Design Futures Council President James P. Cramer has spent much of May speaking to students and faculty about the future of the design professions.

Design Futures Council President James P. Cramer has spent much of May speaking to students and faculty about the future of the design professions. On May 15, he addressed 450 Virginia Tech College of Architecture and Urban Studies graduates. Following is the commencement address he delivered to an audience of 3,000 in the university’s Burruss Hall.

Invent the Future: Design Entrepreneurship 2020

“Thank you and special greetings to each of you. I would like to talk with you today about the next 10 years of your career. Ten years can happen quickly. Before you know it, a decade has passed and with it, opportunities seized or missed.

Just over 10 years ago, I gave my first collegiate commencement address. Quite a bit has changed in this short time. So much change!

Some of these changes were forecast and expected and were based on projected demographics and trends analysis; others were surprises – unexpected wildcards. The Iceland volcano was a wild card. The economic sub-prime bubble turned out to be uglier than most anyone predicted. The recent earthquake in Haiti is another example.

As difficult as it is, we know that we should expect these inevitable surprises and stay resilient.

Expected or unexpected, as these events have unfolded, they have changed us. The Internet too has changed us. Technology, innovation, new business processes and models are replacing what we have and what we are comfortable with today.

We think we innovate and invent. However, innovation and technology re-invent us, too.

All this change will provide new threats and opportunities. I am here to talk about both. I will emphasize opportunity. These opportunities are very real, not science fiction, but will not materialize to their good potential unless you are future-ready and willing to become entrepreneurs and navigators of the future.

The big idea of this short presentation is for you to become agents of entrepreneurship. By this, I mean energetic and creative agents of society’s interest in a better quality of life.

Each of you can make this happen. It is possible.

This requires unusual energy and commitment. It is about making change your friend and harnessing the energy of change for the better.

Virginia Tech has provided you with one of the best foundations in the world. Now you can rise up to the challenge and energize the power of your education. You can give dynamism to design and planning.

I call this design entrepreneurship.

Let me tell you why I believe this is so important. Trends and shifts are accelerating, making for turbulent change. It is a constant for all of us.

The organization that I am chair of is called Greenway Group. Our research journal is DesignIntelligence. Our think tank is the Design Futures Council. We are foresight advisors. Our firm’s slogan is “Foresight for the Business of Design.” We not only observe trends, but we translate them and we help leaders develop strategic direction to achieve success in the future.

Your own success can take many different forms, including financial, personal, strategic, and servant leadership. The bottom-line intention that separates you – because you are entering the professions – is that your clients’ condition and your community should be enhanced. The potential is significant here.

So the world has changed a lot, and it will change even more. That is why we study trends and shifts.


How can you prepare yourself to be future-ready?

As you observe our culture and the context of our planet, I am sure you have witnessed trends as they are unfolding. I suspect you have said to yourself, I should have seen this coming. If so, then you will be interested in what I have to say about your careers – the next 10 years – and a few of the puzzling waves of change on the horizon. These shifts will affect you financially, professionally, and personally.

Yes, you can be future-ready. In time, trend watching helps you become a trend master. Be prepared because too often professionals are not ready for what is next and people too often miss the obvious – or dismiss the obvious.

Consider with me the birth of Google. Google is now the top equity brand in the world according to the Financial Times. It did not exist 12 years ago.

Shortly after Google emerged, we conducted scenario exercises on Google’s uses and probable and possible impact. We looked at several similar tools that were emerging. We engaged think tanks to re-imagine new media and technology’s new tools. Social networking’s possibilities were blurry and inconclusive to us 10 years ago.

Our new media research has taught us to stop looking for the answers we expect to find and instead to pay attention to the indicators that lead us to where trends are heading. Trend tracking, we found, reveals a multitude of possibilities.

Google still seems young to me but probably old to many of you. When Google sprang to life, you were still in elementary school and not yet entering adolescence.

Of course, 10 years ago we did have clunky PCs and heavy monitors, and we had second-generation cell phones, but those tools were expensive and heavy.

People used phone with landlines then and big fat yellow and white page phone books.

Facebook did not exist.

When you took vacation, you likely took along a 35 mm film camera. Those cameras barely exist today.

You went to video stores to pick up movies with an overnight rental fee. Blockbuster is now closing most of its stores.

We did not have Kindles, or iPhones, or iPods – but we were likely to be using Sony Walkmans.

For many of you, ash trees were common in your home yards and park landscapes. Now they are quickly becoming extinct thanks to the ash borer.

Sustainability 10 years ago was not in most of our vocabularies. It began its own record of accomplishment in the mainstream media about 8 years ago. The USGBC LEED guidelines were fledgling at best – until just two years ago.

Most newspapers are now in decline – even those considered blue chip long-term investments just 10 years ago.

Much of these trends have played out subtly over the past 10 years. You do not notice it on a daily basis, then Wow! watch out – they can be disruptive and dramatically different.

Meanwhile, the world is growing rapidly. This year, 77 million more of us will inhabit the earth. This will bring the total global population to nearly 6.9 billion people worldwide.

Two billion people do not have electricity. One billion do not have reliable drinking water.

Now think forward with me. We are here on this beautiful campus. This is Virginia Tech. It is 2010, and we are looking on the horizon to 2015 and 2020. When we look at trends and shifts around us and the changing context, we see threats – or are they opportunities?

Let us explore for a minute and prepare.

Design Entrepreneurship

What I am about to say is about you and your future careers and your fit into a changing situation. In this context, there will be significant opportunities for you to serve. Call it moral design or servant leadership. In other words, a world where you will be needed to serve as agents of society’s interest and in creating a better quality of life that is affordable around the world. This will include sustainable design principles in all its definitions.

This is why design entrepreneurship is the big take-away idea from my comments today. Let me explain.

There will be a new normal unfolding. It will be one full of accelerated change but also loaded with problems, dilemmas, and issues that we have not been able to solve. Take livable communities and urbanism. Crime. Climate change. The uglification of America.

You can become this nation’s navigators and agents of change. Entrepreneurs. Agents of enterprise that improve the planet. Agents of servant leadership. Agents of hope.

The bottom line is that you can seize this time in history and become the energetic leaders who can create a better quality of life.

This is a choice, a decision.

To do this you will not want to become technicians with blind optimism or with myopia. Instead, you can be future-ready and with design entrepreneurship – that is to say drive, energy, and dynamism for your cause.

You can wring opportunity from change

You need not be a victim in all the changes of the next 10 years. Instead, you can be victorious.

Think with me about change underway right now.

We are moving from a period of stable professions to dynamic and entrepreneurial professions.

We are moving from a period of reliance on linear processes to daily applications of integrated and simultaneous processes.

We are moving from old-media technologies to BIM dynamic technologies with artificial intelligence.

We are moving from design as primarily material art to design as organic science.

We are moving from construction as an extremely wasteful industry to construction as a lean and clean industry

We are moving from the majority of design’s value perceived as economic investment in objects to moral capitalism serving society’s interest.

In the interest of time, I am just scratching the surface on the shifts ahead. Nevertheless, you can grasp the gravity of it. Perhaps the epiphany of it.

Vigorous commitments by you in the next 10 years and throughout your career will make for a cleaner and more sustainable condition.

Yes, quite a lot can be different – and why not for the better?

You can see glimpses too of planning, design, architecture, and construction economic value shifts. This is why I encourage you to keep the big picture in view. Many people in our industry cannot see the big picture today. They have become technicians. Unfortunately, they do not see the proverbial forest for the trees.

However, consider this: When you do see the big picture, you will often see the big opportunities.

When you see the big opportunities, you will feel a rush of adrenaline. You will see the potential of this time. You will sense of power of design entrepreneurship. Then your vision can inspire.

Well, I only have a few more moments to share with you today so I want to suggest a quick reference guide to keep in your head after the excitement of today’s graduation.

Each time you look at your watch or your iPhone, or your PDA, think of these five tenets. These will prepare you to be future-ready and a successful design entrepreneur. These will serve you well in the turbulent times we live in.

By the way, I wrote these out calling it my wristwatch thinking (W=wristwatch) list but my colleagues at the Design Futures Council reminded me that not everyone wears watches. In fact, they told me that this memory technique might actually seem a little hokie to you. If so, then it is a fit anyway! Bear with me.

The “Five W’s” of design entrepreneurship:

  • Winning attitude – In everything, you do in your professional and personal life remember to keep an attitude of success. Not at the expense of others but to benefit others.
  • Work ethic – With high energy and drive to achieve your dreams you can accomplish a great deal. Keep in mind the Buddha concept of how one candle can light a thousand others without diminishing the original candle’s own life span.
  • Worry not – We are in a world of startling inequality, but gloom and doom worry is a misuse of your imagination. Do not let fear run your life. Do not let the burdens of the world shut down your creativity. Engage each day in development of possibility and opportunity.
  • Warm regards – Your relationships with others are and will become increasingly important. Warm regards will build rapport and strengthen your relationships over time. Keep building your networks on the core of those you have here at this school. Relationships will always matter in your future success.

And finally the fifth tenet of design entrepreneurship and one of the hardest to accept is this:

  • Welcome rejection – Leaders face challenges. Great architects lose project commissions and design competitions. Not everyone wins the Solar Decathlon. However, each setback has important lessons. One of our country’s great architects recently told me that he was rejected 23 times between commissions. This is a person of global, elite talent. Rejected repeatedly and yet gaining wisdom from each experience and brief failure. Here is the secret that few know about: Great people are rejected more often than average people are. Their influence grows when they persevere and they become even more competitive when rejected. Therefore, when you are rejected – and you will be in the tough challenges ahead – build new energy and dynamic commitment for long-term success. Believe in yourself.

These Five W’s are the tenets of design entrepreneurship. These can easily be remembered on one hand: 1. Winning attitude, 2. Work ethic, 3. Worry not, 4. Warm regards, and 5. Welcome rejection.

Today you graduate from one of the finest schools and universities in the world. It is easy to love Virginia Tech. It is a great launching pad. I encourage you to stay connected with this place. To interact with it. To give back to it. Moreover, to keep learning.

Knowledge is like milk – it has shelf life stamped right on the carton. Keep learning so that your career does not turn sour. Stay alert and embrace the change around you. When you do, both you and the planet can benefit.

Let me also mention one other thing about change. Trend dots are begging to be connected. When connected, these dots will sometimes fuse together, and a new pattern emerges. Take notice. The opposite of trendy can be very trendy. This is where you enter the inflection points of opportunity.

Thank you for having me to your wonderful college and campus. Let me encourage you to be the entrepreneur of your future and an agent for change we have been waiting for.

I wish you all the best.”

James P. Cramer
Chairman/CEO, Greenway Group
Founding Editor/Publisher, DesignIntelligence