DaVinci Institute is all about connections

Futurist leads Westminster seminars, co-working space

Nina O. Miranda
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 9/26/18

For Westminster futurist Thomas Frey, the idea of a house cleaning robot - or a driverless car - is more exciting than the actual robot might be. Frey, the founder and main brain behind …

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DaVinci Institute is all about connections

Futurist leads Westminster seminars, co-working space


For Westminster futurist Thomas Frey, the idea of a house cleaning robot - or a driverless car - is more exciting than the actual robot might be.

Frey, the founder and main brain behind Westminster’s DaVinci Institute, said new technology is full of implications and ideas, all leading somewhere. The connections and the implications of that new technology are what fascinates him.

“Let’s say you create a robot to clean the house,” Frey said. “Cleaning is a complicated task. It has to know what’s sensitive and what’s not. How would it know? You have to train it.”

How you do anything and the implications are the kinds of ideas that occupy his thoughts. The secret to living a futurist’s life requires keeping up with the rate of change, he said.

“Every morning I wake up and ask myself what has changed today,” Frey said. “Some of the things I’ve been predicting [like] 3D printing, drones, digital models of cities to provide automatic navigation for devices, are now here.”

An umbrella

Frey spent 15 years at IBM working as a designer and engineer and that’s where he learned that not everyone loves an idea man.

“If you’re someone who generates ideas, you cause a lot of work for everyone else around you,” Frey said.

But some ideas won’t be denied and seem to have a life of their own.

“You have to consciously share it or let the idea die,” he said. “Every new product gets launched with an epiphany. People get emotionally wrapped up in these ideas. It takes a lot of brainpower to help people see the idea.”

Frey started his first side business while still working at IBM. He left the company in 1991 but kept coming up with new ideas for new businesses.

He decided in 1997 he wanted to create a large enough umbrella to house all the “crazy” ideas he wanted to try, and The DaVinci Institute became that umbrella. It’s has been in business for 22 years now, housing a think tank of businesses for futurist-related topics.

Originally, the DaVinci Institute started hosting events, such as, “Night with the Futurist,” and the first podcast event in Colorado on asteroid mining — which inspired new possibilities, like a degree at the Colorado School of Mines.

“When a college creates a degree program, by the time they graduate people, that’s about the time the industry is starting to take off,” Frey said.

The institute now offers its own 14-week educational programing, called the DaVinci Coders — a way of to help experienced workers transition to newer technology.

Next, the institute opened the Vault Coworking Space.

“I like to think of it as a “colony workspace,” Frey said. “We have 44 offices available for rent and only a couple of vacancies now. I think about the 100 people or so who come to work here today and how those 100 people will create 1,000 jobs in the community.”

Companies at the DaVinci Institute vary widely.

“Originally, I wanted tech companies, but then I realized almost every company is a tech company,” Frey said.

His tenants run the gamut.

“We have a drone agriculture company, a game design studio, a company that performs forensics on 18-wheeler truck crashes, a counselor, offices of the Westminster Chamber of Commerce, a CyberSecurity expert, an Internet of Things expert, a tunneling company focusing on civil engineering all over the world, and we even house offices for a political campaign,” he said.

The tenants are all serious business owners who are there because it makes sense. It doesn’t offer the typical tech company perks, like ping pong tables or climbing walls.

“Originally, we thought we had to compete with free beer, but that’s not what people are here for; they like the network of people who are here and incredible amount of talent,” Frey said.

His role has led him to some interesting places. He leads mastermind groups and flies all over the world for speaking engagements, but has also starting to get into the consulting business.

“A week and a half ago I was in Moscow and that was my ninth country so far this year,” he said. “Then I traveled from Princeton University to downtown Denver and on to Australia. I have been consulted on a project in Saudi Arabia where there are trying to develop 26,000 kilometers of land that will promote the next sustainable economy to replace oil.”

Alone with this thoughts

Frey figures he started his thoughtful patterns as a boy in rural South Dakota. Rather than letting him watch TV, his mother frequently kicked him out of the house to work on the family’s farm atop a tractor.

“I spent a lot of time on the tractor,” Frey said.

It turned out all right, however.

“That was when I was able to spend a lot of time with my thoughts and I believe that helped me to be who I am today — someone who practices contemplative thought,” Frey said. “Being alone with yourself and being alone with your ideas is key and people out in the wilds tend to be more stable with their thoughts. So, out there on the tractor, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future.”

It set the pattern for his life, he said.

“When most people wake up and wonder what to wear and how to get to work that day, I tend to think about what people are going to wear and how they’ll get to work in 10 years,” he said.

Considering the house-cleaning robot, Frey said there are some inherent human concepts that don’t translate easily to machines.

“As a human, when you look around the house, you place a value on things, so how does the robot know what’s valuable?” Frey said. “How can it make that determination? It doesn’t see everything through the same lens as we do. So, we have figure out how to train it to know our personal bias and when you think it through, it has to know our human anxiety and drama too.”

“How do we upload that into a robot? In the end, you have to think about the human perspective and how to replicate it. Everything breaks down; we’ll have to put some controls in place.”

Similarly, Frey’s thoughts on the implications of driverless technology look past the conveniences and towards the impact it could have on society.

“Driverless technology will be the most disruptive [to us in the future] and more disruptive than the invention of the wheel and it will be the most impactful,” Frey said. “Cities are going to get beat up with this technology, because cities are oriented with ways to get around to all our retail spaces.”

That doesn’t just have implications for transportation rules, but for government budgets. Roughly a fifth of the income a city gets comes from income taxes and auto sales. But if everyone has access to handy driverless cars they can just call to pick them up, private vehicles might not be necessary.

“From a city’s perspective, assessing taxes on these services will be challenging to figure out these issues,” Frey said.

It impacts other areas, as well.

“Car washes and services will no longer be needed,” he said “A lot of retail will dry up, because no one needs to go to a place to get something. Gas will no longer be needed, because electric vehicles will be needed.”

And all of that has impact for all of society.

“How does power get distributed if all we have are driverless cars?” he said. “A lot of fascinating changes are coming and the driverless era is coming in two to three decades.”

Frey has predictions for the economy as well. He foresees the gig economy - people working several small jobs or gigs like Uber - continuing.

Frey’s ideas could keep going, but he ends with some advice on the future of jobs.

“Unfortunately, how to become a freelancer isn’t taught in college; I wish there was education for it,” he said. “They pick up a project here and there and before they know it they’re freelancing. This idea of taking control of your own destiny is present.”

The time is ripe with opportunity, however.

“The Internet lets you launch anything,” he said. “If you know how to sell yourself, write contracts, how to network, get insurance, and how to set yourself up as a business entity and do the accounting, you figure it out along the way,” he said. “I think someone is going to make a fortune teaching that to young people.”

He expects schools will retool to meet the demand.

“We’re moving into super-employment, the era of the gig where 3.9 million freelancers today are making over $100,000 a year,” he said. “We need to train people to become crowdfunding experts, how to fly drones, how to become a brew master in a pub. Traditional college can’t adjust to the rate of change, so AWS certification, cybersecurity, machine learning, and different programming languages offer the future; they are all hot areas that are continually shifting and morphing.”


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