Thomas Sevcik: "Cities are not waiting for traditional retail"


Thomas Sevcik is co-founder of the think tank arthesia and one of the masterminds behind the Autostadt project in Wolfsburg. At the GDI Retail Summit and here in this interview, he talks about the changing shopping behaviour of the middle classes, the role of retail in the city and the dematerialisation of consumption.

Thomas Sevcik

GDI: With designs such as the Autostadt, the Circle at Zurich Airport and major districts in London and China, you act as a city strategist. What makes a city urban?

Thomas Sevcik: Urbanity is characterised by a parallel flow of the most diverse things, activities and contents in a rather narrow space: people shop, create, eat, live, build and transport – and much more – at the same time. A city often contains coincidences, sudden possibilities and patterns or phenomena. In suburbia and in the countryside, the processes are generally not only slower, but have less bandwidth, and are above all serial rather than parallel. In Moscow or Las Vegas, you might get a phone call at 2 am: ‘Let's have lunch now!’ Not in Mettmenstetten.

What is the role of retail in this?

Trade is an original characteristic of cities. Cities have emerged either as trading places or as seats of government or capitals. The trading city is the more powerful and sustainable form. Therefore, today’s modern trade is actually a direct continuation of former markets, like souks, bazaars or trading harbours. Now, retail as we know it is under pressure: from online business, from new demands and partly from our own failures. In the future, retail will also be retail of experiences. More culture, education and health will also be ‘consumed’.

How important are historical planned cities – such as St. Petersburg, Brasilia, Chandigarh – to your work?

They are actually not very important, because many of these examples were failures. (St. Petersburg is the successful exception here.) But planned cities are coming back in the form of special zones and private cities. Dubai and cities in China are examples, as are ideas and projects in Europe.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, you travelled extensively. Where do you find the most inspiration, and how have you coped with travel restrictions?

Yes, my horizons of experience and knowledge have indeed shrunk drastically. I normally go on about 200 flights a year. My furthest destination recently was Frauenfeld. But inspiration now comes from great books and many conversations with fantastic people.

A look into the future: how will the relationship between city and retail develop until 2030 and beyond?

Retail, as already mentioned, will be partly ‘dematerialised’. Experiences will become products. This is reinforced by an increased commercial demand for products and services in the triangle of culture, education and health – because these are areas that interest urban, open, ‘liberal’ people, or areas where they have to invest in themselves. At the same time, cities will always remain commercial centres. The idea of offering goods (from all over the world or of special quality) is a central component of cities. Residential cities or cities purely geared to industrial production are usually much more boring than the classic trading cities on rivers, lakes or coasts. This will always remain the case. But retail must move now. The ‘golden times’ that started in 1945 will never return. Even in the emerging countries and cities, the new middle class is changing its consumer behaviour very quickly in the direction of experiences, culture, special brands, ‘less-is-more’ or localism. This global one-size-fits-all model is not coming back in this form. There are still many people in the real estate or retail sector who do not believe this. They are in for a shock. Cities are different now. They’re not waiting for traditional retail.