How does a mega-company like Ikea prepare for the future? By talking: with the consumer, with cities and with all countries of the world. The Swedish icon is radically opening up, perhaps the biggest change in its history. Ikea even could become a bit like Lego, chief creative officer Marcus Engman tells RetailDetail.
A moment with 250,000 people
Would I like a tour into the heart of Ikea? No need to ask twice, as the Swedish retailer has been at the top of my list as a pioneer and trailblazer in ‘the future of shopping’ for years. The occasion was now the H22 City Expo, which runs until 3 July in Helsingborg. Under the slogan “the making of a smarter city” it became a co-creation story with an entire city.
A city is home to all sorts of people. How do you reach them, how do you get them to think along with you? And how do you bring this to the rest of the world? Ikea entered into a worldwide dialogue with more than 250,000 people in over 30 countries to discuss the future. Some of those life stories can be discovered at ÖGONBLICK, an exhibition about ‘real people’ in a renovated warehouse in the city.
Thousands of people showed pieces of their lives in the conversations. In some parts of the world, families live together for generations, but how does that work? Living alone was also brought into the spotlight, since in Belgium, for example, a third of the population is single. Loneliness is quickly lurking around the corner, while the cities are growing. At Ikea, they believe that in the future we will be living in smaller spaces.
Change starts at home
The aim: to explore the future of life at home. With a month of events, workshops, performances and demos, Ikea wants to explore how the relationship between people and their homes has evolved and show how it is possible to create a better everyday life. Later, the home furnishing chain also wants to bring similar local initiatives and activities to other markets.
Ikea has been adjusting its thinking for a while now: instead of a top-down approach, with the well-known segmentation of consumers into superficial profiles such as age, gender and income level, they have started a ‘lifestyle trajectory’. Change starts with yourself, or so Ikea must have thought. It became a fascinating journey, which I also follow extensively in our brand new book The Future of Shopping: Re-set Re-made Re-tail.
How can you keep your finger on the pulse as a mega-company in a rapidly changing world? How can you get a realistic view of how people live in, say, Tokyo or India? We consulted Ikea’s most creative person: Chief Creative Officer Marcus Engman.
Marcus, we are in the anthropocene, the age of man. We increasingly need more of everything: more energy, more cars, more raw materials… How does this fit into Ikea’s sustainability story?
M.E.: “We at Ikea want to take responsibility. I think we all need to be so much more conscious about everything we do, because after all, it’s about people’s lives. People may not see it, but Ikea is on a constant quest to keep prices low in a sustainable, efficient way.
Without knowing it, we were quite sustainable even in the 1960s. We hate waste: we produce and design our products with as little waste as possible. We also hate moving air. Hence our famous flatpacks: 0% air, a masterpiece of engineering and efficiency! In a world where resources are becoming scarce, we really need to keep thinking about doing even better. Trash should no longer be a waste, but the raw material of the future.
Landfills must become the new goldmines of raw materials. We must go for circularity and Ikea wants to be a pioneer in this. Also to be able to maintain our low price philosophy, we need to move towards a new kind of system, in which we stimulate the reuse of products as much as possible.”
With H22 City Expo you think about life in the cities of the future. What does your ideal city look like?
M.E.: “Megacities should do everything possible to become resource generators and create green meeting places, where people find ways to connect with each other. Medium-sized cities have more opportunities to bring nature closer to people again, something that is very important to people.
Talking to people has also taught me a lot about social demography and the many subtypes of social cohorts. We put a lot of time into this because it is so relevant. For example, we see that there are 45 different types of students. Thanks to the new media, we can also reach all these different types of people more easily than in the mass media era. We cluster lifestyles, for example surfers, who we reach via social media. That makes communication much more interesting because it is also more personal.
So there is no one type of ideal city, just as no two consumers or two markets are the same. Our product development is therefore informed by all countries, so we know which things will work where. If we want to develop something new, we base ourselves on the ‘most difficult’, most demanding country with the strictest regulations and culture. That used to be Japan, now it is China. If it works there, it works for the rest of the world. Even though it may take three years to get a product to the shops, if we make, say, children’s furniture, it has to be the safest furniture in the world.”
Doing more for the local community is also the sense of DM, your urban farming project. Why on earth is Ikea starting an urban farm and vegetable market in a forgotten neighbourhood in Helsingborg?
M.E.: “DM stands for Do More and is a new concept by Ingka Group to connect with the neighbourhood. Ikea tries to get close to people, also to people we would otherwise have difficulty reaching. Food is often a driver for connection and that’s why we set up our first multifunctional marketplace in Drottninghög, a socially deprived area in the north-east of Helsingborg, with pop-up shops, markets, an urban farm, a food court, events, educational activities and a place to meet.
During our conversations we have noticed that there is an incredible amount of talent, but the people who live there are, for various reasons, far away from the local labour market. Through DM, we can meet them and explain that we have great jobs. We use DM as a springboard for employment, employing them and promoting self-employment. Thanks to these initiatives, we have already been able to recruit around 50 new employees.
So what is the big difference with Atelier100 in London?
M.E.: “In London, too, we want to find as much talent as possible with Atelier100, a unique shop in collaboration with H&M where creative entrepreneurs can offer their creations. DM goes even further and is a real meeting place for the neighbourhood.
Atelier100 focuses exclusively on creative disciplines because we need a lot of creativity for the future. We are doing this together with H&M for the first time, because we not only share many values but also the same challenges: finding local creative talent.”
Is this learning to collaborate and open up the big change for the future?
M.E.: “Within Ikea, I think the biggest change is that we have evolved from top-down to bottom-up thinking. There is a realisation that what is important for us is also important for the world, so let’s go for it together. There have been many such major changes along the way and more are to come.
For example, being circular is not just about reusing materials, because that costs a lot of energy. From the new idea of cooperation, we could think in terms of components, as with Lego. For eighty years, we have been making products with numerous components in our database. Many of them can be flexibly reused. If we manage to use a fixed pool of components, we can make products very efficiently. And by being more efficient, we can diversify in the same way that people have diversified.”
What do you yourself learn the most from, Marcus?
M.E.: “From my three children and grandchild. They still think without reservation. We must embrace this attitude and pass it on in order to remain creative. They are the teachers of tomorrow.
Apart from talking to people, Ikea has also set up some remarkable projects. For example, the Space10 innovation lab is located in the heart of Copenhagen’s Meatpacking district and since late 2015 has been a hub for designers, scientists, makers, artists and anyone else interested in the questions the lab aims to answer.
C40 is a collaboration between 40 of the world’s largest cities, such as Chicago, Paris and Montreal. They share their experiences and insights to create more sustainable cities for the future.”
You can read all about those living labs and testlabs from Ikea in the next article in this series about the Swedish furniture retailer’s H22 City Expo.