By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Mar 13, 2002 at 5:45 AM

What does the future hold? Rather than consult the Magic 8 Ball, we went to a Milwaukeean who, if you judge a person by his title, would seem to have the answers.

Futurist David Zach is one of the few professionally trained futurists in the United States, with a master's degree in Studies of the Future from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. He has worked with over 1000 corporations, schools and associations offering insights on the personal and professional impact of strategic trends.

He gets his thoughts, ideas and facts from a daily study of books, magazines, newspapers, coffee shop discussions, and on-line explorations that include a healthy dose of We caught up with Zach recently and asked him about all things, first and foremost -- the future.

OMC: Give us the David Zach story. Where did you grow up, how did you get to Milwaukee?

DZ: I grew up in Monroe, which if you didn't know is the Swiss Cheese Capital of the United States. Great childhood. We lived out in the country in the middle of a woods, so we had trees to climb, rock quarries to explore, creeks to stomp in and lots of wild animals to have as pets. It seems that I always had a pet raccoon around someplace. Dad was a doc and my Mom was a non-practicing nurse who raised five boys in her spare time.

Went to UW-Madison for political science and philosophy and then to the University of Houston for a masters in Studies of the Future. I came to Milwaukee because Johnson Controls offered me an internship so I could finish my degree. After that I taught in the School of Education at UWM for four semesters and then four years at the Northwestern Mutual mothership doing corporate planning stuff.

As soon as I moved here, I got involved in projects like Goals for Milwaukee 2000 and Future Milwaukee. When I'd tell someone that I had a degree in Future Studies they'd either get this glazed look or they'd ask me if I could speak to their Rotary Club. I think I did about 10 talks when someone unexpectedly gave me a $40 honorarium. They had no idea what they had started. I was amazed that you could get paid for giving speeches. Come to think of it, I'm still amazed.


OMC: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

DZ: Something between an astronaut, a politician and a scientist. I was pretty fascinated by new ideas, the unknown and the big "out there." Always had my nose in a science fiction novel. Reality: bad eyes, too tall, hate politics and suck at math. That pretty much left "the unknown" as my vocation. You can't get much more unknown than the future.

OMC: Could you explain what a futurist is?

DZ: Sure. First of all, this isn't some title that I grabbed out of the air, like I said before, I actually have a master's degree in this stuff. The second thing to say is that this doesn't make me Nostradamus or a fortune teller. I have no special powers to see what's going to happen and I'm probably one of the more skeptical people out there when it comes to fortune telling. My work is not about predicting things, it's about helping people to think about trends and their implications. And then, to make it so people will actually pay me to do this, I create these quirky, funny speeches.

OMC: So who pays you to do this?

DZ: It's everybody from big companies like IBM and 3M to a lot of community colleges. The funny thing about living in Milwaukee is that I hardly ever work here. I think it's the notion of experts come from someplace else. It works for me, though I'm not all that crazy about flying any more.

OMC: How did 9/11 affect you?

DZ: Wow. Lots of ways. One, of course, is that I was just as shocked as everyone else and I felt the discouragement that went with it for a while. The speaking business was already hurting from the recession in 2001 and after 9/11, the only business I had for the rest of the year was just a little bit of work with government and education groups. All the business clients cancelled after 9/11. You'd think they'd want to hear from a futurist about that time.

The real difficult thing for me after 9/11 was being optimistic about the future, which is sort of an occupational requirement if you call yourself a futurist. In some ways it was good that business was down in the last few months, because I really needed to rethink some of my messages. Fortunately, it didn't have to change that much. I've always tried to take a long-term perspective and I've always tried to have people look at the big picture. I think after 9/11, people finally began to realize that thinking about the big picture wasn't so flaky and a realistic thing to do.

OMC: So are you optimistic now?

DZ: Yes. Through all of this, I have to say that I am still an optimist, because I do believe strongly in the capacity of people to imagine possibilities and find solutions. We'll find our way through to a better place and we will be a better people. History shows that we always work our way through problems. Of course, it also shows that we often pay a very heavy price to make that history.

I do believe in progress and I do believe in this experiment called America. Not that it's always right, but it's better prepared than almost any other culture to learn about its mistakes and make corrections. Sure there's lots of dissatisfaction with the way we do things, but that's the price of a free society; you always have dissention because there's never just one way to do things. Just like the constitution reads, "a more perfect union," not a "perfect" union. I don't believe in perfect futures. I do believe in practical, good ones.

OMC: I heard that you were on CNN recently. Tells us about that.

DZ: That was fun. They called me at the end of December, wanting a futurist to talk about changes since 9/11 and trends for 2002. You sit in the TV studio up at Fox 6 and you stare into a camera while someone you can't see talks in your earplug. It flew by, even though by TV news standards, five minutes is like having your own mini-series.

OMC: What did you tell them?

DZ: Mostly fun, anecdotal stuff. For instance, after 9/11 there was a big rise in marriages and engagements along with lots of romantic gifts. There was also a rise in afternoon hotel rentals! Any guess about a little baby boomlet next June? Any guesses how many of those babies will be named Rudy or George? A lot more than will be named Osama, that's for sure. Internet dating memberships were up 20%, and puppy dog sales were up 30%. TV sales were down and dinner parties were way up.

OMC: So what does all that mean?

DZ: It means that just like there are no atheists in foxholes, neither are there individuals. After an attack like that, people need to be reaffirmed by somebody other than themselves. We've spent so much of our cultural capital lately telling people that they're strong individuals and they don't need anybody else. If there's one thing I think all of us learned after 9/11, it's that Unum is just as important as E Pluribus.

OMC: What are the big trends for 2002?

DZ: Hmmm. I don't know if these are just restricted to 2002, but these are a few items in the big picture that we better think more about. Very clearly, we've got lots of choices that we have to make, but we're incredibly ill prepared to make them. With nanotechnology, we're learning how nature builds things, so eventually we may see a total reconceptualization of how things are manufactured. Microchips will continue to double in power every 18 months and get cheaper. Right now, advanced microchips have about 100 million transistors in them.

Extrapolate that out to around 2015 and we've got chips with over 100 billion transistors. Think about how powerful computers are today. There's no real reason to think that they're not going to be almost inconceivably powerful in the next decade. The other thing is the genetic code. We've cracked it and now we're rapidly figuring out what each sector means.

There's a great quote from Stewart Brand, "We're becoming like gods, so we better get good at it." We have the power, but we don't have enough humility in the face of that power. The more I learn about this stuff, the more Catholic I become. I know the answers to this are not found within us as individuals. We have to all start learning more about this stuff. Too many people are either totally against these emerging technologies or they're completely unaware. Neither attitude is going to work. We have to learn and we have to make choices through them, not around them.

There are four really important subjects for today: philosophy, theology, history and biology. Those subjects are the source of the questions we now face. We've now built a world in which the right to stop learning is gone. If anyone stops learning at any point in their life, they're dead in the water. They're toast. If you're not curious, you have no future.

OMC: Tell us about the best and worst aspects of your job.

DZ: The best part is knowing that you're making a difference in how people look at the future. Once I was speaking at a banking conference in Washington DC to the top executives of the major US banks. At one point in the talk I noticed that they were all taking notes. That scared the hell out of me. Also made me realize that I had a big responsibility to make sure I knew what I was talking about. Not an easy thing when talking about the future.

Another thing I love is that I have friends all over North America and so I get to go to dinner parties all over the country.

They say that being a speaker is one of the loneliest jobs on the planet. Sometimes it is. The travel separates you from people locally so sometimes it's difficult to have a routine with local friends. It can also be lonely on stage. You can get a standing ovation from an audience of thousands and a few minutes later, they leave and you're all alone. Part of you wants to scream, "Hey, now it's your turn to talk to me!" Often people feel intimidated about talking with the "speaker" so often you don't get to talk with people after a performance. If I have the time, I like to hang out with the group for the rest of the day so I can get in conversations, blend in and hang with the crowd.

OMC: Do you have a role model?

DZ: Well, I could say the usual of my dad or grandfather, and both would be true. My dad was a doctor, but he was also this incredibly intense, creative and funny guy. My grandfather was an auto mechanic who had this workshop in his basement where he'd make just about anything for us. It was definitely a place of worship for his grandkids. My dad taught me how to create things, and my grandpa taught me how to fix things once I had created them. I miss them both.

I'd have to say that there weren't a lot of role models out there for being a futurist. The career counseling offices were helpful, but puzzled. Because I had my nose in a book most of my life, I'd have to say most of my heroes and role models were authors such as Will and Ariel Durant, Abraham Maslow, Ray Bradbury, Issac Asimov and Erich Fromm.

OMC: How do you define success?

DZ: Oh, that's in the eye of the beholder. I was part of a study with Future Milwaukee in which we asked lots of people that question. In the process, I asked my mom and dad the same question. My dad, who was by all signs a success financially and professionally, didn't feel successful because his health had been destroyed along the way. My mom did feel successful because she had a husband who loved her and all of her children got along with each other and enjoyed coming home to see her. I think about their answers a lot.

Maybe there's a sense of internal and external success. Can we measure success by what we do in the world, in our achievements and the esteem of others? Then again, there's an important sense of success when you're all alone and reflecting on what one has done and what could have been done.

Someone once told me that hell was where they pull aside the curtain that separates who you are from who you could have been. At age 44, you get the sense of being half-way through life and yeah, looking back, in some ways, there are regrets for the paths not taken, but then again, I've had this unique path that has been very successful. Ask me this question again when I'm 88.

OMC: Define leadership, Milwaukee style. What do we have? What do we need?

DZ: A leader is someone who makes demands of you that you are willing and able to give. A leader raises your line of sight to see things that have always been there or should be there, but you failed to look and notice. The failure of leadership here is that this city had such a comfortable present that we forgot to continually invest and nurture the future.

The leaders of the various organizations in town need to start taking greater responsibility for the future of this city. I think three great organizations for that are Rotary, Future Milwaukee and Public Allies. We rely too much on the politicians. I'm not a big believer in the notion of politicians as leaders. Mostly they're managers. They help get things done that others have decided need to be done.

Above all, I don't think that in a democratic society politicians are supposed to be the ones with the vision. It's supposed to be "we the people." But, if we the people spend all of our time watching TV or being distracted by our too busy lives, we shouldn't be surprised if the politicians do dumb things or if we're slow in noticing that they're doing dumb things. Without vigilance and checks and balances, the entire system will falter. In Milwaukee, we've gotten exactly the sorts of leaders and results that we deserve. Nothing more, nothing less.

I really like that the Calatrava is here and it's here because of some great, often behind the scenes leadership. It's a world class piece of architecture, sitting proudly on our lakefront, demanding that we rise to it; to be a world class city. Some people say we never should have paid that much money for it. If we can hear its call and we do rise back up to be a world-class city, then I think we will have paid too little for it. A city should always have things, whether they are art, buildings, organizations or individuals who make demands that you rise above your comfort and your consistency.

OMC: If you were mayor, what would be the first thing on your agenda?

DZ: Get revenge on the clowns who elected me. The one thing that I learned from being a political science major in college is that I really don't like politics. I don't believe in having a formal involvement in the system. As a futurist, I like being on the sides, playing this Zen game of chess, promoting certain concepts, introducing different people and helping to change the terms of the debate. I live from day to day in the marketplace of ideas, where I'm constantly learning from others, then crafting those ideas together and putting them in my speeches and articles. Some ideas never go anywhere and some take on a life of their own and go far beyond anything I could do with them. I don't think I could do what I do if I had to hold public office.

OMC: What are your impressions of Milwaukee these days?

DZ: A lot of people ask me "why does a futurist live in Milwaukee?" Well, it's a nice place to be from and it's a nice place to come home to. I've lived here for 21 years and it's now my home. I'd have a hard time leaving. It's clean, it's got great architecture, great arts, a great history and it's down to earth, comfortable and very livable. I also think that a lot of the future is made in places like Milwaukee. It's practical and doesn't think it's something that it's not.

The best part? There's this opening of the city and the people to new ideas and big ideas. Whether looking at the Milwaukee Art Museum Calatrava addition, new organizations like e-Innovate, efforts by the MMAC, or all the little groups that are forming at the coffee shops, there's something emerging here that resembles a city that's trying to wake up. I think it's exciting to be at the early stages of something great.

The worst? This is a city that made it big and became a center of industry but then it got arrogant and wouldn't change with the times. People in this city are too comfortable in their problems, and the fear of change has been stronger than the fear of stagnation.

It's not that everything should change. I believe in tradition first as a foundation, but then once you have a sense of what shouldn't change, you have to think about what are we holding on to just because it's comfortable rather than what's right. Now that I'm thinking about it, the worst thing about Milwaukee is that we lack the confidence to face our problems. I believe that problems are always solvable, but you've got to believe that you're bigger than those problems.

OMC: Do you have a favorite Milwaukee festival?

DZ: Irish Fest, no question about it. My buddy Lyle and I are both August babies and each year we rent a pavilion at Irish Fest and have this great, fun party. There are a bunch of us in kilts; bag pipers, minstrels and a bunch of people from Clan Young wander though, along with all of our friends. It really is a great time. Oh, and they've got great music and food there too.

OMC: Favorite restaurant?

DZ: Some friends and I go to La Fuente almost every week, where we solve all the problems of the planet and we have a few margaritas, though usually not in that order. I like Cempazuchi and Dancing Ganesha, too. Third Ward Cafe is a great date restaurant. I really like great food, so I'm always on the hunt for cool venues and exotic dishes.

OMC: Coffee? Where?

DZ: Alterra's my favorite, though coffee shops are sort of like microbrews, I like them all and am always searching out the newest one. I go out for coffee almost every day. The coffee shops are great places to meet with people and learn new things. And, now that I got rid of my office, I really appreciate those people paying the rent and providing coffee too. I've got a friend who's thinking about installing a wireless network near one of the coffee shops, so I'll be able to have high speed wireless access to the net, right from inside the coffee shop. Is this a great future or what?

OMC: Quote?

DZ: Eden Philpotts is an English writer who wrote: "The universe if full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." I love the notion that the universe is being patient with its children.

OMC: What about a favorite movie? And while we are at it, what magazines does a futurist read?

DZ: City Lights by Charlie Chaplin. It's black and white, it's silent and the last five minutes are as powerful as anything you see in the Matrix, though not quite as deadly. I don't tend to read any one magazine and tend to read lots of articles that people send me on the web. I do like American Demographics, American Bungalow, Wired and Adbusters.

OMC: Always like to ask if you could have a drink with one person, who would it be?

DZ: Sandra Bullock or the Pope. Getting either one drunk would be lots of fun, though for different reasons.

OMC: Three Things Milwaukee needs?

DZ: Big ideas. This is a town way too comfortable with small ideas. Considering that this was once a center of industrial innovation, it's sad to see people being content with fading memories and closed neighborhoods.

Big conversations. I gave a lot of thought to moving in 1999. I finally decided to stay but with the commitment that I was going to actively seek out bright people doing creative things and really engaged in life. Not too surprisingly, those people are here and in a lot bigger numbers than one would suspect. There are more and more opportunities to talk with those people, whether at groups like e-Innovate, the MMAC Business After Hours or Gallery Night. There really is a renaissance brewing in this city, though it has little to do with official efforts or formal party invites. As more and more people are talking to people outside of their own day to day worlds, I think you're seeing these conversations leading to new businesses, new ventures and a new outlook for this city.

Little Neighborhoods. I'm really excited about local neighborhoods revitalizing. The Third Ward is an obvious example, but so is Walker's Point and my own neighborhood of Bay View. It's funny how some of this is centering around coffee shops. The Big Cup (Milwaukee Coffee) shop on Villard is a center point in that neighborhood and the Sherman Perk Coffee Shop has quickly become that for that neighborhood.

I think there's something in our psyche that likes having a local base and the concept of neighbors whom we know. This shouldn't be seen as a contradiction to what I was saying about "Big Ideas." To make word play of a trite saying, there's value to that notion of "think global, drink local."

When it comes to bringing people together, both from within your neighborhood, but also sharing it with new friends from outside the neighborhood, to sit down and take some time to just talk about life, families and everyday things. There's something in our genes that breaks down barriers when we break bread. I think people have always had this need for a non-work, non-home gathering spot, it's just that over the last 50 years or so, we'd gotten so busy we'd forgotten about that.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.