MoMA’s Curator Talks About the Future

I’ve been so busy, I’ve not yet had time to share any reflections on the 2015 SXSW Interactive sessions.

Among my favorites was Paolo Antonelli, curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Her keynote, entitled “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future” was, in my opinion, this year’s example of why I always plan to return to SXSW the next year.

If you wish, you can watch the entire, delightful and borderline provocative keynote, courtesy of the good people at Southby.


Much of her presentation revolved on the notion of “designing for the ‘in between’.” While I may be slightly off in my interpretation of her intent, this phrase seemed to be Paola’s way of referencing the essential role designers play connecting the imagined to the real.

Among the examples that she shared (and there were many) during her remarks, I was especially drawn to the ones that had bio- and nanotech references. This is largely due to one of the Powershift Group projects I’ve been supervising for the past six months, called Nano Global Corp.

Nano Global is focused on nanotechnology-based products into direct everyday consumer uses. These include skin protection, surface cleaning, safe food preparation, water and air purification, and many other practical applications.

Nanotech-based consumer products have the potential to improve the lives of tens of millions around the world. This is an especially urgent need, in the post-antibiotic age we’ve entered, where superbugs and fast-mutating germs are resistant to conventional treatments.

design - 1Back to Antonelli’s Southby keynote, there were several designer-inspired ideas that I found fascinating.

One was the pointy, polygon-shaped structure in the picture that almost looks like a building-sized virus itself.

But, far from being a virus, the structure is coated with nanoparticles that were meant to neutralize pollutants in the air.

In other words, it’s a giant air filter, sucking bad stuff out of the air.

Paola spent a significant portion of her time describing ways that science, design and architecture can work together. Artists want to share their art with the world; scientists want to make their science more useful.

Architecture provides a fascinating third way for these other two to come together in a way that is both pragmatic and beautiful.

design - 3Another more playful example that Antonelli mentioned was Moyasimon’s Tales of Agriculture.

This is a manga story about a boy who passionate about agriculture. In the story, the boy can see and talk to bacteria.

It’s a lovely way to represent what designers are actually thinking about, in terms of harnessing bacteria as worker bees that enable us to build a better future.

design - 2Taking it beyond bacteria, Antonelli closed with examples of the design of living beings.

One example she showed was Autodesk’s design of its own virus, in-vitro.

Another example she showed was MoMA’s latest acquisitions from the Wyss Institute, called organs-on-chip.

design - 4Organs-on-chip are designed to simulate how certain organs work, down to and including the interaction of nanoparticles and the body’s chemistry.

The point of these designs is very real: it is to create new, validated means of speeding new pharmaceuticals through their trials, to get life-saving and other beneficial drugs to market rapidly.

All-in-all, I found it a riveting SXSW keynote that will have me thinking about the possibilities of design, at least until SXSW 2016!

Good Impact Investing Requires DIET and Exercise

BSG logo - smallI moved to Austin in the mid-1990s as part of an expansion of BSG Corporation, a company for which I was a co-founder. In 1996, two things happened that shaped my engagement in community and social ventures for the next 20 years to present day.

First, BSG was acquired by another large services company for several hundred million dollars. Second, I was accepted into the 1996-97 class of Leadership Austin.

Up until then, my only community activity had been supporting my church and the schools my young children attended. Outside of those activities, all of my energy was poured into helping BSG grow and succeed. Consequently, while I traveled around the country to our offices in locations like New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle, I didn’t even know the names of the streets on the adjacent blocks around my new home in Austin.

So, when we sold BSG, I had a hunger to get to know my community better and was blessed with the means to take the time to do it. After some discernment, mightily enabled by my Leadership Austin experience, I thought that lending my services as a non-profit leader could be a worthwhile way to get engaged in a high impact way.

easter-seals - 75 yearsLong-story short, I interviewed for and won the CEO position (equivalent to Executive Director for many non-profits) at Easter Seals – Central Texas. This is the “Exercise” part of good impact investing, per this post’s title.

Being the CEO of a major regional non-profit (we had a $multi-million annual budget with a 22-county Hill Country territory) gave me the opportunity to see the social services sector from the inside, for which I’m grateful.

The experience was critical for learning the importance of exercising head and heart in different ways. It also enabled me to see how business practices I had learned and considered second nature were under-valued, under-represented, or completely absent in social services.

At the end of my one-year tenure as CEO, performing the real-life exercise as a hands-on social venture leader also helped shape the opinions that I carry today about the strengths and weaknesses of the sector.

Since so much of the non-profit sector competes for social venture dollars, I’ve learned to guide my criteria for judging an organization’s ability to succeed by criteria that are not unlike those of any other new venture I evaluate — non-profit or for-profit.

In fact, I don’t really think in terms of non-profit or for-profit. I think of high-margin, low-margin and no-margin ventures…to me, the financial side of evaluating a venture is all about growth and sustainability.

But, even before the financial sustainability question and its corresponding element, the business model, the four most important issues that I look for can be summed up with the acronym DIET, standing for : Demand, Idea, Excellence, and Team. (Yes, this is where the “DIET” part of the DIET and Exercise title comes from.)

Having been a both social venture leader and in the business of launching new ventures, as I have for years as a principal with Powershift Group, I’m looking forward to going deeper on the DIET and Exercise concepts, sharing my perspective as an impact investor, during our SXSW panel, Sunday, March 15. I hope you can join us and I look forward to your questions and comments!

wannabe_1024pxPS: If you have a moment, and are an educator, a student, or the parent of a high schooler, please take a look at one of Powershift Group’s most recent social venture projects: the Wannabe mobile app. You can download it (free) for all iOS devices, from the iTunes AppStore.