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Ford's new CEO pioneered design thinking at Steelcase

Jim Hackett has been collaborating with IDEO for a decade, most recently on tech-driven mobility solutions

The future for Ford is no longer cars

A Ford exec with a design background and who launched its Chariot microtransit system and Motivate bike share program has just been named the automaker’s CEO. Not only does this give Ford a competitive edge over traditional car companies, which have been scrambling to acquire tech startups in the race to autonomy, it shows that Ford is fully committed to its vision of shared, autonomous mobility that may not even include personal cars.

The new CEO is Jim Hackett, a longtime Ford board member who had recently joined the company in a new role, forging the company’s technology links with Silicon Valley. Hackett replaces the former CEO Mark Fields, who championed Ford’s new direction but apparently wasn’t turning the company’s stock around fast enough.

Hackett also brings an interesting connection to the design industry: For 20 years, he was CEO of Steelcase, one of the “big three” furniture manufacturers headquartered in Western Michigan. It’s notable that Hackett began his career at Steelcase when it simply made popular office chairs and helped transform the company into a leader in helping corporations collaborate globally by forming a strategic partnership with design consultancy IDEO.

As the Detroit News notes, the Steelcase-IDEO partnership went beyond working together on key projects. Hackett and IDEO founder David Kelley were connected by a “live audio-video feed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so they could collaborate in real time between IDEO's office in Palo Alto, California, and Steelcase's headquarters in Michigan.”

And Hackett often said the way he looked at design was transformed by his close relationship with IDEO and their human-centered design approach: “As I was cutting foam core on the floor of one of the studios, I was thinking: I would never work the same way again after doing this. Not just designers should work like this, but anybody who is a knowledge worker should work like this.”

Could Hackett bring this same type of design thinking—and a direct line to the country’s design leaders—to Ford? That seems to be the plan. Before becoming Ford’s CEO today, Hackett ran the company’s Smart Mobility division, which was headquartered in Palo Alto, not Detroit, and said to be run more like a startup.

With IDEO’s help, Hackett has been helping Ford partner with cities on customized solutions that solve local problems and often integrate with existing transit. Consider the way he described the Chariot shuttle to The Verge as a kind of public transit gap-filler. “This shuttle is next-in-line as the most efficient to mass transit,” he said. “Cities are going to love this because it’s going to be highly accessible based on pricing.”

Hackett seems to understand a fundamental shift that’s happening in the industry. Ford’s sagging stock prices are most likely indicative of the imminent arrival of “peak car ownership” which several recent industry reports have predicted to occur as soon as 2020. That means automakers need to stop making cars and start making money on the other ways that Americans will get around, something that is already central to Hackett’s work at Ford.

The big transportation tech disruption coming soon to cities is not a tunnel for Teslas, but something more like a Ford-produced, IDEO-powered smart bus.