Design research for the future insights
Every year Sony Design conducts a research initiative to consider the future direction of the company and predict how technology,
society, and design domains will change in the coming years. Sony designers travel around the world on field research projects to see
firsthand how society is changing, then use the summarized findings as a basis for future design activities.
Below are reports gathered from recent research trips to New York and Detroit.
The 2019 New York visit focused on key concepts such as sustainability and transparency; themes that have emerged from millennial consumer culture of the last few years that currently comprises a majority of American consumer culture. The trip included visits to notable organizations, shops, companies, and meetings with visionary leaders.
One such visionary is Rei Inamoto, who founded I&CO with Rem Reynolds three years ago after a long tenure as Chief Creative Officer of AKQA, and has a reputation for bringing a refined design sensibility and emotion to the digital user experience. We asked Mr. Inamoto, who works with internationally recognized brands in the United States and Japan, what it is that the largest consumer segment—millennials—want.
"There is now diversification in ways consumers spend money," says Inamoto. "It's so easy to order and return things these days that consumers" obsession with ownership has diminished. Of course there will always be people who want high-quality products but also many others may not be so into owning things as much as the previous generations used to. Car sales have waned, but there are still people that love cars. While it is now possible to take high-quality photos by phone, and it is said that cameras sales have gone down, some people are shelling out large sums for specialty high-end cameras. Companies can no longer guarantee sales by simply making good products, but that also signals a business opportunity."
Millennials take into account a company's ethics and commitment to sustainability and the environment when deciding where to spend their money. Inamoto gave the example of Everlane, a brand that practices transparency about the breakdown of their pricing structure. "Rather than touting the cheapness of their wares, by revealing the production process they are selling the peace of mind that comes from knowing that their products are produced ethically. Consumers can develop an emotional connection this way."
Direct to Consumer (DTC)* brands like Everlane that ensure transparency by exposing the production process are growing. The team visited the retail store of All Birds, a footwear company that takes a similar approach. This San Francisco brand makes their shoes using fiber derived from wood, wool, sugar, and recycled materials. Rather than the wholesale business model, the company opted for direct-to-consumer online sales, only opening a brick-and-mortar store to showcase their brand philosophy and products once business picked up. For millennials who demand substance when they shop, it seems that DTC brands with high transparency and environmental awareness are becoming more appealing than more traditional high-end brands.
Walking around New York's shopping district, it is hard to miss that sustainability and social responsibility are no longer an option for businesses and brands, but a must. Millennial consumers are asking businesses to articulate their social stance, especially as environmental policy deregulation play out on a governmental level. The fact that the fashion industry has the greatest environmental impact after the oil industry seems to be of great concern to young millennial consumers.
At the same time, b2b businesses that address sustainability from various angles have emerged in the fashion world. Celine Semaan from Slow Factory, a brand that partners with NGOs to raise awareness about social issues, coined the term "fashion activism" to describe the current movement to influence society and politics through fashion. As a consultant to major companies such as Adidas, Semaan helps businesses create a pathway toward integrating sustainability practices.
Semaan was exiled from Lebanon during her childhood due to civil war, and her experience as a refuge as well as a consultant lends urgency to her declaration that "You should no longer make products in ways that harm the environment." She also believes that "sustainability-related investments are the safest investments that companies can make in order to maintain today's economy." Semaan instructs client companies to create things in ways that do not threaten the environment or animals, and to sponsor programs and learning opportunities toward social causes and environmental protection.
Another stop on the tour was the company Resonance, which is working on sustainability in the supply chain sector where small brands are facing many challenges. In response, Resonance opened a factory in the Dominican Republic equipped with an ultra-high resolution printer that can print various designs and colors onto fabric on demand, enabling their designers to produce textiles that do not generate excess inventory or waste.
One of the most frequently cited concepts important to millennial consumers is the idea of "community." Because millennials place a high value on belonging to a community, commercial businesses that specialize in creating co-working spaces are on the rise. To learn more about this concept, the team attended a panel discussion at New Lab, a technology-focused shared workspace based in a sprawling campus of Brooklyn's Navy Yard that houses innovators working to create social change.
We also spoke with a member of the leading co-working space WeWork's design team, who told us, "Our business model is based on the idea that people are more successful when they feel that they belong to a community. This is not limited to where you work. That's why we are expanding our business into sectors such as residential (WeLive), education (WeGrow), workout (RiseByWe), promoting the concept of 'Togetherness' through these endeavors."
In workplaces, it is now considered important to have options about where and how to work. For example, quiet spaces should be available for those who need a peaceful work area; fixed work spaces for those who prefer a designed work space; and various options for those who want to move around. The work environments that people prefer depend on their industry or particular needs, and there is a growing consensus that workplaces should accommodate different preferences. That's why employees of large traditional companies are increasingly using co-working spaces to accommodate certain work functions for which their own offices are not suited. The WeWork team member commented that "Change management is important in order for companies to adjust to this new reality." This is a model that allows staff to pivot when a company makes a large-scale shift, and it's an idea that is attracting more attention in the corporate landscape.
Detroit was forced to apply for bankruptcy as a municipality in 2014 after the ongoing automobile recession that started in the '80s was compounded by the recession that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Though it had flourished as a mecca for American manufacturing in decades past, in recent years the population decline had showed no signs of stopping, with whole neighborhoods becoming like ghost towns. Detroit has since turned itself around on the road to recovery, and is attracting attention as a region with great forward momentum. In the downtown area, the occupancy rate of office buildings currently exceeds 90%, and midtown has become a pedestrian-friendly area. Amidst the growing problem of soaring land prices caused by gentrification in major U.S. cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, last year Detroit saw population growth for the first time in years.
Several companies have had a hand in Detroit's recovery. Dan Gilbert, from the mortgage lending company Quicken Loans, has been a prominent figure in the city's revival since the bankruptcy days, and presides over an incubator that leads young start-ups. There is also Techtown, a more grass-roots incubator affiliated with Wayne State University, where we met with director Ned Staebler who told us that one of Detroit's strengths is its startups. "Wayne State University is in the city, and Ann Arbor is home to the prestigious Michigan University. Being close to several universities with great academic reputations means an excellent candidate pool for workers." It goes without saying that millennial workers are starting to flow in from areas where rents are soaring, such as New York and LA, to take advantage of the low overhead compared to other cities.
Gilbert is also the owner of the Shinola Hotel, which is based in downtown Detroit. Shinola is a watch brand that was founded in the city in 2011, established under a corporation based in Dallas, Texas. The company chose Detroit as the headquarters of their factory to make U.S.-made watches, and brought in engineers from Switzerland to train local workers. Today the manufacturing site adjacent to the office produces watches, leather products, sound equipment, and more.
With ample funding and steadily increasing store locations, Shinola's flagship is located in midtown Detroit in the same location where local brand City Bird, a store specializing in the craftsmanship of Detroit and Michigan, once stood. Filson, an affiliate brand, soon followed. In addition, Jack White of the Detroit-based band White Stripes opened a record pressing plant in the area for his record label Thirdman Records, which is based in Nashville, Tennessee. Thanks to the ongoing analog boom, the plant behind the store is now producing at full capacity.
The Shinola Hotel opened this year in a newly renovated building that was previously Singer's machine facility. It boasts an overwhelming popularity among the recently opened design hotels downtown, with interiors unified with mid-century furniture, and featuring collaborations with local creators and artists.
While there is a sense that the rise of the population downtown, the development rush, and the opening of new stores is part of a recovery bubble, Detroit's revival is not only represented by the capital that has flowed downtown since its bankruptcy.
The area called Corktown is also seeing a burgeoning grass-roots movement, such as the co-working space PonyRide, which supports entrepreneurship by women and minorities and offers inexpensive office space, and the 2013 opening of the specialty coffee shop Astro Coffee. Since these developments, Michigan Central Station, which had been abandoned for a long time in this area, was purchased by Ford last year with plans to be reopened as an electric car lab and commercial facility.
With Ford's investment, rent prices in nearby Corktown have risen, but now the movement is spreading toward a region called Core City. The furniture brand Floyd, which started at the non-profit co-working space PonyRide, is indicative of this changing tide. Floyd is a DTC brand that makes tables and beds that can be repeatedly reassembled. The brand's message that the product "can be used many times," is made in America, and, in fact, is mostly produced locally, resonates among millennial consumers.
Another organization active in the vicinity of Core City is Detroit Dirt. Founder Pashon Murray has created a business model that collects waste food from GM and other large Detroit companies, commercializes it as compost, and distributes it to general use gardens and farmers. As Murray sees it,
"Many large companies are emitting large amounts of waste food. What we do can be copied and practiced anywhere. We participate in initiatives at large companies and businesses through our consulting department."
In addition to New York and Detroit in North America,
the design team also visited several cities in Europe, China, and the Middle East,
with the aim of applying the knowledge gained in each city toward future design endeavors.