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For decades, long before Facebook and Google, IKEA has been collecting behavioural information. Through the Swedish furniture giant’s “home-visit program,” for example, designers witness and analyze the way average people live in order to understand and anticipate needs and then develop products and customize showroom design so that the company’s shopping environments reflect how customers actually live.

For an forthcoming millennial-focused collection with fashion designer Virgil Abloh, for example, IKEA had millennials from Paris, Milan, Stockholm and Boston complete (tongue-in-cheek) questionnaires about their work and lifestyle habits.

Sonos booth cardboard prototypes.

Photograph by Nathalie Atkinson

Improvements on existing product design and durability are also based on direct customer feedback, chiefly from the online ratings and review platform launched a couple years ago, according to IKEA head of quality Karen Hopkinson Pflug. Anyone on staff involved in product creation, as well as the more than 1,000 company suppliers, can access the feedback directly. One example where the product was considered okay but not brilliant is a rug called Osted, a sisal natural-fibre rug that was on trend but enough customers weren’t happy with, because of the rough hand feel or performance, that they decided to change it. Based on feedback, the textiles team worked with weaver suppliers to redevelop two different rugs fulfilling different usage needs, rather than one that fulfilled neither as well as it could.

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Designing for wellness: Beyond the in-home gym

Today, despite the prevalence of analytics, IKEA still continues its tried-and-tested programs while forging new trails in the name of sustainability. I went to the company’s headquarters in Almhult, Sweden, during the company’s Democratic Design Days, an annual event where announcements are made and new designs and prototypes are revealed (its version of the Apple developer conference keynote) to learn more.

Howdy, partnerships

There is no way forward without collaboration, IKEA head of design Marcus Engman says. “The topics of tomorrow, they’re so big that we can’t solve them by ourselves, we need our best friends to solve them – both customers and other companies.” Functional design is the company’s heritage, Engman adds, “but when we talk to people nowadays, it’s a lot about emotional needs – the memories of the home, how to put a mood into a home or personality. It’s something within four walls but [also] about the neighbourhood. Where I sleep, my street, my home.”

The company is taking a cue from the startup movement and reimagining how collaborations work – not with a product goal but as an open-ended process of innovation and exploration, whether it’s forays into fashion or sport and wellness. Upcoming collaborations that venture out of IKEA’s home turf into lifestyle include Colette concept-shop founder Sarah Andelman in Paris or South African knitwear designer MaXhosa by Laduma, as well as sound with Teenage Engineering and Sonos.

A commissioned report revealed that 47 per cent of children would like more parental playtime and that parents think play spurs creativity. This year’s keynote announcement revealed future collaborations with Lego and Saint Heron, the multidisciplinary creative company founded by musician Solange Knowles, as well as artist Olafur Eliasson and his portable solar-power company Little Sun.

Olafur Eliasson and his portable Little Sun.

Courtesy of Ikea

If it’s broke, fix it

“Our founding mission is to create a better everyday life,” says IKEA’s head of sustainable and healthy living, Joanna Yarrow. “In a way, this isn’t a new agenda for us, but we do see some changes in society as a whole.” Studies and surveys the company did in 16 developed and developing countries showed consistent trends of health and well-being concerns. “People [are] taking an increasing interest in the products in their lives, the story of stuff,” she says.

The company already works with Better Cotton and Forest Stewardship Council wood, but it’s also looking at how it can be part of the thriving second-hand market, including return and reuse, perhaps through material banks. Yarrow points out that there are 100 pilot projects running worldwide that range from take-back and reselling to upcycling, sharing and leasing. “In Japan, for example, the organization is running a very successful buy-back service. You can have it valued and it will be resold in store and you get a gift card to use,” she says. More than 3,500 items have been resold.

Less is more, more, more

In addition to refining the design principles from the beginning so a product is easier to repair, reuse and upgrade during the entire life cycle, IKEA is thinking about what happens at the end of that life cycle, “so that we can either take it back, or that you as a customer can feed it back into a responsible supply chain,” says managing director Peter van der Poel.

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Circularity is top of mind “for customers thinking of reselling and reusing,” van der Poel says. “It’s not going to be IKEA that is going to solve this by itself – we will need to collaborate with other retailers, but also with manufacturers, with governments, with influencers to be able to make this shift a realization.”

Vegetable footprints

A plant-based ice cream prototype from IKEA.

Ikea

“We know that 26 per cent of consumers eat less meat, 10 per cent are vegetarians and want lower-impact alternatives that people can enjoy,” says Jacqui Macalister, head of health and sustainability at IKEA Food. “And 62 per cent of our customers say that health guides their decision-making about food.” The company has taken vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets seriously by increasing the number of plant-based food items in the IKEA Bistro range; there are already veggie meatballs (that cost more to produce but are sold on par with the original meat version), and the company’s new plant-based soft-serve ice cream, currently being tested in Portugal, will be in the range internationally next summer. A plant-based veggie dog will be available in Canada by the end of the year. Expanding IKEA’s plant-based offerings is the way forward, Macalister says, and the veggie hot dogs have a carbon footprint six times lower than regular ones.

The writer travelled courtesy of Ikea. It did not review or approve this article.

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