The featured picture, and starting point for this piece, is from a series taken at Masdar City in the UAE by photographer Etienne Malapert.
The city was
“scheduled to be completed this year but many developers and planners have given up on the original goal of building the world’s first zero-carbon city due to seemingly impossible targets and money constraints.”
“less than 5% of the original plans for the city has risen from the sand”
and Malapert’s visual essay captures the sense of a place who’s purpose, that while laudable, is emblematic of the struggle businesses (and cultures) face when trying to predict the future – by building it – without thinking very carefully about who they’re building it for.
This particular picture struck me a powerful representation of the current debate around the future role for, and shape of, the car dealership – namely, when it comes to the design of dealerships, who’s operational lifespan takes them into the late 2020’s, who are they fighting for?
What is, or should be, defining that space?
The landscape in which the battle’s being played out – namely the battle for the car buyer and owner – is bisected by contradictory lines of engagement.
If you look to trends, these tend to be delineated by the demands of urban mobility. It’s a bias that should come as no surprise – it’s where the consulting business’ who draft these predictions are based – but we should be be wary of it.
Mobility isn’t an exclusively urban issue. Of course, with the predictions that half of us will live in cities can’t be ignored, city-dwellers transportation needs are very different from the other half, for whom transport options are rather more limited.
On that basis, the need for some model of personal transportation demands an ownership (i.e. ‘buying’) model. For the sub-urban, access to cars through some form of display, distribution and ownership platform is likely to remain given the demand.
Which leads us neatly to purchase habits.
The conflation between ‘mobile’ and ‘mobility’ (one as the principle means through which we now view and consume the world, the other as the ease by which we can move around, not only physically but socially and materially), is a dangerous one.
For all the ways in which screen-based technologies can deliver us the information we need or crave, the physical world needs space to fulfill that demand. If you’re not planning to ‘own’ a car, you’ve really no need (or interest in) trying it out beforehand. For everyone else, in who’s interest it is to see that it can accommodate them, it’s essential.
So here’s an argument for the need, but potentially one based on fulfillment, first. It’s also likely to be a model supported by the pressure towards direct sales by automotive manufacturers.
At first glance it appears a rather contrary situation that, where in retailing the pressure is from intermediaries (e.g. Alibaba, Amazon, shopandship, etc.) based around supply-chain and home delivery, automotive brand owners appear to want to dis-intermediate.
If that notion, of wishing to be in direct contact with the buyer, gathers pace, the role of the dealership may simply become as the primary means for collection or delivery (or repair).
A business who’s primary function is as part of the supply chain should find itself shaped by a design brief around those parameters. Warehouses seldom need extensive display areas and lounge facilities in my experience. But that doesn’t mean they need to be shapeless blots on the landscape.
Of course none of this yet takes account of the third vector, the future shape of the things we drive (or may not have to drive); the product itself.
Vehicle design, connectivity, power-train, who’s driving or not are all exerting a powerful pull on how we think about transportation. All these things require some degree of physical contact to explore and understand. The ability of manufacturers to create the assets and infrastructure to do so and communicate the features and benefits demands an environment more orientated towards the interpretive (i.e. visitor center’s, trade shows, ‘brand experiences’) than simply product display.
The ‘billboard’ that most showrooms currently function as would then need to tell the whole story – and not simple stop at the cover page.
It’s great fun to speculate when the investment is risk free. It’s not such a laugh when you need to pour concrete and hope your customer’s will come once its dried.
What we must do today is look very carefully at who we think we’re building tomorrow for.