Talking connected living with Vaillant

Insights from our special Summer Party After-Work Talk with Tim Richter, Head of Design at Vaillant Group.
“The heating industry isn’t the sexiest industry in the world,” Vaillant Group’s Head of Design Tim Richter admitted. Our Connected Living Director Sven-Anwar Bibi’s response: “You can become sexy, just add something to it.”

Vaillant is a 140-year-old company that from that start has been an industry pioneer, revolutionizing water heating in the early 1900s and today remaining a leader in innovation and sustainability, bringing new heating technology to the smart home space.

We too have a long history with Vaillant (although not 140 years), working together on various projects. And for our special After-Work Talk held at our Summer Party on June 3 – on the occasion of NACHTSCHICHT (Berlin Design Night) – we invited our friend Tim for an informal chat with Sven and our Founder Reto Wettach.

We took the talk down to the basement workshop to escape the huge party crowd that had already formed early in the evening. It was an intimate set-up, but it led to a great candid discussion about different topics related to connected products and homes, and how the world and companies are changing. Here are a few key insights that came out of the talk.   

The global perspective

Tim lived in China for 11 years, working for s.point and BSH, before founding Naolab. He says as a design community we need to learn to deal with China, and that his time there taught him to adapt, follow the fast pace and innovate quickly.

“China works completely different to Germany, and they will soon be ahead in the connected living field as they are putting new structures in place,” he said.

Sven, on the other hand, lived in Egypt for many years, working mainly in the academic field.

“My experiences through my many trips to China and living and working in Egypt is that it’s a very ambivalent culture where we see a strong contrast in social classes. While most may have access to technology, and can use a smart phone to communicate, access to healthcare is something that depends on the amount of money in your pocket… Technological innovations and drivers are distributed somehow to everybody,” he said.

Tim added that in China everyone wants to be a boss and create something connected and digital. “Everyone has access. The technology may be expensive, but even if people don’t have a car they will have an iPhone. They are very playful with technology, they grow up with technology, the babies are already in touch with it. We may say ‘oh no, keep it away’ but they embrace it.”

Acting more as the moderator throughout the discussion, Reto asked: “How does your experience in China influence your work at Vaillant, and what role does prototyping play?”

“It influences my work in that I think about being more agile… I try to play more and not plan ahead too much because things are changing,” Tim replied.

“Things you worked out may not be relevant anymore, so you need to be open and curious and try to prototype to get early results in order to improve them. Your story needs to be right to catch the attention of others involved and get things signed off. You need to connect all components and systems.”

How companies can keep up

In light of the strong demand for traditional German industries to speed up their move towards digital transformation, Sven posed the question: “On the one hand we see the market is changing so companies like Vaillant need to adapt to these changes, and on the other hand you need to change the business structure and capabilities within the organization – how do you deal with this?”

“This exploration starts with collaborating and exchanging more deeply between departments and also on a global scale. In a big company, there’s this kind of silo thinking – everyone has their own opinions, wants to be the best and not exchange too much, so we need to break down these boundaries,” Tim said.

“Then you need to transform your big structures. Everything that you have built up over the decades needs to transform to fit into the digital world... That’s why startups have it easy; they have an idea, they start small and then adjust the structure and company towards the needs of the client or customer. We have to do both: we have to maintain our current status and work towards the digital world.”

Reto followed up, highlighting that through our collaboration with companies, we’ve seen that often this transformation can be initiated and driven by design. Through design we can show a company what this new digital organization can look like.

“Now in the 10th year of IXDS, we’re excited to finally arrive at a position where we can help companies, through design and prototyping, see what they can be in the future. This is such an interesting role for design. We just did a project with BMW, rethinking them as a mobility provider rather than a company that just releases a new car every three or four years… We don’t deliver bullet points; we deliver the real experience. It allows people to discuss on all levels of the company.”

Everything that you have built up over the decades needs to transform to fit into the digital world.

Tim Richter, Head of Design at Valiant Group
Connected living means more than tech

Sven’s views on connected living stem far beyond thinking simply about technology and devices (you can read more about that here), so naturally this was addressed in the discussion.

“It’s about a whole system of connected living, not just devices. So the challenge in the future will be to really come up with a system to combine all different areas of everyday life: rituals, how we communicate with products and how they integrate together,” he said.

Tim commented that in addition to the challenge of partnering with other industries to make this happen, this will be reliant on adaptive systems.

“We already have examples on the market, where your home recognizes you as someone who spends time mainly in the living room so that becomes the focus point. That room will be warmer than other rooms (when talking about heating). Your systems will adapt to your needs. You can’t design the product in a physical way like this, it’s a kind of artificial intelligence. There are the data driven companies who will win this battle – looking at Google, Uber and successful digital industries that may challenge more traditional companies.”

Summer Party After-Work Talk

It’s about a whole system of connected living, not just devices. So the challenge in the future will be to really come up with a system to combine all different areas of everyday life.

Sven-Anwar Bibi, IXDS Connected Living Director
What's does the future hold for "traditional" companies?

For more traditional organizations, there’s the threat that they will be muscled out of the industry by tech companies, but Tim says it doesn’t have to be that way.

“There are two companies that are likely to survive: the company that manages to connect the dots in a classical sense, expand on that and do even more; then the company that completely reinvents itself. Having a great idea and transforming the company based on that.”

After a few questions and comments from the audience, there was one point from Tim that summed up the discussion perfectly: “You have to become a user driven company and address the user on a different level and scale. Being connected is vital. If you don’t connect with the end user or sell to the end user, then you won’t be able to make the switch.”

A huge thanks to Tim for joining us on our favorite night of the year! Find out more about our projects and ideas around connected living, and make sure you don’t miss our monthly Pre-Work Talks happening at our Berlin and Munich studios by joining our Facebook events page