It was a homecoming in so many ways, going back to the TED conference in 2012. I had not presented there for more than a decade. I had last been on the TED stage in Monterrey California, the conference’s original location back in February of 2001. It was a moment when Y2K was a fading fear, 9/11 was a random calendar date and the tech bubble of the ‘90s was about to burst. For me it was 3 kids ago. Back then I was so full of ideas and thoughts about design and where the world was heading. I had great successes presenting those dreams on the TED stage. In the subsequent 11 years, though, it seemed that so much had happened. I had lowered my gaze somehow. I felt less like a dreamer and more like the tentative pilot of a flimsy canoe as waves crashed all around me.
What would I possibly have to say at this much grander Long Beach TED conference that could matter to a much larger audience of V.I.P.s and world-changers? I staggered around in my own anxiety for a good long while until I remembered the children we had spoken to in the course of the “100 Dreams, 100 Minds, 100 Years” project. What did they have to say that would be of interest? We asked such questions of 10-year-olds from around the world and each one of them had something to offer. The key was finding a connection after believing one was there. Connecting yourself to the people you are speaking with and knowing within yourself those connections exist, there is no other formula for reaching people.
In just this way, TED 2012 was for me an exploration within. There were all my personal notions of design and the ideas about design passed to me by my father, Jack Hockenberry, the first director of design at Steelcase. There were memories of my days as a math wiz at the University of Chicago learning the power of scientific precision, the possibilities of technological change evident even back in the 1970s, and the capacity of an idea to bend reality and change the future. It was a delight to be amongst the TEDsters, old and new. This ethos of change and curiosity and the determination to make something happen was infectious. It was the perfect place to launch the “100 Minds” initiative. Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett and I winked and waved at each other from across rooms. We managed to grab a few precious minutes of conversation. Both of us were grateful that the “100 Minds” vision had come together so well. We both thought it fit perfectly into the whole TED community. In a sense, Hackett and Hockenberry were like two friendly cousins in an extended family. Him urging me on to do well on stage and me cheering him forward with his vision for the second Steelcase century.
It had been a very long time since I was a worker in the old desk plant in Grand Rapids, the son of my dad – the designer of curved metal pieces that confounded some of the die makers used to right angles and squares. My dad’s name was on the blueprints they used and I would get some pretty cold looks when difficulties with the metal stamping presses would shut down the line. It had also been a long time since I had whimsically taken to the TED stage myself. This would be a test of my dreams.
With a big family now and as much focus on retirement as on the future of civilization, to my great surprise the TED talk came easily. It turns out that dreaming out loud, even on a stage as exclusive as TED, is completely natural and just as exciting at age 55, with 5 kids, as it is in your early 40s and a newlywed. My talk about design and the need to do things intentionally, to think about the world before you make or act (just what our dreamer kids were telling us) rocked the house. When I left the stage I got lost in enthusiastic lines of people asking questions and sharing their own impressions of all that I had said. At one point, I caught Jim Hackett hovering on the edge of a small crowd. He gave me a “thumbs up” sign and winked with the message that he’d see me soon.
Hackett and Hockenberry. Kinda catchy, don’t you think? What’s the lyric in that famous song Moon River? “Two drifters, off to see the world.” How about “Two Dreamers, off to see the world.”
Or even 100 dreamers.