Thinking Into Other Boxes Article

Think Outside the Box is often bad advice that leaves too many people wandering around, proudly lost in thought. The better opportunities come when you Think Inside Other Boxes…

How to Think Inside Other Boxes

1. Value the box inside your mind. It took lots of money and effort to build it, so don’t discount it. Just don’t overvalue it. Expand that value by connecting it into other boxes.

2. Find other people with interesting boxes, so together you can look at the same things from different angles, bridging a wealth of talents, experiences, insights, and ideas.

3. Create multiple-point perspective in your thinking by exploring how you can see the same things from different points of view, adding both breadth and depth to thought.

4. Do this over breaks and meals in a casual setting — when you can break bread, you break barriers.

Rules for Thinking Inside Other Boxes

1. Remember, you’re a visitor. Be polite, be curious, be humble, be prepared.

2. Be open-minded about more than just the thinking you already agree with. Try to withhold judgments long enough to learn something unexpectedly useful. As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, suggests: “Listen as if you were wrong and wanted to know why.”

3. If you make a mess, apologize and clean it up — or you won’t be invited back in.

4. If you believe you’re right, learn to defend your best ideas logically, faithfully, and graciously. And, if you’re wrong, learn to admit it logically, faithfully, and graciously.

The advantage of thinking inside other boxes comes with the learning from boxes different from your own. Adapting the notion of multiple-point perspective, it’s bringing together different points of view about the same issue, but with a sense of common ground. Mutual trust is the thing that gives people the freedom to safely wrestle with the contentious issues. This works best when the sense of the shared underlies the sense of the divergent. It may mean connecting with someone from another country, it does not mean another planet. Find the connections first, then diverge.

Green colored winged dragon statue

Learning To Fight the Dragons Article

I’m a futurist and dragon fighter —and so are you. Except you probably don’t know you’re a futurist and you probably don’t even believe in dragons. We need to fix that. 

Let me explain. I may be making a big assumption here, but I’ll bet that you were once a child, and once upon a time you were told all sorts of things that began with the words, “Once upon a time ….” 

As a result, you probably spent half your days with your head in the clouds dreaming — of adventure, finding treasures, marrying some personage of royalty and along the way getting into all sorts of trouble. And, here’s the strategic thinking thing, getting out of all sorts of trouble. You weren’t just daydreaming, you were learning to be a futurist and you were learning to fight dragons.

Once upon a time, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they teach children that dragons exist, but that they teach children that dragons can be beaten.”

By imagining that you were fighting dragons, you were engaged in some of the oldest sorts of training there is, using your imagination to try out strategies and tactics that would help you into the future, as in, once you learned to fight the dragons with tails and scales, you could someday fight the more dangerous creatures — ones hidden behind fancy suits and lawsuits, armed with bad attitudes and layoff notices. Instead of fire-breathing, they’d fire off memos, “I want that report by 3:00!” or the more terrifying, “All the other kids have an iPhone! Why can’t I have one? It’s not fair! I hate you!”

A futurist is anyone who fights the dragons blocking the path into a better future. But the fight is not always to slay them, it is often the more difficult task of reasoning with them, taming them and when necessary, even being at peace with them while you wait for them to grow out of it. A futurist finds ways of working for a good future; problem-solving your way into a desirable conclusion, not only for the short-term but the long-term too.

Unlike a fortuneteller, a futurist really isn’t about being mystical. Rather than hiding the sources of their future visions, they find and reveal them so, in the light of day, they can be shared, studied, and improved. It’s not just making shocking predictions about the next invention, it’s really about making the shocking rediscovery that not everything new is good and not everything old is bad. If we could call futurism by just one name, we should call it common sense. And if more people looked at it that way and hung on to some of the common sense they learned as children, the future might make a lot more sense as well.

For instance, we’ve all heard the common-sense notion that patience is a virtue. Mostly we accept that, except when it comes to tomorrow’s technology, which we want to have today. Millions are spent on the latest tech, which in case you haven’t noticed, often works better in the demo, not so much in the day-to-day practice. Like little kids with our faces pressed up against the window of the candy store, we easily imagine how good something is going to taste and we’re seduced by the glitz and give it the benefit of the doubt. Well, don’t doubt the doubt. Run the promises of new technology through what’s called the mill of objection to see how it works in real life.

When considering new technology, we overestimate what we can do in one year and underestimate what we can do in five years. Lots of new technologies fall short of their alluring promises, and then people will discount the entire notion of that new thing. But if the idea is valid, watch for those closely watching the first efforts, learn from the mistakes of others and try it again. Too often, while you were still laughing at the early failures, some of those secondary efforts succeed beyond our wildest imaginations. Quick on the draw pessimists are not long-term thinkers. Patience is a virtue as long as you know what it really takes to make things work.

Futurists learn to look where they’re not looking and try to see what they’re not seeing. Another wild guess here, if you’re reading this you might have something to do with computers as a user or, bless your heart, in information technology or tech support — and the subject of technology takes up way too much of your time and attention. You obsess about technology to the point where an outside observer might just think you’ve got an addiction going on. Does the relationship you have with technology and the amount of time you spend on it actually match the real importance of it? Does the use of technology distract us from getting things done?  

This is no longer an age of specialization for those who want to be leaders. By default, a lot of you are specializing in technology and you shouldn’t. A leader asks how much of the technology world will be changed, disrupted, controlled by those who have nothing to do with IT. In all your searching for what’s happening next in IT, you’re going to miss something because you’re looking too closely at the subject at hand. What are you not seeing? Who can see what you cannot? 

Watch for the unexpected dragons coming at you from odd angles, the unexpected ones that fly into the mix to completely disrupt the way the future was going. Think of how much 9/11 changed the way redundant backups were innovated. How much has wireless changed the ways we work and where we work. How has globalization changed the location of workers and given more people access to success, no matter where they live. Consider how the pirates of Napster broke the old rules of information and how we now have many new rules. All of these things that we now assume were always part of the future, were each unexpected disruptions. The trick will be to spot the next disruptions before everyone else does. The best way to do that is to once in a while take your eyes off of the ball and start looking at the rest of the playing field. Dragons don’t always come from where you expected and they don’t always play by the rules because sometimes the rules are just your rules and not the rules of the larger, newer game.

Spread out your thinking — think in panoramic time — think past, present and future. Leaving the past out of your thinking is like ignoring half your tools. Don’t think of history just as an anchor, think of it more like a well-stocked toolbox, with many different tools to be used (or not) in many different ways. History doesn’t seem to have a lot of relevance when thinking about IT, but it does when thinking about people. Things change, but people don’t. How did people in the past fight the good fight? The lessons of history can tell you a lot about today.

Too much focus on the future is to live in a fantasy without the necessary respect due to those in the present. The future has been described as a convenient place for dreams. It’s a place to try out your imagination without the harsh consequences of today. If you don’t know where you left your imagination, ask any child, and they’ll easily show you where it was that you had misplaced it.

Finally, while we’re thinking about what children can teach us, also learn to be more playful. Learn to play with the future. One of the great flaws of adults is that they get the hardening of the categories. They stop accepting ambiguity and demand order. They take on all sorts of responsibilities and act just a wee bit too important. They obsess over work. They’ve lost their ability to see the world as they did when they were children. Adults are sort of obsolete children.

This is not suggesting that we act like children. This is not about immaturity, as anyone can look around today and see too much of that. What we need is more innocence along with wisdom. We are born with innocence and we grow into wisdom. Can we be adults but not forget the delightful ways that we saw the world when we were still had not (wrongly) grown cynical and oh so sophisticated? To remember what it was like to delight in the discovery of life and learning. 

The best defense against the dragons is a shield of innocence and the best offense against them is a sword of wisdom. This is a sort of sword that knows how to cut through things, not just to cut to the chase and reach the bottom line, but even how to cut ahead as you reach towards the horizon. Keep some of the innocence you were born with and find the wisdom that is all around you, together they help us fight the dragons no matter where they come from and no matter where we are going.


David Zach is a Futurist who gives lots of slightly amusing talks on trends, traditions, and the choices between them. He frequently sees things that might be dragons.

This article was written for Paragon Development Systems corporate magazine in 2010.

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.

Traditional Change Agents

Change is in the air. And in the streets. It’s on the placards, in the words of people on the march. With a single, united voice: Change!

Upon closer examination, what they really mean is that change is what other people need to do. We’re fine, you’re the problem.

Change isn’t always the real problem, too often it’s the people who propose it without self-reflection and humility. Back in the early 2000s, I was in a leadership forum for the city of Milwaukee. One evening, it was my turn to moderate the guest panel and the topic might have had something to do with leadership. Maybe the family. Maybe communities. The four panelists all were quite descriptive of how change was needed and long overdue. Towards the end, I wondered that all of their advice was directed towards others, so I asked how they themselves might change. What was it that they were doing that might need some improvement to help with change? This was not a welcome question nor obviously one with easy answers.

The great English writer G. K. Chesterton had said that the best criticism was self-criticism. Change starts inside first.

Over one hundred years ago, The Times of London ran an essay contest asking, What’s Wrong with the World? Chesterton, a prolific writer who had written over 100 books and over 5000 essays, responded to the question of what’s wrong with the world with this:

Dear Sirs,

I am.


G. K. Chesterton

Limited Speaking Engagements

After over 1500 talks, I’ve pretty much spoken to every type of audience imaginable, large and small. Right up front, please understand that I am not a motivational speaker, nor am I interested in speaking at company events. My talks work best at association events, where people are away from the office, less focused on the bottom line, more thinking about the horizon. As I am only interested in limited number of bookings, these industries/audiences work best with my content and style. Fees are determined through a conversation about connections, expectations, time, venue and interests.

1. Design

This includes pretty much anything in the AEC industries. I’ve been on the board of both the American Institute of Architects-Wisconsin as well as the AIA National board. The majority of my talks in the last ten years were with design audiences. For a sense of my speaking style and content, see these videos: Designs on the Future delivered to the Society for Experiential Graphic Design and a mostly extemporaneous talk for the American Institute of Architecture Students, which was the fifth time I had keynoted their annual forum. As you might suspect, all of my talks are tailored to each specific audience.

Sitting down to the @DavidZach lecture at #AIAS #MidwestQuad. Mind, prepare to be blown. Charlie Klecha, AIAS 2014 President

2. Agriculture

My talks work really well within the ag industry. Maybe it’s because I grew up just outside of a small farm town and still have a lot of the values learned there. Agriculture is a natural for thinking about the future trends, avoiding fads and respecting principles. It might also be because I understand how much the ag industry has changed over the past few decades and how much hasn’t. About ten years ago while at InfoAg, I had wandered through the exhibit hall and was amazed at all the drone exhibits. One might be tempted to say, “This is not your grandparents farm…” but actually, it still is. The technology changed but the principles have not. If the principles have been lost, maybe that’s the problem. In my talks, I weave together future trends and future traditions. Just because something is new, does not mean it’s good. Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s outdated. It might just be old because it’s timeless.

3. Chambers and Economic Development

I’m a big believer in what some call “flyover country.” I grew up outside of a small town and love living in Wisconsin. Throughout my career, many would ask, “Why does a Futurist live in Milwaukee?” The implication was that city was not where the future was. It might not be where the dramatic, “hey, look at me!” future happens, but there’s lots of innovation going on there that’s paying more attention to the long-term. For more on the future of medium-sized communities, read The Human City by Joel Kotkin.

Here’s an example of a successful Chamber of Commerce event and how I approached it. Before speaking at the Rockford’s Chamber’s 100th anniversary I went for a visit, first virtually by searching for gems online, and then I drove down and spent a day wandering and visiting. One of my first stops: a cemetery. After all, anyone who had been a member of the chamber 100 years ago was long gone. Crafting a photo story of the names on the stones and who they might have been, along with the struggles of the day, made for a fun story that brought strong applause. The video for this 2010 talk can be viewed here. 

On my early visit, I also found a printery shop and gallery that participated in First Fridays. Turns out, it was the largest single event for Rockford’s First Fridays, but was completely off the official radar.  This led to introductions and a vast expansion of understanding of what else is happening on those evenings.

Finally, I wandered through a variety of shops in the downtown and ended up at The Coronado Theater. This is a beautifully restored 1927 atmospheric theater, popular in the early years of cinema theaters. Bringing images from my impromptu tour nicely tied together Rockford’s past with the present and with a sense of community commitment and vision, how those can lead into the next 100 years.

3. Technology

Remembering that I am a keynote speaker, and not an industry speaker, my value to this audiences is on that bigger picture. My job is not to know (or predict) the next bleeding edge direction of technology, but rather to ask “What else does this new technology mean?” We can look in the labs and the marketing plans to know what’s coming next. What comes after what comes next is where the fun starts.

My job is not to tell people about the future of their industry. If they’re asking me to do that, they’re in more trouble than they thought. My job is to have some understanding of their problems and opportunities and then point my knowledge and perspectives in towards their center. I help provide broader, often unexpected context to their decisions.

My keynotes make people think, but are done in such a way that they’re not threatened by such thinking. That’s why my talks are funny. Anything you can laugh at isn’t quite as threatening. Humor plays with paradoxes – and that helps the audience members see multiple sides of an issue and that gives them lots to talk about with each other during the rest of the conference. That’s the real value of my talks: after the keynote, attendees have something to talk about during the breaks and even in their calls back home. A frequent comment made after my talks is, “I wish my kids had been here to hear that.”

4. Association Conferences

Beyond the above industries, my fit with your audience needs to be determined case by case. And, it’s important to repeat here that I’m not the best fit for the corporate market. My talks are not about just the bottom line, they’re much more about the horizon. At an association event, people are more relaxed and more social. At corporate events, there’s always a little bit of tension. Another way of expressing this: I am not a motivational speaker. If your people are not motivated, that’s your problem. Most of those showing up at industry conferences are already motivated. They want to learn. They want to network. I can help inspire them and get them talking. The content of my talk gives them lots of conversations starters that will carry through the entire event and beyond.

5. Unique Experiences, Audiences and Venues

A key attitude towards the future is a willingness to be surprised, and sometimes first considerations about a speaker/audience fit can be reconsidered. I will not take a booking just to get a booking. If we’re not a good fit, I will be honest and try to steer you in a better direction.

Having said that, I can resist everything except temptation. Negotiations that require second glances often lead to great connections. For example, back in the late 1990s, I got a call from the president for the Juneau, Alaska School Board. They had a small budget for the commencement speech… and then he said that he and his wife owned a B&B. The offer: host me for a week: flight-seeing, wanderings through the local parks (Did you know that bald eagles up there are pretty much like pigeons are down here?), use of a car, and even fishing in Juneau Bay. I caught a 30 lb. King Salmon. The students were great and we had some intriguing conversations as they asked me about their career ideas and skill sets. Very fond memories. Negotiating for cool things works for me.

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.

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