Futurist Thomas Frey at a recent book signing event
Papers, Articles, & Trend Reports
At the DaVinci Institute we are continually adding to our vision of the future. We have immersed ourselves in the fine art of launching new businesses, attempting to separate the myths and the fantasies from the things that work. Listed below are a few concept papers produced at the Institute. Additional papers can be found at FuturistSpeaker.com.
- Proposal to Eliminate Forest Fires Completely - Over the past few days I’ve been listening to news reports about the devastating fires burning in Colorado.
Record heat, high winds, low humidity, and large amounts of beetle-killed trees have created “perfect storm” conditions for multiple wildfires to rage across the State.
At the same time that our hearts and prayers go out to all of the victims of these tragic fire, I’m also convinced that none of these fires should have gotten to this point. Here’s why.
- The End of Theft - What does it mean to “own” something?
I’m sure there are legal definitions, but most of us believe that once we purchase an item, we own it. Our relationship with that object shifts from ogler to owner in the blink of a cash register transaction.
Ownership also happens when we make things, find them, discover them, or purchase or raise pets and livestock. But how long does this ownership relationship last?
In the country of India, a car is stolen every 6 minutes, but in the State of Texas, a car is stolen every 5.5 minutes. Ownership can be either relinquished, or severed, in the proverbial blink of an eye.
As every businessperson knows, theft is a major problem with most viewing some percentage loss as unavoidable. However, that attitude is about to change.
- Hi, I’m a robot, and I’m here to take your job - In September 1989, GE Chairman Jack Welch flew to Bangalore, India for a breakfast meeting with an Indian delegation that included Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The purpose of his trip was to sell airplane engines and medical equipment to India, but the meeting took an interesting twist along the way.
Rather than buying what GE has to sell, the Prime Minister Gandhi proposed that GE buy software from India. After looking at the amazingly low labor costs, Welch decided instead to outsource portions of its business starting with Bangalore’s first call center. This short meeting led to an outsourcing revolution that would dramatically transform both the Indian and U.S. economies. We are now on the verge of another business transformation, but this time workers are not being replaced by low cost labor in other countries. Rather, they are being replaced by machines.
How Google Glass will Disrupt the Hearing Aid Industry? - Hearing aids are for old people. At least that’s what I thought when I was young and invincible attending rock concerts far louder than they should have been.
Even though I still have most of my hearing relatively intact, I’m also part of the aging baby boom generation whose sheer size is already beginning to tax the limits of today’s healthcare systems.
People over the age of 65 typically spend 3-5 times more on healthcare than those who are younger, so unless we figure out ways to radically disrupt this trend, we may all be dealing with some rather dire affordability issues.
- Downloadable Personalities for Your Computer - Fifteen years ago in an article I wrote for The Futurist Magazine, I made the prediction that once we had talking computers, we would soon have downloadable personalities to create a more human-like experience. I went on to suggest that most of us would actually download multiple personalities so we could interact with the right persona at any given moment.
Machine-like voices tend to grate on us after while, and the notion that the heartless pile of equipment we currently spend our days with could somehow be magically transformed into a warm and engaging human-like organism is rather alluring. Many of us would like to see that happen.
However, an interactive voice is only a small part of the “personality” equation.
- Monitoring People from Space: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - In the late 1980s, I was an engineer working as part of an IBM team to build a mobile satellite command and control center for monitoring missile launches from space. This contract was part of Regan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system.
Whenever a missile is launched, the heat plume coming out of the back of the rocket produces a distinct heat signature instantly detectable by satellites with infrared sensors.
The technology we were using over 25 years ago could instantly distinguish between types of rockets, calculate trajectory, and give information on time of impact.
Since those early years of working with infrared sensors I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to monitor people from space by tracking their personal heat signatures.
We Have Officially Entered the Drone Era - Yes, drones have been around for a long time and the military has already committed countless billions to drone R&D, but when a U.S. Senator dedicates 13 hours to filibuster the topic of drones, it signals far more than a token political move.
Drones have taken center stage and an anxious and eager public is waiting to see what comes next.
Along with the political headlines come the opportunity-spotters who can sense a host of major business opportunities ahead.
Fastest Way to Create New Jobs? Automate Them Out of Existence! - Last week I was speaking at the MD&M West Expo in Anaheim, California on the “future of manufacturing.” With over 2,000 manufacturing exhibitors filling the convention center, there was no small amount of interest in this topic.
With China and the rest of Asia making massive inroads in manufacturing over the past couple decades and automation threatening many of the remaining industries, a huge underlying theme of this event was jobs. Where will our jobs in the future come from?
Job loss is not an idle threat. As everyone attending this conference knows, businesses have an obligation to hire the fewest number of people they can get away with, and when automation eliminates the need for an employee, the employee has to go.
Our Alarming Culture of Pill People and Future Trends in Healthcare - How many pills do you take on a daily basis?
According to a 2010 study by Colorado State University, about 68% of American adults take multivitamin supplements. At the same time the average American fills 12 prescriptions a year.
After spending the past few days with my aging parents in an assisted living center in Arizona, daily meds and supplements have become a critical issue for them to deal with.
Yes, every person is different and their daily “pill cocktail” will vary, but the notion that virtually every problem has a “pill solution” is still very much alive and well in today’s culture.
- Future Libraries: Once a Refuge, Now They Mean Business - Traditionally a quiet place for lovers of books to unwind, libraries are a place for serious students to escape to, a treasure trove for aspiring writers – and even a great hiding place from bullies where a kid can find cover among a labyrinth of shelves. They always have been a refuge. These days libraries are becoming something more than a place to hide out. Only recently did libraries become a bustling resource center for a growing number of jobless. People seeking work and budget-strained families seeking entertainment are now flocking to libraries as never before.
Future Libraries: Nerve Center of the Community - Ever since the people of ancient Nineveh began storing and classifying their books nearly 3,000 years ago, libraries have been hallowed and largely unchanging bastions of learning. But in the information age, libraries have been caste with a new identity, and the future is evolving into a very different place. Ten years ago, as the Internet began to take off, many in the tech elite were predicting the death of the public library. What the critics failed to predict, however, was libraries’ stirring ability to reinvent themselves. Much like plants that flourish with good soil, water and sunshine, libraries have actually begun to thrive in our information-rich environment.
The Future of Library Series: Part 1 – The Time Capsule Room - Most libraries will find that the Time Capsule Room will take on a personality of its own, as local people begin to participate in populating the spaces. Ideas about what constitutes a Time Capsule Room will vary from city to city, but it is the ability to differentiate, uniqueness of operation, and variety of perspectives that will give a dimension of personality to the library.
The Future of Library Series: Part 2 – The Search Command Center - One thing that is not commonly understood is that libraries have access to resources that most home-based computer researchers do not, including extensive database collections free to their patrons. For the most part, these consist of expensive pay-to-subscribe databases that few individuals can afford. As a way of shifting attention, the Search Command Center will replace the tradition card catalog as the first stop in finding information in a library.
The Library of the Future Series: Part 3 – The Electronic Outpost - As a public entity, libraries have been evolving. No longer are they the book-centric institutions of the mid 1900s. But the changes we’ve seen to date are only a tiny fraction of the changes we will see in the coming decades. There are no roadmaps that give us a clear picture of where we are headed, only fuzzy ideas. For this reason we will begin to see more and more experimentation in the area of digital libraries, and in this discussion, a version of the digital library I’ve termed the Electronic Outpost.
The Future of Libraries - We have transitioned from a time where information was scarce and precious to today where information is vast and readily available, and in many cases, free. People who in the past visited libraries to find specific pieces of information are now able to find that information online. Traffic counts in libraries are dropping. So what is the future of this once valuable resource?
The Future of Libraries: Interview with Thomas Frey - NOTE: The following is a reprint of an interview that recently appeared in American Libraries Magazine
Without consulting a crystal ball, Thomas Frey, executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute, writes and speaks about a promising future for those libraries strongly connected to their communities and quickly adaptable to the changing world around them. Tom Sloan, executive director of the DuPage Library System in Geneva, Illinois, asked Frey to discuss the future of libraries.
The Fall of Book Publishing: The Rise of New E-Book Business Models - Amazon revolutionized book reading in 2007 when it introduced its Kindle book reader. Within the past three years, the explosive sale of book readers has caused a massive surge in the sale of e-books, already outpacing the sale of hardcover books, with a prediction by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that they will outsell paperbacks within the next year.
We are witnessing a major transformation of this industry. Within five years, the vast majority of all books sold will be e-books. Big box retailers like Barnes & Nobel and Borders will have shuttered most of their storefronts. The printing press industry, along with the craftsmen of ages past who have made a fine art of applying ink to paper, will be mothballing their machines. And the media, almost in unison, will begin writing the eulogy for this 500-year old industry.
Privatizing Libraries - Consider the following scenario. Two years from now in November, you find yourself walking into a voting booth to decide on the fate of your local library. The issue you will be deciding affects you directly because it has to do with the management of your local library. You will be voting on one of four choices for the operational management of your library. The choices you have to pick from include Microsoft, Google, Apple, or your current city-run operation.
Rest assured, this is not some takeover bid by one of these three companies to steal libraries away from their local constituency. Rather, it is a very considered offer to both manage and invest in your local library, while at the same time, extending the influence of their companies.
- Who Controls the Education Industry? - Let’s first start off with a different question. “Who controls the bread supply in London?”
This was the opening question that Jonas Eliasson started with in his TED talk titled “How to solve traffic jams.”
As it turns out, there really is no single person responsible for making sure bread gets distributed every day in London. He used this as an example of a “self-organizing complex system.” So rather than relying on some bread czar to issue top-down edicts to make things happen, the system organizes itself.
- Credit Banks, Testing Centers, and Micro-Credits – Missing Elements of a Future Education System - A couple years ago I was on a weekend outing in Vail, Colorado and ended up attending a kayaking tournament taking place on the Gore Creek in the heart of town.
Fascinated by this sport, which I knew very little about, I had a chance to talk with some of the participants and found out that several were attending a special kayaking high school.
As it turns out, this was a private traveling high school for students who wanted to earn their education while exploring unique rivers and cultures around the world. At the heart of their education was the sport of kayaking.
There are no doubt tons of other niche schools that I’m currently unaware of, but this one was a refreshing example of how today’s mass market education system is a colossal mismatch for the hyper-individualized social structures being developed in the online world.
- The Half-Life of a College Education - Last week I went through the process of analyzing how much of what I learned in college that I’m still using today. This ended up being a difficult thing to assess and quantify.
While most of my undergraduate coursework was focused on human factors engineering, I ended up taking several general courses like humanities, math, history, psychology, and accounting.
Looking over my classes, the three least useful courses were – how to use slide rules, Fortran programming (taught with punch card machines), and calculus, which I have never used. I certainly can’t say these courses were worth zero, but they hold very little value in my world today.
Putting aside my conclusions, it does bring up a much larger question: What skills are being taught today that will have little or no value in the future?
- Micro Credits: A Tool for Self-Organizing the Complex World of Education - A recent TEDx talk about solving traffic jams started by asking the simple question, “Who is in charge of the daily bread supply for the city of London?”
Food supply chains have become enormously complicated, but as it turns out, there is no central “bread czar” for London or any other large city. The bread supply chain is a great example of a self-organizing system.
Most likely, if the City of London decided to appoint an official Bread Czar to oversee distribution, it would be fraught with daily bottlenecks and supply problems.
As society grows in complexity, how can we design systems that don’t require daily oversight, with self-regulating mechanisms capable of unleashing the true potential of humanity?
- Creating the Builders of Our Future - As something of a grand finale to their 11-week, full-immersion Ruby on Rails class, our first graduating class of DaVinci Coders took the stage on Demo Day to talk about the projects they worked on.
To me it was quite remarkable listening to the stories of transformation that occurred as students with no coding background whatsoever managed to immerse themselves in this new field and produce some extraordinary apps.
This class represents the next generation of “builders” who are taking over the world, because inside these lines of code lies the foundational underpinnings of the future.
- The Rise of the SuperProfessor - For colleges and universities, the great age of experimentation is now upon us.
Last week, Harvard and MIT announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities.
The Minerva Project recently announced it will become the first elite American University to be launched in over a century, at the same time, transforming every aspect of the university-student relationship. The Ronin Institute is promising to reinvent academia, but without the academy.
- Seven Predictions for the Coming Age of Micronations - On a recent trip to Dubai, I spoke at the prestigious “Leaders in Dubai” forum along with the likes of Tom Peters, former NY City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, Citi Group Chairman Sir Win Bischoff, and former McKinsey CEO Rajat Gupta. While most were trying to address issues surrounding our depressingly screwed up economy, I decided to take a rather different approach. My focus was on emerging new Power Tools for the coming years, one of which was the idea of selling islands as autonomous countries.
Dubai and the UAE are on the cutting edge of island-building technology. Their creative approach to building Palm Island along with the coming Palm Jumeirah, the Palm Jebel Ali, Palm Deira, and The World, have become an inspiration to other countries such as Bahrain, Thailand, and the Netherlands where new islands are also springing to life. Countries in the Middle East have a distinct advantage when it comes to island-building because the Persian Gulf is a far more stable body of water than any of the major oceans.
My talk centered on the concept of building islands, and rather than selling them as real estate, to sell them as autonomous countries.
- When Systems Collapse- Systems collapse for all manner of reasons. Historically, problems have stemmed from waning confidence associated with severely injured financial systems.
Economic turmoil has humbled great nations. The worst chapter in modern history was prefaced by Germany’s economic collapse. Argentina descended into a nightmare 10 years ago (and may never forget the horrors visited on its citizens). Mexico came close to collapse in the 1990s when the peso was allowed to float on the open market.
So, we find ourselves staring into the abyss. What brought us to this crossroads in history? Two key decision points have been cited as culprits. One, a mismanaged formula for calculating the risks associated with subprime loans, and two, the limitless money expansion properties of derivatives. But the root cause is far different.
- Ten-X Stimulus Projects- As we begin the process of thinking through the places where we can insert the electrodes and shock new life into the global economy, I would propose a new way of reviewing proposals, allowing the best of the best to rise to the top. I propose we only consider projects that can provide at least a 10X rate of return on our investment dollars.
As most taxpayers who are watching this process unfold, the idea of borrowing today against future revenue streams becomes a contentious issue with severe implications for almost everyone. If we invest the money poorly, there will be no revenue streams in the future to pay the money back, a scenario that will not end well.
However, if the money is invested into some truly remarkable developments with the ability to not only jumpstart the economy but also pay handsome dividends in the future, we will have created a win-win situation that everyone will benefit from.
So what are these 10X projects and how do we decide if they have the explosive potential needed for the situation we find ourselves in today?
- Watching the Income Tax System Implode - In 2003, I wrote a paper titled “The Coming Collapse of Income Tax” in which I predicted that our current income tax system would collapse within 10 years. My prediction stands, even as the clock is running out of time. I am convinced more than ever that the collapse is near.
- City of the Future – Part One- Great communities are founded on great ideas. At the same time, our most admired communities become a magnet, attracting the brightest minds. The relational effect is clear: Bright minds make a community great, and great communities attract bright minds.
In the future, communities will be designed around ways to stimulate new ideas using such things as creative environments, imagination sparkers, and inspirational architecture.
City of the Future – Part Two - As we start to understand the way people connect with their local communities in the future, we begin to see a growing need for central gathering places to help drive person-to-person activities.
Ironically, at a time when cities are very strapped for cash and there is a growing push to decrease the number of city-run facilities, our ongoing city-to-city competition for attracting talent will cause exactly the opposite to happen.
Reinventing Sales Tax - As a general rule, extreme levels of complexity take a significant toll on society. The price we pay for complexity is far greater than the money involved. With upwards of 90,000 separate taxing districts in the U.S. sales tax has become an overly complicated system deeply entrenched in the fabric of society, but woefully out of touch with the times.
As people become increasingly mobile, both on the seller and buyer side of every transaction, location-based differentiators become decreasingly relevant.
But when it comes to sales tax, here’s what everyone get’s wrong. Sales tax is not a location tax, it is a transaction tax. The transaction triggers the tax. The location just determines the amount and who the recipients will be. Without a transaction, there is no tax.
A Country of 90,000 Governments - The total number of governmental bodies in the U.S. is approaching a staggering number – 90,000. During normal economic times there is plenty of money to go around, but now every city, state, county, parish, township, and special taxing district is competing for the same tax dollars that the federal government is.
Governmental entities are living, breathing organisms, each fighting for survival. With tax shortfalls cropping up in nearly every corner of the U.S. economy, most are struggling to preserve their own piece of the pie. With money declining, many are compensating with unusual policy decisions that they hope will shore up their balance sheets.
When Smart Grid Meets Smart Home - Way back when guys were sporting white leisure suits and “mod” hair styles, I enrolled in my first programming class. In 1973, programmers were introduced to the far less glamorous world of FORTRAN working with machines that churned out punch cards.
Like electricity, computer power was a precious commodity that was closely metered. As a more mature industry, electric power had become a staple of modern living. Even though it was moderately priced, change was coming. The era that began with lighted dance floors and disco balls closed out with oil prices soaring. The cost of electrical power increased and forced what we now see as a constant tension between escalating prices and the customer ability to pay for it.
Colorado’s Opportunity to Take the Lead in the Alternative Transportation Market - The first time I rode on a Segway, I was confused. Even though I loved the experience, I couldn’t quite figure out how it would fit into my life. It wasn’t going to replace my car and it certainly wasn’t a substitute for my bicycle, so what exactly was it?
When it came down to pulling out my checkbook, I was left in a quandary, “How could I possibly justify spending money on it?”
I soon found out that I was not alone. Talking to local city officials I was told that virtually no one had a policy for alternative vehicles, such as electric scooters, hybrid skateboards, fuel-cell motorcycles, Segways, and Segway knockoffs. They opted to let the police department decide. When I asked the police department about it, their comment was that if it wasn’t a car or a bicycle, “we just ban everything else.”
Will Future Mobility Lead to Future Instability? - In 2008, I was asked to speak at the Leaders in Dubai Conference along with several world famous speakers like former NYC Mayor Rudy Giulliani, Tom Peters, and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn. Attending the conference were 1,200 world leaders and influencers from 40 different counties.
At the time, Dubai was a shining new star on the global stage, attracting the world’s best architects, building remarkable structures, tackling ingenious new projects, and raising the bar for creativity around the world.
However, everything happening in Dubai was because of foreign workers and foreign talent. At the time, foreigners made up about 85% of the population and 99% of the private work force.
Driverless Highways: Creating Cars that Talk to the Roads - Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at a conference on the “Future of Mobility” in Shanghai, China. The event was produced by the very forward thinking people at Lanxess, a German-based chemical company that broke ground the day before on a new facility to expand its already significant base of operation in Shanghai.
As the world’s leading producer of synthetic rubber for the automotive industry, Lanxess is very interested in positioning itself at the forefront of our mobile future. One of the biggest trends for this industry is the push to make vehicles driverless.
Turmoil Ahead for the Automotive Industry - In 1954, Brook Stevens, a well-known industrial designer gave a keynote speech at an advertising conference titled “Planned Obsolescence.”
By his definition, planned obsolescence was “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary.”
Over time, planned obsolescence has become a commonly used term for products designed to break easily, and our cars have become the product that most consumers associate with this business practice.
Regardless of whether its true, the perception exists and the automobile industry has done little to change it. Naturally, shortening the replacement cycle has its supporters as well as its critics.
The Future of Gaming – Where brilliant thinkers like DaVinci, H. G. Wells, and Mandelbrot inspired much of the world around us today, the world of tomorrow, the very world where we will be spending the later years of our lives, is now being imagined inside the young minds of today’s gamers as they learn to harness the awesome power hiding in each gamer’s toolbox.
The Coming of the Terabyters - Recently I was preparing for a talk on the future of money, a talk I have given many times in the past, and I became absorbed with one singular thought – the relationship between information and money.
The value of a person, as an example, has traditionally been calculated based on hard number such as money in their bank account, personal assets, 401Ks, earning power, etc. As our ability to capture and process information improves, we are able to assign many more numbers to the intrinsic value of an individual.
Today we find ourselves in an awkward in-between state of trying to transition from a world based on hard currencies to one where things like talent, relationships, knowledge, reputation, personal networks, influence, and accomplishments all have growing significance. These attributes have always held value, but only recently have they been considered valuable enough to serve as a tradable commodity.
Messing with the Reality of Reality- Life is a game. Every day we find ourselves in the middle of the game, involving the work we do, the people we hang out with, and the social structures that surround us. But who exactly created this game? Each day we live our lives as animated playing pieces, playing by rules that others created. Conformity is a constant force, imposing a lifestyle that most of us were born into, saddled with goals that often go cross-grain with our personal strengths. All of this, however, is about to change.
The Future of Agriculture – Can better food create better people? Will a better food supply lead to healthier, stronger, better thinking people? This is exactly the premise that is driving many of the advances in farming today.
The Coolest Profession on Earth – Next Generation Agriculture – When people think of farming, they typically conjure up images of a tractor cresting a hill billowing large plumes of exhaust into the air. However, recent news of a system for channeling tractor exhaust into the dirt, so carbon fumes are plowed into the soil eliminating the need for fertilizer, has been gaining significant attention. The win-win arrangement of turning a known pollutant into a soil enriching additive, combined with the prospects for significantly lower operating costs from the elimination of fertilizer has many farmers buzzing. The technique, developed by Canadian, Gary Lewis of Bio Agtive, is currently in trials at 100 farms around the world.
Additional papers can be found at FuturistSpeaker.com.