The mobile MaketechXla © Stephan Röhl

The Futurologists.

At Berlin’s first ever MaketechX conference we invited futurologist and Singularity University ambassador Yuri van Geest and Mercedes-Benz’s Alexander Mankowsky to share and sharpen their thoughts on technology and the future of mobility.
Text: Benjamin Cantu
Photo: Stephan Röhl
Yuri van Geest at hi talk on the singularity © Stephan Röhl

Ten Gutenberg moments at the same time.

In science, the Gutenberg moment marks a technological milestone: more than half a millennium ago, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press helped spread and decentralise human knowledge. Fast-forward a few centuries and we face around ten Gutenberg moments happening at the same time. Or so Yuri van Geest, Dutch ambassador and double alumnus of Silicon Valley’s Singularity University and co-founder of Quantified Self Europe and Amsterdam, postulates. He is referring to ground-breaking technologies that revolutionise our lives today – advances like neuro technology, artificial intelligence of drones and robots, DNA printing or open source hardware and mobility solutions.

Convergence of man and machine.

This open-minded approach makes Yuri a perfect fit for the top selection of speakers, makers, hackers and entrepreneurs who grace the first ever two-day MaketechX conference at Berlin’s Platoon Kunsthalle venue. Visionaries to the core, they represent a social and scientific subset who have recognised the potential of new technologies and aim to improve our quality of life by using them in creative ways. Among them: Mercedes-Benz’s Alexander Mankowsky who scours the world for future social or technological trends and feeds these inspirations back into the development and design of new and novel vehicle concepts.

Yuri van Geest and Alexander Mankowsky © Stephan Röhl

With their advanced and progressive expertise both researchers fan the creative flames of associated designers and engineers, often with a focus on the looming convergence of man and machine. Reason enough to introduce these two pioneers – and invite them to pit their wits against each other.

Inspiration technology.

Any discussion of the future usually involves technological advances. What’s so inspiring about technology?

Yuri: What I find so inspiring about technology is just how fast things seem to change – and the repercussions these changes might bring. Technology is becoming increasingly precise. Naturally you have to keep risks and ethical questions in mind, but generally speaking, we profit from technological advances – both as individuals and as a society.

Alexander: I find it inspiring to spot a good fit of technological and social innovations. Ideally, people would start to make connections between social and technical innovations on their own. Take the iPhone: Everyone loves it, but it would be boring without all those people specialising in the development of creative apps.

Highly sensitive technology © Stephan Röhl

The next big step will involve bringing the digital to the physical realm. Via robotics, for example. At Mercedes-Benz, we are already working on this next wave of technology.

Public discussion at the MaketechX confrence © Stephan Röhl

From users to makers.

MaketechX puts a spotlight on this particular transformation – from users to makers. What’s your take on this movement?

Yuri: It’s all about reconnecting with your childhood. I’ve always loved playing with Lego. And now we can manufacture far more complex things. The digital realm is incredibly fluid and endlessly reproducible, which makes it ephemeral by nature. When you manufacture something physical on the other hand, using a 3-D or 4-D printer or a couple of switches, this can be a fulfilling and grounding experience. Something that can’t quite be achieved via purely digital means. It’s more unique, authentic and human.
MaketechX workshops at Platoon Kunsthalle in Berlin Mitte © Stephan Röhl

Globalisation tsunami.

Alexander: And many young people, especially the avant-garde, are no longer content with pure consumption. Why should creative freedom be restricted to the digital realm? What we see here and now is more and more people empowering themselves to create stuff by themselves.

Innovation arises from the connection of people from different disciplines who don’t yet know each other. In view of today’s globalisation tsunami we need something to hold onto, something we can explore together.

Living in Transit.

Alexander, you focus on the issue of mobility. What trends or developments do you find especially exciting at the moment?

Alexander: Without a doubt: autonomous driving, embedded in robotic advances. It’s a truly revolutionary technology because it not only affects the car itself, as a means of transport, but also the question of urbanisation. Urbanisation is an issue since urban space is becoming increasingly scarce and mobility has to compete for space. At Mercedes-Benz, we are currently considering concepts under the umbrella term Living in Transit.

Alexander Mankowsky © Stephan Röhl

This is all about the car as a place of retreat when you are on the move, but also about how cars can release resources back to the city. That will change the world as we know it.

The car as a software company.

Yuri: I would have to agree – it’s a ground-breaking invention! But I would also like to mention another future mobility trend: automotive brands are no longer just hardware manufacturers, but increasingly also software companies. The car of the future will feature an operating system and apps, developed not only by the manufacturer, but also by hackers, developers and start-ups. Just like Facebook or Twitter, there will be thousands of developers flanking the brand who turn the vehicle into a platform. That will raise the bar and help set new benchmarks.

Alexander: I have to admit that I remain sceptical when it comes to the car as an open source platform. Right now, a car is the technologically most advanced object we can own. A completely open platform is very hard to achieve considering the sheer number of processes going on inside.

Open circuit workshop with fritzing © Stephan Röhl

And we are aiming for aesthetic cohesion. I think that aesthetics will play an increasingly important role while technological advances continue to broaden our design options.

Alexander Mankowsky © Stephan Röhl

The agony of choice.

So, the question remains: What kind of future do you envision?

Alexander: Some futurologist institutes talk of centrally controlled mobility. People are supposed to get from A to B as efficiently and sustainably as possible. Well, I am all for the environment, but I would also like to have a choice. As a futurologist for Mercedes-Benz I would like to give people the choice to pick their own form of transport without restricting their access to aesthetics, individuality and luxury.

Inner piece.

Yuri: I think our future society will revolve around self-knowledge and identity. If and when we know and understand ourselves better, when we are aware of our innate motivations and skills, we will find it a lot easier and fulfilling to pursue our tasks in life. This is best achieved by continuous questioning and exploring diversity. We also need this expertise to keep up with the sheer speed of global change. If we are not in tune with ourselves, we will fall behind in this new world. But we have the means and technologies to achieve all this.


Thank you very much for this discussion! 

Yuri van Geest and Alexander Mankowsky © Stephan Röhl

Together with Fab Lab Berlin MaketechXlab supports pioneering smart tech and prototyping projects. Any tech head with a great idea can apply to use the mobile MaketechXlab, which includes a refitted Mercedes-Benz Viano and a <100Mbit/s Telekom hotspot.

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