"Perfect mobility is sustainable mobility that is truly sustainable in the long term"

What does the future hold? Prof. Dr. Stefan Rammler predict the future either, but the futurologist can give an outlook on how mobility could and must develop in large cities. With him we took a look at the mobility of the future.

Mr. Rammler, you are a futurologist and do research on mobility. How did you get into this as a social scientist? 

As an economist, I prefer to speak of future analytics, because in the narrow sense of the term one cannot explore the future with research or science. But I believe that nowadays you have to try again and again to speculate as cleverly as possible about different variants and development possibilities. In this way, we create orientation knowledge that gives us a bit of security in an increasingly complex world. A long time ago, my interest in sustainability and digitization arose from my passion for the great future issues of this society.


What are the challenges we face with regard to mobility?

I think we can now observe two movements at the beginning of the 21st century. On the one hand, the status quo of automobility, driven by technological innovation and ecological necessities, is coming under pressure. Our big fleets stand around unused for 23 hours a day. In the field of mobility, we afford an insanely careless economic inefficiency because we can or could do it. Namely, that the consumer products purchased for expensive capital stand still for many hours a day and do not create any benefit.  This is total nonsense at the beginning of the 21st century. In a world where resources are becoming scarcer and scarcer, we are encouraged to do our very best to promote the innovative and efficient use of our infrastructures and products. This is the central concept associated with digital transformation. 

On the other hand, with regard to mobility, we are now involved in much more complex, multi-faceted and global contexts than was the case in the 1950s and 1960s. Transport policy and automobile policy were relatively easy to pursue at the time, because the question was more or less how to maintain and increase people's mobility. Furthermore, it is the task of the state to create the accessibility of places of work, educational institutions, places where people want to shop, experience leisure time. That was the declared strategy at the time. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the framework conditions for automobility are changing radically and rapidly. This is related to developments in electric mobility, automation and digitization, which are currently taking place primarily in China and California. At the same time, almost all societies face the same global challenges of urbanization, demographic change and digitization.


What risks and opportunities do you see in these developments?

The risks associated with digital transformation, in particular, are enormous. I'd like to add that I'm not an apocalyptic. When we talk about digitization, we still have a really big task ahead of us. Not to mention real questions such as the vulnerability of digital infrastructures. Everything that is digitized becomes vulnerable, to the extent that we can realize efficiency potential through digitization, offer new services, generate new value creation potential, generate new problems elsewhere. This cannot be avoided, because technology development always entails this.


And the opportunities?

Despite the risks, I plead for a positive attitude towards these issues. This does not mean, however, that technology always saves the world. I am not advocating naive optimism, but rather a kind of confidence and self-confidence in a society that has really achieved a lot and built up a lot of competence to cope with and shape new challenges and situations. Our world is changing faster and faster and therefore change is the new normal - and not the supposed non-changeability and stability.


You said in another interview that the car fixation has become the normal state of the German mindset. Against the backdrop of our social challenges such as urbanization and the environment: What could contribute to turning away from the car as a status symbol?

The car fixation that I describe is the result of a historical process of embedding automotive technology in our society that has been going on for over a hundred years. This means that the automobile has become more and more deeply integrated into our lifestyles, our life practice, our themes, habits, our spatial and settlement structures. We have, so to speak, built up a gigantic socio-technical system of automobility, which is first of all given for further development.  Societies are structurally functional and tend towards stability. Therefore, the new developments around Mobility-as-a-Service are embedded in this path dependency. This is a dilemma in view of the fact that the automobile as we know it is coming under pressure. On the one hand, mobility, especially in California, is being rethought as a sharing economy on the basis of digital competence. And on the other hand, pressure is coming from China through drive technology innovations - electric mobility is embedded in an industrial policy modernization project there.

What can be concrete steps?

The just mentioned two drivers in other parts of the world, which are not yet really clear to German carmakers in their home markets, will put massive pressure on the German automotive industry. Now, in my opinion, two things are actually necessary: The German automotive industry must quickly make a transformation towards mobility service companies, which produce a few but high-quality vehicles for collective rather than individual mobility, and the product range must be fully electrified.

This would be a completely new beginning for the German automotive industry. It would also be good if the domestic markets went in this direction. Money is still being earned in the domestic markets. But they are still deep in fossil technology with trends such as SUVs driven by the consumer expectations of baby boomers who can afford this luxury with their lavish pensions. In an ageing society like ours, this naturally stabilizes the old. Old mindsets, old routines, old habits, old interests, a lot of money.

If the solutions come neither from industry nor from the market, i.e. the consumers, it would basically require an additional central actor who is called upon, enabled or even empowered to change framework conditions for industry but also for consumers. And that's clearly political. We need a policy that is more courageous and that intervenes much more than before in the field of mobility policy as a steering, regulating, investing and stimulating actor.

This begins with infrastructure investments, which, for example, are the prerequisites for comprehensive electric mobility. In the area of Mobility-as-a-Service we need the 5G network expansion quickly and urgently - otherwise you can smear the whole number in your hair! The state as a shaping actor creates the framework conditions for the mobility of the future and thus basically also the chance that the automotive industry can complete a transformation and thus secure its own future with regard to international competition.


What role models can we learn from here?

If you take the combination of Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and Austria, then you basically know how good transport policy works. Here, collective transport plays a central role everywhere because it is very efficient, space-efficient and sustainable. However, it is not very individual. Especially in view of the first and last mile.


What will the new perfect mobility of the future look like?

Perfect mobility is sustainable mobility that is truly sustainable in the long term. Sustainable means not only ecologically sustainable, but also socially just and economically successful. In cities, that means electrified, clean, smart, quieter, less emission, less space-intensive.

In addition, we need different speeds of development for urban and rural regions. This means different transport concepts - a combination of nationwide electrification and renewable energies from all modes of transport. However, my picture of electrification does not mean replacing 40 million combustion engines with 40 million electric engines. I don't think we've actually won anything there. It is about the combination of sharing mobility and electric mobility in urban and rural regions. Collective transport should be the backbone of all sustainable mobility in the future.

At the moment when the car is offered in new usage formats and detached from private ownership, we can build wonderful intermodal chains using ride-hailing, ride-sharing, bike-sharing and public transport systems. If this is digitized and automated in a second step, we will be able to avoid traffic jams and delays in the future and surf intermodally like parcels through the countryside.

Prof. Dr. Stephan Rammler is Director of the IZT - Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment, Berlin. Previously, he was founding director of the Institute for Transportation Design (ITD) and professor for Transportation Design & Social Sciences at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts. He works in mobility and futurology research, researching transport, energy and innovation policy, questions of cultural transformation and sustainable environmental and social policy. Rammler studied political science, sociology and economics in Marburg and Berlin and received his doctorate on the subject of mobility in modernity.