Acceleration and disruption: the fair in the year of the pandemic

We went to the IFA, the biggest trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances in Europe, which took place even this year in Berlin, in a special edition format. 

First day of the IFA, the most important Western tech exhibition after the American CES. We’re at the southern entrance of the Messe Berlin exhibition hall: usually, here in the plaza next to the gigantic IFA sign and then inside the impressive glass and metal half-cylinder that serves as the entrance hall to the  trade fair, there would be huge crowds of people like music fans waiting to get in a concert pit. The only difference here is that there are many men carrying trolleys and wearing elegant suits, lots of girls re wearing hostess uniforms, and the rest of the people – the tech journalists –wearing their minimal-geek uniforms with inevitable unfortunate twists – fanny packs, untied super fat shoes, grunge checked shirts bought at Muji. The cleverest people usually pass through here just to take the usual photo of the crowd waiting in line, and then go to one of the other entrances. This year, however, none of this is happening. The plaza is semi-deserted, except for three musicians in front of a camera. Even the IFA sign right next to them is smaller. We are here to visit the 2020 edition, the one that, at one point, was not even going to be held. 

The traditionally huge IFA sign this year is a lot smaller than usual.

A smaller exhibition

Tech is back is the motto of this edition of IFA, which is different from all previous editions and in fact proudly declares to be “special”. Let's give credit where credit is due: in a world where everything is postponed, suspended, cancelled, from the Milan Design Week to the micro-event held in the neighborhood, IFA has made a bold move. Probably also being quite penny-wise. Here in the semi-deserted halls – 30 thousand square meters in total – one wonders if it was even worth it. It's a pretty small trade fair, mainly focused on the GPC – the Global Press Conference, three days of talks and presentations, which usually is an event on its own – and not on the exhibition which, however, has two dedicated areas in one hall: half of it is occupied by a bunch of brave brands (Huawei, TP-Link, Satisfyer's sex toys, the smartwatches produced by Fitbit – which was acquired by Google in 2019) and other semi-unknown ones; the other half has sofas and working stations for journalists, and a kiosk where a coffee costs twice as much as in the city. The CityCube, a 12,000 square meter space designed by Code Unique Architekten and annexed to the historical structure of the Berlin Messe at the beginning of the new century, is Samsung's permanent exhibition space here at the IFA, and hosts the section dedicated to startups (Next) and mobility (Shift). When you’re inside, for an instant you stop feeling like you’re wandering in a ghost village, in a post-atomic fair, in a shipwreck inhabited by a few men of courage. Then you enter the conference room, empty like a movie theater between shows. Only popcorn on the floor is missing. The trade show ends here. Just a few numbers: 1450 exhibitors, but only a tenth of them physically present in Berlin; 6000 in-person participants, almost 80 thousand online attendees. The keywords: home, work, gaming, entertainment, sound, lockdown, physical activity, sustainability.

Hall 1.2, the only one in which products are exhibited (just half of it)

Look who’s talking

Like the Pillars of Hercules of an exhibition that last year boasted 25 multi-storey halls, not to mention the giant indoor garden, many visitors have bumped into the ghosts of pharaonic stands and loud music in halls 3.2 and 4.2, where now the conferences of the brands participating in the GPC are alternating. These halls are gigantic and empty, with socially distanced seating and a screen that runs along one of the longer sides. Your personal QR code gets scanned every time you enter by some guys wearing a badge with the languages they speak – German and English, Hungarian and Catalan, Spanish. Too bad there is no Spanish press here, who knows if any Hungarian has shown up. There is certainly more than one people counting device, keeping track of the number of people in the room. And after a while, like in a kind of small university – or a prison? –  the few people here all know each other at least by sight. On stage, virtualization is taken to its extreme. LG’s president I.P. Park presents himself in the form of a hologram, perhaps the most beautiful thing about the IFA. The animation of the first BSH’s smart dishwasher is projected by a white monolith installed on stage. Hyundai's presentation is a conversation between journalist Nicole Scott physically here in Berlin, and the CEO of the European division Michael Cole, who appears in a video that seems to be coming straight out of a golden-years Giovanni Minoli’s show. Then there’s Huawei that, by using the big face of Walter Ji, President of the Consumer Business Group for the Western European Region, multiplied four times on the huge vidiwall screen, offers to Europe an excusatio that is more strategic than petita from the company that Trump would like to delete as soon as possible, leaving to sub-brand Honor the honor (sic) and especially the responsibility of presenting a string of “smart life” products for a “young generation” that, as shown in the graphics on the screen, in the early months of 2020 bought smartwatches, laptops, smart TVs as if there were no tomorrow (and in fact at some point we really thought there wouldn’t be). But at least Honor physically brought their products to the stand. Of all the rest, for example of the interesting smart house built by LG in Korea, we only have a few pictures about which certain conspiracy theorists, like the ones who paraded a few days ago right here in Berlin, could talk about for a long time.

Mad Max goes to a fair

“This is how IFA would have always been if there were 5 billion less people in the world”. That’s what Berlin-based Domus contributor Andrea Nepori tells me when we notice the total absence of queues in the catering room during lunchtime. This year there’s a lot of space, the best microclimate, the easiest interaction even though we greet each other with an elbow bump instead of the traditional handshake, and the Force is stronger with the Wi-Fi than with Luke Skywalker. Everyone who is here – or rather, the few who are here – are friendly and playful. But as this journalists’ paradise begins, the companies’ paradise ends, as Gianpiero Morbello says during an interview. He’s the European Head of Brand & IOT at Haier, the Chinese colossus that, through the acquisition of the Candy group in 2019, is undeniably focusing on Europe – first by concentrating on Hoover as a traditional brand, then by attacking the high-end market with Haier appliances and finally by believing in the potential of the Brugherio-based company to enter the homes of those who are quite familiar with smartphones and Instagram, and a little less with appliances. As all appliances rapidly converge towards connectivity, the one-button, hyper-connected and inexpensive Nova washing machine, designed to meet the needs and please the wallets of the GenZers, which manage it entirely via app, is a powerful representation of those products of the future that we used to touch with our hands here at the IFA. Too bad that this year there’s almost nothing to touch, apart from the very popular Satisfyer’s mini wheel of fortune which, after an intense administration of sanitizing gel, gives one or two smart vibrators as a gift. But there are so few of us that even if you win just one, you can spin the wheel again after just half an hour and nobody will tell you anything. But that's okay. In the end, they may be sex toys, but the important thing is that you can connect them to your phone.

A keynote during the GPC

Does technology really need this?

2020 has been cruel to humanity, but not so much to technology, at least so far. It has made our lives and the homes in which we have locked ourselves “smart” in the deepest sense. It has changed geography, time, relationships, even the concept of public and private space. The way we work, the way we have fun, the way we buy (online sale rose by 64%). In short, what the IFA itself had told us that would arrive with the rise of the 5G, was instead brought on by the Covid-19 and the lockdown, transforming the screens of the house into the best ways to jump into the hyperspace of our lives. Needless to say, device sales are skyrocketing. Apple’s stock, the great absentee of IFA and at the same time a tech point of reference for the entire world, despite the recent loss of roughly $180 billion, continues to be worth twice as much as in March. While reading the numbers of the recent online sales surge, Sean O’Neill says that “disruption is acceleration”. He previously worked at Amazon and Tesco, his style reminds me a little of Leonard Cohen, and is now working at GfK, the fourth largest market research institute in the world and global partner of IFA. “Disruption > Opportunity” is also written on all GfK's billboards welcoming the visitors of the IFA. Acceleration affects everyone, even trade fairs. Even the IFA, and this edition could go down in history as the year zero. We will wonder for a long time if the IFA would have reached this point anyway, since it’s been offering less and less opportunities year after year, in favor of events scattered around the city. The various multinationals have now started to challenge each other in incredible locations here in Berlin, while the top-of-the-range smartphones, the most popular gadgets of our present, haven’t been launched here at the fair for quite some time.

New protagonists

“Normally, we couldn't be here,” says in an excellent Italian founder of Myhixel Patricia Lopez from Seville. Her startup – the only Spanish company here at IFA: to participate Patricia and a colleague have taken a 300 euro coronavirus swab test – presents a device that aims at achieving “climax control” in men, who in 80% of cases, when they suffer from premature ejaculation, do not seek medical advice. This openness towards sex, which previously was banned or at least carefully hidden – yes, in Berlin, the city of Berghain and many other hyperfluid erotic delights, until last year –, is a key theme of this edition, and Satisfyer, “the German Xiaomi of sex toys”, as it was promptly presented, brought three speakers on the main stage for a conference in which, on the last day of the trade show, the app was presented. We were expecting fireworks, but the sad reality is a Russian roulette loaded with blanks. A crushing bore. One of the many.

Impossible to find a seat here, just one year ago

That’s all folks!

If we want to remake a trade show, we would have to remake the exhibitors, too. No ordinary CEO can get on the hybrid stage, half real and half virtual, even though it used to be the norm here in Berlin. For this marvelous pandemic kolossal, aka these huge trade fairs live streamed everywhere, we will need new and better special effects to show the products, and protagonists who feel at ease on stage. In short, we will probably see more and more epigones of Steve Jobs, capable of connecting with the hearts and brains of their interlocutors, and thus sell a dream before the physical object. We already have someone like that, even if they weren’t at the IFA: obviously Elon Musk, OnePlus’ Pete Lau, and the theatrical Richard Yu, who played a great role in Huawei's success. In the meantime, we have this experiment: a bunch of very strict German (in flesh and blood) and Oriental (in virtual version) speakers who alternated on stage, and this generic, improbable feeling of optimism that was filling the air at the end of the three days. That was it for this year, next year it will be different, you’ll see… as if life was the eternal summer filled with hopes of a very distinguished soccer team that hasn't won a match for too long. At the end of the exhibition, we were all very moved when, from the stage they launched the next edition, and announced 60% if exhibit space has already been booked. “This is not a partnership, this is a friendship”, proclaims proudly the president of the Berlin fair Christian Goke, stressing the importance of Xtended Space, the virtual extension of this IFA and adding, with a certain pride, the importance of having shown, even to other trade shows, that yes, it is possible and important to still exist, despite the pandemic. For this year, it’s over. And that’s fine.


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