I recently had the good fortune of skiing in Vail, CO when something strange happened. It might have been the altitude (13,000′+) depriving oxygen to my brain. It might have been the burning muscles reminding me that I’m no longer 20. Or it might have been the heavenly 360° panorama of the snow capped Rocky Mountains. Unsure of the inspiration source, I found myself reflecting on a philosophy of science course I took as a sophomore (or I should say sophomoric) engineering student.
As a know-it-all college kid enjoying new freedoms more than 600 miles from home, I could not have been less interested in studying world history, western civilization, or any other liberal arts. At that point in my life, I was more concerned about foreign breweries than foreign policies, and I certainly didn’t believe that a bunch of dead guys and their silly suspicions about life and science could ever help me become a remarkable engineer or a facilities guru.
It wasn’t until I dipped—I should say almost drowned—into upper level studies that I began to appreciate the incredible genius of the pioneers who forged paths of knowledge for so many generations to follow. Think about it: social and scientific trailblazing (particularly in the areas of psychology, biology, sociology, chemistry, and physics) has left an amazing mark on the arts and sciences that we associate with facilities design, construction, and management today.
That philosophy class included discussion and debate on two books: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn and The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science by E.A. Burtt. These were the types of books that required absurd concentration levels and the constant use of a dictionary to understand even the shortest paragraphs. The authors examined the history, philosophy, and development of science, technology, and what we would consider common knowledge over the ages.
OK, if you’re still awake, stick with me. This isn’t a cheesy book report—I promise!
Basically, that course helped me understand that major shifts in thinking usually require some radical dudes to turn conventional wisdom upside down. Visionaries were often wrong in their wild theories but were courageous in swimming against a strong tide of society and colleagues who mocked them as idiots, lunatics, or religious heretics.
As a relatively new student of history and as an active participant in our industry, I enjoy reflecting on the past and thinking about the future while trying to imagine what our industry and our lives might be like in 2156 or 2618. What will our great, great grandchildren find hilarious about our work? What current “knowledge” at the recent turn of the century will children born in 3005 find hard to understand? What other breakthroughs will be credited to our generation? What commonly believed falsehoods will we live to see destroyed? Which of our industry’s most brilliant innovators will be ridiculed during their lives today only to be celebrated tomorrow, long after they’re gone?
Can you imagine what our careers would have been like 90 years ago? What about managing the workplace in the Roaring 20s or during Prohibition? What kind of work would we have pursued in the 1930s, when facilities and factories grinded to a halt and sat idle during the Depression? How about facility management in the 1940s during an international war? Would our facilities have been churning 24/7 to provide logistical support to troops or produce food, tanks, guns, or airplanes? Would we have been inspired or required to take multi-year leaves from our careers?
If you are a male, would you have fought in Europe or Asia like my grandfathers? If you are a female, would you have been machining guns or riveting airplanes like my grandmother?
I bet many TFM readers can directly relate to these life changing career adventures. I didn’t live through any of these challenging decades, but as a GenXer, I am grateful and in eternal debt to those who sacrificed and often paid the ultimate price when answering the call of duty.
Our generation’s career related memories might be a little less exciting but we still have them. We remember what it was like working in a smoky office and flying in the “non-smoking section” of a plane. (I’ve heard a comedian say that’s sort of like being in the non-urinating section of a swimming pool!) We remember our first sexual harassment training and our shock when some employees expected a “how to” course. We remember the excitement of using our office’s first facsimile machine. We remember the office clown who first realized he could photocopy parts of his body that were better left clothed. We remember reading and writing complicated FORTRAN code for very simple math chores that would have been performed more quickly with a pencil or even an abacus. We remember the excitement of using our first voicemail account. We remember the importance of product manuals and the need to visit a library or call a supplier to find information. We remember being mystified by a clunky and mysterious mainframe.
Personally, I remember holding out against the Microsoft wave and insisting that desktop software would never need to evolve beyond DOS-SHELL 3.1 and Lotus123 v. 1.1. I remember buying my first PC for $2,000 and thinking I would never need a hard drive larger than the optional eight megs that I bought. I remember buying my second PC for about $2,000 and being absolutely certain I would never need a hard drive larger than my gargantuan 40 gigs. I remember my first exposure to the Internet as I watched a co-worker demonstrate his ability to check the weather in his hometown hundreds of miles away and shop for an airline ticket on line. I remember stumbling onto my first Internet message board and being shocked at volumes of unedited and uncensored psycho-rambling.
If you’re remembering some of your workplace firsts and not quite prepared to burn me at the stake, let’s shift gears to potential world changing innovation that could shape our industry. But let’s try to do it without the underlying things we consider common knowledge today–we might need to shake the old mental tree pretty hard to get rid of the dead leaves and find some good fruit!
My predictions follow, without too many details of course. Look, if any of these prove accurate, I’ll expect you and your companies to send me speaking or writing contracts with lots of zeros-in exchange, I’ll agree to change my name to NostroCranus!
Utilities—An Edison protégé will develop a simple means of harnessing the sun’s power that includes an incredible by product: pure, clean drinking water. Every facility will be completely self sufficient with eight-sigma level reliability. Floating utility plants will be deployed by future philanthropists to breathe new life into today’s third world nations. Once state-of-the-art power plants will become museums and relics while a future generation will proudly preside over the dismantling of exhausted AC power grids, initially across the United States, then around the world.
Communities—A future Trump-like real estate visionary will recognize the potential of offshore development. With thousands of unmolested square miles of sea blanketing the Earth, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean will feature the first floating, permanently anchored residential communities. Retirees will initially be attracted to this new lifestyle, but the opportunity to live, work, and play in private, waterfront communities will ultimately attract casinos, religious groups, universities, corporate headquarters, and families of all demographics. Offshore communities will become colonies of established nations, gladly agreeing to some form of taxation in exchange for air and naval protection from a new, high tech generation of pirates. (Come on, the future will still include bad guys!)
Transportation—Future generations will giggle at their ancestors’ fickle relationship with the automobile. They will wonder why we limited ourselves to the horse and buggy concepts of limited roads, tunnels, and bridges when an incredibly beautiful and empty sky above beckoned us to travel aloft. A Henry Ford/Bill Gates-like entrepreneur will envision safe, personal flying vehicles for the common man. This invention will spawn many new industries and impact society more than the horseless carriage.
Technology—The current era will come to be known as the infancy of technological revolution. Silicon microchips will be replaced by newly discovered elements and composite materials that make today’s fastest processor seem to work at a glacier’s pace. Elemental transponders will first physically move objects invisibly through space and time, and eventually people will be able to enjoy similar travel.
One of the most cherished tools of the future facility manager will be an incredible image recording device that automatically generates full size, three-dimensional as-built drawings—something we now call documentation.
From “Slate Rock and Gravel Quarry” (Bedrock employer of Fred Flintstone) to “Spacely’s Space Sprockets” (Orbit City employer of George Jetson), it can be fun to throw common knowledge out the window and imagine what’s next in the context of what has been!
Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.