Recently I’ve enjoyed time with colleagues who have made my transition from CDM Smith to independent consultant a period of recollection and reflection on great and challenging experiences together. I realized that I once promised to pass along a copy of remarks I made to a large group of CDM Smith staff at Disneyland in 2006. I have excerpted portions of it below and provide a link to the entire address. In retrospect, it stands out as one the clearest statements I have made regarding my values and principles. And while it focuses on our organization at that time, its message has broader applicability. Please share your thoughts.
“I want to welcome you to Anaheim. This is the first time that I have come to Disneyland for a business meeting, and I confess that fact was the departure point for my remarks this evening. I have always loved this place and what it taught me about imagination.
So tonight, I want to talk about the importance of imagination and creativity in every aspect of our service to clients. I will argue that imagination is an essential ingredient in achieving our vision of “improving the environment and infrastructure.” I further want to argue that as rising leaders in this firm, you must provide the spark that ignites the creativity of great, diverse teams. You must take responsibility for fostering a workplace setting that engages diverse groups of people to create a better world and a better environment. That workplace is where “total right solutions” and “exceptional client service” come from. And you are the people who must make it happen.
I want to make a strong case that imaginative thinking is a fundamental differentiator between CDM and many of our competitors. That competitive strength results from imagining something new — from the belief that our understanding can be improved, that our intentional and inadvertent acts of destructiveness and waste can be reduced, and that we can successfully improve our environment and infrastructure – more effectively integrating our natural and our built worlds.
But I will come back to that. First, I want to talk about my own introduction to the “speculative imagination,” as a third grader, living for a summer in Santa Monica. Let’s make the wild segue from Albert Einstein to Walt Disney, from theoretical physics to “Imagineering.” I want to see if I can effectively illustrate what I mean by the concept of imagination and progress in our industry at this time. Again, not Fantasyland, but Tomorrowland. And just to make it more complicated, not the Tomorrowland of today, but the Tomorrowland of 1958 – because it was different then. I believe that many of my most basic ideas about progress were sparked by the Imagineering of that now lost Tomorrowland.
In Bob Thomas’ biography of Walt Disney, he quotes from the original description of the park developed during its initial planning:
The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company: a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education. Here the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by, and the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future. Here will be the wonders of Nature and Man for all to see and understand.
I was the younger generation they were talking about. I was fascinated by the TWA Moonliner that towered over Tomorrowland and provided the gateway to the “Rocket to the Moon” ride. Disney’s Man in Space exhibit was developed with the help of real science pioneers like Willy Ley, Heinz Haber, and Wernher von Braun. The monorail system, that unfortunately for me didn’t open until 1959, wasn’t just a ride, it was a real attempt to apply cutting-edge transportation technology and make the “future” real in the present.
And then there was the Monsanto House of the Future. Open from 1957 to 1967, this house looked like a sort of square plastic mushroom, comprised of four white fiberglass wings resting on top of a wide central column. It was designed in collaboration with M.I.T. and celebrated the miracles of plastics. Inside, it displayed such futuristic innovations as electric toothbrushes, a wide-screen color television, bathroom sinks that adjusted themselves to your height, an ultrasonic dishwasher, and a microwave oven. That house and its architecture fascinated me. It was the first time in my life that I saw creations of the imagination made part of real life. That’s when I learned the most important lesson I needed to know in order to contribute to the Tolt Water Treatment Plant DBO team.
By the early nineteen sixties, Walt Disney’s visions of the past and future took over four show pavilions at the New York World’s Fair of 1964-1965. The President of the New York World’s Fair, Robert Moses, a remarkable public servant who held at one time or another almost every public works position in New York City, described his vision of the World’s Fair as “an Olympics of Progress.”7 What a wonderful concept. Later in the sixties, attractions from those pavilions, which included General Electric’s “Progressland” and Ford Motor Company’s “Magic Skyway,” would be relocated to Disneyland.
What a great time I had at this place. And I wasn’t alone. By 1963, James Rouse, speaking at a Harvard School of Design Commencement:
I hold a view that may be somewhat shocking to an audience as sophisticated as this, and that is, that the greatest piece of design in the United States today is Disneyland. If you think about Disneyland and think of its performance in relationship to its purpose – its meaning to people more than its meaning to the process of development – you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States. It took an area of activity – the amusement park – and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, in its functioning for people, that it really became a brand-new thing.
The possibility and the reality of the “brand-new thing.” In 1958, Walt Disney made me a nine-year-old believer that we could put a man on the moon if we put our minds to it. I am very grateful for that naïve optimism. I grew up in an era that fostered confidence in the concept of “progress” and the power of “imagination.” Much has changed.
Tomorrowland today is largely a tribute to nostalgia and fantasy, where nineteenth century futurists like Jules Verne are honored in rides designed to look like antique scientific instruments with old-fashioned brass fittings and useless mechanical clockwork. Only the world of computers and information technology (and possibly pharmaceuticals) survive as a potential source of hope for the future. Today, the Fox Network airs documentaries “proving” that NASA’s moon landings were a conspiratorial, government hoax. The late nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties are themselves a subject of nostalgia.
Our firm is founded on principles of service and progress – on the belief that there is something that can be done. Frankly, if you do not imagine that you can make a difference, there is little reason to do anything at all. I imagine that we can, will, and are making a difference.
But for today’s third graders, the exhibits that prove progress are no longer in Disneyland. They are at less exciting places like the West Basin Water Recycling Plant or the TreePeople’s demonstration project in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. These are examples of innovation and progress that should be as compelling as the House of the Future was in 1958. And while they do not enjoy the corporate sponsorship of General Electric or Ford Motor Company, they offer tangible evidence of our ability to imagineer new solutions, to improve on the past, to realize our dreams. We need to promote and celebrate them because we lack the broad cultural messages of hope in the future once delivered by Walt Disney, and Robert Moses, and John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.
In my view, we must have blind faith in our ability to discover a brand new thing, to find a way towards a sustainable future that provides for both human needs and the environment. We must believe in and tell that story wherever we can. Perhaps it’s not realistic, but it is the foundation of our firm’s vision of itself and its role in the world. That unrealistic optimism, that old-fashioned Tomorrowland view of progress, is what sets us apart from the vast majority of people who surrender to the realities of the present and assume that the future will be the same as the past — or worse. We can see a future of improvements to the environment and infrastructure in LA. Others see the desperate, degraded Los Angeles of 2019, as depicted in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film “Blade Runner.”
In 1793, William Blake, the British poet and visionary wrote, “What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.” Everything we see around us, our exceptional quality of life and personal freedom, is the product of the imaginations of millions of creative people who have preceded us. We need to be the source of future proof that it can still be done. That starts with optimism and imagination. Bennis says, “Great Groups don’t lose hope in the face of complexity. The difficulty of the task adds to their joy.”