Future

Cover for the book Worth Remembering by David Zach

Finding Long Term Value in Short Ideas

This is a sampler from my continually growing database of over 4000 quotations. I’ve been collecting these since junior high. These were selected not with a modern sensibility of sensitivity or inclusion, but with a notion of timelessness and truth regardless of the source. Each of these are about the future, even if that future was from a very long time ago.

This all started when I found a packet of 3×5 cards in my dad’s office. Each one had a quotation on it. He explained that quotations were really useful, because you didn’t have time to read everything, so look for ideas worth remembering. If possible, see how others had taken complex ideas and gotten the essence of it in just a few lines. Yeah, my dad was a smart guy.

A few years ago, I published some of my favorites in a small book which I used for audience giveaways and as a thank you for clients. You can find it on Amazon for 99 cents: Worth Remembering: The Future Value of Old Ideas.

1. A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history – with possible exception of handguns and tequila. Mitch Ratliffe

2. When science discovers the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to find they are not it. Bernard Baily

3. First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII—and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure. Douglas Adams

4. The industrialized world has a different kind of poverty, a poverty of loneliness, of being unwanted, a poverty of the spirit. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

5. The surest sign that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is that they’ve never tried to contact us. Woody Allen

6. The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. Lily Tomlin

7. The trouble with cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it. Marshall McLuhan

8. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Oscar Wilde

9. All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Leo Tolstoy

10. Without books, God is silent, justice dormant, natural science at a stand, philosophy lame, letters dumb, and all things involved in darkness. Thomas Bartholin

11. And the same age saw Learning fall, and Rome. Alexander Pope

12. There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. Joseph Brodsky

13. Literature is my utopia. Helen Keller

14. I cannot live without books. Thomas Jefferson

15. Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. Elie Wiesel

16. Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words?
Marcel Marceau

17. Only intuition can protect us from the most dangerous individual of all, the articulate incompetent. Robert Bernstein

18. Prediction is difficult, especially about the future. Neils Bohr

19. No one really knows enough to be a pessimist. Norman Cousins

20. Torture numbers and they will confess to anything. Gregg Easterbrook

21. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. C. S. Lewis

22. When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near. Will Durant

23. Decadence can find agents only when it wears the mask of progress.
George Bernard Shaw

24. You can never get enough of what you really don’t need. Eric Hoffer

25. Where there is no vision, the people perish.Proverbs 29:18

26. Who guards the guardians? Juvenal

27. There is hope for the future because God has a sense of humor and we are funny to God. Bill Cosby

28. If the stars should appear just one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore! Ralph Waldo Emerson

29. This too shall pass. Dante Alighieri

30. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
II Timothy 4:7

31. Perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

32. People change and forget to tell each other. Lillian Hellman

33. To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.
James P. Carse

34. College isn’t the place to go for ideas. Helen Keller

35. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2

36. You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. James Baldwin

37. I love little children, and it is not a slight thing when they, who are fresh from God, love us. Charles Dickens

38. I actually think that to become really mature is to return to the age of five, to become able to recapture the capacity for absorption, for learning, the tremendous hunger to master skills that you have at five years. Eric Hoffer

39. Real futurists have children. Bruce Sterling

40. Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now bump, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there is really another way if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. A. A. Milne

41. Play so that you may be serious. Anacharsis

42. God gave us our memories so that we might have roses in December. James M. Barrie

43. Won’t you come into the garden? I would like my roses to see you. Richard Brinsley Lord Sheridan

44. It is a great mistake for men to give up paying compliments, for when they give up saying what is charming, they give up thinking what is charming. Oscar Wilde

45. A man of courage flees forward, in the midst of new things.Jacques Maritain

46. The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. Eden Phillpotts

47. How beautiful the leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days. John Burroughs

48. Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars. Henry van Dyke

Emerging New York Architects Article: What’s Beneath the Future?

What’s Beneath the Future?

Once upon a time, educated people had minds that were trained to welcome questions that didn’t always have answers. They took the time to think not just about fads and trends, but about the longer term and even the eternal. In these modern times, we’ve lost much of that, too willingly seduced away from what lasts so we can be ready for what’s next. Maybe we’ve lost something that our ancestors never considered possible to lose. Maybe we should revive the art of wonder and rediscover the foundations of imagination and design. It’s fun and useful to wonder what’s just around the corner, but let us spare a little wonder for what’s just beneath those corners. Here are a few notions we might find if we dig.

1. Mystery

The future does not need to be all clean, bright and clear so that everyone has to be happy, above average and safe. Only in the smallest of futures could we do that. It would require us to eliminate risk, get rid of variety and worst of all, give up free will. Remove those, and you remove the mysteries that make for a life worth living.  

Mystery is risk. We don’t want to be rid of risk, we want to make it more attractive and progressive. This is not dismissing the safety of structures and communities, it is to take more thoughtful risk with choices, with design and with your own career. No one can know all the future of architecture, but progress will not come from just choosing to be open to change, it will come from intelligently choosing between change and tradition. The choices between those involve risk, but not as much risk as when only one side is blindly chosen and the other blindly condemned. Wrong choices are risky, but they are also opportunities for rediscovery and reinvention. The future should not be too predictable. The mystery of what’s just around the corner should be attractive, and the design of imaginative corners is something that architects can do best. 

2. Paradox

Architecture is paradox. Form and function. Art and science. Strength and beauty. Bottom-line and horizon. Paradox is when two mutually exclusive things more than co-exist, they embrace and with great design, they even dance.

When one side denies the other, you get gawdawful architecture. Without horizons, multiple-point perspective is not possible. Without strength, beauty is too vulnerable. Without art, science threatens. Without science, art is dull. We need both sides, and architects are the best trained to find and bind the connections between them.  

Explore, protect and cherish architectural paradoxes. Know that the ability to work with paradox can never be automated and is one of the keys for opening the future of this profession. Fall in love with paradox and it will return the favor –and we will love the results. 

3. Inclusive

There’s an old saying that never grows old: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” Just as you would protest a future of architecture decided without you, do not design any futures for others without them.

George Bernard Shaw said, “All professions are a conspiracy against the laity.” Architects should always side with the laity, despite the obvious fact that design would be a lot easier without them. It’s not that they don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s that you’re too often failing to explain design in terms they can easily understand. Customers are now co-workers, so much more of our education budget needs to include them and not stay focused on the inside of the profession. This should be the age of design, but not if you cannot explain design with eloquence and elegance to the people who need it the most.

4. Revolution

This is the scary (not so) secret of architecture today. Change has been a constant in architecture for the past 30 years, but it has all been prelude. Now the real show begins. Old boundaries are falling and it will take with it old-boundary architects, some of whom will be even the youngest of architects. This revolution has nothing to do with age, degree or license, it has to do with your vitality of mind and your ability not simply to adapt to change, but your ability when necessary to restore and stand upon foundation. 

Revolution can be renaissance, or it can be surrender. Quit without a fight and architecture will be downsourced into a hodgepodge of apps. Fight the good fight and it becomes what it should be – an occupation of all occupations. A vocation connecting to everything, everyplace, every time. If you do revolution right, the world of design will be much bigger than anyone ever imagined. Do it wrong, the role of architects will be much smaller than you ever feared. 

You could really screw this up and go down in flame and shame. But here’s the exciting (not so) secret of all this: the young architects of today are better trained, better educated, and better prepared than most any other occupation to face these times. This is an age of design and you are designers. 

5. Foundations

And this is what connects that which is beneath with all that is above: Your philosophy matters more than your plans. The “whys” of architecture are more important than the “hows.” Beneath every plan there must be a foundation. The bigger your plans, the greater need for foundation. Every architect knows that, but they’re being too distracted to recall that it also applies to life.

This is vastly counterintuitive to modern times. Today it’s all about the tool; all about the next big thing that you can do. It’s always about thinking forward without thinking back. GK Chesterton said, “We are learning to do a great many clever things. The next great task will be to learn not to do them.” You can only make good decisions for the long term if you have deep foundations. Resist seduction. Find your foundations. Foundations first, then plans for a future that can be as big and great as you choose to design it. 

_______________________

This article was written for ENYA: Emerging New York Architects and their conference: The Future Now… David Zach is a Futurist and on the board of the American Institute of Architects. He loves architecture. He remains ever hopeful about architects.

This Website: A Cabinet of Futurist Curiosities

Before museums, private collectors would gather all sorts of things into cabinets. Some of those collections turned into famed museums. This was in an age of curiosity before curiosity became organized and thereby formalized. It was an age of generalized education for affluent young adults, and specialization came via apprenticeship. It was a special sort of age of discovery because most things had yet to be discovered.

Something has been lost along the way of finding all of those things. By separating them into morphologies and specialties, I think there’s less chance for the sort of cross-fertilization that leads to break-throughs. Sure, there are lots of people with broad general interests and even hobbies that encourage leaps of connections, but the average person should be just as curious and just as able to make new connections. Wealth is found in connections. What’s not yet connected?

My cabinet of curiosities is part of my process for crafting my own ideas. I collect quotations, graphics, and books… anything that catches my curiosity, and all within a condo furnished with furniture and art of Art Deco or Asian origin. At any point, there are about thirty books scattered about on any horizontal surface, some actively being read or reread, others perused to recall a line or notion that needs to fill a gap in theme. All of these brought together help the sparks of imagination.

The vintage graphics serve a special aspect of crafting ideas. A central theme in my Futurist work is that new does not necessarily mean good, and old doesn’t always mean outdated. Vintage illustrations are a fun way of connecting the past with the future. The question shouldn’t be are these outdated, but rather: What has enduring value? If it has a sense of timelessness with it, then it still has value. And, as someone wise once told me, the creation of value is the only reason to stay in business. How do we define value? That is one of the most important questions you can ask.

Since junior high, I’ve been collecting quotations, now with over 4000 in the database. Yeah, a database. It’s searchable, so I can throw in just the right or inappropriate notion at just the right time.

This website is my cabinet of curiosities. Unlike my talks, these entries are not presented in any particular order,  but more along the lines of what’s catching my attention right now. Wander around and be curious.

Vintage Illustration of Boy at Losing Game

The Future’s Just Not That Into You: Design Intelligence article

A version of this article was first published in Design Intelligence in 2012, written for young design professionals on meeting the future on their own terms.

The Future’s Just Not That Into You

It’s time to admit that you’ve got a problem. Your obsession with the future is getting out of hand. You keep going on about how you were made for each other. You even change your plans because it’s what you think the future wants. But no matter, you just know you’re going to be perfect together.

Um, no. In case you haven’t noticed, the future pretty much ignores you. And, let’s be honest, you know it’s never going to call. It’ll never stop by unannounced. It’s not even going to meet you halfway.

Really, it’s almost as if the future didn’t even know you exist — and in practical terms, it doesn’t. It’s also practical to realize that it’s got its own issues, its own people, its own problems. By the time just even a little bit of the future happens,  we’ll be dead and long gone. And so it’s not the future you need to worry about, it’s you. Your attention is misplaced. You’re needed in the here and now. You need to show up fully prepared to be no place else. The object of your affection should be today.

And today, with all this fear and doubt about your architectural education, maybe your first assignment hasn’t even happened yet. Maybe it’s happening right now. What if it’s to show the future what you’re really made of? If the future won’t come to you, you will have to go to the future. Here are a few ideas on how to meet the future on your own terms.

1. Entrepreneurial wealth creation. In case no one noticed, tomorrow is expensive. Very expensive. We can’t possible afford even a fraction of what we’re expecting unless we create vast new wealth. Not just redistributed, but baby-fresh wealth that’s far more than just money. Whatever has value, we need more of; from working friendships to logistical networks. From 3-D printers to apps that automate everyday tasks. From green buildings to blue-sky thinking. More needs to be much more.

You need to realize how incredibly easy it is to an entrepreneur today. Business plans are just a few clicks away and can cost nothing. Take a look at websites like kickstarter.com, where the marketplace of ideas now reaches the entire Internet-accessing world. Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From makes clear that we’ve become incredibly good at invention, and that’s being systematized by the big organizations. What’s not yet clear is that individuals can leverage all of that innovative infrastructure to their singular or small network advantage.

Explore and expand the notion of “pop-up businesses” and find that time is on your side, using the new tools to respond to marketplace trends. In the future, businesses lasting a few months may be more successful and productive than ones that last for decades. Use 3-D printers and other new maker tech for a leap-frog revival of localized factories and the reinvention of architecture. Apply your fresh knowledge of logistics and design to bring new life to the great big marketplace of ideas.

The future is going to require a fair amount of blood, tears, toil and duct tape to hold together and work. It’ll have you digging in the dirt and working in the dust and grease, and some of that will get under your nails. Your knuckles will get bruised. That might have once repelled you, but in Future 2.0, these will be a badges of honor. Band-aids are for the brave.

Most think that entrepreneurs are all about success, but they’re a lot about failure, too, and they’re not afraid of it. The freedom to fail is much more important than the freedom to succeed. Where you have the freedom to succeed, the pathways are often already laid out, but the path and rewards are banal. Where we have the freedom to fail, we have the encouraging freedom to try new things, to often fail, and then pick ourselves up and try again. And again. And again. Until it works. That’s how it works.

2. Life-work planning. That was the best course I took in college. It taught me peak-skills identification and how to explain the value of my mix and match skills to the marketplace. In the years to come, even if you call yourself an architect (I mean, it is a cool title and all), you’re going to need to be eloquent about your full spectrum of skills and even your skill gaps. Your collaborative skills will be essential for helping you to fill those gaps with the talent of coworkers.

3. Small is still beautiful. A brilliant retort to the age of just about everything being bigger is to be a bit smaller. Think local. Think sooner rather than later. Think yours, not everyone else’s. There’s an appropriateness of scale that gets lost in the gloss of globalization. Search for resources that will help you secure your own familiar and familial piece of the world. The Lt. Governor of Idaho, Brad Little, said “Small ideas are as important as big ideas.” Yes, please. What’s the big idea for your generation? How about a lot of small, livable ideas? Your generation of small ideas may do more for designing a viable future than so many of the big ideas we’ve been keeping on financial life support. Fight the notion of things being too big to fail, because that arrogance requires too many other things to be too small to succeed. All great things start small.

Some things are great because they stay small — and that’s just one more great thing about who we are and what we can do.

Surveys show that the millennials want meaningful work, which is often translated into the desire to change the world. That’s big and noble, but how do they know that all of their efforts to do good won’t converge into an even bigger world of hurt? What are the foundations of their world-changing ambitions? Are they seeing only obvious implications, but not the implications of the implications that echo from their source and cannot be predicted nor controlled? MIlton Friedman said “The power to do good is also the power to do harm.” Perhaps in the desire to think big, efforts should start small, grounded in time-test principles and with the near and the dear.

How about starting a little closer to little? If you don’t have the patience to change (and keep changing) a baby’s diaper, how can you expect to change the world? Change cannot be isolated. Everything has consequences and when you connect those beyond just their first effects, your choices will be more clear and realistic. David Frost said, “Love is staying up all night with a sick child — or a healthy adult.” The good life includes accepting and loving all of it, because life comes with happiness and tears, and all the choices and changes these must bring. It’s fantastic that you want to save the world. Start with your own smaller world first. Make your inevitable mistakes small and early, not too big and too late.

4. Amateur practice. In the heart of a good architect is the soul of an amateur. The “ama” in that word means “love.” It’s the love of the art and craft. This love will save the future of the occupation and perhaps even the future at large. If that’s not in you, go slowly retire somewhere else.

Despite all the rules and rulers, you should always be a bit of an amateur, in love with design. It’s what gets you up in the morning and it’s what keeps you awake at night. And this is key: you didn’t just choose architecture because you thought it was what the future wanted. It is what you needed, it’s what you can’t live without. I always admire the architects who can hear the vocāre; the calling. You were able to hear it telling you what you must become. Very few can hear such gifts, and you must cherish it.

The day after speaking at AIAS Forum 2010, three student architects and I talked and walked to the Ontario Gallery of Art. Upon looking into the OGA’s Gehry Staircase gallery, they forgot me. In awe, they began to draw. In awe, I watched them. From outside of your world looking in, I see not simply rare talent, but rare passion and the heart of an amateur. This will save the profession no matter where it goes. It must be continually nurtured and regarded. It is too easily overwhelmed in the rush of modern times. What you have and what you are is drawn from the center of life.

5. Think into other boxes. The best thing that ever to happen to architecture and architects is the current dearth of jobs. It didn’t just happen because the economy turned down, it’s because the profession turned down. It got boring. It didn’t know how to defend itself against regulations, automation and cross-boundary poaching. It became more worried about being cool and collected than in creating the beautiful and useful. Every profession is stumbling into the future. The fact it’s happening more in architecture is a great opportunity, terrifying as it may be.

So think into those other bewildered occupations. Start mergers. Start acquisitions. Don’t do it as if you were Wall Street barons. You’re not. Do it as if you’re architects on the adventure of a lifetime, designing new challenges, crafting new stories and wonders. As the barriers blur between graphics and facades, redesign the walls and portals between them. Tear down the delusion of believing the borders of architecture are set and known. It may have foundations set in stone, but the rules for what we will build above them are now being negotiated across all boundaries. GK Chesterton said, “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” Which rules will we design for those we build on the ground?

6. Engage the past. Advanced economies are sadly absurd for actively discarding their elders. The younger those discards are, the more absurd it is. The divorcing of the generations and segregating them into their own self-referential worlds feeds our ignorance and arrogance. Wealth comes from connecting things, and we have impoverished ourselves by breaking and hiding such natural and lively bonds.

But as Sir Boyle Roche asked, “Why should we do anything for posterity; what has posterity ever done for us?” A good answer is that posterity always gives those who are older not only a reason to live, but reasons to invest, to strive, to conquer fears and conquer horizons. Generational bonds give us opportunities to share not just the delightful moments, but also foundations so that posterity does not have to keep repeating what it should not. Posterity doesn’t need our fads, it needs the continuity of our principles. We shouldn’t just connect them towards what is the latest, but towards what is almost too late. Progress from the past does not always mean leaving things behind us, it also means leaving things inside of us.

7. Put work in its place. The most foolish of all baby boomer legacies is the worship of work. They wanted everyone else to believe that work was at the center of life. No, life is at the center of life. Work is good; it’s good for the soul, but it is not the only thing good for the soul. And if it’s even slightly possible that we do in fact have souls, then we should be fighting the good fight to ensure that there are good things that compose it.

You’ll have to work to rethink what we know about work and life from an architect’s perspective. You should work hard to turn the ordinary over to the engineers and the general contractors or whomever else might want it. Don’t work for the stuff that ends up just looking like technical drawings. That’s not what architects are supposed to do.

Design and build beautiful, useful things that connect us into life in this world. If you can’t do that, then why bother? You’re architects and you have something incredible to say about designing good tomorrows. You’ll take some heat for working for all of that, but you’ll finally know what it really is to be cool.

In a word, you must rebel. You must focus your attention on what’s most important, both for now and for the years to come. Your attention is the most valuable resource you own, so learn to protect that first or you will fail in all else. Your rebellion requires not only a working knowledge of tactics and strategies, but also a very grounded sense of mission and vision.

You’re going to have to commit the high crime of closing your mind, but you’ll be closing it around something solid, something good. It will not have to be fresh and original, but it will have to be noble, fierce and timeless. It will not have to be unique and fresh, it have to be connected and rooted. You will need to rebel against the distractions of momentary history and ally yourself with the calm and eternal.

In Latin there is a phrase: amor fati. It means to love your fate; accepting the fact of all of your life. The joys, the losses, the choices. You do not get to choose all of your life, but you can choose your destination. Live your fate to your greatest conclusion. That is all the future really wants from you. You should enjoy the dangers and the rewards, even the failings. It’s going to be crazy scary, and it is yours.

In Star Trek Generations, Picard pulls Kirk out of retirement to join forces as fate offers yet another threat to the survival of just about everything. Kirk to Pickard, “I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim.” Pickard: “You could say that.” Speaking of the future, Kirk replied, “Sounds like fun.”

 

Photo of David Zach Futurist with wall of books

A Futurist?

tl;dr version:

  1. One of the few professionally-trained Futurists on the planet. I can’t predict the future, but knew you might have wondered.
  2. Degree in Futures Research from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. BA, Political Science from University of Wisconsin.
  3. Given over 1500 keynote presentations throughout North America and Europe.
  4. Talks focus on the cultural and social (often humorous) implications of technological and demographic trends.
  5. Design has become a central theme running through my talks.

About David Zach, Futurist:

  1. I’m one of the few professionally-trained Futurists on this planet, having earned an M.S. in Futures Research from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Then again, I got that degree way back in 1981 so it’s pretty much history at this point. (B.A. was in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, though I had more credits in Philosophy and almost as many in Communications.) My introduction to futurists was from a course called The Future, taught by Alan Stauffacher at Monroe High School. But, even before that I first fell in love with the future by watching Star Trek. I was only allowed one hour of TV a week on school nights, but my smarty-pants brother Jim had all As, so he didn’t have any restrictions. He got to legally watch Star Trek. I had to sneak down to the rec room, hide behind the sofa and lay on the floor. My introduction to the future was sideways, and it pretty much has remained at off angles ever since.
  2. To finish the futures degree, I got an internship at Johnson Controls in downtown Milwaukee, WI. This was rather lucky as not only did I not have to write a thesis, but they paid me too. Because HR didn’t know quite how to classify or rank a “futurist,” they figured my skill set was equivalent to that of an accountant. When I asked my dad what I was going to do with all of that extra money from a real full time job, he just laughed. One of the first adult-level unlocked lessons is that earning money can be quite expensive.
  3. Three days after moving to Milwaukee, I got invited to attend the inaugural meeting of Goals for Milwaukee 2000. Then they invited me on some sub-committees and because I spoke up a few times, I was named chair of the subcommittee on the future of education. This was a mistake. I was 23. Fortunately there was stronger leadership throughout and with lots of guidance, our report turned out just fine. Along the way, I met a lot of other civic-minded people, who upon meeting someone fresh out of college, would typically ask: So what did you major in? The answer of “Futures Research!” either got a blank look or questions like “Could you talk to my Rotary Club about that?” I did probably about ten talks to such clubs when someone unexpectedly gave me a $40 honorarium. My career is the result of a hobby that got out of control.
  4. Since 1981, I’ve given over 1500 talks throughout North America and Europe. My largest audience was over 7000 with the The Critical Care Nurses Association, who gave me a rare standing ovation. You cannot buy drugs that feel that good. At the same event, I also learned about one of the lows of speaking. My talk ended just before lunch. Quite a few people came up to chat and say thanks, but by the time I had put all my slides and materials away – I was standing alone in a empty auditorium. I remembered thinking, “Not one of you wondered if I was free for lunch?” Speaking professionals have sometimes described it as one of the loneliest jobs on the planet, especially when you do a great job. People are often intimidated or assume that of course you already have plans. I soon learned to book a second night and always try to have dinner with the client before or after the event. Before the event you get better insights on the audience and create allies in that audience. The evening after we share stories and great wine. The dinners after were often the most memorable parts of the gigs because I had already had my say and now it was my turn to listen.
  5. The smallest audience was just three people, for Farmer’s Insurance. I was told to expect one hundred, but they might have exaggerated. Still, I got paid a lot more for that talk than for the nursing talk – and I got invited to lunch after the talk.
  6. My talks were often described by my agents as “light, but thought-provoking.”  I had thought that was a cool description but soon realized that a lot of speakers also described their talks as “thought-provoking,” but what they really meant was that they didn’t quite know how to describe their talks. Mine really were thought-provoking because I would hide philosophy inside the trends, often in the form of humor. My reasoning was that the future felt threatening to too many people, but anything they can laugh at isn’t quite as threatening. It’s a bit like the child pointing at the pompous future and saying, “But he doesn’t have any clothes on!” Helping people to see what the future for what it really was, not just fascinating forecasts of change, but also enough timeless traditions and ideas that people still had hope for some continuity and connection. That’s deep, so being able to laugh does indeed make it seem lighter and more approachable.
  7. The talks would always start with technology because that’s the obvious, heavily marketed driver in terms of future change. This would evolve into a fun discussion about the social and cultural implications of the technology. And, as the talk curved around toward the finish line, it got more personal. What would begin with such ideas as nanotechnology or how that tech could lead to factories returning closer to the points of consumption, would connect into the world of children, protecting their sense of wonder and even to the importance of grandparents. I have this photo showing my niece Rachel as an infant being held by her great-grandmother Myrtle, showing not only the vast distance in age, but also that there really was no distance, no separation. Rather than falling into the clutches of technology as the future, we also need to see the future as something we can hold in our arms. When holding an infant, we see that children really are the message we send to the future. What are we trying to say? What will be heard?
  8. In the last ten years of my speaking, the dominant theme became design. Design determines value and the better design, the more value. Learning to think a bit like designers and having some process by which we look at the ways the future is made but also that we consider the longer-term implications of what choices today might be down the line. This focus created a bit of a niche for me, and I’ve probably keynoted over 100 design conferences. For some reason, architecture always fascinated me, though never as a possible occupation as I don’t have those sorts of technical skills. But I do have an aesthetic sensibility to recognize good design and a bit of how it works. This eventually led to my being on the AIA-WI board of directors and from 2010-13 as a public director on the American Institute of Architects national board. While on the board, I had the particular honor to be a keynote speaker for AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) four years in a row, twice almost by accident as I filled in twice for speakers who missed their planes. (The last of those speeches from 2013 can be viewed elsewhere on this website.) My favorite story from those talks was in 2010, freshly on the AIA board and in the midst of a very enthusiastic and slightly rowdy audience, I got towards the end in which I extol the virtues of smoking and drinking– as metaphors for talking with strangers and breaking bread with them– but I set them up in the joke and of course, they’re very young adults and they’re roaring with laughter. And then I see that in an earlier skit that evening, someone had left a Smirnoff Ice on stage. I stopped, looked at the audience, looked over at the bottle, walked across the stage, popped the top and took a drink. This caused a screaming, laughing, cheering standing ovation. This eventually got back to the board of the AIA. In a series of emails between members of the board, I was told by one of the more serious members that despite the fun, I had to understand that I was represented the board and should comport myself thusly. Harumph! Thankfully, the AIAS executive director was in on the email stream and replied that it was perhaps not quite one would expect professionally…, but for the first time, the students of the AIAS actually think that the AIA might be cool. Over the years, I was a keynote speakers five times and was given a rare Presidential Citation by AIAS. That was cool. (You can see one of those talks here.)
  9. My interest in architecture has two origin stories. The first is that the house I grew up in was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright (Edmund Howe) and my dad used to take me to the meetings with the architect. This did not result in my wanting to be an architect, it resulted in me being fascinated with architecture and how ideas can be made into real buildings.
  10. The second origin has to do with the design style of Art Deco and my fascination for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In many ways, the future as we know it started at this fair. It was slowly dawning on the world that the future could be different from the past. From suburbs and freeways to home refrigerators and other time-saving appliances, many of the ideas we now take for granted began there on display. Running through it all was a sense of streamlined design and speed. We were going to make the future better than before. And, along the way, we realized that innovation brings its own problems. We didn’t realize that our philosophy mattered more than our plans, but failing at philosophy we just continue to plan. Sometimes we even come up with college degrees that are all about planning out the future.
  11. Since leaving the AIA board in 2013, I have lost a bit of my optimism about the future. Some of that came from getting older and being less enamored of constant change and part came from observing what got attention and praise from the AIA. While I was on the Golden Awards committee, they settled on an architect who does these concrete office monstrosities. The committee also considered another modernist architect and although I praised this person’s cleverness, I wondered out loud at its lack of beauty and if its facade which was already fading after only a couple of decades, would endure. This cause another rather prestigious committee member to bluntly explain how much I didn’t know about architects, architecture and probably even life itself. If you haven’t been lectured by an actual Lord of the Realm, your bucket list is not as cool as mine. I was struck by the elitism backed up by technology. As Churchill has said, “First we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” Too often, the elites have spoiled the future for the rest of us.
Vintage postcard image of woman with telegraph key

Think Like a Futurist Article

Past, Present & Future.

Obsession with the future is just as unhealthy as being fixed on the past. Spread out your thinking – think in panoramic time – past, present and future. Leaving the past out of your thinking is like ignoring half your tools. Too much focus on the future is to live in fantasy without the respect due to those in the present.

Think Implications of Implications of Implications…

The easiest way to be a futurist is to build this question into your thinking: What are the implications of the implications of the implications…? Not that you can know, but just setting your mind towards implications takes you beyond just solutions thinking into the possibility of wisdom in your choices. The law of unintended consequences still holds. You can stop at three or keep asking that question. The point is not to precisely predict the future as much as it is to at least consider more possibilities than the obvious or expected.

Beware the Prophet motive!

Whenever you hear a forecast about the future be sure to ask: Is there’s a profit motive behind the prophet motive? If we do what they say, do they get rich, do they gain power? If the answer is yes, then you should be cautious. Follow the money is wise advice, no matter how selfless the forecasts (and forecasters) may seem to be.

Never trust pessimistic forecasts from people who make a living selling more government. Dick Armey

I’ve gone into hundreds of fortune tellers’ parlors and have been told thousands of things, but nobody ever told me that I was a police woman getting ready to arrest them. New York City Detective, 1963

Think possible futures, probable futures, preferable futures and plausible futures.

Don’t think in terms of singular forecasts that are absolute. Don’t be constrained by what’s realistic. If we stuck to that, we’d still be in the caves and bushes wondering whether that newfangled thing called fire is really plausible. Better do a study and hire consultants…

Think of multiple futures.

There’s not just one future, because there are billions of people in lots of different situations. Your actual mileage may differ. This bring in the value of scenarios – crafting a variety of stories of how things might turn out, based upon any variety of possibilities and impossibilities. In the words of cyberpunk author William Gibson, “The future’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

We overestimate what we can do in one year and underestimate what we can do in five years.

Lots of times there are early forecasts of what the future is going to be like and when that falls short, people will discount the entire notion. Meanwhile, others who were closely watching the first efforts learned from the mistakes and are trying again. Early pessimists are not long-term thinkers.

What’s missing?

In all your searching for what’s happening next, you’re going to miss something. So, what are you not seeing? Look for the hole. What’s not here? Who’s not here? How have you been fooling yourself? To be certain, mistakes will continue to be made. Who will get the blame, who will get the credit?

Watch for monkeywrenches.

These are the sort of thing that get tossed into the mix that can completely disrupt the path the future was on. Say, 9/11 for example. Or microchips. Or immigration. 3D Printing and nanotech. Crypto too. Everyone resists change, especially those who want it but only in pre-defined parameters. It’s the ability to deal successfully with what is not expected that measure true adaptability.

Scroll to Top