“Nurture contrarians rather than mainstream thinking”

March 13, 2016 is the deadline for entries to Ars Electronica’s search conducted under the auspices of the European Commission for innovative projects at the nexus of science, technology and art. Alexander Mankowsky, a futurist on the staff of Daimler AG and a STARTS juror, recently talked to us about the trailblazing role of art and the framework conditions for an innovative Europe.

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Artists, scientists and entrepreneurs worldwide have until March 13th to submit their innovative projects for 2016 prize consideration in the STARTS (Science, Technology and ARTS) competition being held by the European Commission. Entries can be submitted online at starts-prize.aec.at. A jury of experts will select two prizewinners; each will receive €20,000 prize money. Alexander Mankowsky is one of the jurors who’ll convene in April 2016 in Linz. He’s been on the staff of Daimler AG since 1989. His work for the German automaker originally concentrated on social trends in matters of mobility; his current research focuses on the future. We talked to him about the role art plays in his line of work, and where Europe could use a bit more audacity.

What social role does art play for you as a futurist?

Alexander Mankowsky: The way I see it, current scientific and contemporary artistic works belong together in the sense that both offer orientation on the forces shaping society and technology. In his/her artform, an artist can communicate areas of breakage in our cultural reality without having to provide reasons why they occurred. Thus, art is liberated from the filter of language and evidence. Art can become the first step on the path to communicable insight.

Alexander Mankowsky

Alexander Mankowsky talked about Future Mobility at the 2015 Ars Electronica Festival – a video recording can be found on our YouTube account. Credit: Tom Mesic

STARTS is in search of innovative projects at the interface of science, technology and art. What does innovation actually mean to you? Can you cite specific projects that embody this?

Alexander Mankowsky: The pivotal development at present is the introduction of automation into society. Self-driving vehicles and mobile robots will transform our habitats and our workplaces. Nevertheless, this transformation is being considered almost exclusively from a technical-functional standpoint—how efficient is this, and which legal framework provisions ought to be instituted? It’s highly “cerebral.” At Daimler, we’re working on basic innovations with the goal of humanizing this technology. Vehicles should communicate externally in order to offer us human beings an alternative to the form of “empathy” that currently prevails in the domain of mobility. We want to depict this “empathizing” in the form of an installation at the interface of art and industry. But that’s all I can reveal at this point.

“I like to employ art to engender a sensibility for the decisions that determine the fundamental direction of future development, a comprehension of cultural shifts.” Alexander Mankowsky

For example, which objectives we want to get across in the “shared space” of the future, the one that will be populated by human beings and autonomous vehicles. In this sense, art contributed to the development of Mercedes-Benz’s F 015 concept car, and that’s why we staged the European premiere at Ars Electronica.

F 015 in Linz

The F 015 Luxury in Motion, the self-driving vehicle of Mercedes-Benz, was presented at the 2015 Ars Electronica Festival for the first time in Europe. Credit: Florian Voggeneder

What do you think it takes to make for an innovative Europe—particular framework conditions; subsidies? Which protagonists play, or should play, a key role in this? And does this, perhaps, call for a certain attitude? Do we need (more) impudence?

Alexander Mankowsky: The objective of harmonization has long since been achieved; now, it must definitely be replaced by the goal of diversity. Of course, achieving this calls for the courage to face contradiction and disharmony. The key protagonists: individualists, the majority of whom are artists and pioneers in science and research. It would be preferable to nurture lateral thinking than to go on fostering a mainstream approach.

“Europe needs to go boldly in the direction of diversity, towards multiplicity and niches. Less standardization; more individuality and contrariness.” Alexander Mankowsky

There are plenty of examples of initiatives in this spirit on the part of Daimler: Arena 2036 in Stuttgart with its focus on technology; collaboration with betahaus and Fab Lab in Berlin; working together with Ars Electronica in Linz; and the re:start Berlin initiative with its focus on zeitgeist and society. All of these examples entail diversity, co-working and opening up to novel ways and means. As a potential subsidy measure, I could imagine making available co-working spaces in cities.


The workplace of the future? The betahaus in Berlin. Credit: Danique van Kesteren

Let’s peer 15 years into the future: What changes will we be observing in the realms of industry and technology?

Alexander Mankowsky: Industries that are quite dissimilar today—high-tech manufacturers and carmakers, for instance—will have developed into a new form of enterprise. Nevertheless, what I mean by this isn’t Industry 4.0, but rather a complete re-invention. New forms of work and cooperation will be linked up with innovative production procedures in a scalable mode.

What are your sources of inspiration for future prognostications?

Alexander Mankowsky: Of utmost importance is a feeling for time, an understanding of the duration of technical and social developments. On this basis, I very much enjoy engaging in an exchange of views with members of the avant-garde and pioneers, with scientists, artists, engineers and designers—as diverse a group as possible. Personally, I’m driven by the desire to humanize technology. For me, this is a future prospect worth striving for!

What advice do you have for artists, scientists and entrepreneurs considering taking part in the 2016 STARTS Prize competition?

Alexander Mankowsky: Don’t be afraid to submit projects that are apparently quite simple. Trust your inner voice, your driving impulse!

Don’t miss this opportunity! You still have until March 13th to submit your project for 2016 STARTS Prize consideration! You’ll find detailed info online at starts-prize.aec.at.

Alexander Mankowsky

Born in Berlin 1957, Alexander Mankowsky studied social science, philosophy and psychology at Freie Universität Berlin. In 1989 he started working in Daimler’s research institute in Berlin. The institute’s multidisciplinary approach integrated a wide array of disciplines, from social sciences to artificial intelligence. His current working topics are futures studies focused on the ever-changing culture of mobility, the interdependency of social and technological innovation, and other aspects of envisioning paths into the future.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 732019. This publication (communication) reflects the views only of the author, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.