Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Daniela Bohlinger, Sustainability and Innovation BMW Group

Daniela Bohlinger was one of the masterminds behind the BMW Group‘s in-house think tank “Project i”, which resulted in the BMW i3, BMW’s first mass-produced zero emission vehicle. As Head of Sustainability Design BMW Group, she contributed to the strategic development of the company regarding sustainability and she is now leading the vision of sustainability in future innovative thinking. Bohlinger is also a professor of practice at the Umeå Institute of Design.

Before joining the BMW Group design team in 2002 as a color and material designer, Bohlinger worked in various industries as a product designer. As a Fulbright scholarship holder, she completed a master’s degree at the Pratt Institute (NY) and holds degrees from the UIDH Helsinki and the Schwäbisch Gmünd University of Applied Sciences. Bohlinger, a speaker at DLD Circular in Munich September 6, spoke to The Innovator about the intersection of sustainability and innovation.

Q: When and why did you first start focusing on sustainability?

DB: My background is in industrial design and in 2002 I was hired by BMW’s design department and put in charge of developing leather and seat trimming. It was through this project that I realized how many materials were being wasted. In the bigger cars we were using 8-12 cowhides and about 50% of the material would go to waste. This was before most companies began focusing on waste management and sustainability. I was educated by my parents to be aware of these things, so I began looking at how to design this better and use more of the cowhide. But this wasn’t enough for me. I felt that if I couldn’t do more and have more impact, I would have to leave and go work for another company. It was exactly at that time that company announced that it was looking for a designer for the BMW Group’s in-house think tank “Project i”, with the “i” standing for innovation, intelligence, interaction and more. I wanted to be part of the journey and focus on sustainability, so I raised my hand. Back then nobody was talking about sustainability design and the impact you can have if you change the whole architecture. I tried to implement that into the project and started raising uncomfortable questions to the suppliers such as ‘Can you think of another way of tanning leather?’ To be successful I also had to work internally and ask the quality department within BMW what would be acceptable within the confines of a luxury experience. Within that small sacred space – separated from the rest of the company – I started really developing a strategic approach on sustainability and design and building my own knowledge to get a deeper understanding about the potential impact.

Q: How did you translate your ideas into effective actions?

DB: I had to convince my colleagues to design under new requirements. The challenge was not to offer new guidance. Designers are used to being given narrow confines, they love that and do their best within bookends. I was asking them something different: to rethink the entire material driven design process. To think about things like ‘why use lots of layers and glue materials together when you might do it with one material?’ or to think about substituting materials. It was a result of this thinking and this push that BMW Group become the first to recycle PET bottles and turn them into materials on a bigger scale. It was really a big success.

Q: How did your job evolve over time?

DB: My job eventually expanded to include BMW Group’s main brands. It took three years to develop a strategic approach to sustainability in design because everyone did not have this as a priority at the time.

Q: What has been the payoff so far?

DB: We are still on our journey but the new car design we are showing this week at the IAA International Motor Show in Munich this week is a demonstration of our progress. BMW’s The Vision Neue Klasse [new class] combines our ability to innovate in the core areas of electrification, digitalization, and circularity. It is a new era at BMW. We are showing that we now regard it as a given to embed sustainability.  We no longer use any leather, we try to use as much recycled material as possible which are interpreted elegantly in a lean and pure design that focuses on reducing, reusing, and recycling.

Q: You now have a new title and a new mission focused on research and innovation. Can you tell us what that entails?

DB: My colleagues in the design department are embedding the new requirements and now understand what they need to do and  the students I reach at the design school are now new colleagues with the knowledge of what needs to be done, so it was easier for me to move on to a new position. In my new role in the research and innovation department I am part of  a team of very inspiring people who are developing with a great team internally and external guidance on future topics, which help us to understand better where we have to look carefully to address our road to x. This means not only race to 0 impact, but even more. Increasing the Secondary Raw Material Quota (SRQ), but also the bigger driver regenerative energy and as well a new digital experience.  We try to encourage our customers to behave more sustainably in a playful way. Sustainability is a much broader field now.  We need to follow emerging laws and regulations but also our own goals and foresee the next challenges and how to thrive and be relevant to the generations coming up. We are outlining the problems we need to solve in the next years for management and the board, giving them a glimpse of the future, and then drop by drop, showing them how that future is already taking form.

Q: From a practical point of view how do you involve the rest of the group?

DB: A company like BMW has so many other things, not just sustainability, to think about. Sustainability tends to be treated as one topic, but climate change needs to be the main driver for everything, and sustainability will be embedded in everything. Our goal in the coming years is to make sustainability something we embed so that it becomes a given. Innovation is driven by our main goals and sustainability is one of the drivers. The two areas – sustainability and innovation – are intertwined. They need to move together.

Q: At the time of this interview climate activists are protesting at the IAA Mobility international motor show by gluing themselves to the roadways and blocking traffic with bicycles. How do auto companies – and other firms – convince the public that they are not green washing and establish trust?

DB: Climate change is real, and people feel it and are fearful, so the challenge is for companies to take them seriously and try to overcome this fear through honest communications and by using innovation and technology to embed sustainability. I was an anarchist when I was young and was part of the punk scene so there is a bit of a rebel in me. You need rebels to push things forward. That said, we need young people to not just push us but be curious about innovation and help us find the solutions.

Q: What message would you like to get across not just to BMW Group but to other companies that are trying to become more sustainable?

DB: If we are having huge problem with resources, we need to reinvent them. Why not print bio-based materials designed in a lab? Science and AI will help us get there. Now is the time to take the energy behind the push for sustainable development to find good solutions. Sustainability needs to not just be embedded in new products but also in new mindsets and goals. We need to understand that all the limitations we are facing are in fact big opportunities.





About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.