Sometimes I am asked to talk more about some of my work. The topics below are my three most-requested presentations:
Design of Future Self
For the second half of my 10 year tenure at RAND, I spent a lot of time working with the PhD students at RAND's graduate school. I would often tell students that the dissertation is the bridge between their past and future selves, and it doesn't make sense to start working on a dissertation until they spend time thinking about what that future self will be.
I start this talk with a few stories that emphasize the importance of spending time wrestling with this admittedly very difficult question, before diving into a set of techniques and methods that students can use to begin understanding who they are—and who they want to become.
How Professionals Prepare for and Respond to Surprise
Like it or not, surprises are a fact of life. Yet, how we prepare for and respond to them is what separates the best from the rest.
I start this talk by telling two stories about a pair of professions that love comparing themselves to one another but prepare for surprise in very different ways: NFL coaches and Navy SEALs. Using their different approaches as a starting point, I introduce a simple framework for classifying professionals based on two distinguishing characteristics: (1) how much time they typically have to respond and (2) the level of complexity that exists within their work environment.
Drawing upon a rich series of narratives that I outlined in detail in my book on this topic, I offer a series of lessons for how knowledge capital workers can become more effective at preparing for and responding to the unknown.
The Pros and Cons of Modular Design
Modularity is everywhere. Mobile apps, trains, Legos, and even our personal wardrobes are all examples of modular systems. Modularity is so ubiquitous because it's the best way to build flexibility into physical artifacts when the designer isn't certain what capabilities will be needed in the future.
The USB port is a great example of a successful modular system. With its widespread release in the late 1990's, USB's designers could never have imagined the type of devices (like iPads and FitBits) that we'd be plugging into our computers via USB ports twenty years later, but that's the power of modularity: They didn't need to imagine these devices.
However, all of this flexibility comes at a cost. In this presentation, I define the three ingredients of any modular system, and I describe the different types of modularity. Along the way, I will make the case that modularity isn't always the preferred option, and I will present a framework to help designers decide whether modularity is appropriate for any arbitrary use case.
I conclude by telling the story about an industry that has figured out how to mathematically quantify how much modularity to incorporate into their designs, and I offer some suggestions for how to tailor this approach for my audience.
The Democratization of Space
Getting satellites into space is no longer considered rocket science. In fact, with the recently retirement of the space shuttle, NASA presently does not have the capability in house to send humans into space. Instead, NASA is transitioning some of the now "mundane" tasks—such as cargo resupply to the International Space Station—to private sector contractors like SpaceX. In theory, this will allow NASA to focus more on developing the science and tech needed to advance the state-of-the-art.
But this trend hints at a larger, more exciting change: space is becoming democratized, meaning that the typical barriers to entry are rapidly falling away. And this democratization is going to have a profound effect on the way that humans use and interact with space in the future.
I start this talk by telling the ironic story about how Andy Weir went from software engineer to best-selling author of the book and movie The Martian. Andy's success was enabled by a recent democratization of the publishing industry, and I use this example as a starting point to pose the following question: What would it mean to democratize space?
Following the same argument that I laid out in a recent Foreign Affairs article, I highlight four converging factors that will have a profound effect on the future of space: (1) capable, small, inexpensive, and power-efficient computing sources (2) new business models that are lowering the launch costs (3) standardization of part and (4) additive manufacturing (aka: 3D printing).
After laying this foundation, I spend the remainder of the presentation drawing comparisons to recent democratizations happening in other sectors (publishing and software) and using these comparisons to offer a series of observations and recommendations for what decisionmakers should do to prepare for the future.