Last week I visited Urban-X Demo Day held at A/D/O in Brooklyn, a 23,000 square foot space that houses co-working space and a restaurant, and is low-key funded by BMW’s Mini brand. I say low-key because there’s not a single Mini logo on the site, or Cooper-like vehicle parked out front of the facility. I arrived with the same skepticism I take to any carmaker-sponsored event that feels like an attempt to sell me the future. How can anyone sell the future, when no one knows exactly what will stick?
I watched presentations from nine startups focused on improving life in cities. Some focused on infrastructure ideas, like RoadBotics, designed to cure the pavement of potholes through machine learning, or Swiftera, a company that makes high-altitude balloons to generate hi-res maps, or the San Francisco based car-sharing company Upshift that specializes in loaning out Toyota Priuses. Another company, Lunewave, makes a lens-based antenna and a 76-81 GHz radar sensor for autonomous driving that extends over a 300 meter range. Urban-X is not the only automaker-funded accelerator — Ford and Honda help fund Techstars Mobility. What’s different is that Mini is driving the program and is focusing on ideas for the city at large. It gives up to $100,000 to up to 10 startups every six months. Another one of its current cohorts is Good Goods, a company dedicated to repurposing empty retail spaces for small fashion brands. The room was packed for presentations and most people I talked to in the audience had nothing to do with car companies.
Urban-X is part of the work of Esther Bahne, Mini’s head of brand strategy and business innovation, who reports directly to the BMW board of management. “We started from scratch to build a team with the mission of trying to disrupt the company before it was being disrupted,” she told The Verge in an interview.
Her team is also leading a project to build efficient street lanterns equipped for electric charging. Mini has even extended its footprint to the living space, building a co-living habitat in a former Shanghai factory. “We’re not building a gentrified elitist space. It’s a very public space. It’s like what we’re doing in Brooklyn, opening up to the public, having people come in from all walks of life, rather than a elitist club, which is more the Silicon Valley ethos. We’re Europeans so we have a different approach.” Mini is even making its own fashion collection.
But Mini gets more out of its investment in Brooklyn than a proximity to cool. Automotive designers visit the space and have used it as a resource. “Car designers come for innovation work, and prototypes are developed alongside creatives that use the building locally. We try to be part of the community and not over brand, as you can see there’s not a single logo on the space. We’re not showcasing our products here. Usually companies set up innovation teams somewhere in the world, and nobody cares ever again. I’m proud to say that’s not what’s happening here.”
When it comes to showing new vehicles, car companies have always been good at staging spectacle, BMW included. The unveiling of the production version of the BMW i3 in the summer of 2013 is among the more memorable razzle dazzle reveals, held in a simultaneous moment across three continents as BMW declared its intentions to launch a Revolution of Urban Mobility. The car dropped like the Times Square ball via internet simulcast from Beijing, New York, and London.
Like most jaded journalists, by then I had long looked past the flashing lights, the dramatic music, and the staged, somewhat awkward scripted speeches overhyping an object. (It’s hard for a regular car company to generate the real excitement like that of last week’s Falcon Heavy rocket launch.) But what stood out about the i3 launch five years ago was the way it included presenters beyond the usual car company executives. BMW spent the day talking about the way mobility would change cities — Uber was only in its third year of operation. Back then mobility seemed like the latest buzzword that would soon fade away, like the custom-car trend of a few years before.
BMW was onto something, as it connected the dots on its electric car program to rethinking the city, and allowed the startup economy to creep into its event programming. But the audience of seasoned auto critics wasn’t ready to go there. Most of the event coverage focused on the car as the thing, and not the big lofty ideas behind it. The i3 may have come to market a bit before the world was ready to accept anything other than a performance car from BMW, much less BMW as saver of the mega city.
Here we are, five years later, and “mobility” is the transportation industry’s word of the moment. Many other companies have joined into making the idea their thing, too. Should car companies focus on making cars, or do they need to change the way they do business? The answer is still unclear.
Some carmakers, like Subaru and Mazda, have opted to stay out of the fray and steady the course on refining existing products and engine technology, while others are doubling down with huge investments in a broad suite of tech promises. Ford, Mercedes-Benz, GM, Volkswagen, and Toyota are among those racing to crank out news about self-driving, connectivity and, of course, mobility.
By keeping a low profile in Brooklyn, Mini recognizes that it’s sometimes better to observe rather than to be something it’s not. Bahne says Mini is committed to its Urban-X initiative for at least the next decade, and will tweak its accelerator program as necessary. “When I think future, I think 10 years ahead, otherwise it’s not worth looking at.”