A Legacy of Innovation

I’m looking desperately for good news. Cutbacks, layoffs, furloughs, frozen assets, no credit, political infighting, massive ethical lapses, and deferred gratifications drum in my brain as I head for Green Bay in late February. Airport delays, rude security agents, and aggressive passengers add to my misery. But look what a winter’s day on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan can do to a person’s mood!

Starting in the early hours of Saturday, despair turns into hope. I was invited here to deliver the day’s keynote address to the KI sales force and some of its architect and interior-design clients. My topic, focused on our film, Brilliant Simplicity: 15 Designers Research Collaborate Innovate, is based on the creative work of young designers who have won the prize or placed in our Next Generation design competition (look for the 2009 honorees in our May issue). I am focused on the power of in-formed, thoughtful, and ethical design, which dove­tails neatly with the meeting’s theme, “knowledge is power.”

Before the lively group of 300 settles down, I hear that KI has had no layoffs in its local ­contract-­furniture factory—a reassuring beginning to my day. As I conclude my message of hope for a brighter, better conceived future by a new generation of designers, the audience disperses to join break-out sessions. I leave for the airport. Freshly fallen snow covers the roads, and the small houses along the way look like Currier & Ives prints. Despite the weather, my flights are on time. Security is a breeze. (Someone even offers to help me with my bag.) Our small, regional jet is deiced, and we’re flying. My connection in Detroit is on schedule. And here, from the bigger plane, I watch as two trucks, with men inside the cherry pickers that telescope from each, spray a liquid across the aircraft’s wings and tail. Another man walks up to the edge of the wings and does an eye check.

Systems, machines, and people are all doing their jobs—together they have created a web of interactions that made this day perfect from beginning to end. All those separately designed gadgets and services connect here. I think of the glory of such seamless connections as I watch the trucks, cranes, drivers, nozzle operators, and ground crew of the deicing team and hear the pilot explain what’s happening. My thoughts soar toward a brighter future. I can see that a species capable of producing the myriad innovations that we’re benefiting from today knows how to tackle the coming challenges, which are many and daunting. It’s clear that we need to do no less than redesign our systems, buildings, spaces, products, jobs, and services to build an environmentally conscious, socially sustainable, and prosperous 21st century.

But I remember the industrious workers in Green Bay whose paychecks help support their families as well as their local economy. I observe how invention combined with ingenuity and responsibility toward community continue to be at the very core of our deeply held human values. I know that we can build a sustainable and equitable future based on these values and inspired by our considerable achievements. Yes, we can!

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