The iconic car maker has taken on a new challenge — making city life easier and more enjoyable for its residents, and not just in the sense of urban mobility.

Last year, when the German luxury car group BMW celebrated its 100th year anniversary, each of its many divisions revealed a vision statement for the next century. The statement from the MINI division was interesting in many ways. Called MINI Vision Next 100, it went beyond the usual concept car language and spoke about tapping into ‘something deeper’. “ What if tomorrow’s MINI provided a unique, personalised experience combined with shared ownership?,” the statement said. It foresaw a future where “…a single MINI can be shared amongst everyone.”

The 3 X 3 m Urban Nest module on show at Urban Matters Shanghai

MINI sees a future for urban mobility where more people will opt for sharing cars rather than buying. Towards this end, it is developing a new generation of technology that will enable every shared MINI to be instantly personalised for the driver. On the drawing board currently is an AI device called the Cooperizer, a coloured, translucent, circular instrument installed on the dashboard that will store individual preferences in terms of modes of driving, choice of colour of the interior and exterior, kind of music and entertainment of one’s choice etc. “Parts of the exterior surfaces transform to suit your personal preferences and beam a personalised greeting as you approach it,” its vision statement says. “The Cooperizer will also offer you the option of experiencing someone else’s personal driving mode, from friends, family, celebrities and even creative visionaries. Between journeys, the vision car will drive autonomously to a service hub, where it is cleaned and recharged, before zipping off to meet another driver.”

‘Sharing’ is already a key element in MINI’s business strategy. Its cars are now already available for sharing in key US and European cities, through BMW’s Drive Now mobile phone app-based platform. Unlike self-driving car rentals, Drive Now allows users to make one-way journey where they can leave the car at a parking lot or even on the roadside at the end of the journeys, from where the next nearby user picks it up. Inspired by Airbnb, MINI has expanded the scheme to allow MINI owners to make money during their car’s idle time, by allowing others to use it via the smartphone app. For those who don’t want strangers to use their cars, MINI provides these private car owners the option to restrict the car usage to a defined circle of friends and family as well.

Uurban living in small space as conceieved by MINI Living in ADO New York

More people driving its car will no doubt drive up sales, but for MINI the concept of ‘sharing’ has a broader meaning in the urban context. It sees itself as a company that seeks to provide innovative solutions to the modern challenges of urban living. As Peter Shwarzenbauer, Member of Board of Management of BMW AG, responsible for MINI, Rolls Royce and BMW Motorrad puts it, “MINI has always been an urban brand. It not only has its finger on the pulse of the city, it injects that pulse with extra energy.” The brand has been doing this over the last few years, through a host of initiatives under names like Living, Fashion, A/D/O and Urban-X. The idea has been to use its reputation for design innovations to provide “imaginative and creative solutions to a whole range of contemporary urban challenges”. And for the first time last month, MINI showcased the work that it is doing in all these areas including automobiles, at an event attended by media from around the world, called Urban Matters by MINI, in Shanghai.

One of the key exhibits here summed up what MINI is trying to do beyond making cars. Called Urban Nest, it was presented as “a framework that offers a collage of inspiring ideas about future living”. It consisted of a 3 x 3m modular space made using wood and steel that was designed to make it easy to assemble and reassemble with varied possibilities for spatial configuration. Every module could be combined with each other or extended according to the individual requirements of the user.

The Shanghai Co Living concept being developed by Mini Living

The flexible configuration of the module allowed it to be adapted for a plethora of uses — office, home, common area etc, the idea being to integrate spaces to live, work and play for an inspiring collaborative life. Says Oke Hauser, a Munich based architect who is the creative lead at MINI Living, “The Urban Nest is designed as a spatial framework offering a flexible future of urban living, based on a small personal footprint and a collaborative lifestyle. Imagine a building that can easily adapt its geometry to any urban void and turn it into an inhabitable place — that is where the design idea for the Urban Nest was born.”

MINI sees the Urban Nest as a concept aimed at young professionals and independent creatives, who seek to live and work in cities in which housing demand far outstrips supply. The effort is to provide living solutions that are sympathetic to the resident’s immediate surroundings, but which bring something radically new to the mix, like integrating nature to provide benefits like cooling the microclimate, and producing food for the neighborhood with the ultimate goal of maximizing the quality of life within minimal spaces. Says Hauser, With MINI Living, we want to contribute solutions that trigger inspiration on how we could live better and more joyfully inside of cities in the future. There is still so much potential to be explored in the urban fabric – we just need to find new and creative ways to activate it.”

What the Shanghai Co Living complex will look like from the inside

Within weeks of the Shanghai exhibition, MINI announced the commencement of its first major project, where the MINI Living concept will be turned into a living reality. In partnership with a local property developer, MINI is in the process of transforming an unused industrial complex in the heart of Shanghai into a multi-layered, co-living initiative, made up of apartments, working spaces and cultural/leisure offerings. A cluster of six buildings that make up the complex will be turned into a vibrant urban neighbourhood with homes for singles, sharers and families on short, medium-term and extended tenancies. Though small, the design of the apartment will be modern and clean, with features that reference the rich history of Shanghai. Anything that doesn’t fit inside the apartments, including activities and objects, will be accommodated in the adjacent spaces.

The idea will be for the residents to experience community living. Generously sized lobbies will provide a place to hang out, with additional exhibition areas and a food market. Other facilities that will be built include gardens, play areas, shops and restaurants, which people living elsewhere in Shanghai will also be welcome to access. In addition to the space itself, the project also comprises additional services that can be accessed digitally, including restaurant reservations, room cleaning and service, food ordering and rent mobility options. “With MINI Living, we’re looking to create a genuine alternative within the rental market of big cities,” says Esther Bahne, Head of MINI Brand Strategy and Business Innovation. “We’re offering a place that can adapt to its residents, is flexible and allows room to breathe. MINI Living gives residents their privacy, but also enables them to engage with a variety of different people. It makes those first steps into a new city that much smoother. The idea is that our residents really feel at home here.”

Mini Fashion Designers at Pitti Uomo in June 2017

Much of the innovations that have gone into the MINI Living initiative were conceived at A/D/O, the uniquely named design studio that MINI set up a few years in a former warehouse in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, New York. The idea behind the company is MINI’s belief that ‘good design can tip the scales towards a more humane world.’ And the inspiration came from the path-breaking design that went into the creation of the first MINI Cooper in 1959, the legendary car that stood out at its time for its space-saving layout, which allowed the use of more than 80 per cent of the floor space for passengers and luggage. A/D/O is a play on Amalgamated Drawing Office, the name that MINI’s legendary designer Sir Alec Issigonis, gave to the secret office he set up to design the first car.

The idea behind A/D/O, MINI says, is to offer products and services that are truly relevant to people every day, to serve the creative community, locally and globally. It provides members and visitors with a workspace with prototyping facilities, a public atrium, a design store and also a restaurant. Among its collaborations around the world whose work it presented at Urban Matters Shanghai, under the banner of ‘The Future of Work,’ included IdeasCity, a civic platform for the New Museum in New York that is built on the premise that the arts and culture are essential to the future vitality of cities; Atelier Luma, a laboratory based in Arles, France, which reimagines the lifecycle of waste products through imaginative reuse of their biological makeup; and SuperLocal, where famous Italian designer Andrea de Chirico experiments with super-local production by producing a series of household goods like a hairdryer, dressing table, mirror, lamp and stool using resources available within a one-mile bike ride from his studio.

A/D/O is also home to a Urban-X, a start-up accelerator set up by MINI to invest in companies that are shaping the future of cities through technology and design. Together with partner Urban Us, it invests $100,000 per company in up to 20 early-stage start-ups a year. It also provides them mentorship through MINI’s stable of world-class engineers and designers, in a variety of areas, to help turn their ideas into viable, scalable solutions for urban life. Once the product is developed, the company is also provided business support with help in sales, marketing and logistics to connect them to international customers, investors and partners.

What A/D/O is to design of products and services, MINI Fashion does to clothes and apparel, the idea here being to “celebrate individuality, knowing that, when unique perspectives, ideas and passions come together, we all benefit”. “MINI has always been a brand for people who dare to do things differently, to stand out,” says Bahne, the Head of MINI Brand Strategy and Business Innovation. “In the 1960s the first MINI became a design icon, and this heritage inspired us to launch MINI Fashion. We really wanted to stick our necks out and join with creatives to bring something new and bold to the industry.” In January 2015, MINI Fashion and Pitti Immagine, one of the world’s most prestigious fashion fairs held bi-annually in Florence, began a collaboration to highlight their shared passion for innovation, attention to details, quality and to anticipate new trends.

At the most recent Pitti show, for example, MINI Fashion got five young designers from around the world to create a capsule collection called ‘Beyond Native’ targeted at urban travellers who feel at home in any city around the world. “The idea of this collaboration was to give a platform to five creatives with different cultural backgrounds. They know how to take the unique energy engendered by fusing different cultural influences and translate it into exceptional products,” says Sabine Ringel, Creative Lead at MINI Fashion. “The fact that these migrants have experienced and crossed national and cultural boundaries is the very reason for the richness and depth in their designs.”

In 2000, when BMW bought over the MINI marquee from the Rover group, it was just another European car company targeting urban consumers. The German automobile giant has since parlayed its design heritage to transform into a worldwide brand known for its innovative cars. And with initiatives like MINI Living, MINI Fashion, A/D/O and Urban-X, it has given an entirely new dimension to what a modern day urban mobility company should stand for.

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