Keynote Speech AIA-IL

Video: AIA-IL The Future of Curiosity

Futurist keynote presentation for AIA-IL 2021 annual conference. Alas, in a time of COVID, the event had all the architects and designers attend virtually. Some of the topics included:

  1. Why curiosity is at the center of future architecture and design,
  2. Why too much of an architect’s job is likely to be automated,
  3. How we need to develop an “Apologetics of Design,”
  4. The Pandora Effect (why we inevitably explore even we’re told not to),
  5. How the freedom to fail is more important than the freedom to succeed,
  6. Curating emerging professional careers,
  7. The need of philosophy and theology in architecture education,
  8. Why we are not meant to be alone and need to take more risks, and why trust is the foundation of freedom,
  9. How the AIA has become too self-focused and perhaps should get a little bit drunk from time to time. (Read the book Drunk by Edward Slingerland for fun and fascinating insights on why this is not a flippant remark.)

If you’ve attended one of my many talks to architects and designers, you know by the end, all of this is connected and provides a fascinating way of looking at architecture and the profession in fun and curious ways.

Audiences and Topics

After over 1500 talks, I’ve pretty much spoken to every type of audience imaginable, large and small. Please understand that I am not a motivational speaker, nor am I interested in speaking at inside-the-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. 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 what shouldn’t change about agriculture. 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 and the role of this Futurist begins.

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.

Video: SEGD Keynote

A keynote speech for SEGD on finding our way into the future. This is an association of the architects, graphic designers, lighting designers, and even psychologists who help people navigate through the build environment. They asked me to bring their expectations down to earth, thus their title: Taming Great Expectations.

David Zach hiding behind a book

Why Hire David Zach as a Keynote Speaker?

If you’re wondering about hiring David Zach to be your next speaker, here are a few considerations:

1. You want credentials. 

Dave earned a master’s degree in Studies of the Future from the University of Houston. (That’s a real degree from a real university!) If you’re going to position a Futurist on the program, it’s important for your audience to know he’s not just making this stuff up. With over 1500 keynote talks so far, he’s got a track record that’s easy to search and find. For instance, here’s a rather extensive list of previous clients

2. You want funny. 

Though he will not market himself as a humorist, audience members always marvel at how they expected a dry and statistical talk from a futurist, and got one where they were laughing continually — with the humor always making a point and always holding their attention. Dave knows that if you can laugh at the future, it’s not as threatening, so people can be learning instead of worrying. 

3. You want serious. 

One minute they’re laughing and in the next, you can hear a pin drop. Weaving fascinating innovations with profound implications, those who hear Dave find themselves deep in thought one moment and then engaged in some of the best conversations they’ve had in years. This makes for memorable meetings and a good reason to have Dave open your event.

4. You want connections, not platitudes. 

His talks are never canned. He has a variety of themes which he uses to weave together facts, issues and trends that are pointed in towards the concerns of your audience. Because Dave has spoken to so many different industries and is continually reading to keep up with both trends and traditions, the talks connect to not just an audience’s work, they also connect to day-to-day life and concerns.

5. You don’t want predictions.

No, really. You don’t want predictions. Let’s explore this one with a bit of depth. Many so-called Futurists will pile on statistics with exact forecasts of how to win the future. When you hear a prediction, always ask: “Is there a profit motive behind the prophet motive? If we do what they say, do they get rich or gain power?” If they’re selling you very seductive messages of “What to Think” about the future, you’re really being sold (yet again) a new form of snake oil. In case you hadn’t noticed, far too many predictions have led us into this “fog of progress” where uncertain grows with each seductive new plan. But as has been said, the first casualty in a battle is the plan. We should have eventually learned that planning is more important than any plan.

The sort of Futurist who can really bring value to your audience is one who helps them understand “How to Think” about the future; and how to think more clearly about planning. For instance, what’s the balance between change and continuity? For too long we’ve all been told to be Change Agents, but shouldn’t there be some attention given towards being Agents of Tradition? If everything changes, that’s is essentially saying that we have learned nothing – and all the sacrifices from the past were wasted. It should be clear by now that not all change is progress and sometimes the most radical thing one can do, in the midst of the fog, is to not change. In a time of tumultuous change, the first task is not to predict the next change, it is to find the things that don’t change or shouldn’t change. Find your foundations first, then build the changes upon that.

6. You want engagement.

Dave doesn’t go to speaker conventions or Futurist meetings. He often attends the meetings he speaks at and makes an effort to figure out how all the thinking that’s going on in each those different industries can be connected into yours. Sometimes it’s the conversations that he has off the stage that people appreciate the most. Dave knows how to think into other boxes. 

7. You want stage presence.

It’s more than just being on stage, it’s knowing how to hold an audience so they’ll remember what was said and tell others. It’s about capturing imagination and taking people on a fascinating journey into the future and change the way they see things. It’s about an unexpected delight in the form of a talk that connects the past to the future and all that we care about right now. 

8. He’ll say thank you.

Audience members will often comment about how obvious it is that Dave loves what he does. They also say he’s down to earth, easy to work with and is genuinely interested in sharing his time and his attention. He’s grateful to have the chance to work with you and be able to entertain, educate and learn from your industry, your topics, your audience.


Photo of David Zach Futurist

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 caused a 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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