Inside IKEA’s Future Home innovation incubator … from Swedish meatballs to flexible rooms

September 15, 2018

IKEA, the world’s largest furniture retailer, thinks of itself as a low-tech company. But the company’s innovation strategy, still taking shape, involves working with design firms, academic partners, and consumers for help discovering opportunities and needs for the home of the future — and the furnishings that will fill it.

“What we do is we create, we test, and we explore, over and over and over,” said Eva-Carin Banka Johnson, a project manager at IKEA’s Future Home innovation incubator. To test ideas and prototype designs, IKEA built a model apartment in southern Sweden, near where the company was founded, Banka Johnson says. It invites local families to actually live in the apartment and document their experiences with the experimental furnishings.

Novel design elements the company has tested have included electrical outlets that slide along a track in the wall to make them more accessible, and movable partitions to let residents create what Banka Johnson called “pop-up” rooms within the apartment.

Those ideas came from home visits in the area, where IKEA representatives observed some of the issues residents faced in existing homes. “People have problems with their electric cables,” she says. “Everybody has that.” And many families that have members frequently coming and going, as in joint custody arrangements, reported they had space in their homes that simply went unused when the children weren’t there.

“When the kids are not there, you want to use the space for other things,” she says. “Also, it can be quite emotional. One mother said that when her child is not there, she’s constantly longing for the child because she sees all their stuff.”

Banka Johnson says the company often learns a great deal from observing people outside the mainstream, whether they are living with physical disabilities or economic constraints. IKEA has even done home visits in poor areas in India, a country where millions of people are moving into cities and into the middle class.

“If we solve these people’s needs in such a way that it’s affordable for them to buy [our products], then we get solutions that are good for all of us,” she says. IKEA regards those groups of customers as “extreme users,” who can nudge the company in useful new directions.

The company has also worked with outside researchers like the MIT Media Lab on new ways to observe and measure people’s interactions with its prototype furniture. Collaborations with the design firm IDEO and researchers from two Swedish universities have led to a concept kitchen for 2025  and a “future-living lab” called Space10, located in Copenhagen’s hip meatpacking district.

At Space10, designers have demonstrated everything from tools that turn waste heat from cooking and appliances into energy for charging electronics, to novel furniture built from existing IKEA parts. The lab even hosted a project exploring the future of meatballs— one of the signature items at IKEA’s beloved in-store restaurants. Could meatballs made from algae, nuts, or insect protein more environmentally-sustainable than meatballs made the old-fashioned way?

And to explore how digital technology will play into its future products, Banka Johnson says the company has run hackathons with a variety of tech-savvy organizations. It has also created product catalogs from the future, in order to help make emerging technologies more concrete and relatable. The cover of such a catalog carries the line, “Experience the new IKEA catalog — now with holograms!” Inside are products like a food storage unit that can automatically re-order groceries, a countertop that can guide cooks through recipes, and a drone for monitoring your garden’s health. (Click to enlarge the catalog page at right.)

“IKEA’s a very low-tech company, and we have just recently started to wake up and see there’s a world out there,” she says. “We need help, and we are now getting that help.”

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