appeared on FT.com.