Skip to main content

The McDonough Conversations

A 'first contact' team for the future

Why is famed designer McDonough palling around in New Delhi with entrepreneur and former New York City mayoral hopeful Jack Hidary?

This is the latest installment in a regular series of conversations with William McDonough (@billmcdonough), designer, architect, author and entrepreneur. View previous columns here.

Joel Makower: Tell me about the innovation future roundtable you recently convened.

Bill McDonough: I have been working with companies that are looking at the future of mobility in India, and designing factories and other things for them. The chairman said he would like to connect to some of the advanced thinking across many sectors and integrate that with some conversations that he could participate in. The first person I thought of for that was Jack Hidary. Between the two of us, we could gather an astonishing collection of wizards. So we did that.

Makower: Why Jack?

McDonough: I've known Jack for almost a decade and am always impressed with his energy and perspicacity. Jack also has the ability to enthusiastically draw people into and through the moonshot process that he's very, very well practiced in doing.

You cut right through all of the kind of noise in his approach, moving ahead quickly with mental alacrity, which felt very useful for this roundtable. I had the opportunity to experience it in Iceland last summer when he led a moonshot hackathon at the gathering there, and I found it really delightful, as did all our guests. So I encouraged him to join me in this.

Makower: Jack, give me a thumbnail about what you bring to the party.

Jack Hidary: Bill and I had the opportunity to spend time together in Iceland this past summer and really start to think about the big things facing humanity, our society, the human species over the next five, 10, 20 years. Remote Iceland is a great place to think about that because of the starkness and the beauty of the landscape, and the bringing together of not only two continental plates, but volcanoes and glaciers. It’s a great place to kick off that kind of conversation. Then we both realized we would be in India at the same time.

India is an absolute flashpoint right now in terms of where the future is going.

India is an absolute flashpoint right now in terms of where the future is going. India is going from 300 million to 600 million smartphone users in the next three to four years, and is going from an all-cash economy to a digital economy in a very, very fast time. The transformation of 1.3 billion people in record time is something that from environmental, energy and transportation technology hits all the key points.

So we joined up in New Delhi and continued the Iceland conversation and had the idea to bring together wizards, as Bill and I call them, and really curate it carefully. But rather than the usual kind of a panel format, it would be a roundtable of equals. Bill and I called it the “first contact” team — a first contact team for the future. Not only to anticipate the future, but change the future and direct the trajectory of where we’re going, from a non-sustainable path to something far more sustainable.

My background includes serving on the board of the XPRIZE, which, Joel, I'm sure you know, is hot on the trail now, with five moonshot challenges going simultaneously. We started as an organization that did just one moonshot at a time. Now we have multiple moonshots for things like health care mobile devices, global literacy, ocean health and a carbon prize.

And then serving as advisor to Google X — now called just X. It has launched many exciting initiatives, including the self-driving car, which is just an incredible transformation — a moonshot idea that eight or nine years ago people scoffed at. Now, of course, every car company's going that way.

So it's a very exciting time. My whole life is about innovation and moonshots. And when Bill said, "Hey, why don't we come together, co-chair this futures roundtable," I said, "Let do that. Let's curate a first-contact team."

Makower: What did you actually hope would come out of this? What was the goal?

McDonough: The goal was to allow the sponsor to hear from multiple perspectives, and convey ideas into the future of enterprise in India specifically, but also having an Indian enterprise become a global enterprise that it would involve all these different dimensions. That was the specific goal of the sponsor.

But as far as Jack and I are concerned, it was to open the door to kind of a bombarding of a fundamental set of issues with multiple perspectives. And the perspectives brought to the question would be critical.

Makower: What were some of the questions?

McDonough: The questions were really interesting, Joel, in terms of the dialogues we've had already. From my perspective as a maker of things, when we look at manufacturing, that's coming from work by the hand. It’s traditionally been a craft that's been practiced on a local basis, and then transforming into the arts, for example. Then we move to what we called manufacturing, which should have been perhaps called machine-facturing.

Then we have the robots, which now take place of the whole body instead of the hand, and then we have AI coming. We begin with, "How do we make things?" And then, as you and I have discussed: "So what are we making?"

That's why cradl-to-cradle is important. Because what is it we're making? Are we making toxins using these advanced tools as they evolve globally, or are we making valuable things for all generations?

The goal was to open the door to kind of a bombarding of a fundamental set of issues with multiple perspectives.

Then, finally, the question is: "What should we be making?" and "What could we be making?" That was the thing that Jack and I find very potent: this group of people coming at it from a lot of areas — human relations, cradle-to-cradle, clean energy, transport, biotech, artificial intelligence — all informed this fundamental question of, "Why do we make what we make?" So we don't just deal with statistical significance; we deal with cultural, economic and fundamental, moral and ethical questions at the same time. That was the real magic of it.

Makower: That's a different approach to design and a different approach to thinking about business strategy. I'm really curious how that conversation evolved, because it's so big and broad and could have gone anywhere.

Hidary: Part of the process was to provoke one another. Each person came to this, not only with the domain expertise, but also with the ability to have an open mind and also be provocative.

We went through a series of experiences together: a moonshot workshop, a scenario-planning workshop, cradle-to-cradle analysis. And through these experiences, we came out with implications for the next 10-20 years.

Makower: So what insights emerged from all this?

Hidary: One of them is about machine intelligence, machine learning. What clearly came out from the conversation is that most of us have underestimated how much our lives already are governed by machine learning and now being constrained by how it is used — for example, the presentation we get on Amazon, which tells us which books we should read or which movies we should watch, to which articles that we see. There is growing evidence that we're being put more and more into our own little bubbles by machine-learning engines based on our previous reading and other habits.

Once we're aware of it and become self-aware, we can start to counter and say, "We need to make sure we have fresh ideas and get beyond the little machine-learning bubble." That was one theme — the rise of AI, the rise of machine learning. But it already may be so big we're actually not even aware because it's surrounding us completely.

Makower: I'd love to understand how this connects to the world of mobility. But what were the implications for the company?

Hidary: The idea that most manufacturers of any kind of mobility vehicle, be it a car, motorcycle, whatever kind of truck. If they want to stay in business, they're going to have to offer mobility on demand.

You're already starting to see this, with Car2Go from Daimler and DriveNow from BMW. These are on-demand car mobility services where you don't have to buy a car anymore, you just use it on-demand. The idea that more and more people are going to be accessing mobility in this fashion takes a huge amount obviously machine learning and those kinds of technologies.

One of the implications for India is a complete rethink of city design, transport design, and mobility design.

India is an area we need to look at very carefully. If you look at the stats, there's 250 million cars in America for 310 million people. India has 1.3 billion people, but only about 140 million cars. If they get to the same ratio and density and penetration we have here, you're talking about 900 million cars in India. Obviously, that's unsustainable. It's already unsustainable now. So one of the implications for India is a complete rethink of city design, transport design, and mobility design.

McDonough: These cars are not only must have a different business model and relationship model, where they're leased instead of owned, but also a materials shift because now the investment in materials is one that is ongoing. So we looked at the implication of 3D printing, advanced manufacturing, disassembly, design for disassembly. What are the specific designs for mass customization for various markets at high speed? We looked at the service model, financial models, but also the manufacturing models, which all start to shift.

Makower: I'm wondering what the implications of these things are in India are, and how this kind of thinking around design for disassembly or products of service changes a subcontinent.

Hidary: The India context is different in that they have not yet made our mistakes. So we talked about the energy footprint. India's at a point now where 40 percent of the country has no grid, another 40 percent has very little grid, and about 20 percent has a semi-fitted grid.

They're about to go down a pathway of building centralized power plants — no redundancy, no resiliency, no backup power and no backup storage. And there's 100 gigawatts of diesel generators now active in India because that's their central backup grid. They are about to go down the American pathway, and one of the implications coming out is that will be a huge mistake.

We've put out a vision where India can go down a very different pathway, a distributed pathway, a pathway with resiliency and storage at a distributed level. We talked with implications of that. 

We talked about health care. Again, in our country, we've gone with the centralized model, with centralized clinics and centralized hospitals. In India, more than 500 million people do not have access to a doctor. So saying, "It's going to happen in the American way of centralized hospitals in every city with specialists,” is just impractical and nonsensical.

We're looking at India as an example; and by extension, we can start to think about places that are also developing like Africa, or ourselves, because we're redeveloping new business models here.

They have an opportunity in India to sidestep the huge mistakes we've made in energy, in transport, in health care, in almost every major realm. So that was one of the new ideas that came out — a mapping of a new way. Let’s help countries such as India avoid the terrible mistakes we have made.

Makower: Do you think the Indians up to the challenge?

McDonough: When I started working with NASA, I heard an amazing story. So, Kennedy calls to be on the moon in 10 years. We were there in nine years. And when they looked at the average age of the team that put Neil Armstrong on the moon, it was like 28 years old. What does that mean? That means that engineers who heard Kennedy nine years earlier were just graduating high school. They didn't know they couldn't go to the moon, so they did.

We're looking at India as an example; and by extension, we can start to think about places that are also developing like Africa, or ourselves, because we're redeveloping new business models here.

More on this topic